The Most Common Holiday Traditions And What They Mean

Why we kiss under mistletoe, eat black-eyed peas, tell stories about flying reindeer and use fruitcake as a doorstop all explained.

By nowproducerdave on December 22, 2017
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

There are certain things that always get brought up around the holidays, but have you ever wondered why they’re totally absent from the rest of the year? Or have you wondered where they came from and how they got started? We’ll answer the questions about 5 of the big traditions related to the holidays, like mistletoe, fruitcake, reindeer, eggnog, and black-eyed peas (no, not the music group).

-First up, why is mistletoe a holiday tradition, and why do we kiss under the twigs? Well, the poisonous parasite comes to us from Norse mythology. Long story short, mistletoe was used in a murder, and somehow became the symbol for “peace and friendship.” Later, it started to get associated with “fertility and vitality.” Eventually around the 18th century someone got the idea that kissing a stranger became allowed, but only under mistletoe. If you refused the kiss, it was seen as bad luck. 2017 – the year of unwanted physical contact. Mistletoe is weird.

-Fruitcake is known as the “re-gifting gift,” and many families share a story about the family-fruitcake that’s been getting passed around “since 1978,” in the case of my family. Originally in ancient Rome, it was made into a barley mash from seeds, nuts, and raisins. Eventually when it “came to America,” we added sugar, of course. They became popular here in the early 1900s as mail order products, when they were still “loaded with nuts.” The phrase “nutty as a fruitcake” comes from this, apparently. Other recipes soak the cake in liquor as a preservative. Still, nobody seems to like them.

-Reindeer. What are they, and why do they fly? Reindeer are a species of caribou, and they were never known to fly or pull Santa around until 1823 when “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was first written, known today as “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” That same poem is where the names of the reindeer come from, and where the story of them pulling Santa began. There are no answers as to why the author of the poem decided reindeer can fly.

-Where does eggnog fall into the mix? Also called “Christmas Milk,” and later Starbucks had to release the “Eggnog Latte.” Why is it popular during the holidays? During the American Revolution era, there was a rum shortage. That’s when it became a drink for “special occasions.” Christmas is a pretty special occasion for a lot of families, and so that’s how it became associated. In the “high-society” old British times, “the wealthy would drink warm milk and egg beverages seasoned with pricey spices, such as ground nutmeg and cinnamon, and expensive liquors like brandy and sherry to keep it from spoiling.”

-Black-Eyed Peas are known as a “good-luck” food for New Year’s Day. This goes back to the Civil War era, and were thought then as “unfit to eat.” The story says that when the Union raided Confederate food supplies, they took everything except the peas (and salted pork). Confederate soldiers only had the beans and pork to eat, and that actually helped them survive the winter, thus, good luck. That’s one story, but there are a couple.

Check out some more details about the origins of these Holiday traditions here.

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