Origins Of Christmas Traditions

While many people celebrate Christmas every year, few stop to think about the actual origins of Christmas traditions. Many of the modern traditions that are celebrated at Christmas have roots in pagan traditions, the Middle Ages and cultures of other countries.

Christmas: Why Do We Celebrate on Dec. 25?

The New Testament does not give an exact date for Jesus” birth, so the reasoning behind celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25 is not known. Many, however, believe that this date was chosen to coincide with the birthday of Mithra, the Roman sun god.

Christmas Traditions: Pagan Roots

Many people are unaware of the pagan roots of Christmas traditions. Long before people started celebrating Christmas, pagans celebrated the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21, which is the shortest day of the year.

Pagan traditions later evolved to make the celebration into a week-long festival that featured elegant dinners and the exchanging of gifts. Many people attribute the traditions of Christmas dinners and Christmas gift-giving to these pagan customs.

Christmas Traditions: The Middle Ages

In the early Middle Ages, people celebrated the 40 days of St. Martin beginning on Nov. 11 of each year. Gifts were exchanged on New Year”s Day in this time period, and the 40th day, known as Candlemas, commemorated the presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple.

This tradition later developed into the 12 days of Christmas, which are celebrated from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6. Jan. 6 marks the day the Three Wise Men arrived at the birthplace of Jesus.

In the later Middle Ages, caroling became part of the Christmas celebration. Carolers in the Middle Ages danced and sang. This behavior, however, was often considered lewd.

Origins of Popular Christmas Traditions

Here are some of the more popular Christmas traditions and their origins:

  • Mistletoe: Mistletoe originates from Druid and Roman cultures. The Druids saw mistletoe as a fertility symbol, and Romans associated mistletoe with the goddess of love, marriage and fertility.
  • Santa Claus: The story of Santa Claus is tied to Saint Nicholas (270 to 310 A.D.), the patron saint of children. Throughout the years, Santa Claus has been known by many different names, including Father Christmas, Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle and more. Though each Christmas gift-giver is different in some ways, each is a jolly figure who embodies the holiday spirit and who spreads joy through gift-giving.
  • The Christmas Tree: Pagan traditions included tree worship. During the Winter Solstice celebration, evergreen boughs were a part of the festivities. People decorated the outsides of their homes with evergreen branches and decorated trees with ornaments and other festive decor.Some people believe that Germans began the tradition of Christmas trees, but most believe that Germans simply began the tradition of decorating Christmas trees with lights and ornaments. Of course, lights were in the form of candles, instead of the colored bulbs that are used in modern celebrations.Other Christmas plants, such as poinsettias, also originated in pagan traditions.

While many of these Christmas traditions have evolved over time and do not follow their origins or roots exactly, it is still important to know why certain celebrations take place. Learning about the history of Christmas traditions can be a fun family activity during the Christmas season.