The Fascinating History Behind These 13 Holiday Traditions

Every year, we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas and join friends and family in beloved traditions that bring joy and holiday cheer. But we rarely stop to wonder exactly why we participate in these traditions and where they came from.

How did Thanksgiving become a national holiday? Why do we hang wreaths on our doors? What’s the real story behind Santa Claus?

Keep reading to find out!

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1. The Thanksgiving Feast wasn’t exactly what the early pilgrims had in mind.

For the early pilgrims, the idea of Thanksgiving was meant to be a time of prayer and fasting rather than feasting. Whenever they found a need for divine intervention, a day was set aside for fasting followed by a day of religious thanksgiving. It was not until many years later that the bountiful feast was introduced as an opportunity to say thank you, and became a holiday tradition.

2. If you enjoy Thanksgiving, you may want to thank Sara Joseph Hale.

In the 19th century, the date for the observance of Thanksgiving was at the discretion of individual states. To eliminate confusion, Sara Joseph Hale (a Victorian publisher), campaigned to have a day set aside for American families to acknowledge their blessings. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the fourth Thursday in November a holiday tradition.

3. Decorating homes with Christmas lights comes from an old Irish holiday tradition.

The Irish began placing lights in their windows on Christmas Eve as a sign of welcome. They wanted homeless wanderers like Mary and Joseph on the first Christmas Eve to know that a warm welcome awaited within their home. The custom of placing lights in the window spread, and is today evident in festive illuminated displays that have become a holiday tradition.

4. The story of The Christmas Carol was born out of failure.

The Christmas Carol is an enduring classic, but for Charles Dickens it was a story written out of necessity. Dickens had written the first part of a serial story that was poorly received by the critics. Frustrated and broke, Dickens walked the streets of London composing a Christmas Carol…the story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim that has become a holiday tradition.

5. Christmas was banned in America for a time.

Christmas was first banned in England while Oliver Cromwell was in power. Staying away from work for Christmas unless it was on Sunday was severely punished. When Pilgrims came to America, they had the same view. While today we accept Christmas as a holiday, in his time, Scrooge may have actually been politically correct!

6. Holly is actually a symbol of Christ.

The tradition of decorating with holly at Christmas traces its origin to its association as a reminder of Christ on the cross. The sharp points of the holly leaves symbolize the crown of thorns pressed on Christ’s head at his crucifixion. The bright red berries represent his blood shed for sin. Holly is a traditional symbol that has become a holiday tradition.

7. The holiday wreath is an ancient tradition.

In 16th century Germany, people began intertwining branches of fir in a circular shape. On the first Sunday of advent, they placed an upright red candle on the wreath. On each Sunday thereafter, a candle was added. Each week as the candles burned brighter, it reminded everyone of the approach of Christ’s birth.

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8. The image of Santa originated as a cartoon.

The picture of Santa Claus was actually created by Clement C. Moore who, in 1882, spent a few hours writing for his children, “A Visit From St. Nicholas”. He pictured St. Nick as a fat, jolly elf. Thomas Nest, a political cartoonist, adopted the figure and drew Santa in a fur trimmed outfit and put the finishing touches on the Santa that has become a holiday tradition.

9. The music of the Bethlehem Trombone Choir protected their town from attack.

The town of Bethlehem, PA by its name is a holiday tradition. However, one of its traditions is their trombone choir. It was Christmas in 1750 and Native Americans planned to attack the settlers Moravian Church. Approaching, they heard loud noises – it was the trombone choir. The terrified attackers fled. Today, the trombone choir plays a traditional carol, a reminder of another Christmas that has become a holiday tradition.

10. The world’s best loved Christmas carol was first played on a guitar.

While returning home from blessing a newborn, Father Josef Nohr of Oberdorf, Austria was so inspired by the serenity of the snow and thoughts of the first Christmas, he outlined a poem and gave it to the church organist, Hans Gruber. Within an hour, the melody was done and at the Christmas service in 1818, “Silent Night” was played on the guitar and very humbly became a holiday tradition.

11. The Christmas Poinsettia is named after an American politician.

The red and green holiday Poinsettia takes its name from Joseph Poinsettia. While serving as a U.S. minister to Mexico, he was attracted to the flaming red leaves which grow profusely in Central America. After returning to his home in South Carolina, he cultivated the plant and in time, the Poinsettia grew in popularity to become a holiday tradition.

12. Like many holiday traditions, Christmas cards are a British invention.

H.C. Horsley in 1843 is credited with creating the first Christmas card. It depicted a family at Christmas dinner toasting an absent friend. Originally, Christmas cards were a privilege enjoyed by the wealthy, but with the development of cheap printing, the custom spread and is today a time consuming, but always appreciated, holiday tradition.

13. Hannukah began as a festival celebrating the Jews defeating Antiochus in battle.

In the year 165 B.C., the Jews of Judea defeated the Syrian tyrant Antiochus. After cleaning the temple of Syrian idols, they found only one small cruse of oil to light their lamps for the re-dedication of their temple. Miraculously, it provided oil for eight days. The Jewish leader, Judas Maccabeeus, proclaimed it a festival to be observed by Jews, and is to this day a holiday tradition.


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