Christmas traditions

Have you ever wondered why we do all this stuff at Christmas? Who put up the first Christmas tree?

What’s the deal with carollers going door to door, or even singing them at all? Why all that dried fruit in Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, mincemeat…? 

Well, dear reader, settle in for bit of learning.

My aim this week is to enlighten you about the history of this fine season. Your head will be full of stories to share at the water cooler, and you might even sleep with visions of sugar plums. (I’ll tell you about those, too.)

Christmas trees didn’t enter people’s homes until 16th century Germany, but evergreen trees have been symbolic since the time of the ancient Egyptians and Romans.

Ancient cultures saw trees that remained green throughout a barren winter as special and often containing magical powers. Hanging evergreen boughs over one’s door was said to help keep away evil spirits, which were more active in the dark winter season.

Although Germans had trees in the 1700s, North America saw Christmas as a sacred holiday and decried any “pagan” observance of the holiday. 

While Martin Luther inspired his countrymen by adding candles to his tree to simulate the stars in the sky amidst the forest, American politicians decided to fine people who hung decorations of any kind. 

In 1848, the idea of a tree caught on more widely when images were printed in newspapers of Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, around a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. Soon trees were in homes across the British Empire, Canada included.

Christmas carols are another ancient tradition. Carols were songs of praise, sung in each of the seasons in ancient times, when celebrations took place at solstices and equinoxes.

Only the ones of winter seem to have survived in any popular form.

The earliest Christian song is recorded in 129 A.D, but right up until the 1200s they were sung in Latin, which most people couldn’t understand.

St. Francis of Assisi changed that with his nativity plays in Italy. The songs spread throughout Europe via minstrels, who often changed the words to make them more relatable in the region they were singing. 

Carols weren’t sung in churches but rather in people’s homes. One of the earliest examples of a church carol service was in the early 1800s when Joseph Mohr and Hans Gruber wrote Silent Night.

The legend says the church organ was broken and they needed a song voices could sing with only guitar accompaniment, but apparently it was sung without the guitar arrangement a few years before.

In Victorian times, orchestras and choirs were being established and people wanted something to sing, so more carols were sung and more written. 

Good King Wenceslas is one Victorian carol. It seems that going door to door singing carols came about during this time, when people would often visit neighbours on Christmas Eve, the time when Christmas celebrations officially began. 

Christmas pudding is the quintessential holiday treat, made famous by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. He along with many other public figures in Victorian England helped to popularize most of the British traditions still around today. 

British Christmas cake and mincemeat come from the same principle ingredients as plum pudding: dried fruit. The term “plum” was used to describe any and all dried fruits, and a pudding is any dessert in England, so “plum pudding” is a colloquial term.

In Medieval times, dried fruits and spice were excellent ways to help preserve sausages, adding flavour and moisture. The proportion of these ingredients was much smaller originally though, as they were imported to England and so expensive. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg represented the exotic gifts of the Magi.

As dried fruits and spices became more readily available, the trend to create a sweet version of this concoction started; plum pudding in the mid-1600s was made in a floured piece of cloth using suet with the fruit and spice.

Christmas cake became the version that used more flour and eggs in the recipe. Mincemeat was the mixture of shredded meat and fruits, once bound with suet and now with just fruits and sugar. Sugar-plums, for your edification, were not fruit, but rather a hard candy.

As Christmas gained popularity through the 1700s and finally was encouraged by Queen Victoria, these dishes came to be a common tradition. Nate Barksdale in his piece for History TV summed it up nicely:

For Victorian citizens of the British Empire, the Christmas pudding was a summation of their conception of the world: a globelike mass, studded with savoury bits from distant colonies, bound together by a steamed and settled matrix of Englishness.

A few last tidbits of trivia for you:

  • The first Christmas trees were decorated with edible treats: cookies, marzipan figurines and fruit and nuts
  • Eating a mince tart on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas is said to bring good luck in the New Year.
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas are from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6, also known as Epiphany (when the Magi arrived)

So, don’t stop enjoying the season on Dec. 25. You can eat and sing and sit by the tree knowing you have generations of support behind you.

Whether you celebrate Christmas at all, with these traditions or others, may you keep your traditions burning bright.

Cherish them and pass them along, to keep your family heritage rich. Share them with others so they can understand the many facets of celebrating the season.

As Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, everyone.”

More Happy Gourmand articles

About the Author

Kristin Peturson-Laprise is a customer experience specialist by trade, which means she is someone passionate about people having a good time. 

Her company, Wow Service Mentor, helps businesses enhance their customer experience through hands-on training, service programs, and special event coordination.

Kristin enjoys her own experiences too, and that is what she writes about in this column. She and her husband Martin Laprise (also known as Chef Martin, of The Chef Instead) love to share their passion for food and entertaining.  

Kristin says:

"Wikipedia lists a gourmand as a person who takes great pleasure in food. I have taken the concept of gourmandise, or enjoying something to the fullest, in all parts of my life. I love to grow and cook food, and I loved wine enough to become a Sommelier. I call a meal a success when I can convey that 'sense of place' from where the food has come . . . the French call that terroir, but I just call it the full experience. It might mean tasting the flavours of my own garden, or transporting everyone at the table to a faraway place, reminiscent of travels or dreams we have had."


E-mail Kristin at:  [email protected]

Check out her website here:  www.wowservicementor.com


The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories