The Origins of Christmas Traditions

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Many people wonder where the origins of Christmas traditions started. Why do we celebrate Christmas? Most believe that the tradition of Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, making it a holy religious tradition. There is evidence to prove that Christmas time was actually a time of pagan ritual dating back centuries prior to what was after referred to as Christmas.

What is now referred to as Christmas was historically a time of celebrating certain gods that would influence the production of life and agriculture through the forces of nature. In some cases it was a time of celebrating community members. Being celebrated during the winter solstice, it was also known to be celebrated for the coming of longer days or the coming of the sun.

Current modern celebrations of Christmas tend to lean towards the celebration of gift giving, spending time with family and friends and feasting without pagan or religious beliefs being a part of the celebrations. Although many now celebrate Christmas without the religious connotation associated with it, it remains to be a steadfast tradition celebrated by the majority.


The Origins of the Twelve Days of Christmas, Yule Log, Christmas Wreath, and Mistletoe


What is the tradition of Christmas? The earliest research on what is referred to today as Christmas brings us back to the Scandinavian culture and the term Yule festival. This festival was held during the winter solstice and lasted for twelve days. This is where the traditional twelve days of Christmas comes from. Celebration of the coming of longer days and the sun was at the heart of these celebrations.

Part of the Scandinavian traditions included the Sunwheel. This wheel would have been divided into four parts, each part representing one of the four solstices (spring, summer, winter and fall). They would set the Sunwheel afire and let it roll down a hill in hopes of attracting the sun god/goddess attention which in turn would bring longer days and a prosperous new year. The Sunwheel is said to have resembled a wreath which is thought to be one way the traditional Christmas wreath came into being.

The Yule log is also to be said to have been a tradition started by the Scandinavians. A very large log was found and would be carved with symbols. The burning of the log was said to have been used to ward off the spirits of misfortune.

This was used ceremoniously to worship the god Freyr who was thought to be responsible for abundance and peace and the goddess Freyja who was responsible for fertility, love and life cycle changes. Freyja may also have been referred to as the sun goddess and Freyr as the moon god although there seems to be some debate on this issue. Myth has it that each spark that came off of the burning Yule log represented the upcoming birth of an animal of their livestock collection in the year to come. This ceremonial ritual is said to be where the tradition of the Yule log originated from.

The Scandinavians are also said to be responsible for the tradition of decorating with mistletoe at Christmas. According to myth, the god Balder as slain with an arrow made of mistletoe. His mother, mourning for the loss of her son, cried over his body. Her tears of grief landed on the red berries of the mistletoe and turned them white. They say that the power of those white berries was responsible for him coming back to life. Since this time, the Scandinavians believed that the mistletoe used in ceremonial rites had the ability to resurrect people.


From Pagan Rituals to the Celebration of Jesus’s Birthday

The introduction of Christianity brought about the change from pagan winter solstice festivals to what we know today as the religious traditions of Christmas. As the Scandinavians ventured into new worlds they also brought with them their cultural traditions. Cultural practices of both sides meshed together and were often practiced by most.

When the Roman empire took over Britain and European areas from the second century B.C. to the fourth century A.D., Christmas transformed from the pagan winter solstice rituals to the more Christian forms we know today. The date of Jesus’s birthday is a constant issue of debate but regardless of this, Christmas time is when it is celebrated. Worshiping sun gods to celebrating the birth of Christ was not an overnight change and it took a long time for change to happen. However, even though what was being worshiped may have changed most of the traditions were carried over, such as the twelve days of Christmas, the Yule log and so forth.

The Origin of Gift Giving at Christmas

The Romans

As with the Scandinavians, the winter solstice seems to be the focal point in time in which the ancient Romans had their most treasured festivities as well. These festivities centered around Saturn who was the god of agriculture and time.

This festivity is known as Saturnalia. During this time of celebration, work ceased for all including the slaves of that time. It is said that the slaves were actually honored during this time. The slaves were treated to great feasts and were often served by their masters.

This was a time of sacrificial rites and gift giving. Although in ancient Roman times human and animal sacrifices were made to the gods, over time this tradition transformed itself into the giving of gifts to slaves, friends and family members. The tradition of gift giving at Christmas time may have its first origins attributed to this historical festivity.


Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle and Santa Claus

In modern day Christmas tradition, Santa Claus is a key figure. We all know that Santa is the one who brings all the presents at Christmas time. For many Germans, it is not Santa Claus but rather Cristkindl who leaves the Christmas gifts. This modern day gift giving legend stems from some historical figures, namely St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, and Kris Kringle.

St. Nicholas was a devout Christian Bishop who lived in what is now Turkey. It is said that his family was well off financially and when they perished he spent his wealth on assisting the poor and the ailing. He is highly regarded for his generosity of giving to the less fortunate. Legend has it that he attempted to do this anonymously but was found out on several occasions thus making him a popular a figure for his generous and goodhearted deeds.

St. Nicholas was said to have a nickname, Sinter Klaas, deriving from the Dutch language. His legend depicts him as an elderly white haired and bearded portly man. It is said that he would leave presents for children in port cities where he visited by boat.

The Father Christmas figure originated in ancient British times, again at the time of the winter solstice, but was not known by that name. This pagan figure would clad himself in green and wear a wreath made of mistletoe, holly or ivy and represent himself as the coming of the longer sun-filled days that followed the winter solstice. His purpose included raising the spirits of all in the communities.

The Scandinavians also had such a figure in their culture. This figure, clad in blue rather than green, was portly and elderly and harboured a long white beard. He also had a mythological eight-legged creature who could take him around the world at Yule time. His purpose was to punish the bad and reward the good.

When the Scandinavian Vikings came into Britain, cultures meshed as they often do and traditions become somewhat transformed. The term Father Christmas came about as result of meshing mythological and pagan figures with that of saintly figures like St. Nicholas with the end result being Father Christmas. Father Christmas came to represent good cheer, charitability and prosperity for all good people.

The name Kris (Kriss) Kringle came about as the result of the Protestant Reformation wherein Martin Luther deemed it improper to worship a saint (St. Nicholas). So the term Christ Kinde (German for Christ Child and now known as Christkindl) would be used as the legendary figure who bestowed gifts to people during the Christmas season. Christkindl translated into Kris Kringle at some point in the early 1800s most likely due to different dialectical translations in various countries.

Kris Kringle transformed into the mythical Santa Claus along this time in Western society. It was at this time that the gift bearing Christmas eve magical horse wielding figure was transformed into Santa. Authors such as Clement Clarke Moore and illustrators like Thomas Nast, through their narrations and artistry, are responsible for the Santa figure we know today.


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4 comments on “The Origins of Christmas Traditions”

  1. terry lemoine Reply

    Hi Tina, I really enjoyed reading the historical development of Christmas through the traditions of all the different ancient cultures. I knew some of that history but not to the extent you covered. It’s really important that as a modern society, we are reminded that most of the traditions we still practice had it’s early beginnings with our ancient ancestors, and these traditions evolved over time. Thanks for sharing.

    • Tina Reply

      Hi Terry
      I am glad you enjoyed the history lesson. Yes it is quite amazing the historical path that our traditions have taken over the centuries. Interestingly, it is the Christmas nativity that is the only tradition that is manifested from the Christian faith (outside of Mass and other church services). Even this tradition was manifested in a round about way from the Winter Solstice Festivals. We are still gathering research on this topic and hope to have something published soon on the topic.


  2. suzanne Reply

    Hi Tina, what a great lesson on traditions! I really enjoyed your article.

    I had no idea where these customs had originated, so I was fascinated by it.

    Our family has always celebrated Christmas as Christ’s birth, with Santa Claus thrown in for the kids. I never thought to question where the origins came from. I honestly thought that Christmas (the name) started with Christ.

    Thanks for teaching me something new today,

    • Tina Reply

      Hi Suzanne, it was my pleasure. Here is another tidbit of info for you. People may not be aware of it when they do this because sometimes they figure it’s just a way of short forming the word, but when people say or write Christmas as Xmas, they are really taking Christ (or the Christian affiliation) out of the tradition.

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