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. This article was one of the most informational pieces I have ever read regarding the Holiday of Christmas. Before reading this, my knowledge regarding Christmas and its history was very basic / what most children in this country grow up understanding, Santa Claus, presents, time to be around family, snow, and Christmas trees & lights. Growing up, and still today, Christmas is probably one of the (if not the) most important / looked forward to holidays of the year. Putting up the Christmas tree with my family while Christmas music is playing in the background is one of my favorite memories thinking back to all the years we have done that. Along with waking up extremely early to see presents under the tree when I still believed in Santa Claus. Also making this time of the year even more special to me is that it is my (along with many others in my family) birthday month! And spending time with family is probably the most important things to me in life. But as far as this article goes, I was most surprised by how many things I did not know! The craziest thing to me out of all of the items discussed and addressed throughout this article was the ’12 Days of Christmas’ section. I always figured it was just the 12 days leading up to Christmas day (December 25th), but was very surprised to see that the 12 days were actually from December 25th to January 5th. Another item focused on during this article that was very interesting to me was the section that discussed ‘Krampus’. As I have seen the movie titled “Krampus” (2015 film) and just figured it was a made up name or concept for a movie that was a horror film based around the Christmas holiday. So it was very informational to hear that this horned figure (half-goat, half-demon) was actually based upon historically accurate information. Also reading about how our Christmas holiday is celebrated is influenced how other societies celebrate their versions of other holidays was very interesting to me. Once again, this article was very informative and is an article I would recommend to anyone who feels that they could learn more about the history of Christmas. I also feel it was important to add at the end of this that it really is crazy how society can form how the majority of the population treats / celebrates different holidays, and that so many people (such as myself) had no idea about a lot of the details and historical facts about so many holidays, with Christmas being one of them. Reading this article has also encouraged me to read more about other holidays my family and I celebrate year in and year out, to try and be as informed as possible!

  2. The 12 days of Christmas to me equate to 12th night, which means that you have to have all your decorations down before 12th night. Where as some say you can’t take your decorations down before 12th night, It is fascinating to me, that one holiday season can have so many different interpretations and traditions, and yet they can still all revolve around the birth of Jesus. And so many other faiths also have traditions around the same time. Hanukkah for the Jewish faith. The Hindu festival of light Dewali. In the 1960s kwanza began to be celebrated. The 21st Is December is the winter solstice. To name but a few. Just what makes December such a “busy” month for traditional festivals and holidays?

  3. I had no idea that many Christmas traditions were not rooted in religion. The two are so synonymous with one another today especially in today’s culture. Krampus has always been a favorite of mine due to him basically being the antithesis of what we know of St. Nick, and many people find the horrific aspects of that traditon interesting across all ages.

  4. This was a fun, informative article! I didn’t know about most of these traditions. The ones I did know about, I believed a misconception or didn’t know the history of the tradition. For instance, I thought the 12 days of Christmas was the 12 days leading up to Christmas. Not beginning with Christmas. I will definitely keep these in mind in the next few months as the Christmas season approaches.

  5. For me, Krampus was a myth that my siblings who were 10 and 8 years older than me liked to scare me with. As a child, the idea of having Santa Clause and Krampus were two very opposite things. If I was good Santa would bring me gifts and if I was bad Krampus would break into the house and watched us as we slept and gave us coal and decide if we were good or bad. As a child, they told me scary stories about bad children that Krampus visited. Now that I am older and I know that it was all just a myth and that there might be history behind it but I personally wouldn’t want to tell my children those stories. I also wouldn’t probably teach about the history of Christmas unless I was teaching it to high school or college students.

  6. Today many of us look at Christmas as a time to gather with family, go to church, and celebrate Santa Claus. However, after reading this article Christmas is about so much more and is more of a complex holiday than we may think. In tradition, the twelve days of Christmas are celebrated from December 25th- January 5th. Typically, in America it seems that the kids get their gifts on Christmas morning (December 25th) and that is it. Santa Claus seems to be the most loved man around the holiday season and children are all about getting on the “nice list” even though it is really their friends and family that are stuffing the tree full of gifts. Also, depending on the culture Santa is many other names such as St. Nick, Father Christ, and Christkind. Santa is known for not only “gift giver” but also bringing the Christmas Spirit of Joy and Cheer. This article does a great job showing just how many diverse cultures have influenced each other when it comes to Christmas. It made me reflect on my own family traditions and how I see a mixture of several cultures even in my own celebration of Christmas. The lesson plan “Surprising Origins of Modern Day Christmas Traditions” is a great lesson to do with a classroom because it is very engaging and fun. As I was reading through the lesson the most surprising thing I read was that the Christmas tree was inspired by a comic book super hero and the human sacrifice. I think this lesson would keep students focused and engaged because of the various unique facts.

  7. Although it is still September, I found this article put me in some Christmas spirits. The Holidays are important to different people for different reasons. My grandmother lived in Europe until her early thirties so I found Krampusnacht to be particularly interesting! As a family, we tend to mix some of these traditions. Our Holiday includes St. Nick filling our shoes with candy (or coal) on December 5th. We also celebrate Advent! Christmas in every house looks different. We put up a tree and hang a celebratory pickle on it. However, my grandmother does not own a tree. On my mother’s side, my family celebrates Hanukkah. It’s important that these holiday’s are being shared and passed through generations.

  8. I grew up in a somewhat religious household and I consider myself to be a religious person. The section about Krampusnacht was interesting to me because for about half of my life, I grew up going to a Catholic church and learned all about St. Nicholas. I have always known about the connection between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus, of course. However, I did not know that other cultures had traditions celebrating things so similar to us. Looking closely, much of what we celebrate or do, other cultures are truly just slightly different than us, which very similar concepts. While I, personally, celebrate Christmas in religious ways- to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ- I also celebrate Christmas in others ways, as well- giving gifts, spending time with family, watching Christmas movies, looking at Christmas lights, ect… Overall, I believe Christmas is a beautiful and wonderful time in so many different cultures.

  9. It is really funny how some people like to say that Christmas is about Jesus and not Santa Claus When Santa Claus himself is based on Father Christmas, or St. Nicholas.  These two traditions were put together, but while the cartoon version is what we recognize the most, Santa Claus was someone who was recognized as St. Nick. 

  10. Christmas is truly the most wonderful time of the year, and it brings me so much joy knowing that people all over the world celebrate it. I think it unites all of us because it’s a shared tradition people can have all over the world. Like most people said, I also didn’t know that the twelve days were from December 25th-January 5th. There’s so many traditions that I don’t know enough about, so I hope to learn more.

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