They may have origins that go back for years, but, in many cases, they’ve evolved quite a bit. Otherwise, the popular image of Santa Claus might still be “Rough Nicholas” instead of the jolly figure we know today.
Here are five Christmas traditions that aren’t as traditional as you might think:
Romans gave each other gifts during the Saturnalia, a pagan holiday, and the tradition carried over to Christmas. In colonial times in New England, the Puritans outlawed Christmas celebrations and the holiday remained in disfavor well into the 19th century, according to The New York Times. In the South, however, people kept up the traditional English Christmas revelry, a reminder that the region has always loved a good party.
When the country was mainly rural, gifts were modest and often consisted of food, sewn items and small pieces of woodwork. When the economy became more industrial-based, workers didn’t have time to make their own gifts, so they bought inexpensive manufactured items.
2. Christmas trees
While the origin of Christmas trees is actually quite old, they were much different than the brightly lit and decorated trees of today. In ancient times, people would hang evergreen boughs over their doors and windows to ward away evil spirits and illness, according to Country Living. Green palm rushes were also brought inside by ancient Romans as a reminder that farms and orchards would soon be producing crops. The Druids used evergreens as a symbol of everlasting life.
The modern Christmas tree emerged in 16th century Germany, where Christians would bring trees into their homes. Some built wooden pyramids and decorated them with evergreens and candles. America was relatively late in adopting the Christmas tree, largely thanks to the fun-stifling Puritans, who fined people for hanging Christmas decorations. Trees became popular only in the 19th century as German and Irish immigrants brought the custom to America. Their popularity soared when popular royals Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrated with a Christmas tree.
3. Santa Claus
The original depictions of Santa Claus were inspired by St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children and a magical bringer of gifts. After the Protestant Reformation, the baby Jesus took over as gift-giver, while Nicholas was often assigned the role of a scary helper who helped keep children in line. With names like Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), he was no longer seen as saintly but was instead threatening.
Kids in the Netherlands hung on to a saintly image of Santa (though with his own threatening helpers) and brought both to the New World. Writers and artists had a hand in gradually transforming Santa into a more modern version, giving presents to good boys and girls – and switches to their “bad” counterparts. Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” depicted a plump, jolly Santa, but he still varied from tiny to huge. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast then created a version of Santa that’s much like what we see today.
4. Christmas celebrations
Think your family’s Christmas celebrations get out of hand? History.com says that Christmas used to be a lot rowdier than most family gatherings are today. The church really didn’t have the ability to decide how it was celebrated, so Christians attended church and then cut loose with a drunken celebration that’s been compared to today’s Mardi Gras.
The poor would visit rich people’s homes and demand the best of their food and drink. If the rich turned them down, they might become the victims of mischief, courtesy of the poor. It all sounds a little more like Halloween’s tradition of trick or treating than Christmas.
5. The Nutcracker
Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet seems as though it’s been performed for as long as anyone can remember, but it’s newer to the U.S. than you may think. Although it premiered overseas just before Christmas in 1892, according to Nutcracker.com, it wasn’t until 1944 that the ballet was staged in the U.S. First performed here by the San Francisco Ballet, “The Nutcracker” wasn’t especially popular until George Balanchine staged it in New York City in 1954, when it became a hit.
Today, the ballet is performed in cities large and small. For many people, watching a performance of The Nutcracker is a Christmas tradition for the entire family.