Exploring Christmas Traditions from Decorated Trees to Gift-Giving

victorian england responsible for many modern christmas traditions

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Christmas traditions date back centuries and originate from many countries, History.com reported. While leaving cookies for Santa was a Depression-era update to a Norse tradition, Christmas cards debuted in England in 1843. Victorian Britain revolutionized Christmas.

Christmas decorations inside home
Today’s well-known Christmas traditions developed throughout history and have fascinating stories about their origins. Photo By Andrey_Kuzmin / Shutterstock

According to History.com, many modern Christmas traditions are more modern than we think. “Some date back to 16th-century Germany or even ancient Greek times, while others have caught on in modern times,” the article said. “Decorated trees date back to Germany in the Middle Ages, with German and other European settlers popularizing Christmas trees in America by the early 19th century.

“The [Christmas pickle ornament] likely grew from a Woolworth’s marketing gimmick from the late 1800s, when the retailer received imported German ornaments shaped like a pickle and needed a sales pitch.”

Many other Christmas traditions date back to Victorian England.

O Christmas Tree

“The late Victorian era witnessed the commercialization of many Christmas customs, especially the giving of cards and gifts,” said Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University. “Christmas had been suppressed altogether back in the 1650s when the Puritan reformer Oliver Cromwell was in charge, because it had become an excuse for riot and promiscuity.”

By the Victorian era, the Christmas season had calmed considerably and taken on an aura of veneration for Christianity. Christmas trees are said to evoke the tree in the Garden of Eden. Dr. Allitt said that it’s believed that trees in Germany were decorated at Christmas by Martin Luther, and King George I brought the tradition to England in 1714.

“[Decorated trees] spread slowly at first because the Hanoverian Dynasty, which started with the Georges, were widely disliked,” he said. “They gained popularity, however, when the virtuous young Hanoverian queen, Victoria, married a handsome German prince, Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. From England, the fashion soon spread to America, too.”

In those times, the decoration on the top of the Christmas tree was often the Union Jack, the British flag.

Deck the Hallmark

Christmas became increasingly associated with the reunions of families during the early days of industrialization and urbanization of England, and people believed that if you couldn’t visit home for the holidays, you could at least write a letter to let your loved ones know how you were faring.

“Christmas cards began to replace Christmas letters in the 1840s,” Dr. Allitt said. “Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, decided he was too busy in 1843 to compose individual Christmas greetings for all his friends. Instead, he commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to make an illustrated card.”

Dr. Allitt said that the card featured three panels, including a central panel of a family gathered and enjoying Christmas festivities while the side panels showed works of charity. It was inscribed, simply, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

“The early Christmas card tradition, as with gifts, emphasized homemade changes and improvements, such as lace trim, satin, tinsel, feathers, seashells, surprise partitions, and hidden pictures,” he said. “Victoria became a great card sender and the habit was well established by the 1860s.

“Fashions in card design succeeded one another from year to year. There was a vogue in the 1880s for pictures of a dead robin lying in the snow.”

Many Christmas traditions came from Germany and England, but they were all new at some point. One day, we may look back on the origins of Elf on the Shelf.

However you spend your holiday celebration, we wish wish you all the joys of the season and a safe, relaxing, and healthy New Year. Happy holidays from The Great Courses family to yours.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Patrick N. Allitt contributed to this article. Dr. Allitt is the Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University

Dr. Patrick N. Allitt contributed to this article. Dr. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt—an Oxford University graduate—has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow.