The Origin of Christmas Traditions

The name Christmas originates from the words “Christ’s Mass,” but our Christmas traditions are not only born of the Christian faith. Our modern Christmas traditions stem from a myriad of cultures, faiths, and times. Last year we wrote a blog on Old Christmas and traditions associated with it.

Preceding Holidays

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It is likely that Jesus’ birth actually occurred in the Spring. The verses in the Bible refer to shepherds out watching their flock at night, something only done during lambing time in the Spring. While we can’t be entirely certain of the time of Jesus’s birth, we do know that it was Pope Julius I who made December 25th Christ’s birthday in 350 CE to coincide with pagan holidays. Previous dates that had been offered included December 6th and March 25th.  

The preceding pagan holidays included the birthday of the Persian sun god Mithras and the winter solstice holidays of Saturnalia (Roman) and Yule (Viking/Norse). Most Romans were still pagan in 350 CE and Pope Julius I reasoned it would be easier to transition Romans to Christianity if celebrations and traditions overlapped.

Santa Claus

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The original Saint Nicholas was a Greek Orthodox Bishop in Turkey in the 4th century. He inherited a fortune from his parents, but decided to go into the church and gave away his wealth to the needy. He is the patron saint of children. He is also the patron saint of sailors for saving ships from storms at sea. He died in the middle of the 4th century on December 6th. Beyond this, the majority of the mythos was shaped by pagan belief systems and publications in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Various beliefs leading to the figure of Santa Claus included Norse god Odin and Old Man Winter, figures worshipped by pagans who brought on the Winter season. It is believed that Thor, a Norse god of thunder who rode in an iron chariot pulled by the goats Gnasher and Cracker influenced some of our images of Santa Claus in his sleigh. The name Kris Kringle comes to us from the German Christkindl, an angelic figure who gave gifts to deserving children.

It wouldn’t be until the 1800s that many of our modern images of Santa Claus were formed. The poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (known better as ‘The Night Before Christmas”) introduced the ideas of Santa coming down the chimney and of him having eight reindeer. In 1863, cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted Santa as we see him today – bearded and plump (he’d been envisioned in various forms, but was usually thin.) His name came from the Dutch – “Sinterklaus.” In France, he’s known as Père Noël, and in China, he’s known as Sing Dan Lo Yan (meaning “Christmas Old Man).

In other countries, it’s a different figure who brings gifts to children. In Spain and South America, the Three Kings bring presents. In Italy, La Befana, a kindly old witch, gives sweets to good children and coal to bad children. In Russia, it’s the Babushka or Grandfather Frost and in Scandinavia a tribe of gnomes deliver gifts.

Although Santa had his reindeer since the early 1800s, he didn’t have Rudolph until 1939. The story of Rudolph was written to attract people to a department store chain. It wasn’t until 1949 that his story was set to music. Rudolph was almost named Rollo or Reginald, but the author’s four-year-old daughter liked Rudolph the best.


Christmas Decorations

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The Christmas tree is an amalgamation of various pagan traditions. The Norse and Romans both decorated their homes with evergreens during the winter. Evergreens were considered lucky by the Romans during their holiday Saturnalia which celebrated the god Saturn.

However, it was the Norse who brought holly, ivy, and trees into their houses during the winter months, but the Romans were the ones to decorate their trees. They previously decorated trees with foods. Glass ornaments became en vogue only in the 1880s. Poinsettias come from Mexico and are associated with Christmas. In a story about poinsettias, a poor boy didn’t have anything to give to the church altar on Christmas Eve, so he knelt outside the church and prayed. Where he had knelt, the poinsettias sprung up.

The origin of stockings comes from a story about St. Nicholas, the inspiration for Santa Claus. St. Nicholas overheard a father and his three daughters lamenting that they didn’t have enough money for food or clothing. So, he went home and got the inheritance his parents had left him and threw nuggets of gold down their chimney. The gold landed in the three girls’ stockings, which were hung to dry by the fire. In Appalachia, it is common to put oranges, apples, and walnuts into stockings. This may have originated from 12th century French nuns who left stockings of fruits and nuts at houses of the poor. In the past, citrus fruit was a luxury and would be an appropriate gift.

Christmas Activities

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Caroling was actually not always exclusive to Christmas. It was done on many different holidays, but has only stuck to Christmas in our modern era. Advent calendars are used to count down the days until Christmas. In the past, there were many ways to do this, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that we got the modern iteration of the calendar. The first ones to appear were handmade, but in the 1900s, commercial calendars were produced.

Christmas traditions vary regionally, even in the same country. Someone from the West Coast may have different traditions than someone from Appalachia. Our modern Christmas traditions come from various countries, cultures, and points in time.