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23 Dec 2016

‘Tis the Season! The Surprising Origins of Holiday Rituals

Have you ever wondered about the origins of some of our favorite holiday words and traditions?

Like, why is a poinsettia considered a winter holiday plant? And why do we kiss underneath the mistletoe? Plus, did you know that the generic term “menorah” actually applies to the candelabrum used in Temple year-round?

Whatever you’re celebrating this season, these fun holiday facts are sure to amaze you! From elves to candelabras to new year’s traditions, the origins of these age-old traditions remind us why the winter holidays are so special.

The Poinsettia

The story of the poinsettia’s use as a holiday flower is surprisingly sweet. Deriving from 16th century Mexican folklore, the tale of the poinsettia tells of a young girl named Pepita or María who wanted to bring a gift to Jesus’s altar in celebration of his birth. Because she had very little money, the angels suggested that Pepita pick wildflowers to bring in tribute. When Pepita placed these flowers—little more than weeds—upon the shrine, they miraculously transformed, blossoming into the gorgeous red flowers that we know so well.

The poinsettia’s rich red hue is said to represent the blood sacrificed by Jesus, while the shape of its flowers is similar to the Star of Bethlehem. Today, the flower is known in Mexico as “Flor de Noche Buena” in honor of Christmas Eve.


This cheeky plant has an even longer history in holiday rituals than poinsettias! Norse mythologists spun the following tale:

During this ancient era, mistletoe was often connected to the trickster god Loki. One day, Loki took advantage of the god Hodur’s blindness and gave him an arrow made of mistletoe. Poor Hodur was unaware of the arrow’s poisonous effect on Balder, as it was the only substance that his fellow god was vulnerable to.

When Hodur shot Balder, intending to demonstrate Balder’s great strength, the mistletoe arrow immediately killed him instead. Mourning the loss of her son, the goddess Frigga began weeping inconsolably.

Frigga’s tears magically transformed into the white berries of the mistletoe. Mistletoe (the plant personified) regretted his part in the murder, so he brought Balder back to life. To show her appreciation to mistletoe, Frigga promised to kiss anyone who stood below her most beloved plant thereafter.

Mistletoe is now a winter holiday mainstay—if you’re caught under its adorable sprig, be prepared to kiss your companion in Frigga’s place!


While not traditionally the holiest or most eminent of Jewish holidays, Chanukah (also spelled Hanukkah or Hanukah) has become increasingly popular as a Jewish celebration during the winter season. Commemorating the rededication of the Holy Temple, Chanukah recalls a time when Judaism was outlawed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who demanded that all of his subjects worship the Greek gods. During this period, the Holy Temple was sacked before being transformed into an altar for Zeus.

The Jewish Maccabees were eventually able to take back the Holy Temple after a long-fought rebellion. Once they could begin holding services in the temple again, the Maccabees lit the menorah using enough oil to last only a single night. Miraculously, however, the oil lasted for eight nights.

Since menorah simply means “candelabra,” only the nine-pronged candle holder, called a Chanukiah, is used to celebrate this Jewish holiday—it recalls those eight magical nights and the Holy Temple that was miraculously recovered.

When you see a menorah with seven candle holders, on the other hand, remember that it’s an ancient Judaic symbol representing the days of the week, or the seven knowledges.

New Year’s Rituals

While New Year’s has historically been celebrated in the U.S. on the 31st of December according to the Gregorian Calendar, the New Year can begin at many different times depending on which calendar you use. While the Gregorian Calendar begins each year on January 1, the Lunar New Year begins in January or February, while Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, generally begins in early autumn (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere).

Those are just a few of the countless different New Years celebrated worldwide! All of these different New Year’s dates simply mean that you have even more opportunities to celebrate!

  • On Dec. 31, don’t forget to pucker up—according to English and German folklore, the person you kiss and how you kiss them sets the tone for your entire year.
  • For an equally fun time, celebrate Rosh Hashanah by sounding your “shofar,” kind of like a bugle, and enjoying apples dipped in honey.
  • Then, for your Lunar New Year celebration, give gifts of fresh money in red envelopes to children, spend time with your family, and feast with your loved ones.

Holiday Elves

Did you know that elves were actually added to Santa Clause’s staff by none other than Little Women author Louisa May Alcott? First developed for her unpublished manuscript, The Christmas Elves, these little helpers went on to join Christmas lore following their popularization in the women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book.

This influential magazine also popularized the celebration of Thanksgiving, leaving quite a mark on American culture!

Happy Holidays!

Whether you celebrate any of these holiday traditions or simply look forward to the quality time with loved ones, EditingWorm wishes you the happiest of winter seasons! We hope that you can relax, enjoy time with family, and revel in the frosty winter weather.

Keep Writing,

Katrina Oko-Odoi

Founder & Chief Editor

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