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The back story on holiday traditions

Trains around the tree

Many holiday traditions are taken for granted — they’ve been a part of our upbringing, and we carry on with them today because the season just wouldn’t be the same without them. But have you ever thought about where those traditions originated? Read on for some interesting holiday history.


Nothing makes a home more festive or aromatic over the holidays than a freshly cut Christmas tree. Long before Christmas trees as we know them today were around, trees that remained green year-round have held special meaning. Many ancient cultures believed that evergreens would protect against ills and evil spirits, and boughs were hung over doorways
and windows.

Sixteenth century German Protestant reformer Martin Luther is credited as being the first to use a tree adorned with lighted candles (not recommended today) as a symbol of the tree of life in the celebration of Christmas. The first record of Christmas trees in the United States was from the late 1830s, when German settlers in Pennsylvania erected a tannenbaum in their homes.

In 1846, England’s popular Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert, were sketched for a magazine feature with their family around a Christmas tree, which then became all the rage — though this “fad” had staying power. By the 1890s, Christmas ornaments were coming into fashion. Like many English traditions, Americans adopted this one as well.

And those pickle Christmas ornaments? According to German lore, the pickle is always the last ornament hung on a tree and hidden well within the boughs. The observant child who finds the pickle ornament receives a special present from
St. Nicholas.


The familiar stripes of the candy cane are now an iconic symbol of Christmas. Originally straight and solid white in color, candy canes, or sugar sticks, date back over 350 years. Like so many other holiday traditions, the hooked shape of our current candy canes comes from Germany, when the choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral bent it to resemble a shepherd’s staff. The first American reference to the candy cane dates to 1847, when German immigrant August Imgard decorated his Ohio home with candy canes. Around the turn of the 20th century, red-and-white striped candy canes first appeared. Many holiday trees are still decorated with candy canes to
this day.


Train travel can evoke a romantic feeling, and a toy train around the Christmas tree can bring back fond memories of a train chugging through carefully set up holiday villages. The first passenger train on a set schedule began on Christmas Day in 1830. While there is no record of the first train around a Christmas tree, the custom is believed to have started in the 19th century. It grew in popularity well into the 20th century, before airplane travel became commonplace, and the elaborate train sets of the past slowly faded. Still, though most children these days have never been on a train, trains continue to rank among the top 10 most requested items
from Santa.


Gingerbread has a long, colorful history. Ancient Greeks and Egyptians used gingerbread for ceremonial purposes. Eleventh-century crusaders brought back ginger spice from the Middle East for the cooks of the wealthy to experiment with in their cooking. Eventually, the spice became affordable for everyone to enjoy. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with creating the first gingerbread man in the late 16th century, which she used to impress visiting dignitaries with likenesses of themselves. After the Brothers Grimm published Hansel and Gretel in the 19th century, gingerbread houses became popular in Germany, with Ger-man settlers then bringing the tradition to America.

If your holiday celebrations have included any of these traditions, perhaps you can now enjoy them even more, knowing a little more about them.

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Julia Strzesieski is the marketing coordinator of Cole Hardware and can be reached at [email protected].