Origins of Christmas and some traditions

Time for Tea
by Celia Klassen

With Christmas anticipated by adults
and children alike, I thought to write
about the origins of the holiday and some
of its traditions.
Christmas, as a celebration, stems
from both the pagan and Roman cultures.
The Romans actually celebrated two
holidays in the month of December. The
first was Saturnalia, which was a twoweek festival honoring Saturn, their god
of agriculture. On December 25, they
celebrated the birth of Mithra, their sun
god. These celebrations involved a lot of
drunkenness and were rowdy.
In Pagan
cultures, bonfires
and candles were
lit to keep the
darkness of the
shortest day at
bay. The Romans
then incorporated
that into their celebrations as well.
Well, you
say, there isn’t
much about the
birth of Jesus in
that! I thought
Christmas was a
Christian holiday? As Christianity spread
across Europe, the Christian clergy were
not able to curb the pagan customs and
therefore adapted the pagan ritual into a
celebration of the birth of Jesus. Nobody
knows the exact date of the birth of Jesus,
but it was decided sometime in the 1500’s
that it would be celebrated on December
Both the Pagans and the Romans
decorated their homes and temples with
evergreen boughs in honor of their gods.
The first trees brought into the pagan
homes were hung upside down from
the ceiling. The familiar Christmas tree
traditions we see now hail from Germany
where Germanic pagan tribes decorated
evergreen trees in worship of their god
Woden, decorating with candles and dried
fruit. When it was translated into a Christian holiday, they decorated their trees
with sweets, lights and toys.
What about Santa Claus? While most
Christmas traditions have Pagan roots,
Santa Claus, inspired by St. Nicholas, has
Christian roots. St. Nicholas was born
in southern Turkey around 280 and was
a bishop in the early Christian church.
He came from a wealthy family and was
renowned for his generosity towards the
less fortunate. In honor of his passing,
December 6 was declared St. Nicholas
day and as time went on, each European
culture adapted St. Nicholas into versions
of their own.
In Switzerland and Germany Christkind (also known as Kris Kringle) accompanied St. Nicholas to deliver presents to
well-behaved children. Jultomten delivered gifts via a sleigh pulled by goats
in Sweden. England and France had a
similar idea with ‘Father Christmas’ (or
Pere Noel in French). In the Netherlands,
Belgium, Luxembourg, France and parts
of Germany, ‘Father Christmas’ was
known as Sinter Klaas (Klaas being a
shortened version of the name Nicholas).
So that’s mostly Europe, what about
in America?
Many with Puritan beliefs
banned Christmas because of
its pagan origins
and the rowdy,
drunken nature of
the celebrations.
Other immigrants
from Europe
continued their
traditions the way
they had done
them in their
The Dutch
brought Sinter
Klaas with them
to New York in the 1600’s. The Germans
brought their tree traditions in the 1700’s.
But still people just celebrated Christmas
the way they always had, or not at all.
In the early 1800’s American Christmas began to take shape. Washington Irving wrote a series of stories of a wealthy
English landowner who invites his
workers to have dinner with him. He told
a tale that reminisced about old Christmas
traditions that had been lost, but restored
by this wealthy landowner. The idea,
originating in this story, began to take
hold of American hearts. In 1822 Clement Clark Moore wrote a story about St.
Nicholas for his daughters which is now
famously known as The Night Before
Christmas. Santa Claus was a jolly man
in this story, flying through the sky on a
sleigh. Followed, in 1881, by artist Thomas Nast’s depiction for a Coke-a-Cola
advertisement where a rotund Santa in a
red suit with a wife named Mrs. Claus,
surrounded by worker elves, became the
symbol for the generous Saint.
Christmas did not become a national
holiday until after the civil war. President
Ulysses Grant declared it a federal holiday in 1870 as a way to look past differences and become united as a country. It
has become a time of year where we wish
others well, donate to charities, and give
presents with a joyful spirit.

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