Christmas Traditions and their Origins

Father Christmas

Call him what you will, Father Christmas, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas – children all over the world will be waiting for his visit on December 25th. Trying to get off to sleep, yet listening for the sleigh bells as Rudolph and his friends pull Santa’s sleigh swiftly through the night sky. There are many stories about the origins of Santa Claus. One is that the real St. Nicholas was a Christian leader in a place called Myra – the country we now know as Turkey.

The story goes that St. Nicholas wanted to give money to the poor without them knowing who had done it, so he climbed on to the roof of a house and dropped a purse of money down the chimney. A little girl had earlier placed a stocking near the fire to dry and the purse full of money fell into it.

From then on children have hung stockings by the fire in the hope that St. Nicholas will fill them, and somehow he always seems to manage it!

Christmas Day

The celebrating of the birth of Jesus on 25th December is quite a strange custom as although the date of His birth is not known for sure, it is clear from the scriptures that it was not in December. Shepherds did not spend the chilly December nights on the hills in that part of the world, they took their sheep inside to shelter overnight and out again in the morning.

The 25th December was a date picked by the Catholic church to appease the pagans who they were trying to convert, but who were none to keen to give up their traditional holidays and festivals. Saturnalia was one of the popular Roman pagan festivals of celebration, drunkeness and making merry which ran from the 17th to the 24th of December. Gifts were exchanged on the 23rd and 24th. On the 25th December they would celebrate “The Birth of The Unconquerable Sun.”

It was decided that this would be a day for celebrating the birth of Jesus instead. Many of the pagan traditions such as decorating the house with trees and greenery were banned at this time, but they have crept back into our Christmas traditions.

Yuletide and Yule Logs

The tradition of burning a yule log on the fire for twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany comes from the custom of offering a sacrifice on each of the twelve days to the Scandinavian pagan fertility god Jul or Jule.

The Christmas Tree

Bringing an evergreen tree into the house is another pagan tradition relating to the worship of evergreen plants as symbols of fertility, life and reproduction. The pagans decorated their trees with fruit, and placed other foods underneath it as offerings to the tree.

Boxing Day

The day after Christmas Day is known as Boxing Day. This has it’s origins not as some people think in the giving of presents, Christmas Boxes on that day, but from a custom dating back to the Middle Ages, when churches would open their “alms” boxes and share out the donated money among the poor of the parish.

Christmas Cards

A combination of the Penny Post postal service in 1840 and the industrialization of the printing industry led to the popularity of sending Christmas cards. Later, when cards in unsealed envelopes could be posted for half a penny the craze really caught on. Incidentally these very decorative documents of social history can still be found here in the UK for between 50p and £1, and the messages make fascinating reading.

About the author: Colleen Moulding is a freelance writer from England where she has had many features on parenting, childcare, travel, the Internet and lots more published in national magazines and newspapers. She has also published a variety of women’s and children’s fiction. Her work frequently appears at many sites on the Internet and at her own site for women and children All That Women a magazine, web guide and resource for women everywhere. 

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