Christmas: Customs, Traditions and Things

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Sinter Klaas
Christmas is a Christian holy day that marks the birth of Jesus, the son of God. Most Christians — Roman Catholics and Protestants — celebrate Christmas on December 25. Greek Orthodox Christians celebrate it in January 6th according to the Julian Calendar. Armenian Orthodox Christians celebrate it on January 6, or, in the Holy Land, on January 18. Christmas Day is the Christian festival most celebrated by non-churchgoers. Churches are often completely full for services Christmas Day and late on Christmas Eve. [Source: BBC]

According to the BBC: “An important part of today's Christmas is the myth of Father Christmas (called Santa Claus in America). His origins are in Christian and European tradition. But the visual image of Father Christmas that we have today is the one popularised by American card-makers in the Victorian era. Traditionally, Father Christmas visits houses at midnight on Christmas Eve, coming down the chimney to leave presents. Children hang up stockings - nowadays usually large socks with Christmas patterns knitted into them - for Father Christmas to fill with little toys and presents ('stocking fillers'). Some traditions surrounding Father Christmas pre-date Christianity. His sleigh, pulled by reindeer, is left over from Scandinavian mythology. The practice of leaving mince pies and a glass of milk or brandy for him on Christmas Eve may be a remnant of Pagan sacrifices made to mark the end of winter and the coming of spring. [Source: June 22, 2009, BBC |::|]

“The USA has the figure of Santa Claus, whose name comes from Saint Nicholas via the Dutch Sinterklaas. Saint Nicholas of Myra (a location in modern-day Turkey) is, among other things, the patron saint of sailors. A famous story has him anonymously delivering bags of gold coins to a man who could not afford dowry for his daughters to get married. Some versions of this story even have Saint Nick dropping the bags down the chimney. In modern times the figures of Father Christmas and Santa Claus are indistinguishable. |::|

St. Nicholas Day on December 6th commemorates the day when the saint brought back to life three children who had been cut up into little pieces. In Greece it is celebrated by children making rounds singing Christmas carols accompanied by tin drums and tinkling triangles. In Fribourg, Switzerland a man dresses as St. Nicholas, the bishop, and is paraded through the streets on the back of a donkey led by a black-robed figure. After the parade is over the bishop stands on platform and give a satirical speech with some rather nasty remarks.

The Feast of St. Nicholas on December 5th is a major holiday in the Netherlands. On the night before the feast children leave their shoes by the fireplace with lumps of sugar and carrots for Sinterklaas's horse. The next morning there are small tarts in their shoes and a large gift. Family friends often leave gift at the door, ring he doorbell and run away. Family members exchange chocolates with a person's initials and gifts, often with a humorous or teasing poem attached.

Websites and Resources on Christianity BBC on Christianity ;Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website ; Internet Sourcebook ; Christian Denominations: Holy See ; Catholic Online ; Catholic Encyclopedia ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches BBC on Baptists ; BBC on Methodists ; ; Orthodox Church in America ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church

Cribs for Christmas

According to the BBC: “The telling of the Christmas story has been an important part of the Christianisation of Christmas. One way that the Christmas story has been maintained is through the crib, a model of the manger that Jesus was born in. The tradition of crib making dates back to at least 400 AD when Pope Sixtus III had one built in Rome. In many parts of Europe in the 18th century crib making was an important craft form. [Source: June 22, 2009, BBC |::|]

nativity scene in Denmark

According to Cribs are used in Churches all over the world and even in some homes (we have a wooden one in my house) to remind people of the story. Sometimes religious pictures and statues are called icons. Some Catholic and Orthodox Christians have icons of Mary and the baby Jesus in their homes. [Source:]

In some countries such as Italy and Malta, and many South American countries, the crib is the most important Christmas decoration. The city of Naples, in Italy, has used cribs to decorate houses and Churches since the 1020s! That's even before St. Francis of Assisi put on his play. Naples is also the home to the worlds largest nativity crib scene. It's in the 'Museo Nazionale di S. Martino' and has 162 people, 80 animals, angels, and about 450 other smaller objects. Find out more about Nativity cribs in Naples in Italy. Cribs also have a long tradition and importance in Malta, where they are called 'Presepju'. There's a special society that keep the tradition alive.

Nativity Scenes

Nativity scenes, called “presepios” , or “créches”, are very popular in Italy. St Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first re-reenactment of the Nativity Scene in 1223 in Greccio near Terni in the Lazio region of Italy. St. Francis reportedly was appalled by elaborate re-creations of the Christmas birth in noble courts and sough to create something more basic humble, using borrowed straw and farm animals. But this seems unlikely in that the elaborate re-creations appeared centuries after his death. The word nativity comes from the latin word 'natal' which means birth (and is also where we get the word 'native' from).

The nativity scene custom was popularized in Naples, where prespios became an art form and the premier hobby in the baroque period in the 17th and 18th centuries. Bourbon royals and nobleman set up huge and elaborate displays in their homes. Over the year the prespeios became more irreverent as the Holy Family was joined by politicians, clowns, local craftsmen and workers and popular personalities of that day. Some had hundred of figures, the majority wearing Italian rather Middle Eastern clothes.

The main figures in the nativity scenes are usually made from ceramic or terra-cotta. It the past they were made of hemp or oakum wrapped around a framework of iron wire that allowed for poses to be changed, and had wooden heads. Some were made by famous sculptors and craftsmen and featured exquisite details. Ranging in size from 8 to 18 inches, they often wore exquisitely-made silk costumes.

The scenes often feature tiny, finely-crafted reproductions of antique porcelain, silver censors, and baskets of waxed fruit. The backgrounds are usually made from cork, wood and plaster and trees are made of branches of bonsai trees and moss. Landscapes are usually associated more with southern Italy than the Holy Land and the houses have details like pealing paint, drooping balconies and cracked windows.

Saint Francis and the Nativity

Modern day creches feature Italian Communist leaders dressed as executioners, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi carrying wads of cash, the actresses Sophia Loren and Gina Lollibrigida and film directors Federico Fellini and Franco Zephirelli.

A Christmas-time tradition in Italy is for mothers to take their children shopping for painted plaster animals, figures and huts for the family Nativity scene. During Christmas houses are decorated with lights, flower arrangements, and plastic Madonnas with crowns of small electric lights in addition to nativity scenes. Friends give each other tree branches called “strenne” to express their best wishes for the holiday season. Some people have Christmas trees but that is regarded as a German tradition. A traditional Italian Christmas dinner includes seafood antipasto, pasta with fish sauce, panettone (fruitcake).

Nativity Plays

The tradition of Nativity plays began in churches where they were used to illustrate the Christmas story as told in the Bible. According to “It is traditional in the UK for Primary (Elementary) schools to perform Nativity Play for the parents and local people associated with the school. The Nativity Play recreates the scene of Jesus' Birth and tells of how Mary and Joseph were visited by the Shepherds and Wise Men. The parts of Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise Men are played by children. If the school is attached to a Church, the play often takes place in the Church. Sunday Schools in Churches also sometimes put on Nativity Plays. [Source:]

children's nativity play

“In the past, it was common for live animals including an ox and donkey and other farm animals (but not pigs) to be used in the plays. Sometimes they still are, but it is now more common for children to dress up as the animals in costumes or to have animal props.

The first nativity play was performed in a cave in Italy by St. Francis of Assisi and some of his monks in 1223 to remind the local population that Jesus was born for them, as he was born into a poor family like theirs and not to a rich family. St. Francis told the part of each character in the story himself using wooden figures in the play. After a couple of years, the play had become so popular that real people played the parts of the characters in the story. Songs were sung by the people taking part and they became what we call Christmas carols today!

Christmas Trees and Presents

The custom of gift giving on Christmas has it origins in ancient festivals such as the Roman midwinter festival. It honors the gifts given by the Wise men to Jesus. The story of St. Nicholas has one episode in which he provides three daughters of an impoverished nobleman with doweries. Some people believe this was the basis of the Christmas gift giving.

Some people open presents on Christmas morning. Others open them at night on Christmas Eve. Those that do the latter in Spain and Latin American countries often invite people to Christmas Eve dinner at 7:30pm but they usually don't show up until 8:30 or 9:00. Dinner is usually served around 10:00pm. Presents are often opened before midnight to appease nagging children and so some people can attend midnight Mass. Toasts and partying often extend late into the night and people often spend much of Christmas day sleeping.

The idea of the Tannenbaum, or Christmas tree, comes from Germany. The custom may have been derived from maypoles. The first trees were hung from the ceiling like a chandelier. The custom was exported to America. Yule logs also come from Germany. Holly is used in Christmas, some say, because thorns and red berries are symbols of the crown of thorns and blood. A traditional German Christmas dinner includes goose stuffed with apples and leeks, potato dumplings, red and green cabbage, light and dark beer, “stolen” (a sweet bread with candied fruit) and “pfeffernusse” (old-fashion German Christmas cookies),

History of Christmas Trees

German Christmas tree

According to “Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. [Source: |+|]

“Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, 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. |+|

“Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans. |+|

“It is not 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’s 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.” In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy. |+|

tallest Christmas tree in Germany in 2017

“In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived. By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling. |+|

“The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition. |+|

Christmas Traditions from Germany

Many Christmas traditions practiced around the world today started in Germany. According to “It has been long thought that Martin Luther began the tradition of bringing a fir tree into the home. According to one legend, late one evening Martin Luther was walking home through the woods and noticed how beautifully the stars shone through the trees. He wanted to share the beauty with his wife so he cut down a fir tree and took it home. Once inside he placed small lighted candles on the branches and said that it would be a symbol of the beautiful Christmas sky. Hence, the Christmas tree. [Source: |+|]

“Another legend says that in the early 16th century, people in Germany combined two customs that had been practiced in different countries around the globe. The Paradise tree (a fir tree decorated with apples) represented the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Christmas Light, a small, pyramid-like frame, usually decorated with glass balls, tinsel, and a candle on top, was a symbol of the birth of Christ as the Light of the World. Changing the tree’s apples to tinsel balls and cookies; and combining this new tree with the Light placed on top, the Germans created the tree that many of us know now. |+|

“Today, the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) is traditionally decorated in secret with lights, tinsel, and ornaments by the mother and is lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts, and gifts under its branches.” |+|

Christmas Wreaths and Kissing Boughs

Christmas wreath in the UK

According to “Hanging a circular wreath of evergreens during mid winter seems to go back a very long way. It might have started back in Roman times when wreaths were hung on their doors as a sign of victory and of their status. Rich Roman women also wore them as headdresses at special occasions like weddings and to show they were posh. Roman Emperors also wore Laurel Wreaths. They were also given to the winners of events in the original Olympic Games in Greece. [Source:]

“The word 'wreath' comes from the Old English word 'writhen' which means to writhe or twist. Christmas Wreaths as we know them today, might have started life as Kissing Boughs (see below) or come from the German and Easter European custom of Advent Wreaths.

“In the UK, before Christmas Trees became popular and dating back to the middle ages, another popular form of Christmas/mid winter decoration was the Kissing Bough or Bunch. These were made of five wooden hoops that made the shape of a ball (four hoops vertical to form the ball and then the fifth horizontal to go around the middle). The hoops were covered with Holly, Ivy, Rosemary, Bay, Fir or other evergreen plants. Inside the hoops were hung red apples (often hung from red ribbons) and a candle was either put inside the ball at the bottom or round the horizontal hoop. The bough was finished by hanging a large bunch of mistletoe from the bottom of the ball. (For a simpler bough you could also just have a horizontal hoop decorated and hung with apples and the mistletoe.)”

Holly, Ivy and Christmas Plants

According to “Holly, Ivy and other greenery such as Mistletoe were originally used in pre-Christian times to help celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival and ward off evil spirits and to celebrate new growth.When Christianity came into Western Europe, some people wanted to keep the greenery, to give it Christian meanings but also to ban the use of it to decorate homes. The UK and Germany were the main countries to keep the use of the greenery as decorations. Here are the Christian meanings: [Source:]

Christmas Holly: The prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. The berries are the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns. In Scandinavia it is known as the Christ Thorn. In pagan times, Holly was thought to be a male plant and Ivy a female plant. An old tradition from the Midlands of England says that whatever one was brought into the house first over winter, tells you whether the man or woman of the house would rule that year! But it was unlucky to bring either into a house before Christmas Eve.

Christmas Ivy: Ivy has to cling to something to support itself as it grows. This reminds us that we need to cling to God for support in our lives.In Germany, it is traditional that Ivy is only used outside and a piece tied to the outside of a Church was supposed to protect it from lightning!


Laurel has been worn as a wreath on the head to symbolise success and victory for thousands of years. It symbolizes the victory of God over the Devil. Fir and Yew trees are evergreen and so signify everlasting life with God. Fir is also very commonly used for Christmas Trees.

Rosemary was connected with the Virgin Mary (because it was thought to be Mary's favorite plant) and people thought that it could protect you from evil spirits. It is also sometimes called the friendship plant and it was the most common garnish put on the boar's head that rich people ate at the main Christmas meal in the Middle ages! It is also known as the remembrance herb and was used at Christmas as this is the time that we remember the birth of Jesus. In the late 1700s a special Christmas Rosemary Service was started in Ripon Cathedral School where a red apple, with a sprig of Rosemary in the top of it, was sold by the school boys to the members of the congregation for 2p, 4p or 6p (depending on the size of apple!).

When should you take the greenery down? It is traditional to take down the decorations after Twelfth Night (5th January) on Epiphany (January 6th). But during the middle ages, greenery (including Mistletoe) was often left hanging up until Candlemas (when Christians celebrate Jesus going to the Jewish Temple as a baby) in early February!


Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, Mistletoe are partially parasitic plants that steal water and mineral nutrients from a host tree, but have their own leaves to perform photosynthesis. There are dozens of species distributed worldwide, the most famous of which is the common European mistletoe (Viscum album). European mistletoe is a branching evergreen shrub with thin leaves that attach in opposing pairs at each node of the branch. Small yellow flowers bloom at the tip of the branch in very early spring, in the crotch between the leaves. The fruits, small milky white berries, mature from early to mid-winter. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, December 20, 2012]

“Mistletoe berries are poisonous to humans, but are eaten by birds. The seeds are coated with thick mucus that allows them to stick solidly when wiped off or excreted onto tree branches. The mucus later hardens, and when the seed germinates it sends out a special tap root that penetrates right into the branch of the host tree, where it funnels up water and mineral nutrients to the mistletoe leaves.

Under the Mistletoe

“Mistletoe has since antiquity been considered a sacred plant in Celtic, Nordic and other European cultural traditions. The first-century Roman soldier and natural historian Pliny the Elder described a ceremony in which Celtic druids climbed up an oak tree to cut down sprigs of mistletoe using a golden sickle. The falling mistletoe was caught in a blanket by people waiting under the tree, and two white bulls were slaughtered as a sacrifice. The mistletoe appears to have been used in ceremonies conducted to ensure the fertility of domestic livestock. The milky white berries may have been symbolic of male sperm and fertility.

“Even today, sprigs of mistletoe are widely used as decorations during the Yuletide or Christmas season. According to tradition, girls caught standing under the mistletoe may be kissed. This custom may have some base in the plant's deep association with fertility in the Celtic tradition. Another theory is that the custom actually derives from Scandinavian mythology.

“Baldur, son of Odin and Frigg, was a gentle handsome youth with a sunny disposition. A seer, however, foretold that he would be killed by a wooden spear or dagger. Frigg, anxious to protect her darling son, traveled all over the nine worlds of Norse cosmology, extracting promises from all the trees never to harm him. Unfortunately, she somehow bypassed the mistletoe. The evil trickster Loki, jealous of Baldur's good looks and popularity, learned of this, and had the boy killed with a shaft made from mistletoe wood.

“In the classic Norse myth mistletoe is responsible for the death of the peaceful Baldur. In later popular folklore, however, mistletoe conversely became associated with love and good will. Enemies that found themselves dueling under a mistletoe shrub were required to make peace; while lovers who embraced under the shrub were assured a long, happy and fertile married life.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Sourcebook ; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time,, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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