An Introduction to Christmas Traditions
Created | Updated Dec 18, 2014
For many people, in many countries around the world, celebrating Christmas is a yearly statement of their religious beliefs. For others, it is an opportunity to exchange presents with friends and family, and to indulge in the more secular aspects of the season. Whatever the reason for their celebrations, they are taking part in a festival that combines traditions from various civilisations across three millennia or more.
Yule is a pagan festival that celebrates the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. It is generally reckoned that the festival is Nordic in origin and dates back to around 4000 BC. The Solstice takes place on 21 December, the shortest day of the Northern year. It marks the time when the days finally lengthen again. To Nordic herders and hunters, it meant the end of the 15 to 18 hours of darkness that made their hard lives even more difficult. Many Yule traditions concern the way that darkness can be dealt with. A Yule log was lit on the Solstice and kept alight for 12 days. The god Thor chose Yule to deliver presents to people, and enlisted the help of a goat to help him carry those presents. Later, as the festival spread, Thor's counterparts Odin and Woden performed that role. Between the three of them, they almost certainly paved the way for the character of Father Christmas in his many guises.
Evergreen plants were popular as they symbolised the way that life could thrive in the winter darkness. Holly in particular was prized and hung around entrances to the house, including the fireplace, to ward off evil spirits. As the festival became popular in the rest of Europe, other plants were added such as mistletoe which brought protection to the house and fertility to women who were kissed underneath it.
As well as Yuletide, the festival we now know as Christmas almost certainly had its origins in other festivals from various parts of the world. In Ancient Greece, the festival of Saturnalia ran for seven days from 17 December to celebrate the rebirth of the year. Presents were exchanged with friends and family, much drinking went on and feasts were held. In addition, the usual social order was reversed for the week with servants becoming masters and men dressing as women; a forerunner of pantomime dames. The Romans took elements of Saturnalia and added their own trimmings such as the lighting of candles and wild partying. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah also involves the lighting of candles and gift giving, but its main influence on the future shape of Christmas was as a celebration of light. All of these celebrations gave Christmas its shape, but the moulding of these traditions into a Christian one was a task that took many generations to complete.
The early Christian church was faced with many obstacles as it tried to spread its message of Christ's birth and his divine nature. In many countries, local traditions were too entrenched to be challenged by the burgeoning religion, so the church merely took the path of least resistance and gave existing rituals and symbols Christian meanings. It was this approach that led to Pope Julius the First's setting of the date of Jesus' birth as 25 December, a date that marked the Winter Solstice in the Roman Astronomical calendar. This happened in the year 366 AD and was a major factor in the spread of the gospel. By 529 AD, the 12 days from Christmas Day to Epiphany1 on 6 January were all public holidays. However, to the dismay of many Christians, the celebrations became a confusion of many different winter traditions rather than the wholly religious one originally envisaged. Instead of just attending a simple mass to celebrate the sacred event, the new converts were likely to indulge in feasting and merrymaking. In the years to come, it was the pagan feasting that would be most closely associated with Christmas in the minds of the general population2. Once again, the Church made the best of the situation. It took the holly symbol and made it a representation of Jesus' crown of thorns. Songs sung to celebrate the solstice were rewritten to refer to the birth of Jesus and became Christmas carols. In 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi made a crib, and carved figures of the principal characters in the Nativity of Christ. He set these up outside his church in Greccio, Italy and the Nativity scene quickly became a central part of the Christmas celebrations on mainland Europe.
In Ethiopia, the Christmas festival is called Ganna and takes place on 7 January. Although it has become recognised as a Christian festival, the actual derivation predates the birth of Christ by many centuries. It celebrates the game of Ganna which is similar to modern day hockey. Legend has it that Ethiopian shepherds were told of the birth of Christ and celebrated by playing Ganna. It has all the hallmarks of being a local festival given Christian meaning by missionaries.
A Victorian Christmas
The Christmas that many Western people recognise came into being during Victorian times as people rediscovered the festival that the Puritans had sought to bury. The tradition of decorating Christmas trees that originated in Germany in the 11th Century, were introduced into Britain by Queen Victoria's new consort Prince Albert, and quickly gained acceptance at all levels of society. The Victorians reintroduced mistletoe to sidestep social constraints forbidding amorous contact between unmarried couples. Carol singing became a popular pastime, and a way to introduce illiterate people to the message of Christmas. Dances and party games reminiscent of Saturnalia gave celebrations a carefree nature for both adults and children. The final touch was the sending and receiving of cards, an entirely Victorian invention. Christmas cards were an idea borrowed from Valentines Day allowing people to send love and best wishes to each other without declaring any romantic attentions. The Victorian Christmas became world famous, and the model for a traditional Christmas, after the publication of Charles Dickens' immortal book A Christmas Carol in 1843. In 1846, a London sweet maker, Thomas Smith, added his own idea to the list of Victorian Christmas traditions. Taking his inspiration from French bonbons3 he added love notes to the sweets and decided to make the sweet wrapper give off a small explosion when pulled apart. These crackers, as they became known, were an instant success and over the next decade paper hats and small toys were added to them.
The Bringer of Gifts
The origins of Christmas gift giving can be traced back to a real historical figure, Saint Nicholas of Myra. Born in about 300 AD to a wealthy family, Saint Nicholas became a priest at the age of 17 and later became the Bishop of Myra. Stories of his kindness to children and his generosity spread far and wide. One such story concerned a young woman who could not marry her sweetheart as she had no dowry to offer the family. Nicholas heard of her plight but did not want to offer direct help in case it was refused through embarrassment on their part. One night, he travelled to the house with gold for the dowry and saw the young woman hanging her stockings over the fire to dry them. When the family had gone to bed, Nicholas climbed onto the roof and dropped the gold down the chimney into the stocking. The elements of the legend were all in place including the corruption of his name, rendered as Santa Claus in later writings. This person moved from fact to legend over many centuries and became entwined with the local customs of many different countries. There are many interesting local variations as a result4.
In The Netherlands and Flanders, presents are delivered to children on Sinterklaas Eve, 5 December. Sinterklaas rides on his white horse through towns and villages helped by his assistant, Zwarte Piet5. He wears the red robes of the Bishop of Myra6.
In Sweden, children meet an elf-like character called the Tomten. He knocks on each door and asks if there are any good children inside the house. When he receives a positive answer, he gives each child small presents. He wears a long red hat.
The Christkindl and The Weinachtsmann
In the Bavarian part of Germany, a Christmas angel rings a bell to warn all good children to go to bed. When the children have gone to sleep, the Christkindl flies in through the window and fills soup bowls with fruit and sweets. She looks very similar to the angel that is placed on top of Christmas trees all over the world.
In other parts of the country, the gifts are brought by the Weinachtsmann who is similar to Father Christmas. He is assisted by Knecht Ruprecht. On 6 December, Germans also celebrate Nikolaus when they clean their shoes and leave them outside the door. In the morning the shoes will be full of sweets.
In 1823, the American poet Charles Clement Moore wrote a poem that introduced another few strands of the Santa Claus legend. He described Saint Nicholas as:
Chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf
... which created the abiding image of the modern Santa Claus. Moore also introduced the sleigh and the eight reindeer that pulled it:
Now Dasher, Now Dancer, Now Prancer and Vixen. On Comet, On Cupid, On Donner and Blitzen!
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer did not arrive until 1939 when he was created by Robert May. May was an advertising executive who was commissioned to write a new Christmas story for marketing purposes. The story became increasingly popular as each Christmas went by, and its place in Christmas tradition was assured when Gene Autry set the words to music in 1949. The resulting song has been recorded by many artists in a variety of styles and has become a Christmas standard loved by children in particular.
Many cultures have their own special food to celebrate Christmas. These foods have their own special stories. Stollen, a traditional German bread, is said to resemble Christ in his swaddling clothes. Mincemeat, a popular British dessert, originated as a way of preserving both fruit and meat. The combination of fruit acid and sugar prevents the formation of bacteria. Christmas Pudding became popular in Victorian times and is derived from a 14th-Century porridge called frumenty that was eaten as a fasting dish. Turkey became popular in the 17th Century upon the return of sailors from the American colonies who enjoyed feasting upon the bird in winter. Before turkey, boar and swan were meats to be found upon the table at Christmas. Christmas breakfast in Belgium consists of cougnolle, a bread that is supposed to be shaped like the baby Jesus. In the Southern Hemisphere, where Christmas falls in the summer, cold turkey or ham accompanied by salad is the choice of many Australians and New Zealanders. Whatever the meal consists of it is, for Christians and non-Christians alike, a family meal in most cases.
Christmas Down Under
Christmas in Australia is significantly different from Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere because it falls in the Summer rather than the Winter. Although the traditions are familiar to anyone from a nominally Christian country, they are celebrated in uniquely Australian ways. The carol services leading up to Christmas Day itself are held outdoors, usually on or near a beach. The carols are traditional but the atmosphere is akin to a concert rather than a religious service. In keeping with the more relaxed Aussie attitude, Father Christmas always attends the services to hand out sweets and small presents to the children. There are two big Carols by Candlelight shown on television in Sydney on the Sunday before Christmas, and in Melbourne on Christmas Eve. Many people wrap up their Christmas presents while watching the Christmas Eve concert.
On Christmas Day, many Australian families still sit down to a roast turkey or ham, which can be served hot or cold, accompanied by salad and seafood. However, a barbequed turkey in the back garden with a few cold beers is an increasingly popular, and uniquely Australian, way of celebrating the holiday. Many expatriates get together for a hedonistic multicultural celebration at Bondi Beach in Sydney. A traditional Christmas Pudding is often served with ice cream or cold custard. As in most cultures, Christmas Day tends to be a family celebration, but Boxing Day is often the day when friends celebrate together. It is on Boxing Day that almost everyone in Australia seems to head for a beach. Fortified by the previous day's cold cuts and large amounts of drink, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, the celebrations take on a secular flavour much as they do in many other countries.
The Native Australians, with their ancient culture stretching back before any recorded history, have their own festival that coincides with Christmas. The Yolngu people of Arnhem Land, Northern Territory celebrate the last season of their year, the Gudjewg, at the end of December. However, the attempted enforcement of Christian culture on the Native Australians has led to an interesting hybrid carol service in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. The women of the Ntaria people sing hymns in their own language to the setting of Lutheran music. Despite this, the festival is largely ignored as the Native Australians, quite rightly, attempt to reclaim their own culture after two centuries of repression at the hands of the immigrant majority.
Christmas in non-Christian countries
Although Christmas is celebrated in non-Christian countries, the traditions have very little to do with the festival itself. For example, Christmas in Japan is a time for children alone; adults will wait until the far more significant New Year festival to exchange gifts and good wishes. A priest called Hoteiosha serves a similar role to Santa Claus, leaving presents for children at each house. The only food common to Christmas Day is Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is enjoyed by many Japanese families for whom turkey is virtually unknown.
In China, families decorate evergreen trees with paper chains, paper flowers and paper lanterns. As China is still a communist country, there is no mention of Christ in any of the celebrations, so the trees are called Trees of Light. On Christmas Day itself children await the visit of Dun Che Lao Ren7. As in Japan, the more significant festival celebrates the New Year8.
In Bangladesh, the minority Christian community cut down banana trees and replant them on the paths to churches. The trees then have holes cut in them and these holes are filled with oil. On Christmas Eve night the oil is set on fire, lighting the way to the church. However, in common with Japan, Christmas Day is just a normal working day in this majority Islamic country.
In Pakistan, the winter solstice is called Chaomos. This festival involves the offering of prayers to Dezao, the supreme being. Women and girls are purified by taking ritual baths. Men and boys are also purified with water and, on the evening of the Winter Solstice, with goats blood. A great festival then begins with feasting, singing and dancing. The celebration of Christmas is limited to the small Christian community, but the secular idea of present buying for children is popular amongst some non-Christians.
In Tibet, there is a five day festival called Dosmoche which celebrates the dying year. A magical pole is set up in each village, made up of crosses, pentagrams and stars. Dancers in frightening masks ward off evil spirits for the year ahead. Prayers and feasts fill the five days of the festival, culminating in the villagers tearing down the pole.
Christmas across cultures
Although there are occasional controversies concerning the place of Christmas in a multicultural society, the attitude of non-Christians appears to be very relaxed in the main. The air of jollity, forced and genuine, is welcomed by most people even if the commercialisation of the festival is not. It is, however, not a homogenous celebration with as many different ways as one could imagine of marking this time of the year. Maybe it is that which keeps Christmas vibrant and relevant in an increasingly secular age.