History Stories

Long before there was a Grinch who stole Christmas, there was Krampus, the devilish half-man, half-goat that helps out jolly St. Nicholas by stuffing naughty Austrian children in sacks and dragging them to hell. Yes, the true history of Christmas is as colorful as your neighbor’s seizure-inducing house light display. Learn more about the pagan origins of Christmas traditions and gather some fun trivia to share over a mug of expired eggnog.

Was Saturnalia the original Christmas?

The ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia was the most anticipated week on the Roman calendar, celebrated every December during the Winter solstice. In paying homage to Saturn, the god of time and agriculture, Romans would take the week off from work (even the slaves), decorate their homes with pine wreaths, light festive candles, attend raucous parties and feasts, and exchange gifts and offerings. When the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, many of these traditions were carried over to the celebration of Christmas. Read more.

Was Jesus really born on December 25?

There’s no solid evidence that Jesus was born in December. In fact, his birth wasn’t celebrated or even mentioned until centuries after the establishment of Christianity. Clues from the biblical account point to a Spring birth (shepherds tending their flocks) and it’s likely that the Romans chose December 25 as the date to coincide with Saturnalia and convince the empire’s remaining pagans to accept the strange new religion. Read more.

Who was the original Santa Claus?

The legendary figure of Santa Claus can be traced back to St. Nicholas, a Turkish-born monk from the Third Century who gained fame wandering the countryside helping the poor and sick. In Holland, St. Nicholas is known as Sinter Klaas, and the anniversary of his death on December 6 is a much-loved holiday. Dutch immigrants to New York brought Sinter Klaas to America, where writers like Washington Irving penned entertaining tales of the anglicized Santa Claus. But the enduring details of Santa’s story—the red suit, rotund belly and reindeer-pulled flying sleigh—were popularized by the 1822 poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” with its immortal first line, “‘Twas the night before Christmas…” Read more.

What is a Yule log?

An Iron Age tradition of burning huge logs to ring in the New Year evolved over the centuries into a rich Christmas dessert made of rolled sponge cake and whipped cream. At the end of December, Celtic and Gaelic cultures used to decorate a large log with holly, pine cones, and a splash of wine and burn it to cleanse the old year and usher in the spring. Starting as far back as the 1600s, the original Yule log was replaced by a log-shaped cake decorated to look like the real thing, but taste much better. Read more.

The Confederate origins of ‘Jingle Bells’?

Penned by a Northerner who proudly fought for the Confederacy, Jingle Bells never mentions Christmas, but does talk about drag-racing sleighs and picking up girls. The song’s composer, James Lord Pierpont, broke with his Boston family’s abolitionist stance and joined the South in the Civil War, where he wrote popular Confederate anthems like “We Conquer, Or Die!” Jingle Bells was originally titled “One Horse Open Sleigh” and may have first been performed in blackface. Read more.

Why do we kiss under the mistletoe?

The custom of stealing a Christmas kiss under the mistletoe has its clearest connection with Norse mythology, in which Frigg, the goddess of love, promised to kiss any creature that passed beneath the evergreen sprig after it was used to revive her son, Baldur, from the dead (after initially killing him). The Celtic Druids also saw mistletoe, which blossoms in the winter, as a sacred symbol of vivacity and prescribed it for fertility issues. The modern tradition of meeting under the mistletoe started in England and has won over surreptitious smoochers worldwide. Read more.

'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' began as a marketing campaign

In 1939, retail giant Montgomery Ward came up with the idea of writing its own Christmas book to hand out to kids during the coming holiday shopping season. The task fell to copywriter Robert May, who took inspiration from his daughter’s love of the reindeers at the zoo and his own childhood as a small, shy kid who was never invited to play sports. More than 2 million copies of the original “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” illustrated booklet were distributed in 1939 and the character instantly became a beloved part of American Christmas lore. Read more.

When did Americans start decorating Christmas trees?

For thousands of years, cultures from Egypt to Northern Europe have celebrated the Winter solstice by decorating their homes with green palm fronds and evergreen boughs to breathe life into the shortest, darkest day of the year. The first Christmas trees were brought indoors by 16th-century German Christians, and Martin Luther is credited with placing the first burning candles in a Christmas tree to mimic the sparkling stars. Puritanical American preachers railed against “pagan” Christmas trees and the tradition didn’t catch on in U.S. homes until the 1890s. Read more.

When did poinsettias become a popular Christmas decoration?

In Mexico, poinsettias grow wild in large bushes that flush with bright red leaves in the dead of winter. In fact, in Mexico poinsettias are called “flor de nochebuena” or “Christmas Eve flower.” They got their odd English name from Joel R. Poinsett, the very first U.S. minister to Mexico, who brought back the red-and-green plants from a visit in 1828. Christmas was just beginning to be widely celebrated in America, and Poinsett rightly predicted that the festive plants would be a seasonal hit. By 1900, they were a universal symbol of Christmas. Read more.

A wrong number call to NORAD launched the Santa Tracker

In 1955, at the height of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, a general at the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) in Colorado received a call on a top-secret hotline. Bracing himself for news of a missile attack, the general instead heard the shaky voice of a young boy asking, “Are you really Santa Claus?” The number had been mistakenly published in the newspaper as a Sears Santa hotline, but instead of dismissing the incident, CONAD (renamed the North American Aerospace Defense Command or NORAD in 1958) embraced the role as the official Santa Tracker, using its massive satellite network once a year to broadcast Santa’s exact whereabouts. Today, 1,500 NORAD troops and volunteers answer phone lines on Christmas Eve. Read more.

What other important events have happened on Christmas Day?

Late on Christmas Day, 1776, George Washington led the Continental Army across the icy Delaware River in a surprise attack on the British forces. Charlamagne, the “Father of Europe,” was crowned emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in the year 800 A.C. The Treaty of Ghent officially ending the War of 1812 was signed on Christmas Day, 1814, and the Apollo 8 crew orbited the moon for the very first time on Christmas Day, 1968, signing off their live TV broadcast with the memorable, “Merry Christmas and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” Read more.

When Christmas stopped a war

On December 7, 1914, five months into the outbreak of fighting in World War I, Pope Benedict XV called for a temporary ceasefire during the Christmas season. Military leaders on all sides ignored the request, but the troops in the trenches responded. As night fell on Christmas Eve, sounds of Christmas carols began ringing out in German and English across no-man’s land. The next morning, unarmed German soldiers approached the British line shouting “Merry Christmas!” They were met with hearty handshakes, gifts of chocolate and cigarettes, and a spirited game of soccer. The so-called “Christmas Truce” was short-lived and never repeated, but it speaks to our shared sense of humanity even in the darkest moments. Read more. 

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