Experts think there are many reasons for this, including that ancient celebrations around the winter solstice took place in December. The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, but also marks the beginning of longer days for the rest of the year. When Christianity took hold and its followers began celebrating the birth of Jesus, church officials selected the week of the solstice for the official celebration date. This way, Christmas fell on December 25th and coincided with the existing pagan festivals; making it easier for pagans to convert to Christianity.
Long before Christianity and Christmas came about, people of the ancient world were decorating their homes and temples with evergreens; which were prized for remaining green through the winter. They were also believed to keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits and illness! Boughs were hung over doors and windows for protection. The Christmas tree tradition as we know it today is thought to have its origins in 16th century Germany. There, Christians brought small, decorated trees into their homes and added lighted candles to the boughs to represent stars. The tradition made its way to the US by way of German settlers in Pennsylvania around 1830. From there, the practice eventually caught on and spread throughout the country.
German immigrants still decorated their trees with candles; and also with apples, nuts and marzipan cookies. Fancy ornaments from Europe and handmade ornaments were also popular, along with garlands made of popcorn and berries. Electricity lead to the invention of Christmas lights, which were quite a bit safer than lit candles!
Though many cultures had some form of gingerbread, people now credit Queen Elizabeth I of England with popularizing gingerbread men as we know them today. Her reign was known for elaborate royal dinners in which a royal gingerbread maker crafted gingerbread men in the shape of people in the court. Gingerbread houses caught on in Germany, where the Brothers Grimm wrote a little story featuring a gingerbread house called "Hansel and Gretel." Because ginger was associated with warmth for its spice, it was common to eat gingerbread during the winter months, and therefore around Christmas. Eventually, European immigrants brought their gingerbread recipes and traditions to the States, and the rest is (delicious) history!
Santa Claus, AKA Saint Nick, has a history dating all the way back to the 3rd century. The original Saint Nicholas is believed to have lived in what is now Turkey, where he was a bishop admired for his kindness and generosity. He came to be known as the patron saint of children, and his feast day was celebrated by Christians on December 6th. St. Nicholas was a popular saint all over Europe, and especially in Holland, where Dutch children left out their shoes in the hopes that Sint Nicolaas, or Sinterklaas, would leave candy in them during the night. Gifts were also popularly exchanged on the eve or day of Saint Nicholas' feast day throughout the European world. In 1773, St. Nick made his way to the US via Dutch immigrants in New York, who still gathered every year to celebrate him. The name Santa Claus evolved from the Dutch Sinterklaas, and Clement C. Moore's 1822 poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" popularized the image of the saint as a jolly old elf. Eventually, the generous old man with the white beard became synonymous with Christmas, gift giving, and the magic of the holiday season.