Christmas has many fun activities for the whole family: decorating a tree and covering it with lights; enjoying fruitcake and cookies, sending cards to loved ones and listening to delightful Christmas tunes. Yes, these are the Christmas traditions that many celebrants revel in, and much of what people today consider holiday perennials have been around for about two centuries.
The Christmas tree
The king of all traditions — is the most obvious, the centerpiece of many a home. While tree worship was common in pagan Europe, the modern Christmas tree originated with German Lutherans in the 17th century and spread to Pennsylvania in the 1820s after they began to immigrate to the United States. When Germany's Prince Albert came to England in 1840 to marry Queen Victoria, he brought the Christmas tree with him. The royal family decorated it with small gifts, toys, candles, candies and fancy cakes, giving rise to the modern decoration. Eight years later, a photograph of the royal tree appeared in a London newspaper, and ownership of the green item became the height of holiday fashion in Europe and America.
The origin of the fireplace stocking owes more to myth than fact. Thanks to ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’, hanging stockings by the chimney with care dates back at least to the poem's 1823 publication. But the story of how the footwear came to be hung by the fire seemingly is a hazy one. Legend says the original Saint Nicholas, who traveled around bringing gifts and cheer to those in need, came upon a small village one year and heard of a family in need. An impoverished widower, devastated by the passing of his wife, could not afford to provide a dowry for his three daughters. St. Nick knew the man was too prideful to accept money, so he simply dropped some gold coins down the chimney, which landed in the girl's stockings, hung by the fireplace to dry. Or so the tale goes. Thus the modern tradition was born, though present-day stockings are commonly stuffed with tiny gifts and candy, not gold.
Caroling originally had little to do with Christmas. The carols of the 12th and 13th centuries were liturgical songs reserved for church processionals. The type of caroling we're more familiar with didn't arrive until England's Victorian era. Many popular seasonal songs — ‘Hark! the Herald Angels Sing!’, ‘The First Noel’, and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ — were written around that period.
The fruitcake dates back to the 16th century, when it was discovered that fruit could be preserved by soaking it in large solutions of sugar. Since sugar was cheap, it was an effective and affordable way for the colonies to ensure their native plums and cherries would make the journey to Europe without spoiling. By the 19th century people were combining all sorts of candied fruits — pineapples, plums, dates, pears, cherries, orange peels and cheap nuts — into a cake-like form. In 1913, two of the most famous American bakeries of the time — Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas and The Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Georgia — began to ship mail order fruitcakes. The cake, along with many other Christmas sweets and desserts, gave rise to the now famous January tradition of trading in sugar gluttony for a gym membership.
The Christmas lights of today can light up trees and window frames with tiny twinkling lights of many colors—or cause frustration with their long and tangle-prone cables. But the first such lights, introduced to the holiday world in 1882 by Edward Johnson, a friend and partner of light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison, were a different story.
Johnson didn’t introduce the idea of using light to celebrate the holiday; the tradition of making the winter festive with the light and warmth of fire is much older than electricity. For many years, those who could afford to would express their Christmas spirit by lighting candles on trees. Candles were lit to “signify the light of Jesus,” but all those candles had a serious downside, causing numerous fires.
Edward Johnson’s idea was to replace the candles with a string of colored electric lights, which he did with eight bulky, pear-shaped bulbs on a single wire. Several publications covered his lighting of the first tree, which rotated as the red, white and blue lights dazzled spectators. But the idea didn’t catch on widely in the U.S., as many Americans didn’t entirely trust electricity and the bulbs were too expensive to be practical. An early set of eight bulbs would have cost a buyer about a week’s wages or about $80 in today’s dollars.
That changed in the 1920s, at which point pre-assembled lights became more accessible and cheaper. American President Grover Cleveland also helped make the lights popular after he used them to light a Christmas tree in the White House in 1895.