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How We Got Our Christmas Traditions

1:35 PM, Dec 18, 2013   |    comments
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This holiday season, many of us will be sipping eggnog and decorating our Christmas tree. But where do these traditions come from? Here are the origins of customs that have made their way into popular culture.

Christmas tree

The Christmas tree has become so popular among Americans that 79% say they plan to put one up this year, according to Pew Research Center.

And we can thank the Germans for the tradition, which dates back to the Middle Ages.

Roman Catholic countries, including Germany, celebrated the Feast Day of Adam and Eve on Dec. 24. The Germans would do a procession carrying "paradise trees" with apples on them representing the forbidden fruit, said Bob Doares, a training specialist in the historical research department at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The tradition was introduced to England during the Victorian era. Queen Victoria married Prince Albert, a German, who brought Christmas trees into their palaces. In 1848, an engraving was made that showed the royal couple with their children gathered around the Christmas tree, Doares said.

"This print of the German Christmas tree had a great circulation and people thought, this is a thing to do," he said.

Although it's difficult to document the first Christmas tree in the United States, it's assumed Germans settlers brought the tradition with them.

In Williamsburg, Va., the first Christmas tree came in 1842. German professor Charles Minnigerode, while teaching at the College of William and Mary, brought a Christmas tree to the home of a fellow professor to entertain his colleague's children. Minnigerode decorated the tree with colored papers and used wire to attach candles to the branches, Doares said.


One story of mistletoe's beginnings comes from Norse mythology: The god Baldur was certain that every plant and animal on Earth wanted to kill him, so his mother and wife negotiated with every living thing to leave Baldur alone. But mistletoe was the one plant his wife and mother overlooked, and Baldur was killed with an arrow made from the plant. "We kiss beneath it to remember what Baldur's wife and mother forgot," writes biologist Rob Dunn in Smithsonian Magazine.

Another story: Druids believed mistletoe had magical powers and used it during rituals. Because of its use in pagan ceremonies, mistletoe was banned in Christian places of worship, writes Leonard Perry, a forestry professor at the University of Vermont. It's unclear when mistletoe became associated with Christmas, he writes.

The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe dates back to 16th century England, and is possibly related to the belief of the plant's "effects on fertility and conception," according to an article on the American Phytopathological Society website.


About 16% of Americans said they plan to go caroling this year, according to the Pew study. The tradition goes as far back as the 8th or 9th century, said Daniel Abraham, musicologist and director of choral activities at American University. In a feudal system, the visits may have been intended for people to take their harvest to their lords and get something in return, Abraham said.

Like Christmas trees, it was in the Victorian era when modern-day caroling was solidified - four-part harmonies and refrains in songs, Abraham said. Popular songs today - such as Good King Wenceslas, Hark the Herald and Little Town of Bethlehem - became standards during this period, he said.


The milky, frothy drink is often flavored with nutmeg and spiked with alcohol. The beverage has its roots as a wintertime drink for British aristocracy, writes Frederick Douglass Opie, food history professor at Babson College, in his blog Food As a Lens. Only the wealthy could afford the milk and eggs and added expensive liquors like brandy and sherry to keep the drink from spoiling, Opie writes.

Eggnog came to the U.S. colonies in the 18th century, where the drink was modified. Instead of adding the heavily taxed brandy or wine, colonists added rum - "the drink of the marginalized" - which was traded from the Caribbean, according to Opie.

What about the name - eggnog? Opie writes that the term is a combination of two colonial slang words - rum was referred to as grog and bartenders served it in small wooden mugs called noggins. The drink first became known as egg-n-grog and later as eggnog.

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