Christmas Customs and Observances
In addition to the date, other aspects of Christmas owe their origins to pagan celebrations, such as the Yule log, the Christmas tree, gift-giving, and lights. Although sometimes maligned today, the Christian appropriation of pagan customs would likely have been regarded positively by early Christians as a victory for Christ over paganism and a way to win more souls. This general strategy seems evident in the choice of December 25, as outlined above.
Religious Observances Religious observances of Christmas center around special worship services, which are characterized by the extensive use of candlelight and are often held at midnight. In Bethlehem, Midnight Mass is celebrated at the place of Jesus’ birth in the ancient Church of the Nativity. Another popular semi-religious observance is singing Christmas carols, both in church and door-to-door in one’s neighborhood.
Christmas Trees The English language phrase “Christmas tree” is first recorded in 1835. It was imported from the German-speaking world, where it is Tannenbaum, literally “fir tree”, or Weinachtenbaum, “Christmas tree.” The modern Christmas tree tradition probably began in Germany in the 18th century, though some argue that Martin Luther began the tradition in the 16th century.
From Germany the Christmas tree custom was introduced to England, first via Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, and then more successfully by Prince Albert during the reign of Queen Victoria. Around the same time, German immigrants introduced the custom into the United States. Christmas trees are usually decorated with lights and ornaments.
The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs, and an adaptation of pagan tree worship.
Other popular holiday plants include holly, mistletoe, red amaryllis, and Christmas cactus. Christian tradition associates the holly tree with the crown of thorns, and says that its leaves were white until stained red by the blood of Christ. Along with a Christmas tree, the interior of a home may be decorated with these plants, along with garlands and evergreen foliage.
Christmas Lights and Other Decorations In North and South America, Australia, and increasingly in Europe, it is traditional to decorate the outside of houses with lights and sometimes with illuminated sleighs, snowmen, and other Christmas figures. Municipalities often sponsor decorations as well. Christmas banners may be hung from street lights and Christmas trees placed in the town square.
The display of Christmas villages has also become a tradition in many homes during the Christmas season. Other traditional decorations include bells, candles, candy canes, stockings, wreaths, and angels. In the Western world, rolls of brightly-colored paper with secular or religious Christmas motifs are manufactured for the purpose of wrapping gifts.
Santa Claus, St. Nick, and Other Gift-Bringers In the Western world, where Christmas is characterized by the exchange of gifts among friends and family members, some of the gifts are attributed to a character called Santa Claus. He is also known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, St. Nikolaus, Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle, Joulupukki, Weihnachtsmann, Saint Basil and Father Frost.
The popular image of Santa Claus was created by the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902), who drew a new image of the character annually, beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast’s Santa had evolved into the form we now recognize. The image was standardized by advertisers in the 1920s.
Father Christmas, who predates Santa Claus, was first recorded in the 15th century and then associated with holiday merrymaking and drunkenness. In Victorian Britain, his image was remade to match that of Santa. The French Père Noël evolved along similar lines, eventually adopting the Santa image.
In Italy, Babbo Natale acts as Santa Claus, while La Befana is the bringer of gifts and arrives on the eve of the Epiphany. It is said that La Befana set out to bring the baby Jesus gifts, but got lost along the way. Now, she brings gifts to all children. In some cultures, such as Germany, Santa Claus is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter.
The current tradition in several Latin American countries is that Santa makes the toys, but gives them to the Baby Jesus to deliver to children’s homes. This helps reconcile traditional religious beliefs with modern day globalization, most notably the iconography of Santa Claus imported from the United States.
In Southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Alto Adige/Südtirol (Italy) and Liechtenstein the Christkind (Christ Child) brings the presents as well. The German St. Nikolaus is not identical with the Weihnachtsman (Christmas Man, the German version of Santa Claus). St. Nikolaus wears a bishop’s dress, brings small gifts (usually candies, nuts and fruits) on December 6, and is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht.