Top 10 Traditional Holiday Decor Items (and Where they Came From)

Ornament on Christmas tree
Some of our favorite holiday decorations, including a decorated Christmas tree, have fun and interesting histories. See more Christmas pictures.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Thinkstock

In a sense, the stretch of time between late fall and early winter could rightfully be called "The Decorating Season." The holidays that occur at this time of year, including Christmas, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving and New Year's, all traditionally call for a host of decorations. Whether it's a tangled string of lights or a wreath you try to center perfectly on the front door, certain popular décor items are likely to take up decorating time and space this season.

But where do these décor standards come from? Why do lights, garlands and tree ornaments dominate the holiday scene? Read on to learn about 10 of the most common holiday décor items and the histories behind them.


10: Holiday Lights

House with holiday lights
Twinkling light displays have become part of holiday traditions around the globe.

The holiday season must be an especially happy time for power companies: It seems that every house on the block has electric candles in the windows, strings of lights on the bushes or a glowing Christmas tree by the living room window. Across a range of faiths, lights are a symbol of the holidays. For example, Christians who celebrate Christmas hang lights, or line their streets with illuminaria, which symbolically guide the Christ child to earth from Heaven.

Holiday lighting is a tradition that precedes electric lights by centuries. But with a wide range of bulb sizes, colors and arrangements, nearly all revelers now practice this holiday tradition with bulbs instead of traditional -- and more fire-prone -- candles.


9: Wreaths

Wreath on door
A beautiful wreath on the door welcomes guests to holiday celebrations.

Some holiday decorators might argue that there's no better-smelling tradition than a holiday wreath made from pine boughs, and the wreath has a long and storied history that predates the holidays with which it's associated. For example, wreaths made from laurel or olive branches have been a symbol of victory since Greek times. And pagan Germanic and Scandinavian cultures used candlelit wreaths to symbolize hope for the future as they awaited the return of the sun after the winter solstice.

In Christian tradition, a four-candle Advent wreath is used to mark the weeks leading up to Christmas. But for holiday revelers of all faiths, the simplicity of creating a wreath from evergreen, holly or even unique materials such as flowers or holiday candy means these décor items are a seasonal mainstay in homes throughout the world.


8: Garlands

Garland draped over mantle
Garlands draped over mantles or banisters add a touch of natural beauty to your holiday décor.
Siri Stafford/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Hot on the heels of the holiday wreath is its strung-out cousin, the garland. Like candle-lit wreaths and their traditional message of hope, garlands have fairly practical roots: In the dark, early days of winter, when fall's gold and orange leaves have faded and dropped from the trees, evergreen boughs are one of the few natural ways to bring a hint of color into the home.

The rich color, full texture and unmistakable aroma of fresh garlands make them an extremely versatile décor option. While weaving together a long garland can be messy, time-consuming work, the results are well worth it, especially in a home graced with long banisters or porch rails.


7: Christmas Trees

Christmas tree with presents
Who can resist a Christmas tree? This beautiful bit of nature has become one of the most popular Christmas decorations.
Siri Stafford/Photodisc/Thinkstock

From Rockefeller Center in New York City to the White House Lawn, one of the most prominent décor items of the holiday season is the Christmas tree. The tree can be decorated in many ways, and the roots of this tradition are interesting.

Academics and religious historians suggest that decorated, candle-lit evergreen trees originated in Norse celebrations of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The décor was meant to hasten the end of winter, and candlelit trees brought hope to the long nights. The tree tradition was assimilated over time, first by Roman occupiers and then by early Christians, who adapted it to today's tradition of adding lights and decorations.


6: Dreidels

Dreidel and coins
Dreidels are used in a traditional game that has become a fun part of Hanukkah tradition.
Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Thinkstock

"Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay…" Thanks to its namesake song, many know of this traditional Hanukkah toy, but its origins and use may be a mystery to some. A driedel is a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side, representing the phrase "a great miracle happened here." It's designed to commemorate the eight-day lighting of the menorah at the Jerusalem Temple that is the central miracle behind the holiday.

The dreidel is used in a traditional Hanukkah game. Players spin the top, and the letter showing when it stops determines whether they win chocolate coins or other "currency" from a central pot. The wrong spin can leave a player paying into the pot, while a lucky turn could have the player celebrating with handfuls of candy.


5: Menorahs

Lit menorah
Menorahs are lit on eight consecutive nights to celebrate the miracle that is a key part of Jewish culture.

The menorah is central to Hanukkah, the celebration of a key event in Jewish history. In 165 B.C., a group of Jewish liberation fighters known as the Maccabees recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem from their enemies, the Syrian Greeks. The Greeks had extinguished the flame in the temple's menorah, and as the Maccabees set the temple to order, they discovered they only had enough oil to keep its not-to-be-extinguished flame lit for one day. Miraculously, the flame burned for eight days on the sparse oil, giving the Maccabees time to find more oil for the eternal flame.

Today, Hanukkah celebrators exchange gifts for eight days to commemorate the length of the menorah miracle, and they light the menorah ceremonially on each of the eight nights.


4: Stockings

Stockings hung by a fireplace
Stockings hung by the chimney (with care) are part of a fun Christmas tradition.
Siri Stafford/Photodisc/Thinkstock

As anyone who has had the pleasure of doing laundry knows, socks can take on a life of their own after a day's use. So why do millions of Christmas revelers hang their stockings over the mantle on Christmas Eve, hoping to find them loaded with gifts in the morning?

The legend behind this tradition is actually quite charming. Sometime in the fourth century, Turkish bishop St. Nicholas of Myra snuck into the home of a poor family with several unmarried daughters who had no money for dowries. The girls had hung their washed stockings by the fire to dry, and St. Nicholas dropped gold coins into each one. The girls awoke to find their dowries paid by a hidden benefactor, and the saint now known as Santa Claus started a tradition that spans the globe.


3: Nativity Scenes

Nativity scene
Nativity scenes of all sizes are displayed at Christmas to depict the birth of Jesus.

Here's one piece of décor that can run the gamut from simple to elaborate. Christians traditionally assemble miniature scenes to depict the birth of Christ, the event at the root of the Christmas holiday. The baby Jesus, his parents Mary and Joseph, the Three Wise Men and an assortment of barnyard animals often populate these miniature manger scenes, in accordance with the story of Christ's birth as told in the books of the New Testament of the Bible.

But beyond the basic premise, nativity scenes can get quite elaborate. Indoor displays can vary from simple wooden figures to expensive glass and precious metal miniatures. Outdoor displays can range from plastic statues in the front yard to elaborate scenes displayed in front of churches, complete with theatrical lighting and live characters and animals.


2: Nutcrackers

Toy soldier nutcracker
The nutcracker serves a dual purpose: useful holiday tool and fun decoration!

A simple tool, or perhaps an amusing toy (until someone sticks a finger in the wrong place), the nutcracker has become a treasured symbol of Christmas celebration. But this common piece of holiday décor has a fairly recent connection to the season.

German carpenter Wilhelm Fuchtner produced the first toy-soldier-shaped nutcrackers in 1872. But it wasn't until 1892, when Tchaikovsky's famous ballet about a Christmas-present nutcracker come to life premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, that the decorative culinary tool became a part of holiday lore. While the plot centers mostly on the magic of the Christmas holiday, the nutcracker's starring role has made it a must-have decoration for the holiday season.


1: Pumpkins and Gourds

Pumpkin and gourd display
Pumpkins and gourds are used in many types of displays to celebrate the colors and harvests of autumn.

At first glance, you might think this entry missed the boat; Halloween and Thanksgiving fall ahead of the traditional holiday season. But connoisseurs of natural décor know that pumpkins and gourds make excellent additions to seasonal decoration.

Most varieties of gourds don't ripen until the end of the harvest season, just before the first frosts of winter. Early farmers storing the gourds for winter food had an ample supply of attractive décor items, and the practice of using them in fall celebrations only makes sense. In fact, one could argue that the reds, oranges, golds and browns of the autumn color palette owe their popularity to fall gourds.

Most gourds have edible fruit or seeds, and using them in place of canned pumpkin or summer squash can add a unique fall twist to favorite recipes.

Lots More Information

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  • Chicago Tribune. "Odd Holiday Traditions: Caganers." 2009. (Oct. 21, 2010),0,3838936.photogallery
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