Cultural Diversity in Christmas Traditions Revisited: Teaching the History of Christmas

Three Victorian Christmas cards by unknown illustrators. - https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/files/2018/12/Father-Christmas-colors.jpg

David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Introduction

Christmas traditions have very diverse origins from a collection of different cultures that have evolved over centuries. To pay homage to the upcoming holiday season we would like to repost our article from Christmas 2018.

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

10 Comments

  1. It is interesting how so many traditions exist around one holiday. As someone who grew up in a Christian family, I have heard of the “12 days of Christmas” many times and I have never known what that means. I also have never heard of the accompanying “Christmastide”. I am also curious as to why I have never celebrated (or known anyone to celebrate) the 12 days of Christmas. In my experience, once Christmas is over, people move on quickly. Another interesting point in this article is Krampus. I had never heard of Krampus prior to a horror movie that came out a few years ago. This makes sense, since this article states Krampus is featured in regions far from where I live and have grown up in.

  2. As a cradle Catholic who has grown up watching the Advent candles being lit on the wreath in church the four weeks leading up to Christmas, receiving a gift from St. Nicholas on December 6th, placing baby Jesus in the manger before opening presents on Christmas morning, and waiting until after the Epiphany to take down our holiday decorations, I thoroughly enjoyed this article and the supplementary lesson plans! I did not know that Yuletide is a festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples or that Sinterklaas is the predominant gift-giver in the Netherlands and Belgium. While I had previously heard of Krampus, this article taught me that in parts of Europe, Krampus is responsible for the bad children, supplying coal and the Ruten bundles. Overall, I believe that teaching students about different cultural traditions is truly valuable, no matter if it is at the elementary, middle, or high school level, and I look forward to doing so in my future classroom!

  3. Cultural Diversity in Christmas Traditions Revisited: Teaching the History of Christmas –This article was interesting in how it really dived into the different parts of the Christmas season and providing overviews of things that are not always talked about, even if they celebrate a traditional Christian Christmas. I never understood what Yuletide actually meant, I just remember hearing it in songs and maybe referenced in holiday movies. It is interesting that it was actually a festival and celebration. Something I also enjoyed reading was all the versions of Santa Clause and each origin of each “Santa.” It is neat how countries all over Europe have celebrated the tradition of Santa Clause. 

  4. This was an interesting article. I didn’t realize how many of the Christmas traditions and stories I know today are partially derived from non-Christian folklore. The idea of getting coal for Christmas, I believed, was just a story similar to Elf-on-the-Shelf to encourage good behavior, but as it turns out, it is actually rooted in a culmination of folklore and pagan beliefs that a counter-St. Nick brings coal to all the bad children while St. Nick delivers gifts to all of the good children.
    Something else that stuck me was this Krampus guy. If he’s described as a part demon-why would he be featured on greeting cards? That doesn’t seem like a very kind greeting.

  5. Wow, I had no idea that there were so many Christmas Traditions within different cultures. I found it interesting that there are many interchangeable names for “Santa Claus”. I had never heard of many of them, including Father Christmas and Christkind. As a catholic I have celebrated St. Nick, receiving a small gift on December 6th. I have many friends that have never heard of St. Nick and receiving a gift before Christmas. I think that it is important as a teacher to know and understand the different ways students celebrate Christmas and the different traditions they have, so that I can respect and honor them. Lastly, I found Krampus to be very interesting, I had no idea that something this horrific even existed. I have always heard of people saying to children, “You better start being good or you’ll get coal for Christmas”, but I was unaware that other cultures used this scary demon like creature to get their children in line. Overall, this article is full of information that is valuable for any reader that is curious about the many different Christmas traditions within cultures.

  6. This article is the type that made you want to keep reading!
    Christmas is a topic most people love to talk or hear about. It is probably many people’s favorite day of the year. Many times we are too busy wrapped up in the celebration of Christmas (getting presents, the food, spending time with family), that we do not stop and think about what others from another culture do on this day. We usually focus on us and are oblivious to things going on in the world around us. This article really opened up my mindset on different celebrations in other countries. It was very interesting learning about Krampusnacht because it is so different from our St. Nick Day. Krampus is a mean devil instead of a kind saint who leaves presents. This article gave me ideas on how I can teach diversity and holidays with my future students one day. They would especially be interested about all the different Santa Clauses.

  7. I enjoyed reading this article about the origin of many of our Christmas traditions. Having lived in the Netherlands as a child, we were excited to see Sinterklaas arriving by steamboat from Spain. He would wear his red cloak and tall bishop hat and carry a large gold staff. He also brought his white horse. On December 5 we would receive presents from Sinterklaas. After moving to U.S., I was surprised that there is a similar Santa Claus but he doesn’t come around till Christmas time. In the Netherlands we didn’t exchange gifts at Christmas time, because Christmas was solely about the birth of Christ. It’s been many years though, and I heard from my Dutch relatives that more people are starting to celebrate the gift exchange at Christmas time as in America.
    The article was interesting to me because it made me realize that we have taken so many different traditions and adopted them as our own, if only everyone would accept all the different races and cultures as easily!

  8. It is very interesting to read of the various cultural influences on Christmas. The way dates are adapted from different cultures to center around December 25th is very interesting. I am reminded of the recent Juneteenth celebrations. I read some foolish opinions online who argued that celebrating Juneteenth nationally was stupid because it was really just a Texas holiday and the true date for the end of slavery nationally was December 6th. Dates are not as important as the ideas they represent. Hopefully Juneteenth can become a true national holiday and historians of the future can write a similar article as this one about it’s origins.

  9. Cultural Diversity in Christmas Traditions Revisited: Teaching the History of Christmas
    I find it interesting how some Christmas traditions are downright scary (Krampus) and some are fun and lighthearted. I didn’t know about other forms of Christmas such as the origin of Yuletide and the 12 days of Christmas. Advent has always been a huge part of my life, since I grew up Catholic. It’s all very confusing with Father Christmas and Santa Claus, “…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…” It is so interesting how the traditions have blended over the centuries. The modern Christmas traditions come from many more places and religions than I ever knew of.
    I’ll keep these in mind as my family celebrates Christmas in July for the first time.

  10. For most students Christmas is the time for them to get their small expose to different cultures. The sad part is that most of the time they only talk about American Christmas and then talk about other holidays that happen around Christmas. What teachers seem to leave out around this time, is that Christmas around the world looks very different from country to country. Students should have expose to what Christmas looks like in Germany or Russia or the Dutch. There are many different names for “Santa” and most students only have the one expose to his name and don’t realize that he is called other things in different parts of the world. The cultural diversity of Christmas, in my opinion, can teach kids a lot about culture because it’s a holiday that a lot of kids and enjoy and seeing it in the perspective of other countries can benefit kids in so many different ways.

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