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What Should I Know About Different Christmas Traditions?

By Sherry Holetzky
Updated May 23, 2024
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Around the world, people engage in different celebrations to commemorate various holidays. Christmas is no exception. While many Christmas traditions began long ago, some have been adapted to suit different cultures or have evolved to become more modern. In some cases, changes likely had to do with safety or convenience, such as replacing candles on Christmas trees with Christmas lights.

The word Christmas itself is said to be formed from the words “Christ’s Mass” and Mass has long been one of the important Christmas traditions for many people of faith. Christmas is thus considered a religious holiday although there are also secular and pagan celebrations around the same time that most Christmas celebrations occur. Pagan celebrations such as the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, likely preceded various religious celebrations.

One of the Christmas traditions that appears to be universal, is displaying decorations during the holidays. Traditional items such as Christmas trees, ornaments, candy canes, and angels are still popular. Christmas trees appear to have become a symbol of Christianity in Germany.

St. Boniface, the man believed to have brought Christianity to Germany, is said to have cut down an oak tree that was being worshiped there. The story goes that a fir tree grew in the same spot. St. Boniface then may have used the triangular shape to represent the Trinity. Originally, fir trees were hung upside down and decorated. Later, they were placed in their natural position and even brought indoors.

As Christmas trees became popular so did decorating them. The first ornaments were simple foods such as baked goods, fruits, and nuts. Paper and fabric came later and most ornaments were handmade creations until the mid 17th Century when glass makers in Germany made and sold Christmas tree decorations. They began by making glass fruit and other treats but later added different designs like stars and eventually glass balls.

Due to Christmas traditions that included passing out candy sticks to children at religious ceremonies, many believe that candy canes were first seen as somewhat of a religious symbol. Many believe candy sticks were shaped to look like the letter “J,” representing the name of Jesus. Others believe these Christmas candies were designed to look like a shepherd’s staff. The origin of candy canes may have been religious in nature but is one of the Christmas traditions shared by religious and secular people alike.

Angel decorations are said to represent the angels that announced the birth of Christ. Angels are also seen as guardians. They are used in many religions besides Christianity.

Don’t forget Santa Claus. St. Nicholas was known for his kindly acts. He is said to have given away nearly everything he owned to help others. People looked up to him so much that remembering his death in early December became a holiday. Legend said that the date was good luck. It was seen as a good day to make big decisions or important purchases. The giving spirit of St. Nicholas eventually evolved into the belief in Santa Claus, and many Christmas traditions include gifts from Santa on Christmas Eve.

Christmas traditions also include celebrating a specific date or time of year, which may vary by location or culture. Most Christmas celebrations generally occur throughout December and January. Some cultures combine Christmas traditions with bringing in the New Year.

Christmas traditions also include the closing of many business, banks, schools, and government agencies in some locations. The majority of people have the day off from work in places like the United States. Many people worldwide share at least some Christmas traditions from decorating and singing to traveling, getting together with family and friends, sharing meals, and exchanging gifts. Many Christians believe that the tradition of gift giving may have originated from the wise men bringing gifts to Jesus.

CulturalWorld.org is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By calpat — On Feb 15, 2011

I am very intrigued by the story of the fir tree that grew where the tree that was being worshiped was cut down. My question is, why was an oak tree being worshiped in the first place? I've never heard of such a thing.

How odd that our tradition of decorating Christmas tree originated in such a way!

By claire24 — On Feb 12, 2011

My family takes part in most of these Christmas traditions, but we also have a few of our own. For example, we always drive around on Christmas Eve to look at all of the Christmas lights decorating houses.

Another one is that we make sure we read the story of Christmas on Christmas Eve before the kids go to bed, so that they remember why we are celebrating and why we have Christmas day traditions, such as exchanging gifts.

By rosoph — On Feb 11, 2011

I love gathering information about all sorts of different Christmas traditions as trivia to share with my friends. How interesting that Christmas trees were originally hung upside down in Germany! Was there a specific reason for this? Was there some significance to it? I would think that there must have been, because it doesn't seem like you would naturally think to do this.

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