Christmas Traditions

Origins Unclear

The origins of many Christmas traditions are unclear and are often the result of the fusing of elements from many folklores and faiths. This is particularly true where a country has adopted different faiths over the centuries. Ancient practices are continued and absorbed into new belief systems and passed down the generations.


Advent, derived from the Latin word Adventus meaning “coming”, is a season celebrated by many Christian denominations in anticipation of the anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a period traditionally marked by the keeping of many customs including fasting and the hanging of purple and blue decorations in churches. In northern England woman would carry two dolls which represented the Virgin Mary and Jesus in order to collect money from those who saw them. The failure to donate having seen the dolls was considered to bring bad luck. In Normandy children were sent to run through fields and orchards carrying burning torches to set fire to piles of straw. This was believed to eradicate vermin from the crops. The most common traditions that survive in Western cultures are use of the Christmas Advent calendar and Christmas stockings.

Countdown Calendars

Christmas Advent calendars have their origins in the German Lutheran tradition of counting down the first 24 days of December. The first know example was produced in 1851 and was handmade. The first printed advent calendar is believed to have been produced in Hamburg circa 1903 but the concept was popularised by the German printing company Reichhold and Lang who produced and marketed more than 30 designs before their demise in 1930. Advent or countdown calendars are now used in many cultures to mark the passing of days approaching significant celebrations.

Modern Calendars

Today’s calendars are normally manufactured from card and feature 24 perforated and numbered windows which can be opened each day to reveal pictures or small gifts such as sweets and chocolates. Advent calendars are mainly aimed at children and are produced in huge quantities by toy and confectionary companies at the risk of inviting criticism for their largely non-religious content. The calendars containing chocolates have been known to be popular with adults too !

Socks and Stockings

The exact origins of the Christmas stocking are unclear but appear to derive from several, mainly Nordic, legends. One story tells of a nobleman who died leaving his three daughters without dowries. St Nicholas felt sorry for the girls and threw gold coins down their chimney which were caught by their stockings hanging out to dry over the fireplace. Another tale surrounds the story of the Scandinavian figure Odin. Children would leave out their socks filled with food for Odin’s horse Sleipnir and in return the horse would leave treats in the socks for the children. This legend evolved to include St Nicholas or Santa Claus with the arrival of Christianity.

Larger Stockings

The modern commercial nature of Christmas has resulted in increasingly large numbers of gifts being given to children and adults alike. The old custom of leaving out a sock or stocking has evolved into the manufacture of larger and larger sock shaped bags to be left out for the visit of Father Christmas. In fact many such receptacles no longer resemble stockings at all and are merely Christmas gift sacks !

The Commercial World

So many Christmas traditions have been transformed by the intervention of the commercial world that the original significance of the legends have been lost to us but the charm of the Christmas stocking and Advent calendar do live on in most houses today, even in the absence of children !

The Contemporary Home offer a great selection of Christmas advent calendars for all the family.