Strange Facts About Popular Christmas Traditions

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Everyone has a favorite Christmas tradition. Maybe your most cherished activity is decorating the tree, or taking the kids (or grandkids) to visit Santa Claus. Or maybe it’s getting the annual Christmas fruitcake sent by your Uncle Herman (please hold the fruitcake jokes). Here are a few facts about these traditions you can use to impress your family members at the dinner table this Christmas.


Lighting Christmas Trees Once Required an Electrician

The General Electric Christmas light set, the first set of Christmas lights offered for sale to the public, around 1903. Credit: Library of Congress

In the days before electricity, families lit their Christmas trees with candles (a practice that was definitely as dangerous as it sounds). Even after Thomas Edison introduced electric lights in the 1880s, it took many years before Christmas lights became common. Those early lights were extremely hazardous and costly. According to the Library of Congress, around the turn of the century it cost the modern equivalent of about $2,000 to light the average Christmas tree. And what we see today as a simple act required the services of an electrician. Mass-marketed Christmas lights didn’t become a reality until the 1920s. No one is sure when the first person banged their head on the wall (a la Clark Griswold) because one burned-out bulb blacked out a whole strand of lights.


Secret Santa Started in Scandinavia

Secret Santa originated as a Scandinavian tradition known as Julklapp. © Jay Grandin

Everyone picks a name in a random drawing, buys their secret target an inexpensive gift … and then everyone tries to guess their “Secret Santa.” While this seems like a very recent tradition hatched by some over-eager office worker planning the company party, its roots are traced to a Swedish tradition known as Julklapp. As the tradition goes, the gift giver knocks on a door, throws wrapped presents down, yells “Julklapp!” and runs away. Makes about as much sense as spending $10 on a present for a co-worker you’ve not spoken a word to in your 10 years at the company.


Ancient Romans Began Practice of Baking Fruitcakes

These dense, sweet, fruit-and-nut-filled cakes have been the subject of jokes for years. Johnny Carson once quipped that “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year.” But millions of Americans give these cakes as gifts each holiday season, and plenty of people love them (we stand proudly in that category). There doesn’t seem to be a reliable figure on exactly how many of these cakes are sold in the U.S., but consider this: One outlet alone, Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, sells some 1.5 million of these cakes each year.

For all those crazy anecdotes about the longevity of fruitcakes, with some reports of people nibbling each year on fruitcakes that are decades or even hundreds of years old, it’s fitting that the fruitcake concept is ancient; Romans used to concoct a mash of raisins, nuts and barley into treats. But the cake as we know it today came about in the Middle Ages, as various European countries developed a variety of recipes with the same basic ingredients: fruit, alcohol, sugar, etc. Still, the fruitcake didn’t arise as a modern staple of American holiday life until the early 20th century, when companies such as Collin Street Bakery and The Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Ga. (aka the Fruitcake Capital of the World) began shipping fruitcakes around the U.S. and the world by mail.


Santa Claus Derived From Catholic, British, Dutch Origins

A department store Santa in the 1920s.

As noted in a previous story on the origins of Santa Claus, this jolly, red-suited figure we take for granted today arose from a mish-mash of sources. Saint Nicholas earned fame as a Catholic saint in the fourth century. In the 15th century, the British gave us Father Christmas, who urged everyone to toast the birth of Baby Jesus with a drink or three. And the Dutch, who’d renamed “Saint Nicholas” as “Sinterklaas,” brought that name with them as American settlers.

This unlikely trilogy of figures morphed into the Santa Claus we know today, thanks in large part to the cartoons of Thomas Nast in the late 1800s. But it took one more element to bring the legend of Santa Claus to life: a department store. In 1890, Edgar Department Store in Brockton, Mass., featured owner James Edgar dressed as “Santa.” Children came from all over the region to get their first real look at Santa. By the 1920s, these “department store Santas” had become an essential feature for retailers during the Christmas season.


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