Christmas Traditions of the Past and Present: Teaching the History of Christmas

Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction
One of the hallmarks of a democratic society is the idea of cultural diversity. This involves diverse customs and ways of life including language, foods, dress, the arts and religious traditions. Cultural pluralism is one of the important parts of a successful democracy.

The Christmas season in the United States has been influenced by and is a result of a culmination of various traditions that have come to shape how we know it today. The overarching theme of Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ and is one of the Christian high holidays. But even among Christians there are various traditions implemented to commemorate the birth of Christ. But the celebration of Christmas has a mixture of pre-Christian, Christian and secular traditions.

Popular modern customs of the Christmas holiday include gift giving, completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath, Christmas music and caroling, lighting a Christingle, viewing a Nativity play, an exchange of Christmas cards, church services, a special meal, pulling Christmas crackers and the display of various Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, Christmas lights, nativity scenes, garlands, wreaths, mistletoes, and holly. This article will highlight some of the major Christmas traditions and their history.   

Advent Season
Advent season is observed in many Christian denominations, throughout the world. It is both a time of expectant waiting for the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas and the anticipation of of Christ’s return to the earth, also known as the second coming.

The origins of the Advent tradition during the Christmas season is not fully known. Historians do know that it existed in 480 AD, as there are historical records that highlight the tradition.  It was also mandated by the council of Tours of 567 to have monks fast every day in the month of December until Christmas. This was known as the Nativity Fast or the Fast of December.

Advent is the beginning of the Western liturgical year. In several Christian denominations (I.e. the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the Anglican and the Presbyterian Churches, Advent commences on the fourth Sunday before Christmas—the Sunday nearest to St. Andrew’s Day (30 November).

Practices associated with Advent include keeping an Advent calendar, lighting an Advent wreath, praying an Advent daily devotional, four consecutive Advent Church services, erecting a Christmas tree or a Chrismon tree, lighting a Christingle, as well as other ways of preparing for Christmas, such as setting up Christmas decorations, a custom that is sometimes done liturgically through a hanging of the greens ceremony.

The Twelve Days of Christmas
The Twelve Days of Christmas, also known as Twelvetide, is a festive Christian season celebrating the Nativity of Jesus. In most Western ecclesiastical traditions, “Christmas Day” is considered the “First Day of Christmas” and the Twelve Days are 25 December – 5 January, inclusive. For many Christian denominations; for example, the Anglican Communion and Lutheran Church, the Twelve Days are identical to Christmastide, but for others, e.g., the Roman Catholic Church, “Christmastide” lasts longer than the Twelve Days of Christmas. The popular song known as the “Twelve Days of Christmas” is derived from this tradition, where gifts are given on each day of Christmas.

Yuletide
Yule or Yuletide (“Yule time”) is a festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples. Scholars have connected the celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht. It later underwent Christianized reformulation resulting in the term Christmastide. Terms with an etymological equivalent to Yule are used in the Nordic countries for Christmas with its religious rites, but also for the holidays of this season. Today Yule is also used to a lesser extent in the English-speaking world as a synonym for Christmas. Present-day Christmas customs and traditions such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from pagan Yule. Today the event is celebrated in Heathenry and some other forms of Modern Paganism.

Santa Claus
In addition, several closely related and often interchangeable figures, known as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, and Christkind, are associated with bringing gifts to children during the Christmas season and have their own body of traditions and lore.

Father Christmas dates back as far as 16th century in England during the reign of Henry VIII, when he was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He typified the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. As England no longer kept the feast day of Saint Nicholas on 6 December, the Father Christmas celebration was moved to the 25th of December to coincide with Christmas Day. The Victorian revival of Christmas included Father Christmas as the emblem of ‘good cheer’. His physical appearance was variable, with one famous image being John Leech’s illustration of the “Ghost of Christmas Present” in Charles Dickens’s festive classic A Christmas Carol (1843), as a great genial man in a green coat lined with fur who takes Scrooge through the bustling streets of London on the current Christmas morning, sprinkling the essence of Christmas onto the happy populace.

In the Netherlands and Belgium the character of Santa Claus has to compete with that of Sinterklaas, Santa’s presumed progenitor. Santa Claus is known as de Kerstman in Dutch (“the Christmas man”) and Père Noël (“Father Christmas”) in French. But for children in the Netherlands Sinterklaas remains the predominant gift-giver in December; 36% of the Dutch only give presents on Sinterklaas evening or the day itself (December 6, whereas Christmas (December 25) is used by another 21% to give presents. Some 26% of the Dutch population gives presents on both days. In Belgium, Sinterklaas day presents are offered exclusively to children, whereas on Christmas Day, all ages may receive presents. Sinterklaas’ assistants are called “Zwarte Pieten” (in Dutch, “Pères Fouettard” in French), so they are not elves. In Switzerland, Pères Fouettard accompanies Père Noël in the French speaking region, while the sinister Schmutzli accompanies Samichlaus in the Swiss German region. Schmutzli carries a twig broom to spank the naughty children.

With the Christianization of Germanic Europe, numerous traditions were absorbed from Yuletide celebrations into modern Christmas. During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky. The leader of the wild hunt is frequently attested as the god Wodan (Norse Odin), bearing (among many names) the names Jólnir, meaning “Yule figure”, and Langbarðr, meaning “long-beard”, in Old Norse. Wodan’s role during the Yuletide period has been theorized as having influenced concepts of St. Nicholas in a variety of facets, including his long white beard and his gray horse for nightly rides (compare Odin’s horse Sleipnir) or his reindeer in North American tradition. The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded gift bringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christ child and became a leading player on the Christmas stage.

Krampus is a horned, anthropomorphic figure described as “half-goat, half-demon”, who, during the Christmas season, punishes children who have misbehaved, in contrast with Saint Nicholas, who rewards the well-behaved with gifts. Krampus is one of the companions of Saint Nicholas in several regions including Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Northern Italy including South Tyrol and the Province of Trento, Slovakia, and Slovenia.[ The origin of the figure is unclear; some folklorists and anthropologists have postulated it as having pre-Christian origins. In traditional parades and in such events as the Krampuslauf, young men dressed as Krampus to celebrate the holiday. Krampus is featured on holiday greeting cards called Krampuskarten.

Krampusnacht The Feast of St. Nicholas is celebrated in parts of Europe on 6 December. On the preceding evening of 5 December, Krampus Night or Krampusnacht, the wicked hairy devil appears on the streets. Sometimes accompanying St. Nicholas and sometimes on his own, Krampus visits homes and businesses. The Saint usually appears in the Eastern Rite vestments of a bishop, and he carries a golden ceremonial staff. Unlike North American versions of Santa Claus, in these celebrations Saint Nicholas concerns himself only with the good children, while Krampus is responsible for the bad. Nicholas dispenses gifts, while Krampus supplies coal and the Ruten bundles.

Saturnalia
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival in honour of the god Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves. A common custom was the election of a “King of the Saturnalia”, who would give orders to people and preside over the merrymaking. The gifts exchanged were usually gag gifts or small figurines made of wax or pottery known as sigillaria. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days”. Saturnalia was the Roman equivalent to the earlier Greek holiday of Kronia, which was celebrated during the Attic month of Hekatombaion in late midsummer. It held theological importance for some Romans, who saw it as a restoration of the ancient Golden Age, when the world was ruled by Saturn. The Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry interpreted the freedom associated with Saturnalia as symbolizing the “freeing of souls into immortality”. Saturnalia may have influenced some of the customs associated with later celebrations in western Europe occurring in midwinter, particularly traditions associated with Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and Epiphany. In particular, the historical western European Christmas custom of electing a “Lord of Misrule” may have its roots in Saturnalia celebrations.

Conclusion
As can be observed from the information above, Christmas in the twenty-first century is a mixture of various cultures that has helped shaped how we think of the holiday season today. Another hallmark of a democratic society is cultural plurality and the cultural exchange and interplay. Below are resources and lesson plans social studies teachers can utilize to teach about the history of Christmas and the various religious traditions and folklore that have influenced the season.

Resources and Lesson Plans
Lesson Plan: Surprising Origins of Modern-Day Christmas Traditions
https://www.educationworld.com/a_lesson/origins-of-christmas-traditions.shtml

Lesson Plan: Celebrate Winter Holidays Teaching Guide
https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/lesson-plans/teaching-content/celebrate-winter-holidays-teaching-guide/

December Holidays Lessons & Resources, Grades 6-12
http://www.nea.org/tools/lessons/december-holidays-6-12.html

Unwrapping the history of Christmas
https://www.tes.com/teaching-resources/blog/unwrapping-history-christmas

 

34 Comments

  1. The twelve days of Christmas was the most interesting to me because I did not know in Western traditions the twelve days were December 25- January 5th. And the popular song “The twelve days of Christmas” is based on the Roman Catholic Church tradition where you get presents on each day. It was very interesting to know that.

  2. The Krampus is interesting to me because in the Percy Jackson’s Greek God movie’s there is a character that is half goat and half human and he is called a Krampus. However, he is not a “demon” per say, but he does have magical powers. I am not sure why I connected those two things but that is what stuck out to me most in the article. I had no idea that a Krampus was actually something that punishes children during the Christmas season.

  3. I thought the section about Krampus was interesting. I have heard about Krampus before and new that he punished the children who misbehaved but I did not know much more than that. I thought it was interesting how it has pre-Christian origins, and that it is used in a variety of countries to strike fear in kids, rather than Santa bringing you coal. I also that it was funny how Krampus is used to “celebrate” in festivals. It seems to me that Krampus would be a symbol of the holiday, but not necessarily celebrated because his actions are quite mischievous.

  4. I thought that the twelve days of Christmas was very interesting. During Christmas time it is one of my favorite songs. I did not really know the full meaning behind it as in the Western times. I did not know that they celebrated the twelve days of Christmas from December 25th-January 5th. The Roman Church celebrates it longer than 12 days. Very interesting to me.

  5. The Krampus story was the one that stuck out to me. I have never heard of Krampus before. I thought it was interesting when it said that a horned, half man/demon went around punishing children who misbehaved. I had only heard about St. Nicolas bring coal to children that misbehaved. I also found it interesting that other countries use Krumpus to scare kids into behaving.

  6. I was most intrigued by the section on Krampusnacht because it was relating to St. Nicholas. I grew up Catholic, so every year on December 6th, I came home to a little present left by St. Nick. I had no idea that it was also celebrated in parts of Europe. It was interesting to see that there is both a St Nick and a Krampusnacht history that happens on December 6th.

  7. I overall thought that the one that was most interesting to me was the idea of Krampus. I have never heard of this idea. I had only heard about Santa or St. Nick coming if you have been good. I had never known the idea of the “horned demon” that could come as well if you were bad.

  8. I am some what of a movie/television fanatic. The facts and informative background regarding the “Yuletide” has only recently sparked my interest in gaining knowledge about this subject. While reading your article, it brought up the recent and controversial new Netflix series, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,” to a whole new light for me. It gave me a better understanding as to why they were celebrating the lighting of the “yule log” and how that ties into their rituals. My family and I, however, have practiced the age old tradition of being thankful for something five days prior to Christmas and would celebrate the birth of Christ on Christmas.

  9. This article does a good job outlining different celebrations of the month of December. Particularly what stands out to me is the idea that this season seems to be appropriated to Christ’s birth, although historically we know that Christians attempted to eradicate old traditions and belief systems by placing their holy days close to longer established traditions, in this case winter solstice. The feast of Saturnalia is very interesting!

  10. This article was very interesting to me. Christmas is my favorite holiday and I think of the customs and traditions that my family do during this holiday season and how it is similar and different compared to close friends and even not so close acquaintances. It’s easy to blur the lines of “Christmas tradition” because we think of Christianity as one religion as a whole, but it’s not. Christianity is broken down into multiple divisions, all of which bring new traditions that are practiced in celebrating the birth of Christ. Since America is a “melting pot” its not hard to believe that as people married and settled, their traditions merged and their faiths were converted or blended in the same main idea of celebration.

  11. As someone who grew up in a Catholic household, and went through 12 years of a private school education based around the Catholic religion that spoke of the meaning of Christmas quite frequently, I found this article to be very insightful! Many of these topics are familiar to me, but the extra details and explanations help me gain a more in-depth understanding since I have been out of religion classes for some time now. This article allowed me to not only refresh on concepts I know of, but learn new things such as the idea of Krampus and how he is in contrast to St. Nick. I also enjoyed how you chose to include Krampus at all, since it’s not something you really consider thinking about surrounding Christmas. I always assumed it was just made up as a movie came out on the subject a few years back.

  12. Christmas is my favorite holiday so it was very interesting to see where all of our traditions come from. What I found most interesting was the description of Krampus. I remember a few years ago a movie came out about Krampus and it was supposedly a horror film based on Christmas. I never got around to watching it, but it was interesting to read about what Krampus really is. It was weird to see such a dark side to a holiday that many people enjoy and see as the happiest time of year!

  13. I find the Twelve Days of Christmas interesting because I always suspected that “day 12” was Christmas Day. Now knowing that “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is actually December 25th through January 5th makes me rethink my whole childhood. Growing up I had little gift boxes that I would open on each day of Christmas, with the “12th” box being open on Christmas Day. 

  14. I absolutely love Christmas and it is fascinating to learn about the history. I always thought it interesting that people of many religious beliefs and cultures celebrate Christmas. For example, I’m an atheist and I celebrate Christmas with my family, even though it is typically viewed as a Christian holiday. I had no idea that the twelve days of Christmas were supposed to take place after Christmas. The only twelve days I have seen are the ABC Freeform days leading up to Christmas!

  15. I found this article to be incredibly interesting. Christmas is my favorite holiday, so anytime that I can read more about its origins and where different traditions came from are very intriguing to me. I thought that the section on Saturnalia was riveting, because that is something I have never heard of before. I think that it is interesting knowing that not every tradition that relates back to Christmas has religious origins.

  16. I really enjoyed reading this article! Despite having been raised in a Christian household and hearing the words “Jesus is the reason for the season” for as long as I can remember, it’s always bothered me that the majority of Christians genuinely believe that what we know as Christmas was created solely to celebrate Christ’s birth when that’s not true at all. I’ve since realized that trying to explain this to even family members as a topic of conversation gets me nowhere, even though the history of the holiday is actually really interesting and more complex than most Christians realize. I have no problem with celebrating Christmas as a Christian holiday, but I believe that there needs to be more awareness (particularly in the Christian faith) of the true origins of the holiday to understand how it became what we know today. I also find it very interesting that we have so many “anti-Santa” characters that don’t just give children coal or whip them, but in some cases (like Iceland’s Gryla and even Krampus in some stories) actually EAT the naughty children. Personally, it makes me wonder what sort of life these people had that the best way to get their children to behave was to threaten that a magical creature would steal them away in the middle of the night and eat them alive.

  17. Christmas is my favorite holiday, so it was really interesting to me to read about the way different countries celebrate the same holiday. One thing that stood out to me was the twelve days of Christmas. All these years I have sang the song, but never realized it was December 25-January 5 in most western traditions; it’s crazy that it is after Christmas rather than before. Another thing that stood out to me was the way that a lot of cultures celebrate Christmas with “Santa” bearing gifts; although each culture has a different name for “Santa.” I think this would be a good way to incorporate diversity in an elementary classroom, because it relates to a topic that most children love unconditionally.

  18. Christmas has always been my favorite holiday. I enjoy the month leading up until the day. The decorations, the tv shows and movies, and the fact that everyone seems to be on a little bit of a break. Reading about the different traditions and history of Christmas was fascinating to me. I never knew about the history of Saint Nickolas, or Yuletide. I was also unaware of Krampus. I had heard of the movie but never knew the story behind it. This article was an interesting look at the month of December.

  19. It was really enjoyable to read about the different interpretations of Santa Claus in different cultures. The values and religion was shown through the different purposes that the “Santa Claus’s” served.

  20. Christmas is definitely a favorite holiday of mine. I love the whole winter experience between Thanksgiving and Christmas, because that is the time I spend doing a lot of holiday traditions with my family. I love the traditions of Santa Claus and reading “Twas a Night” to my daughter. Reading this article there were a couple things I was unaware of, including Krampus. I love holiday movies, board games with my family.

  21. The one that I was most intrigued by the section on Krampusnacht because it was relating to St. Nicholas. I grew up Catholic, so every year on December 6th, I came home to a little present left by St. Nick. I had no idea that it was also celebrated in parts of Europe. It was interesting to see that there is both a St Nick and a Krampusnacht history that happens on December 6th. Christmas is huge in my family and it was neat to hear about the past and how everything came about.

  22. Growing up, it was always, Santa comes whether you were bad or good. There wasn’t a piece of coal waiting for you, so the threats of getting coal were misleading. Krampus always seemed to be a myth, until I read this article. This article says that according to these origins, Krampus would punish children who misbehaved all year, while Saint Nick rewards well behaved children. Which makes this holiday seem like it’s about how you acted through the year. But isn’t it supposed to be about the birth of Jesus? That’s what myself and many other students have learned in school. The idea of where Christmas has originated from haws altered for each culture and generation.

  23. The section about Santa Clause and all of his other names really intrigued me. I honestly have never in my life heard him be called Father Christmas or Christkind. And another super weird interesting thing I learned about your article in this specific section was that in the Netherlands and Belgium the Santa Clause character/figure has to compete with someone else. To me that is just an odd thing!

  24. My family celebrates Advent and it is my favorite time of the year. I enjoy having the advent wreath on the kitchen table during the time of getting prepared and looking forward to Christmas spent with family and friends.

  25. This article is different but very interesting. The constant changing traditions throughout the years is crazy. I did not know there were so many different traditions that were held and still throughout the world. Love the 12 days of Christmas because the my family is based on roman catholic and I did not know of this.

  26. Understanding this article was kind of hard for me. I see where the different cultures each played a role in making our Christmas Traditions what they are today but some of them are completely excluded from how we celebrate Christmas. Krampus is not part of the traditions here in America so learning that he punished the bad children was really neat but makes one wonder why is that not part of our traditions today? Could you imagine if he was part of an American tradition? To see the difference in our kids today would shock some people. However, even the outfits down to the reindeer and horse of Odin were all different. It’s hard to imagine anything different from what we celebrate and see as the true Christmas today.

  27. Highlighting the cultural differences that go along with the holiday of Christmas made this a very interesting article to read. I didn’t know much about where some of the Christmas traditions came from and getting more background knowledge about them as really helpful.

  28. Christmas Traditions of the Past and Present: Teaching the History of Christmas-I thought that the twelve days of Christmas was very interesting. During Christmas time it is one of my favorite songs. I did not really know the full meaning behind it as in the Western times. I did not know that they celebrated the twelve days of Christmas from December 25th-January 5th. The Roman Church celebrates it longer than 12 days. Very interesting to me.

  29. The tone of this article started off with how a democracy should support cultural diversity and pluralism, and I think that this article is suggesting that what we know as Christmas-time celebrations and customs today is an example of that cultural diversity/pluralism. In a way, I agree. I think it is very interesting the historical stories attached to modern day holiday traditions such as the twelve days of Christmas and St. Nick. In another way I disagree. I think in order to attain this democratic cultural diversity that is spoken of in the introduction, many things may need to change. Firstly, over the last several decades there has been a significant change in religious dedication. Peoples opinions and ideas about religion are changing. I think there is an overwhelming emphasis on Catholic/Christian Christmas celebration and while I’m not against it I am all for making other traditions more common knowledge and inclusion for other belief systems and making a better attempt at making everyone’s beliefs equally important (Or at least not having one way of celebrating as the dominate cultural celebration). Christmas season dominates the economy and social activities for the greater part of a month or more every year and education is abundant. I just think there should be more education of different beliefs and religion systems and not treat a Catholic/Christian Christmas as the be all end all!

  30. My family is not very religious in general, and that does not change for when it comes to Christmas time. We do celebrate by hanging up all of our decorations, having a special meal, and gift giving with all of our friends and family. Yet, we do not go to church and or doo anything religious when it comes to Christmas. I do know whom and when St. Nick comes yet, I do not really know the story of why he does make an appearance on December 6th. This being, I learned a lot and found it interesting to learn about Krampusnacht. So, what I learned from this section of the article was that their is a good and a bad man on this day in December. Krampus is the bad man, and gives the bad kids what they deserve I guess instead of the good gifts. While, St. Nick is the good man, and he gives out the good gifts to all the little boys and girl whom have behave well over the year.

  31. This article was very informative and interesting due to the fact that so many cultures do celebrate Christmas, but they have their own traditions and meanings behind celebrating this day. I didn’t know that there were different dates that people celebrated Christmas on; I thought everyone celebrated on December 25th. As a child growing up, I did believe in Santa Claus but I stopped believing in him at a very young age. I believe I may have been 8 or 9 years old according to my mother. As a Christian, I do celebrate Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ and it isn’t always about giving or getting gifts. As I have grown and matured, Christmas is more of a time to spend time with my family and the ones I love and giving thanks to God for sending us His Son to save us. I am a ministers’ daughter and a bishops’ sister, but I wasn’t always this way, but my brothers and I were raised in the church and still till this day are very much involved and active in the church even though we all go to different churches. I found Krampus to be the most interesting section to read about. As I was reading, I remember a movie called “Krumpus”, which the genre was scary and during the first part of the movie I saw the Advent Christmas calendar and If I am not mistaken, each day before Christmas somethig would happen inside the familys’ home that was sinister.

  32. My family celebrates Christmas with advent. The four Sunday’s before Christmas we get together and we celebrate each week by praying and reading scripture. It’s one of my favorite times of the year. Some of the other Christmas things are very weird. Especially the different Pegan ideas. This article was very informative though!

  33. This articel will be useful for me as a teacher around the holidays. I can see myself refering to this article right before we all leave for christmas break and reviewing the different types of holidays that have been observed in the past and even now. It is important for students to learnt he history of where figures like Santa claus came from. I can also see using this if i ever worked at a Christian or catholic school, to tie into the religious aspect of the holidays as well.

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