The History of Christmas: Tracing the Origin of Beloved Traditions

Tah'niyah Jackson, Staff Writer

We think of lots of traditions when we think about Christmas. We think of the music, Santa, presents, Christmas trees, mistletoe, lights, cookies, hot cocoa, candy, and family.  The way people feel about the Christmas holiday varies; for some, Christmas is a religious holiday, while for others, it’s primarily a cultural celebration. The traditions we use to celebrate the holiday might seem random, but they actually come from a variety of places and time periods. 

Christmas trees sprouted from Germany in the 16th century when Christians started to bring evergreen trees into their homes and decorate them. The lights placed on the trees were a part of Pagan tradition. Some people would make pyramids with wood and decorations with candles and evergreen pines. The evergreen tree was thought to keep out evil spirits, ghosts, witches, and illness, a belief that can be traced back to Greece. The evergreen tree served as a way to protect their families from some of the evil in the world.

The gift swapping tradition of Christmas comes from Pagan rituals that are held during the winter solstice, when they would honor the god Saturn, by giving him gifts. Christianity turned these rituals into Christmas traditions, justifying the Three Wise Men giving baby Jesus gifts when he was born. This tradition continued through the centuries, but instead of gifting only to Jesus, friends and family are gifted as well.

The story of our favorite Christmas character, Santa, originates in Turkey. A monk by the name of St. Nicholas, born way back in 280 A.D, was considered a saint to children because he would bring gifts to orphans who otherwise received very little. His name evolved into a Sinter Klaas, the Dutch name for St.  Nicholas. The Dutch Sinterklaas was Americanized into Santa Claus, a name first used in the American press in 1773. His name took another shift. Because of the United States’ cultural influence, his name was spread across the world as the man who, in a single night, sends gifts to children all around the world.

Christmas music goes back to 1739 when the first “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” was composed by Felix Mendelssohn was the German composer who wrote and published the song. By the 1800’s a plethora of Christmas songs started to appear. 

In year 336 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Roman Emperor) celebrated Christmas on the 25th of December. This was the first time Christmas was recorded, being celebrated on this day, but not yet an official state festival. Christmas is during the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, which could have also contributed to when Christmas was celebrated. Another reason is that some believe the Jesus was conceived during the Spring equinox, on the 25th of March, but added nine months because this is the amount of time it takes for a baby to be born. Therefore, we celebrate his birth on December 25, the day that is thought to be the day Jesus was born.

Baking is a large part of Christmas as well. This originally dates back to the crusades, when the soldiers would bring spices to Europe. As time went on, baking became associated with Christmas when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England would do it. People started making gingerbread houses, with the cookie men, women, and children to go along with it, a tradition that comes from Germany as well.

Mistletoe started in Western Europe. Some people tried to get mistletoe banned as a church Christmas decoration, but many continued to use them. York Minster Church in the UK used to hold a special Mistletoe Service in the winter, during which wrongdoers in the city of York could come and be pardoned. Stealing a kiss under the mistletoe became common, and it spread from the British, to the rest of the world.

The candy cane is blended with Christmas and the story of Jesus. It is shaped as a shepherds crook to remind us of the shepherds that went to see baby Jesus when he was born. The white of the cane represents purity, while the red represents the blood of when Jesus died on the cross.

Christmas has many traditions from all over the globe. To some Christmas is religious, to others it’s simply a celebration. Many people have contributed to the way Christmas is celebrated. Christmas is not one definition, but many definitions, and many interpretations