Christmas: 8 Festive Traditions

Traditions, handed down through the generations, make the Festive Season special. Adapted over the years, and from family to family, their origins are sometimes forgotten but they remain constant. Even The Grinch traditionally marked Christmas home alone in his cave, as a protest against the commercialisation of the annual winter festival.

Celebrations are important and Thanksgiving or Harvest Festival, Easter and other national holidays represent the core aspects of any culture. Each has its own distinctive motifs and while gathering together with people (whether family and friends, or complete strangers in the pub) is central to Christmas, what holds it all together are the familiar rituals that light up the depths of winter darkness.

The good thing about festive traditions too is that you can choose what you like, and leave the rest. Here are 8 of my favourites to pick and choose from.

1. The decorations

Festive decorations with an animal theme. L to R: storytelling at National Trust properties in 2021; penguins in the window display at Anthropologie, 2022; Mole tree decoration from The Wind In The Willows theme at Hinton Ampner this year, and handmade by a volunteer. [Click images to enlarge].

While in a contemporary setting, any colour goes, traditionally, red, gold and green have been the popular colours for decorations since medieval times. Holly and Ivy are quintessential symbols of Christmas; red suggests the blood of Christ; gold to represent the gift from the Three Kings; while green is a symbol of everlasting life for more existential reasons. The sight of holly in the countryside loaded with bright berries immediately conjures up thoughts of the winter festivites with cheery red robins and a dusting of sparkling snow, and mulled wine around a log fire. Realistic or not, the imagery warms and soothes and like all festive traditions they are easily adapted to suit circumstances and budget.

Animals have featured in the festivities since time began, from the donkey in the manger to Rudolph the reindeer, not forgetting the aforementioned Robin redbreasts, and even penguins or polar bears for their association with snowy landscapes.

“Christmas for us starts as soon as Thanksgiving is done. For me it’s more of an entire Season, rather than just the day itself. Decorating inside and out is a passion of mine. I plan my holiday schemes in November and always trying to vary from year to year. Many years I think I will do a simple decor, but it always seems to grow … because I really do get so much joy with the process!” More…

Tamera Beardsley, fashion accessory designer and blogger, living in sunny California.

2. Christmas Wreaths and Mistletoe

Fresh foliage and festive garland ideas. [Click image to enlarge].

Christmas wreaths have been used as a symbol of honour and victory since long before the birth of Christ. And since very early times bringing greenery into the home was thought to protect it from evil spirits gaining entry during the winter months. Ivy, pine cones, fir trees and mistletoe remain an essential part of the annual decorations. The Druids harvested mistletoe during the winter solstice to use for medicinal purposes. They also revered the hardy plant for its ability to survive and remain green throughout the winter without roots.

Mistletoe growing wild on the Cowdray Estate.

In Scandinavia mistletoe was associated with their goddess of love. For the Romans it represented a symbol of peace. A kiss underneath a bough of mistletoe was believed to lead to a year of good luck and for young maidens the possibility of marriage (although maybe more wishful thinking). By the way, the mistletoe berries are poisonous if eaten so keep away from children and wash your hands after gathering and arranging indoors.

3. Christmas Carols

The holly and the ivy. Decorating the mantlepiece with traditional winter foliage in an English country house.

Originally carols were folk songs sung at celebrations year-round. The Holly and The Ivy is rooted in medieval times, when it was adapted by the church. Highly evocative and still very much in existence, from choirs to piped music at the Mall, carols conjure up cosy images of snowy landscapes (Good King Wenceslas), a sense of joy (Jingle Bells), and a feeling of peace (Silent Night, written in 1818 and so evocative it was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2011).

4. Greetings Cards

‘All Happiness At Christmas-Tide’. Greetings card by Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle (1865-1934). Born during the time of the US Civil War American illustrator and commercial artist, Ellen, was the great-granddaughter of revolutionary war hero, Major Dennis Clapsaddle.

Giving cards have become a little outdated in a digital world but that simply makes it more special to receive one. It signifies that someone has gone to the trouble of selecting, handwriting and posting a festive token especially for you. Too busy to write individual greetings to friends, Victorian entrepreneur, Sir Henry Cole, commissioned the first Christmas card in the UK in 1843. A thousand cards were printed and in true entrepreneurial style, Cole sold those left over. The trend-setting Victorian Royal family made seasonal greetings cards fashionable in the UK and their popularity grew. 

5. The Christmas Tree

Decorated Christmas trees at National Trust properties. [Click image to enlarge].

What’s odd about the Christmas decorations here is that most of them come down by the 26th or sometimes even on the 25th and then everything is geared to New Year’s. This is the traditional celebration and the main coming together for families. Christmas is just a bit of fun before that – good for sales, an excuse for a date or a nice meal, but with no real significance, and certainly no sense of the Christmas spirit on show.” More…

Rob Goss, writer and author living in Tokyo.

The fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. Pagans used branches of fir tree to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, as a reminder of spring. The Romans used branches to decorate the temples at the festival of Saturnalia, which in time metamorphosed into Christmas. In the UK, in 1841 it was once again the young royal couple, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who installed the first tree in 1841 at Windsor Castle and thereby set a new tradition.

6. Santa, Christmas Stockings and Mince Pies

Christmas stockings: hanging up on a four-poster; and swags over the mantlepiece at The Eastbury Hotel in Dorset; and country house-style. [Click image to enlarge].

Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Kris Kringle, or simply Santa, is a legendary character. Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children, was a Christian bishop in the 4th Century. The good bishop donated gold coins – throwing them through a window where one landed in a stocking – to an impoverished family to provide a dowry for the family’s three daughters. In England ‘Father Christmas’ dates back as far as 16th century during the reign of Henry VIII when he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. Today’s Santa is generally portrayed as a rosy-cheeked, jolly, rotund figure dressed in red robes and white fur, a version that arose in the US and Canada in the 19th century, and was highly influenced by the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” commonly known as The Night Before Christmas (1823).

In Norway, Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve. My wife and our two grown-up children spend the holiday together. On Christmas Eve I start early – many Norwegians watch TV during the morning… maybe some classic Disney cartoons and an East European film production of “Cinderella” – a tradition since I was a child in the 1970s…. We have smoked lamb called “Pinnekjøtt” for dinner in the evening. This is really the taste of Christmas and it is a very strong tradition in western Norway. More…

Bård Gram Økland, archaeologist and museum curator at Bergen Maritime Museum, Norway.

The Christmas stocking is associated with Saint Nicholas’ early efforts. Subsequently children hung stockings up on Saint Nicholas’ feast day on 6th December. Now associated with Christmas Eve, the gold coins are often represented by an orange in the stocking, or more recently the commerical version of chocolate foil-covered gold coins.

As for Santa climbing down the chimney, in later versions of the tale of Saint Nicholas, on finding the window locked the Saint tossed the coins down a chimney. Then again the hearth was held sacred in primitive belief as a source of beneficence, being the source of both heat and food, so that makes sense too.

The tradition of leaving out food and drink for Father Christmas to enjoy varies around the world. In the United States and Canada, children leave a glass of milk and a plate of cookies. In Britain and Australia, it is sherry or beer, and mince pies (and a carrot for the reindeer). In Denmark, Norway and Sweden, rice porridge with sugar and cinnamon is offered and in Ireland it is popular to leave Guinness or milk, along with Christmas pudding or mince pies.

Saint Nicholas may undergo reincarnation each century, much like Doctor Who, but in essence his character continues to represent peace and goodwill, joy, good food and wine, and general revelry, something sorely needed in the dark days of winter in the Northern Hemisphere at least.

7. Christmas Gift-Giving

According to English Heritage gift-giving dates back to the beginnings of humanity with tokens representing a gesture of goodwill and peace between peoples. During the Neolithic period at winter solstice, usually 21 or 22 December, people gathered together at sites like Stonehenge to feast and exchange gifts to mark the end of one year and the beginning of the next. Mistletoe comes in here again with the Druids offering sprigs of the sacred plant to people as a gesture of good fortune for the year ahead.

I like that in France, Christmas is more about the food than the gifts! More..

Emma Kershaw, owner of wine and food school, La Maison du Rire, in the South of France.

When it comes to giving gifts, this year perhaps more than ever in the Age of Climate Change and Economic Gloom, the old adage that “it’s the thought that counts” is a tradition to cultivate. Buy local, keep traceability in mind, and select gifts that will last (except food, make this so delicious that the recipient cannot wait to gobble it all up). For some edible gift ideas here’s a piece Sustainable Christmas Gifts for Gourmets written a while back but still relevant, and last year’s Christmas Gift Guide 2021 for recommendations on books, wines and experiences.

Visit Windsor Castle gift shop this Season for memorabilia of the late Queen Elizabeth II and online

8. Church attendance

Whatever your beliefs, churches, cathedrals and abbeys are special places particularly at this time of year. L to R: the choir stall with a view of the festive tree at The Vyne; Sherborne Abbey at Christmastime. [Click image to enlarge].

Finally, I can’t go without a mention of the tradition of worship that pulls all of the above together since time began whether pagan or more traditional. Just about all of the above emphasise that this, the biggest festival in the calendar, is about celebration. For the closing year, the new year ahead, for health and happiness, and hope for the future. Regardless of your personal beliefs a carol service or Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is a memorable way to start the Holiday with carol singing, candlelight and a sense of community. In any event, despite Henry VIII’s Dissolution, a bit of bashing about by Cromwell’s armies and bombing raids in World War Two, we are fortunate to have so many fine historic churches, abbeys and cathedrals in the UK. In December, there are light installations to enjoy, sensational seasonal floral decorations created by volunteers, and a Christmas tree or two all set within a peaceful atmosphere, food for the soul.

“Remember that old adage, ‘Life is what you make it.’ Well, that applies to Christmas too.”

Wait, I hear you cry! What about the tacky Christmas jumper, the crackers and the festive turkey? Everyone will have their favourite traditions to celeberate the Season. Remember, a little sparkle goes a long way in the dark winter months. Whether you push the boat out or spend the day in bed, there are no rules. A Merry Christmas one and all!

How do you spend the Holiday Season?

2 thoughts on “Christmas: 8 Festive Traditions

  1. This is such a wonderful and festive post ❄️🌲 I love Christmas traditions that are handed down through the generations, but I also love creating new ones! Thanks for sharing and inspiring 🥰 Aiva


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