Christmas Traditions and History

Now that I’m an adult, I’ve been working on continuing and establishing traditions. During the holidays is when the most traditions happen, and I’m realizing that I don’t have a good list of traditions or what they mean. So I did some research online, and have my results to share with you all.

Christmas History

Christmas, short for “Christ’s Mass” was added to the Roman calendar around 354 AD, years after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 AD. Although it’s estimated that Jesus was actually born January 6th, Christmas was set as December 25th, possibly to combat pagan celebrations around the winter solstice (December 22nd). The main winter celebration of the time was Saturnalia, which involved sacrifices to the god Saturn, feasts, candle light, gift giving, and masters serving their slaves. The candle light was said to represent a search for knowledge and truth. Besides Saturnalia, there are a plethora of ancient pagan celebrations that occurred around the winter solstice which have gift giving, festivals, decorations, and evergreens boughs. The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.

Though most ancient pagan festivals involved gift giving, modern day gift giving is usually associated with Santa Claus or the gifts given to Jesus by the Three Magi. The legend of Santa Claus began with Saint Nicholas, who was a Greek bishop known for his gift giving. The Dutch then created a legend of Sinterklaas, who would leave children presents in their shoes (which is where we get Christmas stockings). After several versions of Santa Claus, we had an old man in robes, who rode on a horse with little helpers and inquired if children had been good that year before giving them gifts. Modern Day Santa was created in the 1800s when “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was introduced. This established him as the large, jolly toy maker we know today.

The origin of the Christmas tree is credited to Germany. One legend says that Saint Boniface, while evangelizing, cut down “Thor’s Oak” tree and declared an evergreen tree more holy, since it is triangular and points towards heaven. Others say that it was German Christians who first brought decorated the trees into their homes. Some say that German friar Martin Luther was the first to add lighted candles to a tree to replicate the brilliance of stars shining through the branches. Still, others credit the trees and lights as a Yule tradition stolen by the Christians.

Christmas Traditions

Decorating Christmas Trees – Based out of Germany. Debated if stolen from Yule traditions or if made by German Christians. Glass/tin ornaments were introduced by German Hans Greiner in the late 1500s. In 1832 Queen Victoria raved about her Christmas tree with lights, ornaments, and gifts wrapped up underneath. This resulted in huge popularity of the Christmas tree decoration and caused Germany’s exports of ornaments to boom.

Yule Log – Traditionally a long-burning log from pagan Yuletide celebrations which guarded against evil. In modern day, a Yule Log often refers to a roll-cake eaten around Christmas.

Mistletoe – The idea to kiss under mistletoe came from a mix of Norse mythology and a Scandinavian custom to not fight and lay down your arms under mistletoe. It’s also been long regarded an aphrodisiac and fertility herb. In midevil times it was believed to ward off the devil and it was burned after Christmas.

Holly – It has carried Christian symbolism since mid-evil times, but before Christianity it had pagan ties and was associated with the Sun god.

Wreaths – evergreen boughs have been brought into house and hung on/over doors since before Christianity. The Advent Wreath was introduced by Lutherans in the 16th century.

Christmas carols – Songs specifically written for Christmas have been around since 129 AD. Unfortunately they were mostly written in Latin which the common man didn’t understand. It wasn’t until St. Francis of Assisi started doing Nativity plays in Italy in 1223 AD. These plays had songs in the common language which people loved to sing along to. In the middle ages, peasants would go to the house of a lord and sing carols hoping for charity.

Gift giving – Gifts were given in pagan winter celebrations and were given in the story of Jesus’s birth. The creation of Santa Claus came later.

Candy Canes – A popular story says that in 1670 Germany, children were being noisy in church on Christmas Eve, so the choirmaster asked a local candy maker to make candy sticks for them. To justify giving children candy in church, he had the candy maker shape the candy to look like a sheperd’s staff . Besides this story, there is no other significant history to the candy cane besides it’s recipe being published in 1844.

Nativity – The nativity is a Christian display that reenacts the scene on the night of Jesus’s birth. It often depicts Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a barn, animals, a manger, angels, a star, sheperds, and wise men. (Even though the Three Wise Men didn’t come to Jesus until later)

Christian Hang-ups

So since Christmas has a lot of traditions that aren’t solely based out of Christianity, a lot of Christians have hang ups about a lot of traditions. I’d say, the point of symbolism is that it means something to you, and reminds you to think and worship. When you look at mistletoe, do you think about Norse deities? Or do you think about getting together with family and friends to celebrate Jesus? (Probably the later) I’d say what it means to you and your family is more important than its potentially pagan origins. What does it mean to you today?

Also see my post about Halloween

And Some Pin-able Images!

Christmas traditionsChristmas Traditions Teaser


One thought on “Christmas Traditions and History

  1. Pingback: Halloween History and Traditions | So Now What?

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