Traditions From carol singing to Yule logs

Around the world, the celebration of Christmas is based on the Christian faith, but many secular customs also play an important part in the festivities.

Some of these rituals are centuries-old and have been handed down through the generations. Here are some Christmas customs which are as popular today as they were when they were first introduced:

Yule logs are everywhere at Christmas, from cards to cakes, and this ancient tradition comes from sun-worshipping rituals. Wreaths are popular decorations, and come from a time when people worshipped evergreen holly as a sign of eternal life because it did not brown or die in winter. Some religions believe that the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head was made of holly, and the berries were white but turned bright red from Jesus’ blood.

Mistletoe is rarely used in churches because it originates from an ancient druid ceremony celebrating winter solstice.

Santa Claus has been around since the 4th century. Originally known as Saint Nicholas, he was immortalised because of his generous and loving nature towards children. He brought joy to the poor by throwing gifts through their windows, and it was believed he also inadvertently started the tradition of hanging up stockings. He threw three coins down the chimney of three poor sisters and each coin landed inside separate stockings left on the hearth to dry.

The earliest known designer of a Christmas card was Sir Henry Cole, the first director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The Penny Post service and the industrialisation of the printing industry contributed enormously to the popularity of sending Christmas cards, which really took off around 1846.

Christmas lights were first mass produced by Ever Ready in the early 1900’s and are now the fixture in just about every Christian household.

The custom of carol singing is said to have come from 13th century Italy – where St Francis of Assisi led songs of praise.

Rudolph, the beloved red-nosed reindeer who takes centre-stage every year, began life as an advertising gimmick. In 1939, a writer was asked to invent a Christmas story for an American company called Montgomery Ward, which then distributed copies of the story to customers as part of a promotion. The story of Rudolph caught everyone’s imagination and Santa is now rarely depicted without him.

Although Christmas Day is the big festival, Boxing Day is still celebrated in Britain. It was started around 800 years ago, in the Middle Ages, when alms boxes, collections for the poor, were opened in parish churches so that the contents could be distributed. It was also traditional that servants got the day off to celebrate Christmas with their families on Boxing Day. And before WorldWar II it was common for working people such as milkmen and butchers to travel round their delivery places and collect their Christmas boxes.

The celebration is now steeped in mass materialism, but the longest standing rituals and beliefs come from the original Christmas tale, where Mary and Joseph were forced to take shelter in a stable. Nativity scenes always portray the same picture of a tiny baby in a manger, surrounded by his adoring parents, the shepherds and the wise men, with farmyard animals completing the scene. It could not be a greater contrast to the bright lights, extravagant excess and frenzied spending which now sums up the festive season. But the original innocence still runs through Christmas celebrations.

One tradition which is part of Christmas everywhere is the story that all animals kneel at midnight on Christmas Eve in honour of the birth of their Lord. While waiting for that gift-laden sledge this Christmas, thousands of children will stop to wonder if the animals are kneeling, and adults will have a nostalgic memory of doing exactly the same thing. There are some legends best kept intact.

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer began life as an advertising gimmick.