The Origins of Britain’s Favourite Christmas Traditions

Marianne Stenger
3rd December 2020

From Christmas trees to gift giving and sending out personalised Christmas cards, there are certainly plenty of traditions to uphold during the festive season. And it can also be fun to create some new family traditions, like creating an annual family photo book with Bob Books. 

But where on earth did we get the idea to kiss under a sprig of mistletoe or hang shiny ornaments from a tree in our living room? Here’s a look at the origins of some of our most cherished Christmas traditions.

1. Mistletoe

Mistletoe was once believed to contain properties that could cure illnesses, aid fertility and ward off evil spirits, which is why it was often hung in homes throughout Europe. Although it’s unclear exactly where or when the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe began, it’s thought to have started among servants in Victorian England before being adopted by the middle class.

The original tradition was that a berry had to be plucked from the branch of mistletoe for each kiss. Once all the berries had been plucked, no more kissing was allowed. Eventually the tradition evolved and if a woman was found standing below a sprig of mistletoe she could not refuse to be kissed, unless of course she wanted to go through life as a spinster.

2. Christmas trees

Evergreen trees have been used in winter festivals for thousands of years and were originally viewed as a symbol of life in the dead of winter. Christmas trees were first brought to England in the 1830s and rose to popularity in 1841 after Prince Albert had a large Christmas tree set up at Windsor Castle. Of course, today we decorate our trees with twinkly lights and shiny baubles, but early Christmas tree decorations consisted mainly of edible treats such as apples, candies and popcorn.

3. Mince pies

Back in the 17th century, mince pies were savoury rather than sweet, and in addition to dried currants, raisins and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, they also contained minced mutton or beef. Towards the 18th century, however, when sugar became more popular, mince pies were slowly transformed into the sweet treats we know and love today, and it’s been estimated that nearly 300 million mince pies are eaten around Christmas each year.

4. Christmas cards

Although it’s now common to order Christmas cards online or even design your own Christmas cards, the idea of sending Christmas wishes in the form of a card was unheard of 200 years ago.

It was in 1843 that a busy civil servant by the name of Henry Cole came up with the idea of sending Christmas cards when he realised that he simply didn’t have time to write lengthy letters to his many relatives, friends and acquaintances. Clearly he wasn’t the only one who felt this way, as these days over 750 million Christmas cards UK are sent out each year.

5. Christmas crackers

In 1847, just a few years after the creation of Christmas cards, a London-based confectioner named Tom Smith visited France and became enamoured with the French bon-bons he saw wrapped in fancy papers.

He decided to create similar sweets wrapped in twisted paper to which he added simple poems. He came up with the idea of adding a surprise “bang” after watching a log crackle on the fire.  The sweets were eventually replaced with small gifts, and today crackers come in all shapes and sizes, and our Christmas celebrations just wouldn’t be the same without them.

6. GingerBread Houses

From edible houses to candy-studded gingerbread men to spiced loaves of cake-like bread, this traditional recipe has made its way into the majority of homes during the holidays.

The Gingerbread recipe was brought to Europe around 992 CE.  By the 10th century, Europeans had their own version of gingerbread. The hard cookies, were a signature dish at Medieval fairs in England, France, Holland and Germany. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with the idea of decorating the cookies with gilded gold leaves. Over time, some of these festivals came to be known as Gingerbread Fairs, and the gingerbread cookies served there were known as ‘fairings.’ The popularity of gingerbread houses rose with the story of Hansel and Gretel written by the Grimm Brothers in the 16th century.

Do you plan to create your own Christmas cards, photo calendars or photo books to give away to friends and family? If so, use our personalised gift guide to create more meaningful gifts using your family photos.