Christmas traditions have interesting, unexpected beginnings

Christmas traditions have interesting, unexpected beginnings

Jeremy Barket, Design Editor

How did centuries-old Christmas traditions transform into what they are today? There are traditions specifically created by Christians, others originally rooted in pagan practices and still others that are just passed down through generations.

Candy canes, mistletoe and Santa Claus are three ubiquitous symbols of the holiday season. Who was Jolly Old Saint Nick? Why would you dread being caught under the mistletoe with your grandmother? Read on and find out. The origins of these Christmas traditions have been found to being clever, good-hearted and augmented over the centuries.


Mistletoe is often times regarded as a powerful plant that could cure ailments or bring good luck. The use of evergreens in order to decorate around Christmas time is several centuries old. Mostly it began with spirit-fearing Pagans and the coming of the Winter Solstice. According to, an online database of urban legends, mistletoe and other greens were thought to protect against witches and lightning, and were “said to be a cure for poison, epilepsy, barrenness, and whooping cough.” The origins of mistletoe’s use as a plant of peace come from the Scandinavians. Enemies would be able to declare a truce if in the midst of a mistletoe plant.

Leave it to the English to turn a supernatural plant to a smooching plant. According to, a website dedicated to nearly everything holiday-related, a young lady in 18th century England who was standing under the mistletoe could not refuse to be kissed. If she refused, she could expect to remain single in the coming year.

Today, a kiss under the mistletoe is seen as a romantic gesture, an intention of goodwill, or kiss for kissing’s sake.

Old St. Nick

In the third century in the village of Patara (now the southern coast of Turkey) Nicholas was born to wealthy parents, according to the St. Nicholas Center, a website dedicated to educating people about the history of St. Nicholas. Unfortunately, his parents died while he was still young.

Raised by his parents as a devout Christian, Nicholas decided to give his entire inheritance to those who needed it. Eventually, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra, and was later exiled and imprisoned by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Upon his death, a manna plant – supposedly infused with healing powers – formed upon his grave. St. Nicholas Day is December 19th, the anniversary of his death.

Original Dutch colonists settled in America and brought over their Christmas customs, but 19th Century America decided it was time to update how previous generations looked at Christmas. Celebrations gradually transformed from workers drunkenly partying to the cozy notion of family’s being home for the holidays.

A change from the Dutch’s ‘Sankt Niklaus’ was eventually transformed to ‘Santa Claus.’ With the growing conscience of a happy and healthy family life, the holy Saint Nicholas turned into the jolly Santa Claus. Writers would pen poems of the gift giver. Artists would base their Santa Claus renderings off of those poems. The red coat was added. A long white beard was grown, and the rest is history.

Candy Canes

The origin of candy canes dates back to the 1670s, when the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral handed white, sugar-candy sticks to keep children quiet during the live Nativity, according to Christianity Today International, a non-profit communications ministry. The sugar sticks were curved to look like the staff of a shepherd in order to honor the shepherds at the stable.

Throughout the years, it is said that many other subtle symbols have been added to the candy to make the sticks more symbolic of Christianity. For the traditional peppermint candy cane, the white stands for Jesus’ purity and/or his virgin birth. The red stripes account for the blood of Christ. The peppermint flavor is a reference to the cleaning properties of hyssop, traditionally seen as a holy herb, for its use was for cleaning sacred places. However, the candy initially started as purely white. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that a Georgia, USA-based candy maker decided to add stripes to the treat. If you want to theorize that everything on the candy cane is symbolic – go ahead. Just remember, candy canes were made to be eaten, not looked at.