Christmas traditions

Oct 29, 2009 at 11:20 p.m. ET

Kissing under the mistletoe, hanging stockings and giving gifts are just a few traditions that people the world over observe during Christmas. Little known, though, is the history of these traditions. Here's the lowdown on 10 treasured holiday favorites.

Old fashioned Christmas Scene

Santa Claus
Known as the patron saint of children and sailors, Saint Nicholas was a fourth century bishop from Asia Minor famous for giving gifts to children. Kris Kringle, another name for Santa Claus, emerged from Germany around 1600.

Christmas tree
In 16th century Germany, fir trees were decorated both indoors and out with apples, roses, gilded candles and colored paper and used to symbolize the beauty in the Garden of Eden.

Christmas Stockings
While there are a few legends that surround the Christmas stocking, the most widely accepted one is the story of kind St. Nicholas throwing three bags of gold down a poor man's chimney into his daughters' stockings, which were hanging to dry. Today, the stockings celebrate the uniqueness and individuality of every member of the household, including the pets!

Druid priests believed that mistletoe fell from heaven and grew onto a tree that sprang from earth, symbolizing the joining of heaven and earth. A kiss under mistletoe symbolizes acceptance of one another and reconciliation.

Holly, ivy and other greenery
One of the most used holiday trimmings, holly has sharp edges that symbolize the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at his crucifixion and berries that represent his blood. Boughs of holly, believed to have magical power, were placed over the doors of homes in Northern Europe to drive evil spirits away.

One legend of this native Mexican plant is that of a young boy who, on his way to visit the village nativity scene, gathered pretty green branches from along the road as a gift for the Christ child. When the leaves were laid in the manger, a beautiful star-shaped flower appeared on each branch.

Candy canes
Food items such as candies and cookies were used to adorn Christmas trees including straight candy sticks. The candy treats were also given to children to keep them quiet during ceremonies. According to the National Confectioner's Association, in 1847 German immigrant August Imgard use the candy to decorate a Christmas tree in Wooster, Ohio.

Christmas cards
As the first director of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, Sir Henry Cole was too busy to compose individual greetings for his friends so he commissioned artist John Calcott Horsley for the illustration. The card featured three panels with one standard message for all his friends.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The story was written by Montgomery Ward employee Robert L. May in 1939 as a cost-saving approach to the store's practice of purchasing and distributing children's coloring books over the Christmas season. Nearly two and a half million copies were handed out that year, despite the wartime paper shortage.

Giving gifts
Like many old customs, gift exchange was difficult to get rid of even as Christianity spread. Early church leaders tried to outlaw the custom, but the people cherished it too much to let it go. Justification to continue the practice was found in the Magi's act of bearing gifts to the infant Jesus and in the concept that Christ himself was a gift from God to the world.

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Make your own stockings
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