Are These Christmas Traditions From the Past Real or Fake?


By: Ashley Linkletter

7 Min Quiz

Image: AYImages / E+ / Getty Images

About This Quiz

Christmas is a time when traditions of the past are celebrated widely and with gusto — even if we aren't 100% sure how they started in the first place. For instance, many of us will decorate a tree or send out Christmas cards because it's something we enjoy doing, but do you know when and where the tradition first started? Some Christmas origin stories are so bizarre you'd swear they were fake (until you delve deeper into the subject). Other traditions from the past are so mundane you might have a hard time believing they're still around, even though you practice them every December. 

Do you think you'll be able to tell whether a Christmas tradition from the past is real or fake? We're going to go back to the time of the Druids and Vikings (before Christmas as we know it today even existed!) and work our way to the mid-aughts — a time when certain traditions were experiencing their brand new beginnings. You'll need to put on your critical thinking Santa hat to answer these questions correctly because you're about to take a trip back in time, back to when historical Christmas traditions were merely new ideas.

We're going to learn what's real and what isn't about the way we celebrate Christmas today. Think you're up for the challenge? Ho ho ho, let's go!

The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is based on a real red-nosed reindeer that was found wandering around the North Pole. Real holiday tradition or fake?

Although it would be an especially festive if it were true, the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was made up by a copywriter named Robert L. May in 1939. The department store Montgomery Ward was tired of the financial loss it experienced every year when it bought and then gave away Christmas-themed coloring books. Hence, the invention of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — a character that was invented and owned by the store.


The oldest Christmas carol is "Silver Bells" and it was written in 1927 by a silversmith. Real or fake?

The oldest Christmas carol is thought to be "Good Christian Men, Rejoice," a traditional song dating all the way back to the Middle Ages (in other words, much later than 1927). The carol was originally written in Latin by a Dominican friar and was titled "In Dulci Jubilo," which translates to "in sweet rejoicing."


Do you think it's real or fake that sending Christmas cards is an ancient tradition that pre-dates the birth of Christ?

In terms of Christmas traditions, sending and receiving cards is a fairly new one. The first thousand cards were printed in England in 1843 and featured a group of merrymakers toasting each other and saying "A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you" (and they only cost a penny to send!).


In the 1960s, it was common practice to attach tin cans to your car on Christmas morning. Is this a real or fake '60s tradition?

Unless you were getting married or attending a wedding on the actual holiday, the chances of finding cans tied to your car on Christmas were pretty much slim to none. If it was your actual wedding day, the shoes would usually be accompanied by ribbons, streamers and a "Just Married" sign — nowadays, people add balloons, LED lights and flowers.


Is it true you once had to be careful biting into English pudding because it contained hidden coins?

First, it was dried peas in the 1300s and then, centuries later, it turned into Silver Farthings and eventually the fivepence coin that is commonly used today. Finding the coin in the Christmas pudding was considered a sign of good fortune — and in some cases meant the lucky individual would become king or queen for the day!


Rather than an invitation to kiss, Celtic Druids considered mistletoe a healing plant. Real or fake?

It wasn't only the Celtic Druids who were interested in mistletoe; the indigenous peoples of North America and Norse Vikings also held this plant in high esteem. Mistletoe was popular because it stayed green and grew berries even as other plants died during the winter months — it was also used to protect against evil, cure infertility and prevent diseases of the nervous system.


The Christmas carol “O Come, All Ye Faithful” was composed for the film "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Do you have faith this is a real or fake piece of trivia?

In order to find the origins of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" you'll need to rewind half a century, back to the 1600s. A far cry from television specials from the 1960s, the original melody and lyrics have royal origins — they were likely composed with the help of Portugal's King John IV.


Someone call the Christmas police! Was Christmas really illegal in England between 1647 and 1660?

It's hard to believe now, but during the mid-1600s, Oliver Cromwell and members of the Puritan religious movement banned Christmas celebrations because they distracted from the true meaning of the holiest day of the year. It wasn't until the Restoration Period that Christmas celebrations were once again restored.


Attaching candles to a live Christmas tree has always been a safe, care-free activity for the whole family. Is this sentiment real or fake?

Have you ever tried to fasten lit candles to a Christmas tree without worrying about it? It turns out no-one has ever felt this relaxed around live flames and dry coniferous trees. In the past, a bucket of water or sand was kept handy at all times — fires were so common they became known risks if someone was attempting to take out an insurance policy.


The first person to decorate a Christmas tree on record was Charles Dickens in the year 1860. Is this a real Christmas tree tradition or isn't it?

Charles Dickens definitely lived in an era when decorating the Christmas tree was the norm, but he was hardly the first person to do it. During the 16th century, German Protestant Martin Luther first began decorating trees after feeling inspired by the way the night sky looked shimmering through the branches of a fir tree.


If you had to guess, would you say the idea that December celebrations didn't exist until the birth of Jesus Christ is a real or fake fact?

There are several ancient pagan festivities which suggest the darkest months of winter have historically been a time of mirth and celebration. For example, the Kalends, Saturnalia (depicted here) and Deus Sol Invictus are all holidays having to do with light and rebirth dating before the birth of Christ.


Yule agree (or maybe not) that we have French bakers to thank for the tradition of decorating cake to look like a festive yule log. What do you think — real or fake?

Actual yule logs have been a part of the winter solstice celebration for centuries thanks to their purported cleansing properties and protective powers. In the 1800s, Parisienne bakers began to make yule logs out of cake, topping them with icing and meringue decorations.


Do you believe that it's real or fake that Santa Claus hasn't always been as jolly as he appears today?

Early Coca-Cola ads from the 1920s depicted Santa Claus as a stern man wearing a Santa costume. In 1931, Haddon Sundblom was commissioned by Coca-Cola to create a new, jollier version of an actual St. Nick for a new advertising campaign in "The Saturday Evening Post."


Do you think it's real or fake that Christmas stockings were originally associated with the story of Saint Nicholas?

Historians don't have a definite answer as to how Christmas stockings became a regular tradition, but they're pretty sure Saint Nicholas had a major part in its formation. One popular story depicts Saint Nicholas throwing three bags of gold through a window, the third landing directly into a lucky individual's stocking.


Candy canes are designed to look like the runners of a sleigh. Is this a real or fake statement?

In the 1900s, candy canes went from all-white and completely straight to curved with red stripes. The shape of the candy cane represents Jesus' shepherd's crook and the colors symbolize Christ's sacrifice and blood (red) and purity (white). Of course, today's multicolored candy canes are designed for their aesthetics, not their ties to religious imagery.


Although its past is somewhat unclear, egg nog is thought to have originated from a 1950s "Gourmet" magazine article. Does this culinary tidbit sound real or fake?

Despite today's prevailing obsession with egg nog once December rolls around, the traditional holiday beverage first appeared during the medieval era. Instead of egg nog, the drink was referred to as a "posset" and was made from eggs, milk and figs — ingredients that made the holiday beverage a treat for the wealthy.


The song “Jingle Bells” was originally written as a Halloween song. Real of fake?

It's 100% true the song "Jingle Bells" was written about a different holiday, but the holiday it was intended for was Thanksgiving. James Lord Pierpont wrote the song in 1857 based in his experience traveling for Thanksgiving and was first called "One Horse Open Sleigh."


Beginning in the mid-aughts, parents began placing a stuffed elf around the house in order to spy on their children. Does this sound like a real tradition or is it too far-fetched?

The spying elf is a completely real tradition! The book "Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition" was written by Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell in 2005, leading to hundreds of thousands of Elf on the Shelf stuffed figurines finding their way into American bookshelves, kitchen drawers, nightstands, bathtubs and any other place you can perch an Elf!


Some of the very first artificial Christmas trees were made with dyed goose feathers. Is this a real tradition or a fake one?

The first fake Christmas trees were, in fact, made in the 19th century from goose feathers that had been dyed green. Why go the artificial route? The trees were originally made in response to the continued deforestation of Germany but continued to grow in popularity and availability across Europe and North America.


Advent calendars were invented in 1950 by a Swedish chocolate company. Real or fake?

Advent calendars first were invented by Lutherans in Germany during the early 1880s, although they're a far cry from the advent calendars of today. The more familiar, commercial advent calendar was first printed and mass-produced in 1908 by a printing office in Munich, Germany.


Is it true that the official Nation's Christmas Tree of America can be found at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City?

While the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza is undeniably impressive, the actual Nation's Christmas Tree (as pronounced by President Calvin Coolidge) can be found in California King's National Park in California and is over 1,600 years old and stands at an impressive 300 feet tall.


I'm dreaming ... of a White House Christmas! Is it true that the first president to put a tree in the White House was Theodore Roosevelt?

Teddy Roosevelt was the first and only president to ban, not erect, Christmas trees in the White House for environmental reasons. The 14th president of the United States, Franklin Pierce, was actually the first president to bring a Christmas tree into the White House in 1856.


Was kissing under the mistletoe to seal your marital fate a real or fake tradition?

Today's casual kiss under the mistletoe is tame compared to the commitment it meant in ancient Greece and Rome! Mistletoe was an important part of Saturnalia (a celebration that is considered a precursor to Christmas), and it represented fertility and prosperity in marriage.


Leaving a treat for Santa became popular in America during the Great Depression. Does this fact sound real or fake to you?

Santa Claus first started finding treats beside the Christmas tree during the Great Depression. In the midst of extreme economic turmoil, parents in the United States asked their children to leave something for Santa and his reindeer in order to teach the importance of gratitude at Christmas time.


Teardrop-shaped Christmas ornaments were originally created to represent bananas and mangos — symbols of prosperity and good luck. Does this sound real or fake to you?

As it turns out, traditional Christmas ornaments weren't inspired by tropical fruits — they're inspired by apples! Historically, apples have been used to decorate Christmas trees because of their connection to the Bible and the Garden of Eden.


Long before turkey became the norm, Christmas dinners featured roast peacock and swan. Is this too weird to be anything but real or is this obviously false?

Before King Edward VII popularized the turkey dinner on Christmas day it was customary to enjoy roast pheasant, swan and peacock. If you were a particularly lucky individual, you might even find yourself with a roast boar's head that had been decorated with fruit and boughs of holly.


Do you think it's a real or fake fact that decorated Christmas trees were first introduced to North America in the province of Quebec?

The first decorated Christmas tree in North America is said to have been introduced in the province of Quebec by the Baroness von Riedesel in 1781. Her and her husband, General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel, displayed a fir tree that had been decorated with fruit and candles for their military guests during the Christmas season.


The very first Christmas lights were modeled after the lights on telephone switchboards. Is this electrifying bit of news real or fake?

While it's true that American inventor Ralph Morris based his idea for electric Christmas lights on a telephone switchboard in 1908, it was actually an associate of Thomas Edison's who was responsible for the first Christmas tree to be lit up using electricity. In 1882, Edward Johnson used electricity to light up the very first Christmas tree for the very first time!


Was Queen Elizabeth I the real or fake first person to commission gingerbread figurines?

England's Queen Elizabeth I had the original idea to turn gingerbread into lifelike figurines (the likeness of her royal guests, to be exact). Regular gingerbread is older than its figure-shaped, cut-out version — recipes have been found dating all the way back to the 15th century.


You can watch the movie "The Nightmare Before Christmas" 12 times in a row on TBS in the month of December. Real or fake news?

You might find it hard to come across 12 consecutive viewings of the "The Nightmare Before Christmas," but you can for sure watch "A Christmas Story" in marathon mode! Beginning in 1997 on TNT (and now showing on TBS), the movie "A Christmas Story" is played 12 times in a row annually for an audience of 50 million viewers.


Alabama was the first state to make Christmas an official holiday. Do you think this is a real or fake Christmas fact?

This is one holiday fact that's completely true! The state of Alabama was first to pronounce Christmas a holiday in 1836 (Oklahoma, the last state to declare Christmas a national holiday, didn't catch up until 1907).


When the tradition of caroling first began, it was a year-round holiday event — not just for Christmastime. Is this a real or fake piece of history?

No one knew how to bring the holiday party from house to house like the Victorians! Caroling was an all-year activity if you were alive during the time of Queen Victoria's reign, and every holiday was an occasion to spread good cheer (carols eventually became a Christmas-only event as the holiday became more commercialized).


The look of tinsel is based on the silvery webs made by spiders. Is this information real or is it too spooky for the holiday season?

Tinsel was invented in 1610 by a German inventor who based the silvery decorations on a story about a spider's web that turned into silver when it was made into a Christmas tree. This isn't the only spider-themed Christmas tradition from the past; in Polish legends, it was a spider that made a beautiful spun blanket for the Baby Jesus.


Is it true that early pagans used to see palm trees as symbols of rebirth and eternal life?

During the Roman Empire, early pagans considered evergreen boughs, not palm trees, to be symbolic of eternal life and rebirth. The imagery of the evergreen bough is still an important part of modern-day Christmas celebrations — wreaths, mistletoe, garlands and Christmas trees are all reminders of this ancient tradition.


During the Victorian era, upper-class citizens would often go downhill skiing on Christmas day. Does this sound like a real or fake scenario to you?

This Christmas tradition is completely fake! While the Victorian elite (and non-elite) might have enjoyed some outdoor skating on Christmas day, downhill skiing had yet to become a popular outdoor activity. In fact, we had to wait until the 1950s before skiing became accessible to the masses!


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