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Saturday, December 9, 2017

How Did Our Holiday Traditions Originate?

Celebration of Christmas

Americans observe December 25 as a national holiday to observe Christmas. Where did this tradition originate?

Christmas originated as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, the person who Christians believe to be their Messiah. It appears that Christians first began celebrating the birth of Jesus within a couple hundred years of his birth, but it wasn’t until the fourth century that it was officially recognized by the Roman government.

Why did early Christians choose to celebrate his birth on December 25? A number of theories have been postulated on this one, but the leading theory is that December 25 was the time when the Romans celebrated the festival of Saturnalia. What was Saturnalia?

In Roman culture, Saturn was worshiped as the god of agriculture. Unlike America, Europe would’ve experienced their winter solstice (shortest day of the year) around December 25. Therefore, starting on December 17, the Romans would celebrate Saturnalia as a week-long festival to celebrate the return of the sun for the spring season. This festival, which involved a lot of drinking, was not sanctioned by the early Christians. So it is theorized that Christians set Christmas during this same time to rival Saturnalia.[1]

When Europeans (mostly persecuted Protestants) first began coming to America, they made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. But by the 1680s, celebrating Christmas became legalized. However, the federal government didn’t recognize December 25 as a federal holiday until 1870.[2]

Gift Giving

Surprisingly, the tradition of gift giving does not have Christian origins, nor is it primarily associated with St. Nicholas. Instead, it appears to have originated as a carryover tradition from the Roman Saturnalia festival.

During the festival, people gave “one another gifts such as pottery figurines, edible treats like fruit and nuts, and festive candles.”[3] This tradition is supposed to have carried over into the Christmas celebrations of early Christians.

What about the wise men? When the wise men came to see Jesus, they acknowledged that he was a king. In Eastern culture, it was common for people to bring a gift to the king when they visited him. So the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh which were presented to Jesus were understood as gifts being given to a king.

What about Santa Claus?

Santa Claus and His Reindeer

What would the holiday season be without Santa and his reindeer? I’ll start with the legend of Santa Claus.

St. Nicholas was a Catholic bishop in the fourth century who valued giving gifts, especially to people who were in great need. As legend has it, there was a poor man who had three daughters. At that time, it was customary for the father of the bride to give money to the bridegroom called a dowry, but because he was poor, he didn’t have the ability to give a dowry to their bridegrooms, meaning that his daughters couldn’t get married. But in the middle of the night, St. Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the man’s chimney which fell into a stocking which had been hung up by the fire to dry. When the man figured out that St. Nicholas was responsible for giving the gift, he told all his friends and news spread such that whenever people received a secret gift, they attributed it to St. Nicholas.[4]

How did St. Nicholas become Santa Claus? The Dutch knew St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolass. In America, the name was shortened among the Dutch to Sinteklaas and later morphed into the English name Santa Claus.[5] Say Sinteklaas out loud and you’ll see the connection.

Where did Santa’s reindeer originate? The first mention of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh is from a poem written in 1822 by Clement Clarke Moore titled, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” This poem was later renamed “Twas the Night before Christmas.” In this poem, Santa is supposed to travel from house to house in a flying sleigh powered by eight reindeer named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen.

In 1939, Robert May wrote a book about Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer who was teased by the other reindeer for his glowing red nose, but when a foggy Christmas Eve came, he was commissioned to be the light for Santa’s sleigh. This book sold millions of copies, was adapted into a song which became a Gene Autry hit, and was made into a popular children’s movie in 1961.[6]

Christmas Carols

Growing up, our youth group made an annual visit to some of the elderly folks in our church to sing Christmas carols. We’ve all heard carols such as Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

The word carol means to dance or sing a song of praise or joy. Like some of the other traditions we’ve seen so far, it seems to have originated during Saturnalia. The Romans would sing praises to their god.[7]

When Christians first began celebrating Christmas, carols were a part of the celebrations. Throughout the middle ages, carols all but disappeared, but in the past couple hundred years, they have revived as an important part of the holiday season.


The day after Thanksgiving, families begin pulling out their holiday decorations such as trees, ornaments, and lights. Where did these traditions originate? Let’s start with the Christmas tree.

It appears that the custom of setting up a tree first originated in Egypt with palm trees, was customary in Babylon with evergreen trees, and was used in the Roman festival of Saturnalia with fir trees.[8] During this festival, Romans placed fir trees decorated with red berries in their temples and decorated their homes with branches of fir trees.

No one really knows when fir trees were first used as Christmas trees, but it’s speculated that they were first used around a thousand years ago and these trees were hung upside down from the ceiling. In the seventeenth century, Germans began decorating their trees with gingerbread, gold colored apples, and glass ornaments.

Christmas tree lights were added shortly after the invention of the light bulb. They became more publicized in 1895 when Grover Cleveland had the tree in the White House decorated with Christmas lights. Over time, different colors were added and the lights evolved into what they are today.[9]

What did you find most interesting about these holiday traditions? Are there any others that interest you?

[1] David Pack, “The True Origins of Christmas,” The Real Truth: A Magazine Restoring Plain Understanding, n.d., accessed December 9, 2017. Also see “Christmas Day in the United States,” n.d., accessed December 9, 2017,
[2] “Christmas Day in the United States,” n.d., accessed December 9, 2017,
[3] “A Brief History of the Christmas Present,” The Week, December 20, 2014, accessed December 9, 2017,
[4] “St. Nicholas, Santa Claus & Father Christmas,” Why Christmas, n.d., accessed December 9, 2017,
[5] “Santa Claus,” History, n.d., accessed December 9, 2017,
[6] Ibid.
[7] “The History of Christmas Carols,” Why Christmas, n.d., accessed December 9, 2017,
[8] David Pack, “The True Origins of Christmas.”
[9] “The History of Christmas Trees,” Why Christmas, n.d., accessed December 9, 2017,


  1. Tell me more about Christmas being illegal in the early years. That seems inconsistent with the religious freedom which we're told the early Europeans were seeking...

    1. Check out this article: Basically, the Puritans who originally settled in the Boston area disagreed with the general atmosphere of Christmas celebrations which included partying and merrymaking, not to mention that it had pagan origins. Therefore, it was banned.

      This next part is my opinion based on my study of early American history. It seems to me that religious freedom had a different definition to the early colonists than it does to us today. At this time in history (1600s), Europe was not religiously free. The Roman Catholic Church, which in many ways controlled Europe at the time, persecuted people who weren't Catholic, especially Protestants. The Puritans were a group of Protestants who experienced persecution from the Roman Catholic Church. They saw America as being "religiously free" because they were free from the Roman Catholic Church, but that doesn't necessarily mean they believed in religious freedom across the board. Since the Boston area was dominated by Puritans, it makes sense that for the most part, the people there would've obliged to Christmas being illegal.