Five things you might not know about our Christmas traditions

Most people don't know where the tradition of eating turkey at Christmas comes from.
Most people don't know where the tradition of eating turkey at Christmas comes from.

Christmas is the time of year when most of us put up a tree, gather the family to eat turkey, pull crackers and exchange gifts.

But do you know the origins of these traditions? A survey* of 1,000 people in the UK has found that a surprising number of people don't.

It appears the origins of the festive season have become lost in the mists of time, and people today know more about Christmas telly than we do about why we eat turkey.

People were asked six different questions about the festive season, and for five of them, the majority of them got it spectacularly wrong.

Only one question was answered correctly by most; and this was related to what is on TV on Christmas Day!

1. How did the tradition of decorating Christmas trees with lights begin?

Over half of us didn't know that it started in early modern Germany, when Christians brought evergreen trees into their homes to remind them that winter was only temporary, then attached small candles using pins or wax.

A quarter of us believed it started when the Victorians used candles in trees to help light the streets during the winter months, and 12.6% of us thought it started when 12th century monks introduced candles on trees outside their monastery to ward off evil spirits).

2. In which country do Christmas crackers originate?

62.2% of people were wrong, with most people – 40.7% - believing they were either a German or an American invention. Crackers were actually invented here in the UK (though only 37.8% of us knew that).

Around 1845, a London sweet maker called Tom Smith got the idea from French Bonbons wrapped in a twist of paper, and added a riddle, a hat, and a 'snap', which made a bang when you pulled the cracker in half.

3. Who is the modern-day Santa Claus based on?

Long before we had the image of a jolly, bearded man in a red coat with white trim, thanks to Coca-Cola advertising, there was a 4th century bishop from Greece, called St Nicholas, who became famous after his death because of all the miracles he could perform.

He also became the patron saint of children, because he helped so many, and gave gifts which helped the poor. However, only 20.9% of people knew that; most people – 39.5% - thought he was originally a small elf, or pixie, called Julenissen, from Norway.

4. Where does opening an advent calendar come from?

One of the most popular traditions, particularly with kids, is opening the door of an advent calendar every day and hopefully finding some kind of treat or chocolate inside, which helps us count down to Christmas Day.

Many of us (27.1%) thought it was a British invention, while nearly the same amount thought it came from Norway. Actually, it came from Germany (which 28.8% of people knew).

In the 19th century, Germany protestant Christians marked 24 chalk lines on a door, and would rub one off every day in December. Then the first paper calendars were produced in Germany around the 1900s, using traditional winter scenes, such as snowmen and robins, whose pictures hid behind a door.

5. Why do we eat turkey on Christmas Day?

Most of us thought it was developed from the American tradition of Thanksgiving, while 28.6% of believed it had become popular because Charles Dickens wrote about it in his novels. But the real reason, which only 19.1% of us got right, is that Henry VIII first ate it on Christmas Day.

Before, people would eat geese, chickens, beef, boars, even peacocks! But then turkeys were brought to Britain in 1526, and farmers realised they could save their livestock if they ate turkey instead.

When is the Great British Bake Off on the telly?

89% of people knew that the BBC TV show will see Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood, and Mel and Sue reunite for the last time on Christmas Day.

Even though 2.2% of respondents thought they were characters in Downton Abbey, it goes to show that new traditions are clearly better known than ancient ones...

* The survey was carried out by lighting designers Scotlight Direct (scotlightdirect.co.uk).