Family Christmas Traditions: Through the Years

Family Christmas Traditions: Through the Years
(Credit: Dwellingsbydevore)

(Credit: Dwellingsbydevore)

Did you know that Christmas trees were originally hung upside down from ceilings in some countries? Or that up until 100 years ago, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in parts of the United States?

Many Christmas traditions still common today date back thousands of years in some form or another. Some customs, such as the 12 days of Christmas, gift-giving, and caroling, have been traced back to as early as Mesopotamian times.

When did we start celebrating Christmas as we know it today?

In 1647, the English Parliament passed a law making it illegal to celebrate Christmas. The ban was lifted in 1660. During Queen Victoria’s reign, Christmas was a time for gift giving, and became a special season for children. In Colonial America, Christmas was not celebrated as we know it today. Even in the US, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas until about 100 years ago.

As customs developed in different countries, we celebrate many of the same holiday traditions.

Where do some of our favorite Christmas traditions come from?

  • Carols:
    In England, some carols date back to the 1300s. They were usually sung in homes, rather than in churches. Traveling singers sang them and changed the words for localities they visited. In the early 1800s, people sang carols in churches in England. The tradition spread throughout the UK and has continued ever since.
  • Christmas Cards:
    In 1843, UK government worker, Sir Henry Cole was too busy to write to his friends before Christmas, so he commissioned a friend to make Christmas cards. Printed in black and white, they were colored by hand. The custom spread. Sending cards became even more popular in Victorian times (1870s) when the cost of mailing Christmas cards dropped to ½ penny.
    In the US, the first Christmas cards were produced in the late 1840s, but were too expensive for most people. They became more affordable in 1875 when a German printer began mass-producing them. In 1915, John C. Hall and two of his brothers created Hallmark Cards, one of the biggest sellers of Christmas cards today!

    First known Christmas card, designed by artist John Horsley

    First known Christmas card, designed by artist John Horsley

  • Christmas Trees:
    The evergreen fir tree has long been used to celebrate winter festivals, and first used as Christmas trees in northern Europe 1,000  years ago. However, they were hung upside down from the ceiling using chains! Decorated trees were sometimes carried from house to house, instead of displayed in a home.
    Christmas trees became popular in the UK in 1800, when Queen Charlotte, German-born wife of George III, had the first decorated Christmas tree in Britain, at a Windsor Castle party. Royal family members had Christmas trees long before common people. When Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, also German, allowed The Illustrated London News to display an image of the Royal Family gathered around their Christmas tree, the tradition took off. After that, everyone wanted one, and they became popular in the Commonwealth and the US.

    An engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Windsor Castle, originally published in the London Illustrated News, 1848.

    An engraving of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Windsor Castle, originally published in the London Illustrated News, 1848.

  • Gift-giving:
    Families around the world give each other gifts over the holiday. In many places, children believe that St. Nicholas, Santa Claus or Father Christmas bring their gifts. In most of Europe, presents are left in shoes or boots. In Italy, the UK, and the UA, presents are left in stockings hanging by the fireplace, or under the tree.
  • The Queen’s Message:
    In 1932, King George V read a speech written by Rudyard Kipling, and the British tradition began of the reigning monarch’s live broadcast on Christmas day. The broadcast was an enormous success.  Nowadays, Queen Elizabeth II broadcasts her annual holiday message on Christmas Day, heard by millions of people all over the world.

What Christmas traditions do you have in your family? How did they start?

Let us know in the comments below!


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  • Irene

    December 17, 2013

    Our Christmas was centred around the crib. My father would fraw and create the shepherds’ huts and the city buildings and city walls. Every year he added different figures. There was the figurines of the Holy Family, Joseph and mary. As midnight struck on Christmas Eve my father would place Baby Jesus in the Manger. We also used to wait very excited for Baby Jesus to be born ( put in the manger, which my father built and filled with straw. These are true real memories of Christmases naby years ago.

  • Rowena

    December 26, 2014

    We always left our stockings at the end of our beds. When I was about twelve, we (the children) began a tradition of filling stockings for whoever slept in our house on Christmas Eve; something that we still like to do two decades later, wherever we are!