Christmas Customs

Christmas, like most holidays, is filled with it's own legends, and traditions. As families, we take part in them, rarely questioning 'why'. Below are some explanations I found for some of the most recognized symbols and rituals of Christmas.

Advent Calendar

Christmas Gifts Ornaments
Advent Wreath Christmas Tree Plum Pudding
Bells Dipping In The Kettle Poinsettia
Bird's Tree First-Footing Reindeer
Blowing In The Yule Holly Star
Candle Kissing Bough Wassail
Chimney Lambs Wool Yule Log
Christmas Lights
Christmas Card Magi
Christmas Carols Mistletoe
Christmas Day North Pole

Advent Calendar

The Advent Calendar originated in Germany and Scandinavia, but it has become very popular in America as well.   Sometimes it is a picture of a house with windows that can be opened to reveal the tiny pictures behind them.  Other times it is a picture of a typical Christmas scene with perforated areas that can be removed or opened to reveal the picture behind them.   There is one window or flap for each day of Advent or sometimes one for each day of December leading up to Christmas.  Each day the children are allowed to reveal one picture.  The pictures that are revealed are of toys or Christmas scenes.  The last and largest picture is for December 25th.  It is the nativity scene, which gives meaning to all the joy and fun that the other pictures represent.


Advent Wreath

The Advent Wreath us if Lutheran origin, but it has become popular with many other religious groups in both England and America.  It is made of evergreen with four candles attached.  The wreath is used both on church alters and in the home. Beginning four Sundays before Christmas, on the first Sunday of Advent, one candle is lit each week as a symbol of the light that will come into the world with the birth of Jesus.  In some countries the candles are lit without the use of a wreath.


Bells   bells2.gif (2771 bytes)

The ringing of the bells at Christmas time is a holdover from pagan mid-winter celebrations.   They believed that when the earth was so cold and the sun was dying, evil spirits were very powerful.  One of the ways to ward them off was by making a great deal of noise.  Since its was also rather fun, the noisemaking ceremonies brought much good will.  Bells were a very important part of this.  Today, the church bells ring throughout the world on Christmas Eve, not to drive off evil spirits, but to welcome in the spirit of Christmas with joyful noise.  In Scandinavia, bells signal the end of work and the beginning of the festivities.  In England, the tolling of the devil's knell welcomes the birth of Christ.  In Italy and Spain, it signals the beginning of Midnight Mass.


Bird's Tree   image62a.jpg (3693 bytes)

This is a Scandinavian custom at Christmas time.  It is the spirit of sharing the festivities with all animals and plant life so that the coming year will be a prosperous one.  A sheaf of wheat or some other grain, or even just seed and bread, is placed on a pole and set outside where the birds are know to congregate.  This is done on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  The sight and sounds of the Bird's Christmas Tree adds to the the warmth of the indoor celebrations.


Blowing In The Yule

One of the delightfully noisy traditions of Christmas, this custom probably originated in Pagan times to ward off evil spirits.  Today it is found in areas of Germany and Scandinavian countries.   A group of musicians take their instruments to the belfry of the local church and play four Christmas carols, one in each direction of the compass.  This is finished off by the peal of the the church bells, which announces that Christmas has arrived.


Candle    cmas17.gif (4546 bytes)

Light was an important part of the pagan midwinter festivals, since this was the time when the sun ceased to wane and began to grow stronger and brighter.  In imitation candles and bonfires helped to drive away the forces of the cold and darkness.  ax tapers were given as gifts at the Roman festival of Saturnalia.  To the Christian community, the lighting of the candles took on the additional symbolic significance of Jesus as the Light of the World.  Christmas candles are made in all shapes, sizes and colors and are very often scented with balsam or evergreen.  The tradition of candle shinning from the window, is still practiced today.  In Sweden, St. Lucy appears wearing a crown of candles.  In Victorian England, tradesman made annual gifts of candles to their loyal patrons.  In many parts of the world, the Advent candles reflect the dawning season and remind us of the coming Light.  The addition of lighted candles to the paradise tree marked the birth of our most beloved Christmas tree.  The Christmas candles, with their brightness, sacredness and sense of well-being, is an indispensable part of the Christmas season.



In Scandinavia and Germany, Santa comes on December 24th, knocking on the front door like normal people.  In England and America, the visit is secret and thus the entrance must be special - the chimney.



From Old English Cristes maesse (Christ's Mass), older still is Yule from the Germanic root geol.  The traditional Christmas is not a single day, but a prolonged period normally from December 24th to January 6th.  This included the New Year thus increasing the festival value of Christmas.


Christmas Card

The practice of sending a Christmas greeting card to friends was initiated by Sir Henry Cole in England.  The year was 1843 and the first card was designed by J.C. Horsley.  1000 copies were sold in London.  An English artist, William Eagley, produced a popular card in 1849.   Louis Prang, a German-born printer, working from his shop in Roxbury, Massachusetts, printed his first American cards in 1875.  Even more important than his printing the card, was the fact that he did more than anyone else to popularize the cards.  He did this by instituting nationwide contests for the best Christmas designs and awarded cash prizes.  From the beginning the themes have been as varied as the customs of the world.  Creation of the "penny post" by the British postal system made it inexpensive to send them to a large number of friends.


Christmas Carols   xmassinger.gif (1913 bytes)

The Catholic Church valued music greatly and it is no wonder that the early Christmas songs date from the 4th century.  The Mediaeval Christmas music followed the Gregorian tradition.  In Renaissance Italy there emerged a lighter and more joyous kind of Christmas songs, more like the true carols.   These songs continued to be religious and in Latin.  In Protestant countries the traditions intensified.

Luther wrote and composed his song "From Heaven Above I come To You".  Music by Handel and Mendelssohn was adapted and used as Christmas carols.  The most famous carol of all, Silent Night, (Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht) was written by the Australian parish priest Joseph Mohr and composed by Franz Gruber, church organist, in 1818.  In the 19th century and later many popular songs were written by composers.


Christmas Day   sntmrry.gif (9031 bytes)

The traditional date for the appearance of Santa Claus, obviously from the birth date of Jesus (the word Christmas is from the old English, meaning Christ's mass).  This date is near the shortest day of the  year, which in old times was an important   agricultural and solar feasting time in Europe.  The actual birth date of Jesus is not known and the early Church Fathers in the 4th century fixed the day as the most convenient.  The best fit seemed to be around the Old Roman Saturnalia Festival (Dec. 17 -21), a traditional pagan festivity with unruly celebrations.  Moreover, in 273, Emperor Aurelianus invented a new pagan religion, the cult of Sol Invictus (invincible sun, the same as the Iranian god Mithra), the birthday of this god being December 25th.  The Christian priests obviously saw this choice as doubly meritorious: using the old customary and popular feasting date but changing the rough pagan ways to a more civilized commemoration.    Th first mention of the birthday of Jesus is in the year 354.  Gradually, all Christian churches, with the exception of the Armenians, accepted this day.  The Armenians celebrated on Jan. 6, which is the date others celebrate as as the baptismal day of Jesus and the day of the three Magi.  In American / English tradition, the Christmas Day itself is the day for Santa.  In German / Scandinavian tradition, the Christmas Eve is reserved for presents.


Christmas Gifts

There are many roots of this custom. There is St. Nicholas the anonymous benefactor.  There is the tradition of Magi giving precious gifts to Jesus, there is the Roman custom of giving gifts of good luck to children during Saturnalia. The day of gift giving varies greatly in different Christian cultures and times:
6th December - in memory of St. Nicholas
24th December - Christmas Eve
25th December - Birthday of Jesus
1st of January - the New year
6th of January - The Epiphany, day of the Three Wise men, the Magi
The giver of the presents are many: Jesus himself, Old Father Christmas, Santa Claus, a Goat, Befana (the female Santa in Italy), the three Magi, Christmas gnomes, various Saints, the Kolyada (in Russia), the Joulupukki (in Finland). The oldest Finnish tradition did not necessarily involve a giver of the presents at all: an unseen person threw the gifts in from the door and quickly disappeared.


Christmas Tree   tree.gif

The custom of a Christmas tree, undecorated, is believed to have begun in Germany, in the first half of the 700's. The earliest story relates how British monk and missionary St. Boniface was preaching a sermon on the Nativity to a tribe of Germanic Druids outside the town of Geismar. To convince the idolaters that the oak tree was not sacred and inviolable, the "Apostle of Germany" felled one on the spot. Toppling, it crushed every shrub in its path except for a small fir sapling. A chance event can lend itself to numerous interpretations, and legend has it that Boniface, attempting to win converts, interpreted the fir's survival as a miracle, concluding, "Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child." Subsequent Christmases in Germany were celebrated by planting fir saplings.

The history of the modern Christmas tree goes back to 16th century Germany. In Alsace (Elsass), dated 1561, states that "no burgher shall have for Christmas more than one bush of more than eight shoes' length." The decorations hung on a tree in that time, the earliest we have evidence of, were "roses cut of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gilt, sugar." Around Strasbourg there was a widespread practice of bringing trees (evergreens, not necessarily a fir-tree) into houses for decoration during Christmastide.

The modern custom is also connected with the Paradise tree hung with apples, present in the medieval religious plays. The decorations could symbolize the Christian Hosts. Instead of trees, various wooden pyramidal structures were also used. In 17th century the Christmas tree spread through Germany and Scandinavia. Eventually the tree was extensively decorated, first with candles and candies, then with apples and confections, later with anything glittering mass-produced paraphernalia.

The success of Christmas tree in Protestant countries was enhanced by the legend which attributed the tradition to Martin Luther himself. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles. In England the tradition was made popular by the German Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The German immigrants brought the Christmas tree to America in 17th century. Public outdoors Christmas trees with electric candles were introduced in Finland in 1906, and in USA (New York) in 1912. The claim of the Pennsylvania Germans to have initiated the Christmas tree custom in America is undisputed today. And it's in the diary of Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, under the date December 20, 1821, that the Christmas tree and its myriad decorations received their first mention in the New World.

It is no surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The Pilgrims' second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event."


Dipping In The Kettle

In memory of an ancient famine, the family gathers in Swedish kitchens on Christmas Eve before the midday meal. A great pot is filled with a broth made of drippings of pork, sausage and corned beef. Each family member dips a piece of dark bread on a fork into the broth until the bread is saturated and then eats it. This is necessary for good luck and a coming year of plenty.



In some areas of the world, such as Scotland, first-footing takes place at the New Year, but in much of England it happens on Christmas Day. The first-footer is the first person to enter the house and is said to let in Christmas. In some areas, he is professionally hired to be sure that all is done properly, because there are many superstitions involved in the custom. He carries an evergreen twig, comes in at the front door, passes through the house and exits through the rear. He may be given salt or bread or some other small gift as a symbol of hospitality. He should have dark hair, but not red hair and to let a woman in first is thought to be disastrous.


Holly    holly.jpg (12413 bytes)
Holly is a familiar green shrub, usually thought if as having red berries and dark glossy green leaves with thorny tips, although there are many other varieties. The bright colors of the holly made it a natural symbol of rebirth and life in the winter whiteness of northern Europe. In late December, the Teutonic peoples traditionally placed holly and other evergreens around the interior of dwellings to ward off winter bad weather and unwanted spirits. Holly flourishes in almost every kind of soil and extreme temperatures, but does not do well in the shade. The berries are poisonous to human beings. Traditionally in England, the prickly holly is called "he" and the non-prickly "she". Which type of holly first brought into the house at Christmas determines who will rule the household for the coming year.


Kissing Bough

Until the introduction of the Christmas tree in the middle of the nineteenth century, the kissing bough was the primary piece of decorative greenery in the English Christmas. It was in the shape of a double hoop with streamers going up to a central point, like a Maypole with two circle garlands. It was made up of evergreen boughs, holly and ivy and hung with apples and pears and ribbons and ornaments, with lighted candles and a bunch of mistletoe hanging from the center. As its name implies, the woman who accidentally wandered under the kissing bough had to pay the ancient penalty and allow herself to be kissed.


Lambs Wool

This was one of the traditional hot drinks that would have gone into the wassail bowl of England; it was the toast floating on the top that made it look like lamb's wool. The drink was made up of hot ale, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, eggs and roasted apples.



One of the greatest sources of danger in the old Christmas celebration was the burning of candles on the Christmas tree. They were lovely but they were a fire hazard and pails of water were kept standing around the living room to douse the fires that happened. The idea of electric Christmas tree lights first occurred to Ralph E. Morris, an employee of New England Telephone, in 1895. The actual strings of lights had already been manufactured for use in telephone switchboards. Morris looked at the tiny bulbs and had the idea of using them on his tree.


Magi    cmas18.gif (2700 bytes)

From old Persian language, a priest of Zarathustra (Zoroaster). The Bible gives us the direction, East and the legend states that the wise men were from Persia (Iran) - Balthasar, Melchior, Caspar - thus being priests of Zarathustra religion, the mages. Obviously the pilgrimage had some religious significance for these men, otherwise they would not have taken the trouble and risk of travelling so far.



Sacred to ancient druids and a symbol of eternal life the same way as Christmas tree. The Romans valued it as a symbol of peace and this lead eventually its acceptance among Christmas props. Kissing under mistletoe was a Roman custom, too.


North Pole    apole1.gif (5048 bytes)

The supposed dwelling place of the American Father Christmas. No clear significance of any kind. Probably connected with the general "Northern exposure"of the American Christmas lore. The fact that Christmas is pronouncedly Winter's festivity may contribute: North Pole is Winter doubled.


Ornaments    orn2.gif (12233 bytes)

The first Christmas trees had real fruit and flowers as their only ornaments. Cookies, nuts and other kinds of food were later added. Lighted candles were placed on the trees. All of this was understandably heavy, and took a sturdy tree to stand up. German glass blowers began producing featherweight glass balls to replace the fruit and other heavy ornaments.


Plum Pudding

The first plum puddings were made around 1670. They were a stiffened form of the earlier plum porridge. Plum puddings to not contain any plums. To the early mild porridge were added lumps of meat, dried fruits such as raisins and currants, rum and brandy, butter, sugar, eggs and many spices. They were made in large copper kettles and prepared several weeks before Christmas. The making of the pudding was attended by the entire household & each family member took turns at stirring the thick steaming stew and each made a wish. A coin, a thimble, a button and a ring were mixed into the pudding. Later when it was eaten, each object would have significance for the finder. The coin would mean wealth in the new year, the button meant bachelorhood, the thimble spinsterhood and the ring was marriage.


Poinsettia    tn_point4.jpg (2864 bytes)

In Mexican legend, a small boy knelt at the altar of his village church on Christmas Eve. He had nothing to offer the Christ Child on his birthday because he had no money, but his prayers were sincere and a miracle gave him the present that could be bought by no one; the first Flower of the Holy Night sprang up at his feet in brilliant red and green homage to the holy birth. Thus was born the flower we know as the Poinsettia. Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett was the American ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1829. His keen interest in botany made him very interested in the Flower of the Holy Night and he brought it back to his home in South Carolina. It became very popular as a Christmas plant and was named after him.



Cute creatures and Santa must use some form of transport. If He comes from North, why not reindeers, who can be saddled with various fabulous names as well. An American add-on to the story.


Star    star.gif (6376 bytes)

The astrological/astronomical phenomenon which triggered the travel of the Magi to give presents to child Jesus. Variously described as a supernova or a conjunction of planets it supposedly happened around the year 7 BC - the most probable true birth year of Christ. Star is often put to the top of the Christmas tree.



The word wassail evolved from the old Anglo-Saxon term waes hael, which means be well or hale. The custom originated as a pagan agricultural festival. To help increase the yield of apple orchards, the trees must be saluted in the dead of winter. So at varying times during the twelve days of Christmas, a procession would visit selected trees from the various orchards and either sprinkle the wassail mixture or break a bottle of it against the trunk. The mixture used on the trees was not exact. It could be mulled ale or cider or wine with apples or eggs in it. Just so, the wassail bowl has never turned into a recipe, but is usually left out the inspiration of the mixer.


Yule Log

When Yule became Christmas, the yule log was divested of its religious connotations but none of its superstitions. The log must be obtained by the family itself, not bought from someone else. It had to be lighted with a piece of last year's Yule log. It must burn continuously for the twelve days of Christmas. If your shadow cast by the light of the Yule log fire seemed to be headless, you would die within one year. The log's ashes could cure ailments and avert lightning.