Christmas Traditions

by Michael G. Gaunt,
Hewitt High School Coordinator

The thing about traditions is they feel like they’ve been around forever. When we reenact traditions we often feel we are doing the same things our grandparents and their grandparents before them did. It’s great to feel that connection to the past. The holiday which is associated with perhaps the most traditions is Christmas. Not everyone’s Christmas is exactly the same, but there are many elements which will be commonly shared in most households in this country—the decorated Christmas tree; the fat, white-bearded Santa in his fur-trimmed, red suit; the family gathering; the presents; and even many dishes served for the Christmas dinner. However, many of these traditions don’t date from time immemorial. And many of the common elements of a modern American Christmas were not originally found together in a single tradition. As Christmas approaches, let’s take this opportunity to learn where these traditions were developed and how they were brought together.

Christmas trees are perhaps one of the most common elements of the way we celebrate Christmas in this country. The act of decorating an actual tree inside one’s home comes from Late Medieval and Renaissance Germany, but it is related to a long and varied, if somewhat legendary, history. The use of evergreens as decorative elements during the winter months is known from ancient Egypt and China. They were used by the Hebrews and the Roman Empire as well. The symbolism of life staying strong through the months of cold darkness was as powerful then as it is now. There are also stories from Early Christianity of this symbolism being used as an aid to teaching the Gospel and converting European pagans. St. Boniface (c. 675 to 754 A.D.) was born in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex in England and traveled to many places in Europe as a missionary. Seeking to convert one German tribe, he is said to have cut down the oak tree the tribe worshipped and to have replaced it with an evergreen. He drew the connection between this tree and the everlasting life promised by Christianity, and even suggested the triangular shape of the tree reminds us of the Trinity. Centuries later it would be the Germans who would reintroduce the use of evergreen trees into Great Britain as a Christmas symbol.

The earliest documented uses of decorated trees for Christmas are in the 15th century in Germany. At that time they were decorated with food like fruits and nuts; only later were they bedecked with candles. Martin Luther was said to have been one of the first to light a Christmas tree in this way. Christmas trees began to make their appearance among the British aristocracy when George III (of American Revolution fame) married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz from Germany. Queen Victoria, granddaughter of George and Charlotte, loved these trees and had one in her room every Christmas. It was pictures of her enjoying the season with her husband, Prince Albert (another German), and their children in the 1840s which popularized the use of Christmas trees in Great Britain and the United States. For the most part, fruit has been replaced by glass decorations and candles by electric lights on modern American Christmas trees, but the symbolism at the heart of this tradition is still clear and uplifting.

Santa Claus is another one of those elements of the Christmas season which is hard to avoid; he’s ubiquitous. And the image of Santa is so uniform that you might almost think that he is a real person. However, like the modern Christmas tree, Santa has gone through many stages of development. In fact, he isn’t even the only person to have delivered presents over the centuries. For example, the traditional bringer of presents in many areas of Europe as well as the parts of Central and South America influenced by Spain and Portugal, is Christkind, depicted either as the Christ child or as an angel who brought presents to Jesus at his birth. In fact, Martin Luther promoted belief in the Christkind in an effort to supplant St. Nicholas, a Catholic saint. The name Santa Claus comes from this saint, “Claus” being a shortened form of Nicholas. The American figure of Kris Kringle, associated with Santa Claus, is an Americanization of the pronunciation of Christkindle. There are many other supernatural gift-givers in various parts of Europe. In Finland they have the Joulupukki, or Christmas goat. In other parts of Scandinavia they believe in the tomte or nisse (sometimes combined into the tomtenisse), gnomes only three feet tall who bring gifts to children. St. Basil brings presents in Greece and Cyprus, while in Russia, children are visited by Ded Moroz, or Grandfather Frost.

So how did we end up with Santa Claus? One of the most popular Christmas gift givers throughout Europe is Father Christmas. This is true of Great Britain as well, the country which has influenced our American traditions perhaps the most profoundly. Father Christmas, however, is not Santa Claus. Instead of the fur-trimmed red suit, he wears a long green robe. In addition to bearing gifts, Father Christmas is usually pictured with a Christmas tree because he was believed to have delivered it on Christmas Eve as well. Two of the most important influences on our image of Santa Claus are Clement Clarke Moore, who published “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (now often called “The Night Before Christmas”) on December 23, 1823 in the Troy, New York, Sentinel, and Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist who drew many pictures of Santa Claus, the first published in Harper’s Weekly on January 3, 1863 depicting Santa distributing presents to children and Civil War soldiers. Many of the elements of the modern conception of Santa Claus—the reindeer-drawn sleigh, the entry through the chimney, the costume and physical appearance of the jolly fat man with the white beard, twinkling eyes, and infectious “Ho, ho, ho!”—are found in the works of these men.

But overpriced Christmas trees and the grinning, red-cheeked face of Santa Claus that urges us to buy, buy, buy in every store from Halloween to the end of the year are not what this holiday is about. As far as traditions concerning the way we celebrate the day, Christmas is perhaps second only to Thanksgiving in its focus on spending time with the family. But it wasn’t always the case that celebrations of Christmas have been welcomed. There was a tendency for Protestants in the past to avoid celebrations which were seen as too Catholic. For example, Christmas Day in early 17th century England (and many places around Europe) was the first day of an extended period of celebrations. The “Twelve Days of Christmas” started with Christmas and didn’t end until January 6 (Epiphany). It was seen as a time for feasting and relaxing. The Parliamentary Party, which took power from the Stuart kings of Great Britain and increased the authority of the Parliament, started legislating against Christmas celebrations in the early 1640s. It was required by law that Christmas, and other important days in the Church, like Easter, be celebrated with sober church services and fasting rather than the traditional feasting. Businesses were required to stay open on Christmas Day in another effort to curb celebration. These rules were overturned when the monarchy was restored in 1660.

The English Civil War may seem rather remote in time and space from modern American Christmases, but the feelings of the Protestants of the Parliamentary Party were mirrored by many of the groups which traveled to North America in the 16th and 17th centuries and were influential during our Colonial Period. And those feelings carried on well beyond the time when the United States was founded. Alabama was the first state to make Christmas an official holiday, and that wasn’t until 1836. It didn’t become a national holiday until 1870. Our tradition of being able to gather together for the holiday isn’t really that old, at least not in its most recent iteration.

But I have only mentioned some of the most common elements of the Christmas season. Every family has their own traditions: Are all of the presents wrapped, or are some unwrapped? Are presents opened on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve? What foods make up breakfast on Christmas? Are there any special things said on that day? What are your family traditions? Do you know how they came about or how long they have been part of your family’s celebration? Look them up. Ask your parents and grandparents. How traditional are your traditions?


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