We do the same things every year: down copious amounts of eggnog; kill a tree and cover it in lights; send fruitcake, cards and cookies to our loved ones; kiss under a leafy branch; hang colorful socks over the fireplace and sing off-key demands for figgy pudding at the top of our lungs. Yes, these are our Christmas traditions. Much of what we today consider holiday perennials have been around for about two centuries. The Christmas tree the king of all traditions is the most obvious, the centerpiece of many a home. While tree worship was common in pagan Europe, the modern Christmas tree originated with German Lutherans in the 17th century and spread to Pennsylvania in the 1820s after they began to immigrate to the United States. When Germany's Prince Albert came to England in 1840 to marry Queen Victoria, he brought the Christmas tree with him. The royal family decorated it with small gifts, toys, candles, candies and fancy cakes, giving rise to the modern ornament. Eight years later, a photograph of the royal tree appeared in a London newspaper, and ownership of the green item became the height of holiday fashion in Europe and America.
The origin of the fireplace stocking owes more to myth than fact. We know, thanks to Twas the Night Before Christmas, that hanging stockings by the chimney with care dates back at least to the poem's 1823 publication. But the story of how the footwear came to be hung by the fire seemingly is a hazy one. Legend says the original Saint Nicholas, who traveled around bringing gifts and cheer to those in need, came upon a small village one year and heard of a family in need. An impoverished widower, devastated by the passing of his wife, could not afford to provide a dowry for his three daughters. St. Nick knew the man was too prideful to accept money, so he simply dropped some gold coins down the chimney, which landed in the girl's stockings, hung by the fireplace to dry. (Or so the tale goes.) Thus the modern tradition was born, though present-day stockings are commonly stuffed with tiny gifts and candy, not gold.
While today we don hats and mittens and travel door to door wishing our neighbors good cheer in song, caroling originally had little to do with Christmas. The carols of the 12th and 13th centuries were liturgical songs reserved for church processionals. The type of caroling we're more familiar with didn't arrive until England's Victorian era. Many popular seasonal songs "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing!," "The First Noel," and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" were written around that period.
But let's be honest, caroling takes a back seat to the most important and beloved traditions those involving our stomachs. Most obscurely, there's figgy pudding, which while not eaten much today is always tunefully requested in the second verse of the song "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." In the 16th century, figgy pudding was eaten at the end of the Christmas meal. The dessert, which very simply is a pudding made from figs, can be seen on Bob Cratchit's table in the famous film version A Christmas Carol.
The origins of eggnog in the U.S. are older than the country itself. The first batch was made at Captain John Smith's Jamestown settlement in 1607. It's said the colonists called their mixture "egg and grog," the latter being a then-common term for any drink made with rum. The name was eventually shorened to "egg'n'grog" and later, eggnog. The adult version of the beverage contains milk, sugar, beaten eggs, some kind of liquor (brandy, rum or whiskey are common) and spices such as ground cinnamon and nutmeg. Bottles of the virgin variety are typically available in stores around the holiday season.
Johnny Carson once famously joked, "The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other." Regularly mocked today, the fruitcake dates back to the 16th century, when it was discovered that fruit could be preserved by soaking it in large solutions of sugar. Since sugar was cheap, it was an effective and affordable way for the colonies to ensure their native plums and cherries would make the journey to Europe without spoiling. By the 19th century people were combining all sorts of candied fruits pineapples, plums, dates, pears, cherries, orange peels and cheap nuts into a cake-like form. In 1913, two of the most famous American bakeries of the time Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas and The Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Georgia began to ship mail order fruitcakes. The cake, along with many other Christmas sweets and desserts, gave rise to the now famous January tradition of trading in sugar gluttony for a gym membership.
Lastly among conventional holiday institutions is the elusive mistletoe. Celtic legend says the plant can bring good luck, heal wounds, increase fertility and ward off evil spirits. While it's hard to say what (if any) truth lies in these legends of yore, at the very least, it provides an excuse to kiss that hot guy or gal pal. The tradition of smooching underneath the mistletoe began in the Victorian era and was once believed to inevitably lead to marriage. But it seems to have lost a little of that power. Now, when someone kisses you it might just mean they've had a few too many sips of holiday punch at a drunken party the most modern, sloppy Christmas tradition of them all.