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

Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

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.

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 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.

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

Lesson Plan: Celebrate Winter Holidays Teaching Guide

December Holidays Lessons & Resources, Grades 6-12

Unwrapping the history of Christmas



  1. Christmas is more of a diverse holiday than I thought. The idea of Krampus and Krampusnacht was amazing to me. I am sure if my parents knew about him, they would have used him to scare me as a kid. These such traditions are unique in a way that they probably makes children behave better. While North American badly behaved children get coal, Krampus would probably be a better scare.

  2. There are many diverse customs for the Christmas holiday. It was interesting to learn from this article that many common American American Christmas customs are in fact not ‘Christian’ but derived from Ancient pagan traditions. I watched a video on Krampus after reading this article. Krampus is kind of scary and I’m surprised the European children withstand the parades.

  3. I have always found Christmas interesting, its full of odd traditions such as bringing trees into your home for a short period of time, hanging up mistletoe and eggnog. I’ve always wondered about the holiday but never actually researched where all this stuff came from but thanks to b-horror Christmas movies that I like to make fun of, I do know a bit about Krampus, how can you have a scary movie with out a horned demon goat-man that terrorizes bad children? I also remember listening to the song “Twelve Days of Christmas” and had inferred that it was a tradition and was always jealous that we didn’t have anything like that in our house as I feel Christmas comes and goes too fast. Apart from this I hadn’t really known much about the holiday and its interesting to see how other parts of the world celebrate it and how it has evolved. I was particularly interested in how in Saturnalia, which I haven’t heard of until just now, has influences on the Christmas holiday such as the custom of electing a peasant to be in charge of revelries.

  4. i had already known about the holiday Krampus that is celebrated but had not learned about it in school instead i learned it from a TV show that mention it during the Christmas holiday. I feel as if this is a fun thing to learn about and is important to know other cultures. however, this holiday can scare little kids since that is the idea to keep them behaved so i would not teach this to younger grades but would love to teach it to older students who will not get to consider about this.

  5. I’ve never heard of Saturlania before. I guess this is where gah gifts for white elephant and such come from, which is always a fun time. This just goes to show that there’s always something to learn, and it’s neat to learn and share information to others, especially about a holiday that is so big in so many peoples lives.

  6. Very interesting read! I honestly had no idea the 12 days of Christmas was an actual celebrated tradition. I have always heard the song growing up but honestly did not know about its connection to a celebration. Krampus was both interesting and terrifying to me. I have seen the recently released film about Krampus, but did not know it was something that was actually celebrated or believed in. I bet the children in those regions are very well behaved. I liked this article because it highlighted the different celebrations of Christians from many different regions. I enjoy learning about how other cultures live and celebrate.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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