Christmas Traditions


A Brief Study of the Origins of Modern Christmas Celebrations


Kathryn Capoccia

© Copyright Kathryn Capoccia 2002.  This file may be freely copied, printed out, and distributed as long as copyright and source statements remain intact, and that it is not sold.

When December comes ‘round on the calendar we see decorated evergreen trees in homes, shop windows and town squares, buildings wreathed in evergreens and holly, neighborhoods and business areas bedecked with lights and ribbons and all manner of decorations. We hear carols playing on our radios and in our malls and workplaces. The malls are crowded with people. What time is it? Its Christmas time, the most popular holiday of the year, observed the world over as either a religious holiday or secular festival. This bustling season is associated with the birth of Christ, good cheer, family gatherings and feasts, gift giving, and Santa Claus. While most of us observe some type of Christmas traditions, how many of us know of their origins? For example, how many of us know why we call this season “Christmas?” Do we know why we celebrate it on the 25th of December? And why do we feast? Why do we cook the foods we do at Christmas? Why do we exchange gifts? What do wreaths and garlands of evergreens and holly have to do with it? Why have a Christmas tree? What is the significance of the Christmas lights that decorate our trees, homes and city streets? Who is Santa and how does he fit with the birth of Christ? For answers to these questions and more we must look to the past because Christmas is rooted in history, both in the pagan world and in ancient Christianity. For Christians it is especially important to know the origins and meanings of our traditions because we want to “worship in spirit and in truth” (JOH 4:23). With the exception, perhaps, of Easter, what historical event is more appropriate for us to extol than Christmas? Therefore, we need to look at our customs and determine whether they are valid expressions of our faith. Exodus 20:5, 34:14 and Isaiah 42:8 remind us that our God is a jealous God who will not give His glory to another; without knowing the truth we may, in ignorance, give glory to that which is idolatrous, honor lies, and perpetuate pagan rituals. We may offend God at a time when we are attempting to exalt His grace toward fallen man through the birth of His Son, the Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Read and consider the following facts:

“Christmas” celebrations are foreign to the pages of Scripture: Biblically, “Christmas” does not exist. There is no account of Christians gathering to celebrate the birth of Christ to be found anywhere in the New Testament. Even the wise men of Matthew’s account, who came in response to the appearance of His birth star in the sky, did not celebrate together about His birth (MAT 2:1-13); they traveled from their own country bearing gifts in order to worship the child (and the Scriptures indicate that this occurred long after Jesus was born—his family was living in a house, not a stable, and Jesus could have been as old as two years of age). Christians did not begin to celebrate the birth of Christ until the 2nd century AD. The Roman Catholic Church did not begin its “Feast of the Nativity” until AD 336.

Even the word “Christmas” itself is not Biblical: it comes from 4th century AD Roman Catholicism. The “mas” of Christmas comes from the Mass, or Eucharistic service of western Catholicism. That rite was concluded with the words, “Ite, Missa Est” (“Go, as it is ended”), with Missa (dismissal) eventually becoming the name of the rite itself. The Old English word, “Christmas” dates from 1050 AD; it was derived from the phrase, “Christes Maesse,” or “Mass of Christ.” “Xmas” is a 13th century form of shorthand representing the full word “Christmas” (“X” is the Greek abbreviation, chi, from Khristos, Christ). The word, “Christmas,” did not find full usage until the 9th century AD.

December 25th is not the true birth date of Christ. This day was apparently chosen to coincide with pagan mid-winter festivals in order to unify pagan and Christian worship celebrations within the Roman Empire. The Empire encompassed a vast territory encircling the Mediterranean Sea, stretching from Europe (England, Ireland, Spain, France, southern Germany, Italy, Sicily, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia, Greece), to Asia Minor (southern Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Crete), to the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel), and to Africa (northern Egypt and the Nile Valley, northern Libya, Tunisia, northern Algeria, Morocco). The mystery religions of the Near East, India and Egypt had been spread to Europe by the Roman legions, and the Norse, Teutonic, and Celtic beliefs had spread eastward by the same means, so that various religious festivals were observed throughout the Empire at the same time.

December was an exceptionally important religious month. In Egypt, December 21st marked the date of the celebration of the death and resurrection of Osiris, the god of the underworld and judge of the dead, the husband of Isis. The end of the month saw the observance of the birthday (Dec. 26th) of Horus, son of Isis, the sun god and proto-type of human rulers, with a twelve-day festival conspicuous for its decorations of palms with twelve shoots (for the twelve months of the year). In northern Europe the Norse held a twelve-day feast of the solstice at the end of December. Jews throughout the Empire observed Hanukkah, or “the feast of lights” during December. Greeks worshipped Apollo, Attis, Dionysus, Helios, Herakles, Perseus, and Theseus in December. December also encompassed the celebration of the Roman Saturnalia, or “Saturn (god of the grain harvest) Festival,” a seven-day fair and festival of the home which began on December 17th (Saturn’s birthday) and ran through the 23rd. It was an emotional time of feasting open to everyone, celebrated with the exchange of gifts, merry-making, and decorating with boughs of laurel and evergreens. Lamps and candles burned continually, and a feeling of “goodwill” towards man prevailed. Schools were closed, the army was “at ease,” slaves were let off their duties and allowed to “supplant” their masters, friends visited each other, processions of people danced through the streets in masks, hats or blackened faces—there was a Lord of Misrule who presided over the festival—and each household chose a mock king to preside over the festivities. Another popular holiday on the Roman calendar, Kalendae or Kalends (literally, “the first of the month”), or “New Year’s Day,” was only a few days beyond the Saturnalia. Kalends was dedicated to the two-headed god, Janus, who looked forward to the future and backward to the past. It was celebrated with a feast, garlands of evergreens and the exchanging of small gifts, particularly of lamps with which to light one’s path into the future. December 25th, the winter solstice by the Julian calendar, the day of the least sunlight of the year, was the day on which day many sun-worshiping pagans worshiped the sun (lest the sunlight should disappear altogether); they also held festivals shortly thereafter in gratitude for lengthening days. This date, December 25th, had early been identified with both the Persian sun-god, Mithras, the god of light, truth and righteousness (represented by a bull) and the Syrian god, Sol Invictus, (the unconquered sun)celebrated with feasting, masquerades, a relaxation of order and temporary role reversals. December 25th was also the birthday of the lesser known Phoenician sun and fertility god, Baal (who was also represented by a bull). After AD 274/5, the Emperor Aurelian combined the nativity/god-men/savior cult observances of Apollo, Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Helios, Hercules, Horus, Mithra, Osiris, Perseus, and Theseus, into one, the Dies Natilus Invictus Solis (“Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”) celebrated on December 25th and concerned with the death and rebirth of the sun.

Though Christians themselves didn’t begin to celebrate the birth of Christ until between AD 127 and 139, by AD 320, after the last of the Christian persecutions, the Roman Catholic Church had made December 25th the date of its Nativity celebration. Why December 25th? Secular speculation postulates that because the deeply rooted Sol Invictus had not been eradicated by Christianity, the Catholic Church purposefully chose to turn December 25th, the Natilis Invictus (“the birth of the sun”), into “the birth day of the Son,” that is, of Jesus Christ, the son of God. Others would hold that this date was arrived at by a different line of reasoning: the Catholic Church, aware that March 25th, the Spring Equinox, a pagan feast-day, had long been regarded as the “birth of Spring” among pagan peoples, therefore appropriated that date to mark the “Day of Announcement,” the day that the Virgin Mary conceived the Lord Jesus; adding nine months to March 25th made December 25th the birthday of Christ. Either way, in one move, the Church assigned a specific date to the birth of Our Lord that introduced a Christian holiday into the pagan celebrations occurring in December that supplanted the Natilis Invictus.

Emperor Constantine, a pragmatic politician and “Christian,” recognized the need to unify the diverse elements within his realm under the mantle of Christianity. An article entitled, “Sacaea-Saturnalia,” quotes the authors of the book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, in the following commentary on Constantine,

“His primary, indeed obsessive, objective was unity—unity in politics, in religion, and in territory. A cult or state religion that included all other cults within it obviously helped to achieve that objective…in the interests of unity, Constantine deliberately chose to blur the distinctions among Christianity, Mithraism and Sol Invictus…”

After the Council of Nicea in AD 325 (that body of 250-318 Church leaders convened by Emperor Constantine to set Christian doctrine), Constantine allowed Christianity to effectively become the recognized religion of the Empire. In AD 336 he declared Christmas an official holiday of the Roman Empire, and Roman Catholicism’s “Feast of the Nativity” became the only approved Christmas activity. Even the city of Rome itself was celebrating Christmas by AD 354, Constantinople by 380, and Alexandria by 430. By AD 391 Christianity formally became the state religion; however, in the eastern sections of the Roman Empire Christmas observances weren’t adopted until the middle of the 5th century AD. The Council of Agde, in AD 506, exhorted all Christians to take Holy Communion at the Feast of the Nativity. In AD 529 Emperor Justinian declared Christmas a civic holiday, suspending private and public business activities for that day. By AD 1100 Christmas was the greatest holiday observed in Europe. During the 16th century the Reformation banned much of the excesses of pagan customs which had been incorporated into “Christian” Christmases. (As an interesting footnote on Christmas celebrations, Jan. 6th is the date of the Church of Jerusalem’s observance; and the Eastern Orthodox Church, while holding to the December 25th birth date, has held, since the end of the 4th century AD, that Christ’s baptism on January 6th is the more important holiday. Also, the Armenian Church waited until after WWII to adopt the December 25th date.)

The Feast of Epiphany or Appearance (“to show forth upon”), held on January 6th, was established by the Roman Catholic Church in the 4th century AD to separate the celebration of Christ’s birth from the commemoration of his “appearing.” January 6th had earlier been used by the heretical sect, the Basilideans, as a festival of Jesus’ incarnation, His “appearing,” at His baptism (thus denying the incarnation at Jesus’ birth); the Church, therefore, ordained that Christ’s “appearing” was that of His epiphany to the Gentile world, as represented by the Wisemen at Bethlehem. It also declared that the interval between Christmas and Epiphany was a sacred holiday season. (This led to a perpetuation of all the practices and excesses of the Saturnalia.) In medieval times, usually on the Eve of Epiphany, January 5th, masked or costumed cross-dressing merrymakers, “mummers,” visited friends and neighbors to test them as to their identities by singing short songs or dances; in return they would receive small cakes and wine or spiked eggnog. On Twelfth Night itself (Jan. 5th) a special “King’s Cake,” in honor of the Magi, was baked with a secret bean inside; whoever received the piece containing the bean became “Bean King” who could order his “attendants” to serve him.

The Nativity of Christmas is the truest and purest part of the Christmas celebration, a depiction of the birth of Christ. In the Gospel of Luke, the second chapter, we read,

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests” (LUK 2:4-14, NIV).

 Luke records the date of this event as follows…

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register (LUK 2:1-3, NIV).”

Scholars believe Jesus’ birth took place between 6-4 BC. We know that this event occurred no later than 4 BC because King Herod, who had sought to kill the baby Jesus (MAT 2:1-18), died in March/April of 4 BC. It could probably not have happened earlier than 6 BC because the governor of Syria, Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (LUK 2:2), though ordered to conduct a census of Palestine in 8 BC, did not accomplish that task until 2-4 years later, perhaps because of political conflict between Rome and Herod. (A second census of Palestine was also taken by Quirinius in AD 6-9.) While the readers of the Gospel of Luke would have been able to pinpoint the date, we, however, do not have enough information to determine the actual anniversary. We cannot even ascertain the season of Christ’s birth. The traditional view of the season has always been that our Lord was born sometime in the fall when the sheep were brought down from the high country to the fields near the towns, or perhaps in the spring when the flocks were being moved out of their winter shelters for the upper pasturelands. Recent scholarship, though, has shown that sheep for the Temple sacrifices were pastured all year in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, so the fact that shepherds and sheep were present at the time of Christ’s birth is not helpful in fixing the date. However, in the eternal scheme of things the date of our Lord’s birth is of relatively little significance—what is of importance is the fact that He did, indeed, become flesh as the first-born son of the virgin Mary, born in humble circumstances, wrapped in swaddling and laid to rest in a feeding trough.

According to A Book of Christmas, by William Samsom, all Catholic countries build manger scenes to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, from Europe to Africa to North and South America. This practice may stem from the AD 1223 nativity celebration of St. Francis of Assisi, who staged the first “Nativity Scene,” a living nativity with live people and animals. St. Bonaventure, writing in the 13th century, described the circumstances of this first Nativity scene:

“That this might not seen an innovation, he [St. Francis] sought and obtained license from the supreme pontiff, and they made ready a manger, and bale hay, together with an ox and an ass, he brought unto the place…The man of God (St. Francis) filled with tender love, stood before the manger, bathed in tears, and overflowing with joy. Solemn masses were celebrated over the manger, Francis the Levite of Christ chanting the Holy Gospel.”

Before that century was over Europe had embraced the nativity crèche and carved nativity sets were available with the figures dressed in contemporary styles. The nativity evolved from there: during the Renaissance the crèche scene was dramatized with landscaped backgrounds, and bystanders, richly bedecked figures and pageantry were added as well. But by the 17th and 18th centuries the trappings of the overwhelmingly ornate spectacle had almost eclipsed the spiritual significance of the event. However, the Christmas nativity is still popular among Christians today; many churchyards and private homes display static manger scenes with figures ranging from lifelike plaster or plastic sculptures to mere silhouettes outlined in lights. Inside church and home can usually be found scaled down sets as well, some extremely elaborate and complete and some consisting of just the holy family and a stable. The “Living Nativity,” a silent drama about the birth of Christ and the salvation message, is becoming an accepted means of evangelization among Protestant American churches to broadcast the true meaning of Christmas to the unsaved world.

Christmas plays are an offshoot of the static nativity; these seem to date to the 12th century at the cathedral at Rouen. There, an image of the Virgin and Child was placed behind an altar in a stable, a boy played the part of the herald angel and others the heavenly host, a choir portrayed the shepherds, and two priests (representing women) took the roles of prompts and narrators to explain the significance of the advent. (Curiously, on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24th, apart from the Church, medieval minstrels always performed the “Paradise Play,” a drama which reenacted the fall of man.)

Christmas Feasting is that time of warm fellowship and enjoyment afforded by Christmas cooking and especially, the Christmas table. What do we think of when we envision the groaning abundance of appetizing and delicious foods? Well, George Washington once hosted a Christmas dinner at Mount Vernon that featured onion soup, shellfish, broiled fish, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, mutton chops, roast suckling pig, roast turkey, beef and ham, lima beans and squash, candied sweet potatoes and cranberries, mincemeat pie, various savory pies and puddings, cakes, ice cream, fruits, nuts, raisins, and wines. However, Christmas feasting is older than colonial America—it’s a more ancient practice, carried out by many cultures. The origins Christmas feasts may be traced directly to the practices of paganism.

When the Romans observed the Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn, on about December 17th, it was characterized by unrestrained feasting on the fruits of the harvest (grains, fruit, nuts, wine, etc.). On December 25th, as they observed the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun,” they dined on sacrificial beef. At Kalends, the New Year celebration, they gorged themselves on apples, nuts, honey, cakes, breads, meat and wine. Baal worshippers celebrated the birth of their god with a feast of slaughtered bullocks. Egyptians feasted at Horus’ birthday celebration. At the winter solstice pre-Christian Norsemen feasted on boar offered to their Norse god, Freya. From about the 4th century, early Christians celebrated the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th; later, after the last persecution (AD 320) the Roman Church set another holy feast day, the “Feast of the Nativity,” on the 25th of December. The extent of feasting grew until the peak of nativity feasting occurred between the 12th-16th centuries, and it was a time of indulgent excess in gluttony, drunkenness, and lawlessness. However, in the 17th and 18th centuries, under the influence of the Protestant Reformation, Christmas feasts assumed more modest proportions.

Most of the foods we think of as the traditional European Christmas feast—the boar’s head, “baron of beef,” haunch of venison, fish, fowl (including chicken, turkey, goose, peacock), plum pottage or plum broth (which became mincemeat pie), plum pudding, special breads, and free-flowing wines, can be traced to pagan repasts. In the medieval period many forbidden “pagan” dishes made their way to the table “sanctified” for holy celebrating. For example, Henry VIII reintroduced previously “pagan” roast boar to the Christmas feast by dressing it in a rosemary and laurel wreath for “remembrance” and “glory,” with a lemon in its mouth as a symbol of plenty. Mincemeat, with its savory mixture of nuts and fruits, once regarded as a pagan dish, became, in medieval times, became a symbol of the variety of gifts given to Jesus by the wise men. Christmas breads, an integral part of heathen expressions of worship toward the gods of harvest, were transformed into the “bread of life,” complete with a letter “J” on top.

Generally, today’s lavish meals are served on Christmas Day, though some prefer a Christmas Eve celebration. The most popular meal in the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand is turkey, with all the fixings. (Henry VIII gets credit for making turkey a Christmas dish.) In the British Isles it is normal to serve roast goose. Austrians and Norwegians sup on baked carp and lutefish (dried cod) respectively; other cultures preserve their own particular preferences. Vegetables and other dishes always accompany the main course. Many cultures also maintain the custom of Christmas baking. The four Sundays of Advent see baked goods like babkas, sugary loaves, yeast buns and fruit-packed loaves proliferate. Baked goods like German Stollen (a rich bread filled with dried fruits and nuts), Springerle (a rolled cookie), Lebkuchen (honey cakes), Danish Kringle (an Advent loaf in the shape of a pretzel), French Buche de Noel or “Christmas Log” (a loaf shaped like a Yule Log), Panettone (an Italian Christmas bread filled with raisins and lemon flavor), English “figgy pudding” (a dark fruit cake), and Spanish Roscon de Reyes or “Three King’s Bread” (a sweet yeast bread filled with candied fruits and almonds), to name a few, demonstrate the international continuance of this tradition.

After the feast Americans like to eat pumpkin pie, mince pie and fruitcakes. In the British Isles and Canada the customary dessert is plum pudding. Mexico and other Latin-American countries serve pastries called bunuelos, usually eaten with cinnamon and sugar.

A popular Christmas beverage in the U.S. today is eggnog; Swedes traditionally drink glogg, a hot, spicy, alcoholic punch. In Olde England wassail the drink of choice and this is still a favorite with the British; ancient Norse drank mead, a fermented brew of water, honey, malt, spices and raisins.

Gift Giving is a tradition that finds its origin in ancient customs as well. The Romans gave gifts of small candles, lamps, fruit, cakes, incense and clay figures at Saturnalia; at Kalends, the day of the new moon and the first day of the month and the New Year, everyone gave each other sweet gifts (fruits, honey and cakes) as well as evergreen branches (called strenae), clay doll-figures (called sigillaria, these replaced human sacrifices), small lamps, and among the wealthy, possibly gold coins. Meg Crager, author of The Whole Christmas Catalog, wrote of this period, “Everyone gave gifts: children gave to their teachers, slaves gave to their masters, and the people gave to their Emperor.”

Early Christians did not practice gift giving because they did not want their religion to be associated with pagan festivals or practices. The Middle Ages mark the point at which gift-giving became a part of Christian Christmas celebrations: kings demanded gifts from their subjects and common people exchanged gifts with one another. St. Nicholas’s Day (Dec. 6th) became gift-giving time for children. Christmas gifts were not emphasized in colonial America but children expected small gifts and the wealthy were expected to give to the poor: Christmas was regarded to be more a time of joy than of gift giving. In the 19th century the Christmas-gift custom became widespread in America, accepted by both children and adults. Today the Christmas season is characterized by lavish gift giving. Individual households expend thousands of dollars each year on tokens of love, making Christmas the major retail sales season of the year. 1999 saw shoppers lay down a staggering $186 billion dollars for gifts. More than ever, Christmas shoppers are tempted by advertisers and retailers to spend ever more on this and that expensive Christmas “must-have” item. And marketing is pushing “Christmas” earlier than ever; this year, 2000, is the first when retailers have displayed Christmas merchandise before Halloween. Neiman Marcus stores began to sell Christmas decorations in the middle of September. While 1999 brought in a 7.3% increase over the previous year’s sales, retailers are anxiously anticipating an uncertain buying season ahead, so they are starting earlier and pushing harder. It seems greed, not “goodwill toward man,” has become the motivation of the season.

Christmas lights may be traced to the ancient practice of lighting Christmas candles and fires. Ancient Norse kept bonfires blazing during the Yule season; Romans fastened candles to trees during the Saturnalia as symbols of the sun’s return to the earth. Throughout that celebration they also kept lamps burning in their homes to ward off evil spirits, and candles burning in their windows to call back the sun. At Kalends they lit candles to symbolize enlightenment for the new year. The Jews also employed candles in their December celebration of Hanukkah, “The Feast of Lights.” As early as AD 492, a day for candles, “Candlemas Day” (40 days after Christmas), was established as a memorial to the time when Jesus was presented in the Temple as “a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles…” (LUK 2:32). In the Middle Ages, both in churches and homes, it was the custom to set up and light one large candle on Christmas Eve in remembrance of the Star of Bethlehem, which announced the coming of the true light (John 1:9). Some allowed the flame only to burn until sunrise, when it was to be extinguished by the father or oldest member of the household; others let the flame burn through Twelfth Night (Jan. 6th), encompassing the entire Christmas season. Martin Luther is credited with inaugurating the tradition of lights on Christmas trees when he placed lit candles in the branches of his tree. Since that time candles, and their electric counterparts, have adorned trees, windowsills, mantles and eaves as a testimony to Him who is “a light to the Gentiles” (LUK 2:32) and the “light of the world” (JOH 8:12).

Christmas Greens like mistletoe, holly, and ivy decorate homes and public places at Christmas. These are also ancient customs stemming from folk traditions and mythology. Winter was a fearful time for the ancient pagans. The nights were dark and cold and evil spirits were thought to be especially active at Christmas time. The evergreens of mistletoe and holly, thought to be magical, were used to combat these forces of evil. Mistletoe, a Celtic word meaning “all-heal,” was the sacred plant of the Druids, the priests of the Celts, because it grew on sacred oak trees. It was used in their sacrifices to their gods and was also believed to cure diseases and infertility, to render poisons harmless, to protect homes from evil spirits and to bring good luck. The ancient Greeks regarded mistletoe as a charm against evil; Virgil called it the “Golden Bough” whose branches enabled Aeneas to descend into hell and return without harm. The practice of kissing beneath a sprig of mistletoe comes from a Norse myth: Frigga, one of the gods, gave her son, Balder, a charm of mistletoe to protect him from the elements; another god used an arrow made of mistletoe to kill Balder. Frigga then cried tears of white berries to bring her son back to life, and vowed to kiss anyone who rested beneath the plant. Druid priests, who worshiped Baldar, cut the mistletoe from its tree with a golden sickle and distributed it to their people with the words, “All heal.” The people would then hang it over a doorway or in a room to offer the blessing of Frigga to others. Vikings hung it outside their homes as a sign of peace and as a symbol of welcome to visitors. Kissing under a branch of mistletoe was seen as a pledge of friendship. Victorians, ever the romantics and enamored with the concept of a “magical” kiss, expanded the Frigga/Baldar legend to allow unmarried males to steal kisses from unattached females found beneath the mistletoe. Some modern Europeans, though, still practice the custom of kissing beneath the branches of mistletoe to receive from Frigga the blessings of life, fertility, peace and freedom from disease that she promised.

Holly was also believed to have magical powers and to drive demons away. The Romans used it in their processions at the Saturnalia. Primitive tribes believed that holly was attractive to friendly spirits, so they hung it inside their homes and over their doorways, especially at Yuletide. To ward off witches and to ensure protection against severe weather, thunder and lightning, they planted it near their homes. In Olde England unmarried women were told to tie a sprig of holly to their beds to guard them from evil spirits and witches, especially on Christmas Eve. Celtic women put sprigs of holly in their hair when they went out to watch their priests, the Druids, cut the sacred mistletoe from sacred oak trees. Germans considered holly to be a good luck charm against nature. Because of its sharp thorns and blood-red berries most Christians thought it symbolized the crown of thorns. Ivy was the ancient symbol of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and revelry; it was used in pagan festivals. Once it was banned from the interiors of Christian homes (where the decorations told of Christ’s Advent) and was only used to decorate exteriors. There its feeble appearance reminded some of man’s feebleness and need to “cling” to God’s strength; thus as a symbol of mortality it became an acceptable part of Christian celebrations.

Other Christmas foliage: Laurel or bay evergreens were thought to be emblems of triumph, and thus fitting symbols for the Christ who came to triumph over sin and death. In England, the common cherry laurel or box is sometimes substituted when true laurel cannot be found. Yew was regarded as a symbol of death, yet as a durable cut evergreen was used to symbolize eternal life as well. Rosemary, purple and scented, once thought to be extremely offensive to evil spirits, was the most prized of Christmas decorations until mid-nineteenth century, “for remembrance.” Fir, with its sweet fragrance, was used as a natural incense to honor the newborn Deity. In northern and central Europe it is customary at the beginning of Advent (the period including four Sundays before Christmas) to bring a branch of a cherry tree indoors where warmth and water will make it bloom at Christmas time and bring good luck. Christmas flowers are a symbol of joy in midwinter, thought to honor Christ’s birth. The Christmas Rose, or Snow or Winter Rose, is a plant whose beautiful pink blossoms appear in midwinter in Central Europe. North Americans have used the South American shrub, the Flower of the Holy Night, or Poinsettia plant, as a decoration at Christmas time since its introduction to America in 1828, by Joel R. Poinsett.

Christmas tree decorating is symbolic of the Christmas season to people in North America, Germany and parts of Europe. The modern practice stems from Germany; the first historical mention of this practice comes from Strasburg, Germany, in 1605. Germans decorated their trees with dolls, sweets, apples and wafers, gold foil, and paper roses. The first wave of German immigrants in the 1700s brought the custom of the Christmas tree to America; they decorated their trees with animal cookies, apples, strings of popcorn and brightly colored paper. Hessians, the German mercenaries of the American Revolutionary War, decorated Christmas trees. Some German sects, such as the Moravians, put lighted candles in the branches of their trees (and later in their windows) as early as 1752. Christmas trees appeared in Cambridge, Philadelphia, Rochester, Richmond, Wooster, and Cleveland between 1832 and 1851. From America the custom spread to England; by 1841 Prince Albert used a tree at Windsor, decorated with candles, sweets, fruit and gingerbread, as an official symbol of the season. By the 1890’s manufacturers were producing ornaments in Germany for American and European trees. By the early part of the twentieth century, after the invention of the electric bulb, community trees appeared all over North America illuminated for days on end.

The custom of Christmas trees may find its origins in paganism. Pagans used evergreens and tree decoration during the winter. The Vikings of northern Europe saw evergreens as the symbol of hope that Spring would return after the cold, dark winter; Druids (England, France) decorated oak trees with fruit and candles to honor their gods of harvest and light. Romans decorated trees with trinkets and candles during Saturnalia, the midwinter harvest festival and revelry of Mithras, the Persian god of light and truth.

Legends surround the Christmas-tree custom. One legend says that St. Boniface, an English monk who organized Germany’s and France’s Churches, stopped a pagan human sacrifice by slamming his fist into the sacrificial sacred oak tree and felling it with that blow; in its place grew a tiny fir, which he said was the Tree of Life representing eternal life in Christ. Another says that Martin Luther, founder of the Reformation, was walking through the woods one clear and cold Christmas Eve when the starlight glimmering through the trees awed him so much that he wanted to recreate the sight for his family: so he cut down a small tree, took it home and put candles in its branches to imitate the forest. A third, more fanciful tale concerns a poor woodsman who encountered a lost and hungry child in the woods one Christmas Eve. He gave the child food and shelter for the night; in the morning he found a beautiful glittering tree outside his door as a reward from the disguised Christ Child for his kindness.

Christmas trees may also be dated to the Medieval Ages when decorated trees were used in plays with Biblical themes that were performed all over Europe. In the “Paradise Play,” performed on December 24th, an apple tree was a necessary prop in the fall of man, but winter apple trees were bare so evergreen trees were hung with apples instead.

The Twelve Days of Christmas, or “Christmastide,” is an ancient European, but mostly English, tradition of Christmas celebration. The ancient festival began Dec. 17th and ended as late as Jan. 17th. After the Council of Tours (AD 567) declared the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany (Jan. 6th) to be sacred, a more modern festival took place, ending with “Twelfthnight,” the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th. It was celebrated with great enthusiasm with a mixture of pagan and holy practices. The celebration of feasting, merrymaking and gift exchanging mirrored the Roman festivals of Saturnalia-Kalendae. There was a Festival of Fools, led by a Lord of Misrule, where masters served servants, sexes exchanged dress, all wore disguises, and even boy bishops presided in churches (until the Reformation.) There were pagan horn-dances and bull dances (to honor fairies and Celtic horned gods); the decorating of houses with mistletoe, holly, rosemary, and evergreens; the lighting of tapers and fires to celebrate the sun; clay dolls given as gifts and boughs cut to honor the goddess Strenia; wassailing of apple trees; feasting on fresh goose, turkey, hog, wine, mincemeat, plumb porridge, apples and wassail; and times of gorging and relaxation. Puritan Cotton Mather described it in 1712 as,

“[T]he feast of Christ’s Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in Licentious Liberty…by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling…”

Though Christian commemorations were interspersed within the Christmas season—Mass was held on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day feasting commemorated the birth of Christ, the feast of St. Stephen’s Day on Dec. 26th honored the poor, and the Feast of Epiphany on Jan. 6th –the original style of Christmastide celebrations remained basically untouched for 400 years, until a calendar change in 1752 moved the festival to a date eleven days earlier. Under Protestantism many of the overtly pagan traditions, called “Fooltide,” were done away with and Christmastide was shortened to twelve more somber days. However, emotionalism rose again in the nineteenth century, influenced by the writings of Charles Loring Brace and Charles Dickens, and the “goodwill” of Christmas, which had marked the Saturnalia celebrations, became prominent. At that time also, Christmas trees and Christmas “decking” were embraced as necessary and recognized parts of the observance.

Noel (“Nowel,” OFr.) is a term dating from the Middle Ages, associated with the New Year festival, meaning “new birth.” Webster’s Dictionary traces the word to the French noel, from the Latin natalis, “pertaining to birth, a birthday.” The term carried pagan expectations of a new year’s birth when Chaucer wrote of Christmastide,

Janus sits by the fire with a double beard
And drinketh of his bugle horn the wine:
Before him stands the brawn of tusked swine,
And ‘Nowel’ cryeth every lusty man.

Paganism was deeply intertwined in the Christmastide celebrations as Chaucer noted: Janus is a Roman god, the “tusked swine” is a sacrificial boar’s head, and “Nowel” is the cry of “every lusty man” in solstice carousal. However, according to Webster’s the term “noel” came to be, “an expression of joy used in Christmas carols” (which did not become vehicles of holy thought until the 13th century).

Advent on the Church calendar, is the four Sundays prior to Christmas. It is a period dedicated to contemplation of Christ’s “Advent,” or Christ’s Incarnation and Second Coming. The first week is for meditating upon Christ’s flesh, or humanness; the second, the Holy Spirit; the third, death; and the fourth, Christ’s judgment of the dead. The Advent Wreath of Northern Europe, with five candles which symbolize the four Sundays of Advent, made of evergreen boughs trimmed with pinecones, ribbons, sprigs of holly and mistletoe, and artificial snow. Advent Wreaths date from the fourth century, the time when the church began to celebrate the “Advent,” or Christ’s coming to earth as the babe in the manger. The corresponding Advent Season was regarded to be the time to reflect upon His coming and to search one’s heart, repent and rededicate oneself. In the Christmas tradition, the Advent Wreath’s candles are lit in each successive week of the Advent Season in anticipation of the coming Light of the World. The Wreath’s three outer candles are lit on the first three Sundays of December (to symbolize “the penitent heart’s yearning for Christ’s coming); the large central candle is lit on the Sunday prior to Christmas Day to symbolize the “incarnation of perfect God in man;” the colored candle on the wreath is lit on Christmas to celebrate the anticipated Second Coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Sometimes ribbons of blue, purple and white and a vine of thorns are woven into the wreath as “threads to remind us of God’s mysterious and gracious plan” of Christ’s suffering, our repentance, and God’s victory over sin.

The origin of the Advent Wreath seems to be with the German Lutherans, perhaps inspired by the Swedish Crown of Lights, a crown of evergreen boughs and four candles worn by young Swedish girls on December 13th, St. Lucia’s Day. St. Lucia was reputedly a young Christian woman who gave her entire dowry to feed the poor; she arrived with a shipload of food to feed the hungry and poor in Sweden. She suffered martyrdom for her beliefs and the crown of lights symbolizes her halo. In Sweden, on December 13th, the oldest Swedish daughter, wearing a white dress and crown of candles, brings a breakfast of saffron buns and coffee to her parent’s room to commemorate St. Lucia.

The Advent Calendar is a cardboard device, like a house, with windows, which may be opened each day of the Advent weeks to reveal an appropriate Scripture verse or toy to emphasize the importance of Christ’s Advent.

Candy Canes, candies in the shape of a shepherd’s crook, have been long associated with Christmas. There is a legend which dates to 1670 which says that the choirmaster of Cologne Cathedral had specially crook-bent sugar sticks made to hand out among his young singers to quiet them during the Living Crèche ceremony. Later, another legend has it, August Imgard of Wooster, Ohio, a German-Swedish immigrant, used candy canes to decorate a small blue spruce tree in 1847. At the turn of the twentieth century hand-made mint flavored, red and white striped candy canes became the norm. In the 1920s a candy maker named Bob McCormack began making striped, peppermint flavored Christmas treats by hand for his children, friends and local shopkeepers in Albany, Georgia. In the 1950s Gregory Keller, Bob McCormack’s brother-in-law, invented a machine that automated candy cane production and made Bob McCormack’s candies accessible to the world at large.

A charming legend associated with the candies is one, which says that candy canes were the creation of a candy maker who longed to glorify Christ. The story goes that he wanted his candy to be a witness to Him, so he chose a hard candy to remind people that Christ is the Rock of all Ages; he shaped it in a “J” for Jesus (or upside down as a crook to represent the Great Shepherd); he made it white to symbolize the purity of Christ; he added a red stripe to represent the blood of Christ shed for sinners and three smaller red stripes to symbolize the stripes He bore from His scourging (sometimes a green stripe is added as a reminder that Christ is a gift from God); peppermint, a flavor similar to hyssop, was chosen as the flavor of the cane to remind the world that Christ sacrificed Himself and purified sinners by His body. The message of salvation was thus incorporated into the sweets concocted by that pious candy maker; every time we eat those canes at Christmas we can be reminded that Jesus Christ is the sweet gift of salvation from God.

The Yule Log is a custom brought to America from England. It is a large stump, root, or part of a tree used as the foundation for a ceremonial Christmas-Eve fire. The word “yule” most likely comes from jul, an old Norse word associated with a twelve day feast at the end of December. Some scholars believe it stems from the old Germanic word Iol (Iul, Giul, etc.), meaning a turning wheel; this then would refer to the rising of the sun-wheel after the winter solstice. Another guess is that it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word geol (feast), which would then refer to the pre-Christian month long feast of geola (feast-month) held to celebrate the December solstice. Yuletide is the season of the Yule. The ancient Yule season lasted for weeks, sometimes until the frozen ground thawed. Among ancient Teutons and Norse Yule was celebrated the night before the winter solstice with a feast of roast boar. The tradition of burning the Yule log originated among the Germanic tribes as a pagan celebration of Thor, the god of the Yule (who chased away frosts and commanded gentle winds and spring rains to come to bless mankind). For this celebration each family chose the largest tree in the forest they could find to be burned as a symbol of the victory of light over the darkness of winter and over evil spirits. The wood was carried into the house with great ceremony; the master of the home placed it on the hearth and sprinkled it with libations of oil, salt and mulled wine, while prayers were said over it. Its fire was not to go out lest some evil should befall the home. It was believed that the burning log magically made the sun burn brighter. This superstition extended to ancient Christians who chose a stump, root or entire tree for their Yule log, preferably of ash, and ignited it on Christmas Eve by a faggot from the previous year’s log; they kept it burning for a minimum of twelve hours to insure good luck. Some modern Europeans still light the Yule log on Christmas Eve and keep it burning until Epiphany, Jan. 6th, then select a new log on Candlemas (40 days after Christmas) to be burned the following winter. Some follow the custom of retaining bits of the burned log or ashes from its remains to rekindle the next year’s fire, thus ensuring good luck (according to ancient lore it would charm against lightning [Thor’s weapon] and against chilblains during that winter.) Modern descendants of the Vikings in the Shetland Islands burn a thirty-foot long Viking ship at the Up-Helly-Aa (“end of the holiday”) celebration towards the end of January.

“Wassail” refers to a drink of warm ale or spiced cider, which contained sugar eggs, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, and roasted apples. The concoction was also called “lamb’s wool” and “old man’s beard” because of its smoothness and softness. It was the beverage imbibed on the Twelfth Night of Christmas. “Wassailing” was to drink to the health of someone. Custom called for a bowl of wassail to be kept steaming throughout the Christmas season; someone would offer a toast of the drink saying, “Wassail” (be whole) and another would reply, “Drinkhail” (your health). In some parts of England “wassailing” came to refer to a party at which carols were sung and wassail was drunk, or to the practice of traveling from house to house with a bowl of wassail decorated with ribbons, garlands (and sometimes a golden apple), caroling, giving blessings and a drink of wassail in exchange for some small gift of money or food. The following is an except from a famous carol…

Here we come a’wassailing among the leaves of green
Here we come a wand’ring so fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too.

And God bless you and send you a happy New Year
And God send you a happy New Year…

In ancient usage, “wassail” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon wes hal, “be whole;” at old Twelfth Night Eve (Jan 17th) the ancient practice called for cider and cider-soaked toast to be thrown on the branches of apple trees while invocations to the gods of trees and fruit were sung to insure “good health” and a good crop for the coming year. The oldest ritual was conducted on Old Christmas morning with a procession of carolers or mummers traveling from orchard to orchard and to the major trees in each orchard; incantations were said; great noises were made by the blowing of a bullhorn, the firing of a gun or shouting; libations on the trunk, roots and branches of the trees were poured out; and dancing around the trees was done to ensure future blessings.

Bell ringing: traditionally, late on Christmas Eve church bells are rung to announce the call to Christmas Mass, a practice which is fading. However, the custom can be traced to antiquity when loud noises were habitually used to frighten away evil spirits. Interestingly, in medieval Ireland, Scotland and England, during the hour prior to midnight on Christmas Eve a continuous mournful tolling of bells marked “the devil’s funeral,” (for it was thought that he died when Christ was born); at midnight the bells rang a joyous clamor to mark the birth of the One who broke the power of Satan and death, Jesus Christ.

Boxing Day,” the day after Christmas, December 26th (also known as the Feast of Stephen), comes from medieval times when priests were supposed to empty their alms boxes and distribute gifts among the poor; also the left-over feasts of the wealthy were “boxed” and given to their servants. In Victorian England, Boxing Day was very popular, and in England, Australia and Canada Boxing Day is still the date on which gifts are given to tradesmen, servants and friends.

Christmas “carols” come from the Greek word choraulein (choros, the dance and aulein, to play the flute); in France and England it meant a ring dance accompanied by singing. Gradually the meaning of the word “carol” came to be of a simple, joyful or playful song, though dancing to the accompaniment of singing was popular through the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe and in England through the Reformation (in Spain even longer). From AD 400-1200 Latin hymns were composed that dwelt on the supernatural aspects of Christmas, but the first true joyful carol, as we know it, is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century (though it too was only written in Latin). The first Franciscan friars, following St. Francis’ lead, composed joyful carols in Italian and these spread to Spain and France and then to the rest of Europe. Here is one a translation of one of those 13th century carols,

In Bethlehem is born the Holy Child,
On hay and straw in the winter wild;
O, my heart is full of mirth
At Jesus’ birth.

By the 14th and 15th centuries carols were exceptionally popular in Europe, when minstrels traveled from castle to castle with both secular and sacred carols; by the 16th century carols were associated with songs of joy sung at Christmas. Their popularity waned, however, in the first part of the 19th century but revived through the publication of old and new carols and caroling festivals at Truro, Cornwall, in 1880 and at King’s College, Cambridge in 1918. Those who caroled from house to house were called “waits.” (Originally “waits” were minstrels of the king’s court who were responsible for calling out the hours as they kept watch.)

Christmas Cards are a modern addition to Christmas. They were developed in England in the 19th century. In 1843, 1,000 copies were made of a card bearing this inscription, “A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to You.” The first American Christmas card dates from the mid 19th century from Albany, New York, which read, “Christmas Greetings from Pease’s Great Variety Store in the Temple of Fancy.” However, Louis Prang of Boston, Mass., is credited with introducing the cards into American mainstream life in 1875. His designs included the Nativity, the visit of Santa Claus, children, young women, flowers, birds, and butterflies. These cards were relatively expensive so primarily the wealthy sent cards at first; however, around 1890, inexpensive cards from Germany made the practice accessible to all classes. 

Santa Claus is, in our modern world, a major focus of the holiday season. His roots can be traced back to a man named Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who lived in the end of the 3rd century and the early part of the 4th century AD in Patara, Lycinia (modern Turkey). Though he was a historic figure, he is shrouded in myth. The factual information we have about him is that Nicholas was born in AD 271 to a wealthy Christian couple whose names were Epiphaneos and Nona. When Nicholas was a young teenager, an epidemic struck Patara and both Epiphaneos and Nona were killed; Nicholas went to live with his uncle, Nicholas, who was Father Superior of a monastery in Xanthos, a town seven miles upriver from Patara. Disposing of his worldly goods, he joined the monastery. He studied for the priesthood and, after his uncle’s departure for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, became the priest of Patara. Sometime after his own pilgrimage to Jerusalem he became the Archbishop of Myra, the capital of Lycia. According to Greek Orthodox tradition, he was a defender of orthodoxy, imprisoned during the persecution of Diocletian and freed under Constantine’s general amnesty. In AD 325 he was one of the church leaders to attend the Council of Nicea. He died of natural causes in his old age on December 6th, AD 342 or 343, and was buried in his cathedral in Myra. In 1087, his bones were transferred to Bari, Italy, after Myra fell to the Moslems.

By the time of Justinian, in the sixth century, he was considered a “Saint” and his feast day was celebrated in Myra; his image appeared on Byzantine seals and artists painted him as a miraculous benefactor; by the 8th century invading Normans had spread tales of his gift giving and “miracles” throughout Scandinavia as they encountered the Roman Empire; by the 9th century he was canonized by the Catholic Church. His feast day, December the 6th, St. Nicholas’s Day, was celebrated all over Europe by the 12th century. During the Middle Ages four hundred churches were dedicated to him just in England. The Russians adopted St. Nicholas as their patron saint; the Greeks thought of him as the patron saint of sailors; the French thought of him as the patron saint of lawyers; Belgians thought of him as the helper of children and travelers.

His legend concerns his piety, benevolence and miracle working power. Legend says when he was born he stood up in his bath with his arms upraised; as a nursing babe he would refuse to suck after sundown on Wednesdays and Fridays (the fast days of early Christians). He was said to have disposed of his wealth by anonymously distributing it to the poor. One story has him taking some gold and secretly giving it to the three dowry-less daughters of a destitute nobleman. He is supposed to have tossed a small bag of gold through an open window for the first daughter, where it fell in either her shoe or stocking (this act may be the origin of the custom of hanging up stockings or putting out shoes for gifts). The next night (or occasion) he brought gold for the second daughter in the same way. The third night (or occasion) he brought gold for the third daughter in the same way, but as he left, he was chased and caught by the girl’s father. Nicholas asked that his philanthropy be kept anonymous, but it was not; he became known as the author of secret acts of generosity. Another story, set when he was Bishop, concerned a ship he appeared to and rescued during a raging storm in answer to prayer. He also was said to have brought back from three dead three boys who had been killed and pickled for food; he was supposed to have successfully prayed that the empty holds of merchant ships would be filled with grain during their trip from Myra to Alexandria as a reward for their acts of kindness. He was reputed to have saved his town from starvation. After his death, his tomb was believed to have exuded a “curative” fluid, the “Manna of Nicholas,” that was said to work miraculous healings; and so on, as chronicled by his biographers. He is especially associated with children in the mind of the world.  

(How are we to regard these “miracles” attributed to St. Nicholas? Were they real? In 1968, when the Catholic Church reformed its calendar, St. Nicholas’s Day was dropped because it was felt that his reputation was fraudulent, being based on legend more than on historical fact. The Dominican friars who care for his tomb in Bari would like to see him reinstated and are confident that they can find hard evidence of his miracles, but this has not happened yet. But if these “miracles” were truly fraudulent, why did his reputation exist? If they were the work of supernatural forces how did they happen? Did God work those miracles? Can Satan work miracles too? Does Satan work his miracles to deceive people?

First of all, Nicholas lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries, long after the age when godly men were doing attesting miracles. The great miraculous healings of the New Testament tapered off in the first century AD. We see this in 1TI 5:23: here, Paul writes to Timothy in c. AD 63-65 that he should begin taking some medicinal wine for a stomach disorder. If miracles were still in effect why didn’t Paul, who had worked miracles, just send a handkerchief to heal Timothy as was done in Acts 19:12? The answer is that miracles, which attested to the authenticity of revelations from God, ended as the Scriptures were being recorded; there were no new Scriptures written past the first century AD, so no attesting miracles were needed. Another point is that, “godly men do the works of God” (JOH 9:32,33). Bishop Nicholas was known to have been a brawler: he lost his temper and punched another bishop (Arias?) over a disagreement of doctrine at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 (this council was convened by Constantine to settle the Arian controversy), and was subsequently censured and imprisoned.

Secondly, miracles do not always originate with God. Satan can do miracles. In the book of Job, Satan brings miraculous disasters upon Job, even sickness. In the Gospels, Satan afflicts people with epilepsy, madness, dropsy, crippling. In the book of Revelation, Satan is shown performing many miracles (REV 13:13-15). The book of Matthew says Satan does miracles, “to deceive even the elect, if that were possible” (MAT 24:24). Revelation says that Satan will go out to deceive the nations (REV 20:8.). He is called “the Devil” [slanderer] and “Satan” [adversary] who deceives the whole world” (REV 12:9; 2JO 1:7). Why? In the story of our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness prior to his ministry Satan shows his ambition to be worshiped; he offered Jesus the world and all that was in it if He would “fall down and worship me” (MAT 4:9). Satan wants worship and he will steal it through deception if he can get it no other way.)

The legend of St. Nicholas was brought north, not only by returning Norse invaders, but by traders from Spain after Southern Italy and the Netherlands fell into the hands of the Spanish kings of Aragon, in AD 1442. The Medieval Spanish Bishops who came as clerical appointees with these traders wore long cloaks and tall hats (mitres) and carried curled staffs. Coincidentally, the Nordic people had long worshiped a pantheon of gods, one of whom, Odin (Woden, Woten), had similarities to the legendary bishop, St. Nicholas. Odin was the wisest and most knowledgeable of the Norse gods, able to see all that occurred on the earth; he was old with a long gray beard; he wore a cloak and a tall, wide-brimmed hat, and he carried a long spear. With a horde of others he rode a supernatural gray horse across the sky, land, and water during the winter solstice, giving gifts to the poor and bringing children fruits and nuts. Sint Nicolaas or, Sinterklaas, combined the characteristics of Odin with St. Nicholas: he is an old man with a long white (or gray) beard; he wears a red bishop’s dress and cloak and a tall hat, and carries a long, crooked staff; he rides a supernatural white (or gray) horse across sky and rooftop; and he has an assistant, Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), who travels north with him from Spain and accompanies him in his travels across the Northlands. Black Peter may be called “black” because he is St. Nicholas’s Moorish servant, or because he is “sooty” from sliding down chimneys; but in some European countries he is believed to be a devilish creature who is kept in submission by the power of Sinterklaas. He functions as Sinterklaas’s arm of favor or discipline: he slides down chimneys to reward or punish each child from the contents of his sack. Good children receive presents in their shoes or stockings; bad children receive a switch (or coal in Germany). In ancient lore Black Peter would put extremely bad children in his sack and then drown them; later he was said to spirit them off to Spain.

Sinterklass is believed to spend most of the year in Spain compiling a ledger of good and bad deeds about the Dutch children, but he returns north some time in December. In port cities he is believed to arrive by ship two weeks before St. Nicholas’s Eve, December 5th. On St. Nicholas’s Eve, he is expected to ride over the Dutch rooftops on his white horse with Black Peter, giving the good and bad rewards to the children of the North. In the weeks before the 5th of December Dutch children leave hay and carrots out for Sinterklass’s horse in their wooden shoes; in the morning after Sinterklass has called, these have been replaced by presents, such as chocolate letters, colored marzipan shaped like animals or fruit, or chocolate figures of St. Nicholas. For small children December the 6th is even more important than Christmas itself. December 6th became the traditional time for presents to be given to children and to the poor, not only in Holland, but in Belgium, Germany and France as well.

St. Nicholas may have become associated with Christmas first in England. At the end of every year the English celebrated a “Feast of the Fools,” a Saturnalian feast of plenty beginning on St. Nicholas’s Eve. In this riotous twenty-three (23) day celebration, St. Nicholas, the Boy Bishop, and Old Father Christmas (a white bearded figure who rode a horned goat) were the three figureheads of a topsy-turvy festival ending December 28th (where all order was reversed as in the Saturnalia).

In France, Father Christmas (Pere Noel) or Christ Himself brought gifts on the night before Christmas; in Austria and Switzerland the Christ Child brings gifts; some children await the Holy Child, others a beautiful girl angel sent from heaven with gifts. In Finland, on December 21st gifts were once thrown through open windows anonymously, like St. Nicholas’. In Sweden the gift giver is known as Jultomte, in Iceland, as Jola Sveinar, and in Norway and Denmark as the Julenisse (“nisse” being the old form of Nicholas), a tiny elf-like person dressed in red with a pointed cap, roughly translated as “yule goblin.”

The Dutch colonists to the New World brought St. Nicholas to America. They said that St. Nicholas would come as a magical gift giver on either a white horse on December 5th, or in a small wagon on December 24th. The Pennsylvania Germans called the Christmas gift-giver Chriskindlein or Kris Kringle, who brought gifts on Christmas Eve, December 24th.

The American folk-figure of Santa Claus was transformed gradually through a series of articles and poems from an austere Bishop to a jolly elf. Washington Irving, in his comic “Knickerbocker’s History of New York” (1809), described St. Nicholas as “a plump and jolly old Dutchman” who “traveled through the skies in a wagon” (like Thor). Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of Greek and Oriental Literature at the General Theological Seminary in New York, wrote a poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” in 1822 described him like this:

He had a broad face and a round little belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly,
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…

In 1823 the poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” was published in the Troy Sentinel. It became immensely popular when it was illustrated by Thomas Nast in the 1860s in Harper’s Illustrated Weekly. It was Thomas Nast who pictured Santa making toys and dolls, spying on children with a spyglass to discover their behavior, filling stockings with toys, decorating a Christmas tree, and flying through the skies on a magic sleigh. This image became popular in Europe, South America and Japan. The book, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens (1843), added a selfless element to the Christmas celebration—a humanitarian generosity.

Santa grew from these and many other international influences: a German artist gave St. Nicholas the red fur trimmed Weihnachtsmann (the Christmas man) costume; Scandinavia gave him his small stature (so he could fit down chimneys); Russia gave him a flying sleigh and magic reindeer; America, through Nast, gave him his large jolly appearance with white beard and furs, an image that remains today. The 1947 Hollywood movie, “Miracle on 34th Street,” humanized Santa as the man Kris Kringle, but left the role of omnipotent gift-giver the same.

He has become internationally popular as a symbol of charity and generosity, but is it right? An Anglican vicar wrote this,

“Though he appears to be a great giver, he is actually a thief. For he is stealing the true value of Christmas. He directs our attention to selfish glitter, money, and a spirit that comes out of a bottle. His bottomless sack feeds our base emotions and he represents getting rather than giving.”

The Reverend Del A. Fehsenfeld, pastor of the Argentine Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas, said this,

“Some people are more interested in teaching their children there is a Santa Claus and an Easter Bunny than in teaching about the Virgin birth and the Resurrection. To teach your children it is a fact that there is a Santa Claus is to lie.”

Consider the myth of Santa Claus: he is all-knowing; someone who knows all the acts of children and supposedly holds them accountable for the wrongs they do; he lives forever; he is a creator of good gifts; he magically flies all over the world visiting all the homes of all the children in a single night; he travels up and down chimneys without aid; he lives in a secret place. Aren’t these the acts of a supernatural person, like God? Doesn’t his folk tale detract from the reality of Christ and the miracle of His birth? And aren’t we guilty of lying and sinning against God when we repeat the tales of Santa Claus to others and propagate his legend?

Evaluating these and other Christmas traditions is essential if we wish to worship God “in spirit and in truth.” We must deliberate about our Christmas traditions; we must prayerfully and carefully sift through the pagan, folk elements of our celebrations and keep only what is “good, acceptable and perfect.” Some Scriptural considerations in examining our traditions are: Are they true and honoring to God (PHI 4:8; 1COR 10:31)? Do they encourage our faith in God and Jesus Christ (1THES 5:11)? Do they somehow honor idols (DEU 5:7)? Are they a “stumbling block” to others (ROM 14:20; 1COR 10:31; MAT 18:7)? Do they feed the desires of the flesh (GAL 5:19-21; 1JOH 2:16)?

In doing this assessment of our traditions we may find, as the Puritans did, that Christmas is altogether too profane and commercial in which to participate. Or, we may find that we can retain the innocent parts of our traditions and in purity of heart observe Christmas as the memorial of the time when Jesus came as the babe in the manger. Certainly the meaning and message of Christmas is untainted by Saturnalia/Yuletide traditions. And whether we choose to celebrate it or not, all of us who name the Name of Christ can take advantage of the fact that Christmas is the time when the whole world wonders about the Nativity: all of us can be witnesses about the incarnation to the lost. All of us can worship and praise the Creator for sending His Son into the world to be the Lamb of God and Savior of the World. All of us can share the message of “peace to men on whom His favor rests” (LUK 2:14 NIV). To those of us who choose to celebrate the holiday let the principle of Romans, chapter 14, be our guide—God is pleased when we seek to glorify Him in what we approve. The Apostle Paul said, “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (ROM 14:23).


“An Old-Fashioned Solstice,”

Adkins, Lesley and Adkins, Roy A., Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome, Facts on File, Inc., N.Y., 1994.

“The Christmas Story" Seventh day Baptist Church (link inactive)

Coffin, Tristram P., The Book of Christmas Folklore, Seabury Press, N.Y., 1973.

Crager, Meg and Grace, Margaret, The Whole Christmas Catalogue, Courage Books, Philadelphia, 1986.

Crippen, Thomas, Christmas and Christmas Lore, Gale Research Co., Detroit, 1971.

Encarta “98.

Encyclopedia Britannica 1999.


Horovitz, Bruce, Uneasy retailers need a little Christmas – now, USA TODAY, October 31, 2000.

Hottes, Alfred C., 1001 Christmas Facts and Fancies, A.T. Delamare Co. Inc., N.Y., 1937.

Ickis, Marguerite, The Book of Christmas, Dodd, Mead & Co., N.Y., 1960.

“Sacaea Saturnalia,”

Sansom, William, A Book of Christmas, McGraw-Hill, N. Y., 1968.

“Seasonal Holliday Attire: Christmas in the Netherlands,”

Skarmes, Nancy, The Traditions of Christmas, Ideal Pub. , 1997.

“St. Nicholas of Myra Bishop, Confessor C. 342, Feast: December 6,” 

“St. Nicholas the Miracleworker,” Orthodox Saints Vol 4

Stevenson, Rev. Alex, “Why is Christmas in December?” eternal/

“Thor’s Gallery,”

“True Stories About Christmas,”

Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Collins World, 1975.

Weiser, Francis X., The Christmas Book, Harcourt, Brace and Company, N.Y., 1952.

Wernecke, Herbert H., Christmas Customs Around the World, Westminster Press.

“Winter Solstice Celebrations: a.k.a. Christmas, Saturnalia, Yule,”

“Winter Solstice: The Unconquered Sun,” Html.

“The Yule Log,”

Added to Bible Bulletin Board by:

Tony Capoccia
Bible Bulletin Board
Box 119
Columbus, New Jersey, USA, 08022
Our Websites: and
Online since 1986