Why Do We Decorate for Christmas? Learn the History 

Get the origin story behind your favorite holiday decorations with this fun guide to why we decorate.

Published November 17, 2022
Father and son decorating Christmas tree

From popcorn string to multicolored Christmas lights and your childhood stocking, it seems like we've been decorating for the Christmas season forever. But just why do we decorate for Christmas? These decorating traditions are so tied up in what we expect the winter holidays to look like that even those who don't celebrate Christmas might have a wreath on their door or a tree in their window. When you pull down those boxes of your grandmother's glass ornaments, you're probably thinking about not breaking them - not about why she has a box of ornaments stashed up there, anyway.

Unlike some mysteries of the universe, though, why we decorate for Christmas, and the traditions we've kept, is a question that actually can be wrapped up with a bow.

Christmas Decorations That Make the Nice List Every Year

Many people think of decorating as an essential part of getting ready for the holidays. If you fall into this camp, you might make a checklist of all the decorations you need to put up and the ones you need to grab from the home goods store before December 1st rolls around. Or, you might be the type that doesn't go all out, wrapping a string of Christmas lights around the tall lamp in your living room and calling it a day. Funnily enough, we don't question why tear-drop lights, Douglas Fir garlands, and stockings far too large for any person's foot descend upon our neighborhoods every December. Yet, there are reasons why we decorate the way we do, and these are just a few.

Why we decorate for Christmas Infographic

Why We Decorate With Christmas Wreaths

Young woman decorating her living room for the upcoming holidays

Wreaths have been around since antiquity, but you'd be more likely to find one on Julius Caesar's head than on someone's front door, save for times of harvest when the wreaths were meant to bring in a bounty the gods would be proud of. Over time, braiding various plants together into a circle, such as evergreen, pine, and holly, came to have their own spiritual meanings. Co-opted by the Christian community, Christmas wreaths took on their own symbolism - pine and holly for eternal life, evergreens for survival through hardship, and nuts or pinecones for rebirth.

Of course, the internet's crafty queens, armed with Cricut machines and hot glue guns, created a market for the artisanal wreaths that are so popular today. Pop into any home goods store around the holidays and you'll find wreaths made out of all kinds of unique materials, like stuffed gingerbread cookies, jingle bells, and so much more.

Christmas Stockings and Their Historic Roots

Red and green stockings

Christmas stockings stem from a folktale where Saint Nicholas saved a penniless family with no marriage prospects and a pitiful dowry by filling their drying stockings pinned above the fireplace with gold. But, modern applications of this tale didn't start in the United States until the mid-19th century. Even the famous poem, The Night Before Christmas, references stockings twice.

Interestingly, multiple other illustrations and books in the 1860s show people using stockings in holiday celebrations. But these early and scattered uses of stockings for the holiday slowed down when the Christmas tree's popularity shot off. We have the Smith Stocking Co.'s elastic, mass-marketed stockings at the turn of the century to thank for the mantel tradition we have today.

Decorating Christmas Trees Since the 1800s

Woman having fun with Christmas balls

Although there's a lot of speculation about where exactly the Christmas tree idea stems from, it's likely rooted in Medieval Germanic practices. Before people had the ability (or really an interest) to slog a live tree into their homes, Germans were decorating outside trees with local wares, tinsel, gingerbread, and fruits and performing religious plays around the trees during the holidays.

Like many of the wonderful traditions Americans call their own, German immigrants brought the Christmas tree to the States during the 19th century, and over time, more and more communities adopted the practice. Yet, Queen Victoria and her impossible-to-avoid influence led to people leaving presents under the tree; an illustration of her family leaving gifts under theirs was published in a massively popular ladies' magazine.

So, decorating trees is actually one of the oldest aesthetic Christmas traditions in the world. Over time, mass marketing took over the ornament business, and people turned away from folksy homemade decorations to the glittery glass balls so many know and love. From antique ornaments to childproof plastic ones, the next time you go to hang some on your tree, take a second to think about just how many people before you were doing the very same thing hundreds of years ago.

How Christmas Lighting Traditions Got Their Start

Little girl in Christmas playing with lights

Have you been shamelessly blinding your neighbors for years with the hundreds of feet of Christmas lights you bedeck the outside of your house with? You're actually not alone if you have an obsession with lights, candles, and lit logs during the winter holidays. Before complicated yard ornaments and light-up Frosty the Snowman decorations were a thing, people stuck to a much simpler tradition - the yule log. But, while candles and fireplace logs weren't enough to spark anyone's fancy, Edison's lightbulb in 1880 absolutely was.

Just two years after the Edison bulb debuted, Edward Johnson created a string of red, white, and blue bulbs and wound them around a tree to display the first artificially lit Christmas tree in history. But Americans didn't really get their spark lit for Christmas tree lights until they were added to the White House in 1895. Today, we have the National Outfit Manufacturer's Association Electric Company to thank for the tree-safe Christmas lights that our grandparents and parents used all their lives.

Today, people use Christmas lights (or 'fairy' lights) year-round, and they even make specialty color schemes for all kinds of holidays. Still, the irony isn't lost on us that everyone's hard work over the decades to keep trees from lighting on fire because of an open flame really has been for nothing - since they still go up in smoke every season.

Customize Your Christmas, One Decoration at a Time

In a world where people are focusing on gifting less and doing more, decorating for Christmas is a mainstay of the holidays that people still look forward to. Now that you know a little more about why we decorate for Christmas, you can grab your favorite decorations and get in the spirit of the season, with a little more knowledge this year.

Why Do We Decorate for Christmas? Learn the History