30 Popular Christmas Traditions and Where They Came From

little girl hangs ornament on christmas tree
Where Do These 30 Christmas Traditions Come From?Getty Images

"Hearst Magazines and Yahoo may earn commission or revenue on some items through these links."

Christmas traditions are what make this holiday so special. Decorating a Christmas tree, playing holiday music, exchanging gifts, and baking cookies are all activities that we look forward to year-round. Of course, there's a lot to do outside the home too. You can step out to meet Santa, grab a cup of eggnog or hot chocolate, or simply take in the lights around your neighborhood.

While these activities are widely known and beloved, you may have no idea why exactly we do them around the holidays. If you've ever wondered, "Where do Christmas traditions come from?" we have you covered. Plus, there are plenty of unique holiday traditions practiced around the world — this list may inspire you to create brand-new memories this year.

If you're feeling festive, read on to learn about where 30 of the most popular Christmas traditions come from.

Getting a Christmas Tree

Where does the custom of displaying Christmas trees at home come from? That credit goes to the Germans, who started the tradition of both lighting and decorating a tree during the holiday season in the 16th century.

By the 1800s, that tradition had become mainstream — thanks, in part, to Queen Victoria, who was sketched with her German prince, Albert, standing next to a Christmas tree. The rest, as they say, is history.

mid adult man in santa hat carefully carrying christmas tree through open doorway with daughter ahead of him
Getty Images

Decorating the Tree

Once you've picked out a tree, it's time to decorate. Lights, ornaments, tinsel, and ribbon are all tried and true, but our personal favorite is making and hanging a popcorn garland. This tasty decor can be traced all the way back to Victorian England.

mixed race girl decorating christmas tree
Getty Images

Hanging a Christmas Wreath

While you can definitely string the outside of your home with lights from top to bottom, you can also opt for something simpler: a Christmas wreath, topped with an oversized bow in the color of your choice. Germans get the credit for this 16th-century Christmas tradition, too.

wreath on a door
Getty Images

Hiding an Ornamental Pickle

German Americans started another iconic holiday tradition: the Christmas pickle. As the tradition goes, someone hides an ornamental pickle within the tree, and whoever finds it first on Christmas morning gets an extra present — and a year of good luck!

find the christmas pickle glass ornaments and decorations background
Getty Images

Baking Christmas Cookies

While every bakery in sight will surely have Santa-shaped cookies ready to enjoy, nothing beats making them at home.

This time-honored tradition is said to have started with medieval cooks, who could only afford the ingredients needed for cookies on an important holiday like Christmas.

woman icing gingerbread christmas cookie by son in kitchen
Getty Images

Leaving Christmas Cookies for Santa

Once those cookies are ready, be sure to set a few aside for Santa. American parents in the 1930s began this tradition to teach their children about the importance of sharing with others during the Great Depression.

milk and cookies for santa claus
Getty Images

Listening to Christmas Music

Christmas music has been around since the 4th century, but here are a few (slightly more contemporary) hits to add to your holiday playlist:

Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" (which is the top-selling Christmas song of all time), John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," the Jackson 5's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and, the eternal favorite, Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You."

christmas season is here
Getty Images

Building a Gingerbread House

There's no wrong way to build a gingerbread house — unless you're not snacking while building. Take a guess where these houses built of treats originated. You got it: Germany! (The story of Hansel and Gretel may have had something to do with it.)

child making gingerbread house
Getty Images

Writing a Letter to Santa

Kids typically write letters to Santa in the lead-up to Christmas, but we think it's worth noting that there's nothing wrong with making a grown-up Christmas list either. (Just ask Natalie Cole, Amy Grant, and Kelly Clarkson.)

Fun fact: Santa letters started as letters from Santa in the 19th century.

boy writes a letter to santa clause
Getty Images

Listening to Christmas Carolers

What a treat to have Christmas carolers serenading you at your door! According to How Stuff Works, this Christmas tradition has no definitive origin story, but it may have developed around the 16th century.

christmas carolers at the door
Getty Images

Setting Up a Toy Train Set

Under the tree, over your mantle, or even across your kitchen cabinets: the places you can set up a classic toy train set are truly endless. This holiday decor staple was all the rage during the early part of the 20th century.

cute girl enjoy playing with new toy
Getty Images

Watching Christmas Movies

There's no better time to indulge in a holiday movie marathon. We're talking Miracle on 34th Street, Elf, Love Actually, The Holiday, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, to name a few. And, of course, the Hallmark Channel has all the holiday movies you could ask for on loop.

What was the first Christmas movie ever made? That's believed to be 1898's Santa Claus.

woman watching movie and eating snacks at christmas
Getty Images

Baking a Yule Log

Have you ever had a Yule log cake? In France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Quebec, it's known as a bûche de Noël, and it's said to have originated in the 19th century.

It's essentially a Swiss roll made out of chocolate and heavy cream, but its festive, firewood-like decoration makes it the perfect dessert for any holiday meal.

chocolate cranberry holiday yule log
Getty Images

Giving Gifts

Throughout Europe and South America, many people exchange gifts not on Christmas Day, but on Christmas Eve. (Again, this one was introduced by the Germans but popularized by Queen Victoria.)

In the U.S., we tend to wait until December 25, but there's always a best-of-both-worlds option: Exchange one gift the night before Christmas and save the rest for the morning.

loving asian mother and cute little daughter enjoying opening christmas presents together on christmas morning, sharing the moment together decorated christmas tree in background christmas lifestyle celebrating christmas holiday and festive vibes
Getty Images

Cooking a Christmas Feast

After a full day of activities, there's nothing better than sitting down at the table for a Christmas feast.

While everyone has their food preferences, you can't go wrong with a hearty roast, coupled with mashed potatoes, yams, and, always, cranberry sauce. (Sounds a lot like Thanksgiving dinner, we know, but we're not complaining.)

food with wine served on table during christmas
Getty Images

Enjoying the Feast of the Seven Fishes

In Italy, Christmas Eve is known as la Vigilia or "the Vigil," celebrating the lead-up to the midnight birth of Jesus.

In observance of this day, Italian Americans serve up a proper smorgasbord on Christmas Eve, complete with no fewer than seven seafood dishes. It can be any seafood you like, though salted cod is a favorite.

christmas dinner with salmon fish fillet, scallops, lobster, shrimps and christmas cake
Getty Images

Mailing Christmas Cards

The idea of the first Christmas card is credited to a very busy art patron and educator in Victorian England, Henry Cole, who needed an easy way to respond to his many friends during the holiday season.

Whether you prefer storebought, handmade, or photo-adorned, there's no wrong choice of Christmas card to send to everyone you love. (It's also a great excuse to send snail mail.)

personal perspective of a dad receiving a christmas card given by her lovely cheerful daughter in christmas at home
Getty Images

Meeting and Taking a Photo With Santa

If you have kids, this one's a no-brainer — unless, of course, your child shudders (or screams) at the thought of posing with the "Big Man in Red." For fans of Santa Claus, you can usually find him at your local mall or department store.

girl meeting santa
Getty Images

Sipping Eggnog

Believed to have originated in medieval Britain, eggnog may be an acquired taste (it's a mix of cream, sugar, eggs, and spice, after all) — but it sure is cozy and festive, especially sipped by a fire.

eggnog at christmas time
Getty Images

Shopping at Christmas Markets

Christmas markets are especially adored throughout Europe (have you seen pictures of Strasbourg, "Capital of Christmas," in December?), but there are plenty that pop up in the States, too. Enjoy hot drinks, artisan-made gifts, and an irresistibly whimsical ambiance.

christmas market goslar
Getty Images

Seeing 'The Nutcracker'

The Nutcracker, set to Tchaikovsky's timeless score, is an elegant ballet production, complete with a ceiling-skimming Christmas tree (sometimes as tall as 40 feet), desserts come to life, mouse royalty, and the titular, human-sized nutcracker.

If you hear the first eight notes of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and aren't instantly transported to Christmas, you must be Ebenezer Scrooge.

ballerina ksenia pukhlovskaya and ballet dancer ivan
Getty Images

Hanging Christmas Stockings

The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings dates back to 1823 when a poem called "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" referenced St. Nick filling stockings. According to one legend, it all began when St. Nicholas found recently washed stockings drying by an impoverished family's fire and filled them with gold coins.

We're not surprised it's still a beloved tradition — stocking stuffers are some of our favorite gifts to receive!

side view of curious boy looking at toy in sock hanging by fireplace during christmas
Getty Images

Kissing Under the Mistletoe

It's hard to say who exactly started the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, but it has certainly become an enduring symbol of romance around the holidays. ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," anyone?)

While some reference the Celtic Druids for popularizing the plant, they weren't known to kiss underneath it. Others credit Frigga, the goddess of love in Norse mythology, and the ancient Greeks, who associated the plant with fertility.

sisters pucker up to kiss pet dog under mistletoe
Getty Images

Popping Christmas Crackers

Inspired by French bonbons and the pleasing paper the sweets are wrapped in, London sweetmaker Tom Smith invented the "bang of expectation" in the mid-1800s.

The cardboard Christmas cracker tube, decorated prettily and filled with sweets and toys, was essentially an oversized "bonbon" (aesthetically, at least), but it was designed to "crack" open, hence its name.

Once Tom's sons took over the company, they started making "themed" crackers, including ones for Christmas. Today, they're even official suppliers to the royal family.

christmas puppy dog
Getty Images

Wearing Matching Pajamas

The Christmas tradition of wearing matching pajamas started in the 1950s, when they were advertised in department store catalogs as fun for the whole family. But they really took off in the aughts, thanks in huge part to social media. People started sharing photos of their families in matching Christmas pajamas, and now we all just can't resist.

mother and daughters wearing matching christmas pajamas while playing under christmas tree
Getty Images

Leaving Shoes Out for Santa

Sinterklaas (the Dutch Saint Nicholas), celebrates his birthday on December 5. He rides across the rooftops on a white horse, singing songs and leaving children gifts... in their shoes.

In the weeks leading up to this day, Dutch children leave their shoes out — usually with a carrot inside. (That'd be for the horse.)

st nicholas boots with sweets
Getty Images

Visiting a Christmas Town

Many people pack up and visit a Christmas town — villages that are especially festive — in December. Just a few of our favorites include New Hope, Pennsylvania (home to the North Pole Express), Park City, Utah (a veritable winter wonderland), and historic Franklin, Tennessee (home to the annual Dickens of a Christmas Festival).

We also recommend Quebec City (pictured here), which is the next best thing to Europe at Christmas.

christmas street decorations
Getty Images

Reading a Christmas Book

Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a timeless tale, but it's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Christmas books. The rom-com genre is well-stocked (check out One Day in December and Royal Holiday), as is young-adult fiction (Dash & Lily's Book of Dares even got the Netflix treatment!).

But no one can resist this picture-book classic: The Polar Express.

boy reading a book to girl in front of christmas tree
Getty Images

Counting Down With an Advent Calendar

Advent calendars are surprise-filled calendars, packed with everything from chocolate and toys to beauty products and candles.

The first printed Advent calendar came from German publisher Gerhard Lang, who was inspired by his childhood tradition of eating one cookie that his mother had sewn into the lid of a box every day of Advent.

Post-World War II, they were popularized in the U.S. when President Eisenhower was photographed opening one with his grandkids.

girl 4 5 opening christmas advent calendar
Getty Images

Being With Your People

Last, but not least, the Christmas tradition that most embodies the spirit of the season is spending time with all the people you love: your family, your chosen family, your neighbors, your pets, and anybody who brings you happiness all year round.

This is the time to tell them how much they mean to you, so gather them close (ideally with a few snacks) and enjoy being together.

multigenerational family celebrating christmas
Getty Images

You Might Also Like