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Christmas & Holiday Traditions and Customs

Christmas in other Languages - Magi - Christmas Card - Star - Christmas Day - Christmas Symbolics - Christmas Crib - Mistletoe - Decorations - Christmas Gifts - Christmas Carols - Christmas Plays - Food - The Northern Myth - Christmas Peace - Christmas Tree - Christmas Gnome - Decorations - Reindeer - Christmas Straw - Korvatunturi - Joulupukki - The Dead 


From old English Cristes maesse (Christ's Mass), older still, Yule, from the Germanic root geol. In some languages: 

English: Christmas, Yule, Noel
German: Weihnachten
Finnish: Joulu
Swedish: Jul
Italian: Il Natale
Spanish: La Natividad
French: Noël

The traditional Christmas is not a single day but a prolonged period, normally from 24th December to 6th January. This included the New Year, thus increasing the festival value of Christmas. 



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. But what was it? An astrological phenomenon, the Star? This is just about all we know about it 


Christmas card

The practice of sending Christmas greeting cards to friends was initiated by Sir Henry Cole in England. The year was 1843 and the first card was designed by J.C.Horsley. It was commercial - 1000 copies were sold in London. An English artist, William Egley, produced a popular card in 1849. From the beginning the themes have been as varied as the Christmas customs worldwide. 



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. 


Christmas Day

The traditional date for the appearance of Santa Claus, obviously from the birthdate of Jesus (the word Christmas is from old English, meaning Christ's mass). This date is near the shortest day of the year, from old times an important agricultural and solar feasting period in Europe.

The actual birthday of Jesus is not known and thus the early Church Fathers in the 4th century fixed the day as was most convenient. The best fit seemed to be around the old Roman Saturnalia festival (17 - 21 December), a traditional pagan festivity with tumultuous and unruly celebrations.

Moreover, in 273 Emperor Aurelianus had 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 25th December (natalis sol invicti). The Christian priests obviously saw this choice as doubly meritorious: using the old customary and popular feasting date but changing the rough pagan ways into a more civilized commemoration. 

The first mention of the birthday of Jesus is from the year 354. Gradually all Christian churches, except Armenians (celebrating 6th January which date is for others the baptismal day of Jesus and the day of the three Magi), accepted the day. 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 symbolics

Candles, fires: Summer, warmth, paradise, end of darkness, Jewish Hanukkah
Tree: Eternal life, Paradise tree, pagan symbol
Apples: Apple of Paradise
Reindeer: A prop
Santa Claus: St Nicholas, pagan deity
Gifts: Customary (Romans, pagans everywhere), Magi
Mistletoe: Peace, kisses
Holly: Christ's crown of thorns
Gnomes: Pagan entirely
Straw: Stable & crib, pagan, handy material for deco
Sock: A prop (as chimney etc)



Christmas Crib

Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem. In Catholic countries this fact is brought to mind with miniature replicas of the nativity scene. The manger, animals, miniatures of Jesus, Joseph, Maria, the shepherds and the Three Magi are part of this very popular symbol. It was started (says the legend) by St Franciscus of Assisi. The Pope has his own in Rome but nowadays the custom is followed in Protestant countries, too. 



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. 



Anything goes nowadays. In old times they were simple, wood, paper, straw and often very intricate. Themes follow the general taste of each time but national traditions can be discerned even now. 

People often have Christmas decoration competitions were people use extravagant Christmas lights to light up their whole house. Why not try to make your own mini display? Check out some great examples at UkChristmasWorld.com


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 carols

The Catholic Church valued music greatly and it is no wonder that the early Christmas songs date from 4th century (the earliest known is Jesus refulsit omnium by St.Hilary of Poitiers). 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 (from the French word caroler, meaning to dance in a ring). These songs continued to be religious and in Latin, though. In Protestant countries the tradition, as everything Christmas-related, 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 old Finnish/Swedish collection Piae Cantiones was translated and published in English in mid - 19th century. The most famous of all, Silent Night (Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht) was written by the Austrian parish priest Joseph Mohr and composed by Franz Gruber, church organist, in 1818. In 19th century and later many popular songs were written by composers (e.g. Adam, Sibelius). The themes of songs surpassed religion and the totality of Christmas paraphernalia found its way to carol music. 


Christmas plays

Religious plays were part of the Medieval Christian tradition and many of them were connected with Christmas. The plays were often communal with pageants and general participation. A popular theme was the coming of the Magi (the Three Kings), because the plot allowed lots of pomp and decorative props to please the audience. These plays live on in many places, for instance in Finland in the form of the traditional Star Boys drama. 



Christmas means eating in most parts of the Christian world. In old societies hunger was the supreme king and eating was the highest contrast, the supreme way to nirvana. Meat of some kind was the most important dish (was this connected with the words of Jesus, "this is my flesh"?), often pork, ham,goose, (later turkey), fish (carp, salmon). An innumerable variety of cakes and pastries, often very intricate and only baked for Christmas were and are known throughout the world. Cakes could be hung from the Christmas tree, too. 


The Northern Myth

How is it possible that in the predominantly Mediterranean / Near East tradition of Christianity something arises like Santa Claus of today? What force has generated the dominance of North in the directional map of popular Christmas tradition? Why not East as in the original traditions of St.Nicholas and the Magi? I can only offer some educated guesses. 

Christmas was originally in pagan times the festival of End of Darkness, the shortest day of the year, after which comes Spring and and then Summer . We say in Finland "Talven selkä taittuu" meaning that the back of Winter is broken. The more northern the country the more pronounced is the contrast between winter and summer solstices. The length of December day in Helsinki is about 5 hours, the longest June day is 19 hours. The temperature in Winter might be -30 degrees Celsius, the temperature in Summer +30. These extremes set the span of the year in the North. 

Thus,in minds of Northern men Christmas is associated with Winter ways: snow, cold, darkness illuminated by candles, sleighs drawn by horses, fur coats. Christmas things are in contrast with summer things. If this applies to the folk of the North the more it will interest Southern peoples who do not have such pronounced climatic changes but who find the traditions of Northern Christmas delightfully odd and alluring. Furthermore, to preserve a myth one generally likes to place it as far as possible from the everyday experience: in North Pole, Lapland. I think that in Northern Europe in intensity of Christmas feeling is greatest because of the contrasts of Midwinter. The custom tends to accelerate towards greatest intensity. In this case, the Northern Christmas, with its peculiar romance and idyll 


Christmas Peace

In Finland and Sweden an old tradition prevails, where the twelve days of Christmas are declared to be time of civil peace by law. A person committing crimes during this time wold be liable to more stiff sentence than normally (this does not apply anymore). In Finland the declaration (text from Middle Ages) is read by an official of the city of Turku at noon in Christmas Eve. This tradition has been followed without breaks for 500 years by now. 


Christmas Tree

The history of the modern Christmas tree goes back to 16th century Germany. In Alsace (Elsass) around Strasbourg there was a widespread practice of bringing trees (evergreens, not necessarily a fir-tree) into houses for decoration during Christmastide. This practice may well derive from pagan times. The evergreens were symbols of eternal life in ancient Egypt and China and in Europe trees were worshipped in many places - the ancient Finns used sacred groves instead of temples. 

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, too (a gruesome reminder of the human sacrifices they used to hang from the branches of holy trees). 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 (in Catholic countries the custom was unknown up to this century). In England the tradition was popularized 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. 


Christmas gnome

Father Christmas needs helpers, goes the rationale behind this, mainly Scandinavian tradition. There are a number of gnomes (In Finnish tontut, in Swedish tomtar, Nisse in Denmark and Norway), which help Father Christmas to manufacture the presents and distribute them (We in Northern Europe just do believe in industrial production). 

The tale of gnomes goes back to pagan times, when there was widespread belief in house gnomes which supposedly guarded homes against any evil (evil was ubiquitous in Viking times). These gnomes were mostly benevolent but they could be nasty if they were not properly treated. They were clad in grey with red caps. The cult of gnomes withstood the onslaught of Christianity and was eventually linked with things Christian. The oral traditions were fixed in writing in 19th century when a succession of writers (Grimm Brothers, Thiele,Topelius, Rydberg) and artists (Hansen, Nyström) created the true Christmas gnomes. 

Originally these apparitions were active throughout the year but nowadays they are firmly entrenched in the Christmas time, although in Finland the children are scared by "tontut" who watch behind the windows and keep tally of the good behaviour the year round. As with all Christmas customs, local or global, the origins are forgotten and everything is intertwined with the modern folklore, Disney (whose seven dwarves bear marked resemblance to Christmas gnomes) and all... 



Ordinary (Rangifer tarandus) and flying ones. The biological reindeer lives in arctic and subarctic regions (predominantly in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia). The people tending reindeer are the Lapps who, curiously enough, do not have any apparent role in Santa Claus story. The cult of flying reindeers (eight of them) was probably originated by Moore in early 19th century. 

The biological reindeer is used as meat and skin producing animal (the horn or poronsarvi is desired by the Japanese for aphrodisiac). It used to be draft animal (and can be - for tourists - such a one even today). The reindeers are not wholly domesticated. The most part of the year reindeers are free to roam and search for food . They are collected for counting and slaughter in the so-called poroerotus (division of reindeers). This is a truly exciting happening with thousands of animals, their owners selling and buying and dragging the obstinate beasts. One can see true Northern reindeerboys (if there exists such a term) there with lassoes (suopunki). 


Christmas straw

In Finland straw was customarily spread on the floor for Christmas day. This symbolized the stable and manger where Jesus lay after being born. But it was also a pagan custom to ensure the crop of next summer, known also in Slavic countries. Thus here we see the Christian rationalizing again when accepting the old and difficult-to-remove folk customs. Many Christmas decorations were (and are) made from straw, too. Most notably the so-called himmeli (an intricate straw mobile hung from the ceiling) and straw goats big and small. Straw sheafs were prepared for cattle and birds. 



Literally, Mount Ear, in county Savukoski, Lapland. The height is about half a kilometer, so it is a big hill, really. It has three summits and the Finnish-Russian border divides them. The traditional dwelling place of the Finnish Father Christmas, "Joulupukki". This region belongs to the reindeer country proper, thus the place is lots better for Santa to live than the North Pole (with no reindeers at all - its only stiff water there!). 

Korvatunturi is situated within the border region which is strictly off-limits for ordinary tourists - maybe this has added to the myth and mystery of the place. Actually this tradition is very young one. In 1927 the Finnish radio personality Uncle Marcus invented the whole thing telling his young listeners that Father Christmas lived in (on?) Korvatunturi and used the ears of the mountain to listen to the wishes of children. This stuck and the story goes that after the war, when Finland was compelled to make concessions to Russia, they demanded the whole mountain, but relented when they were told about the significance of Korvatunturi for Finnish kids. 



The name of Father Christmas in Finland. Literally: Yule Buck. Old pagan traditions lived on in Finland and never faded but got gradually a Christian flavor (elsewhere in Europe, too). The shortest days of the year are in December and pagan peoples used to have big festivities to ward of evil spirits. In Finland these spirits of darkness wore goat skins and horns. In the beginning this creature didn't give presents but demanded them, not to cause havoc. The Christmas Goat used to frighten the kids and was in every way very loathsome. 

It is unclear how exactly this personality was transformed into the benevolent Father Christmas but nowadays the remaining feature is the name only. The process was probably a continuous amalgamation of many old folk customs and beliefs from varied sources. One can speak of a Christmas pageant tradition consisting of many personages with roles partly Christian, partly pagan: A white-bearded saint, the Devil, demons, house gnomes, whatnot. Nowadays the Joulupukki of Finland resembles the American Santa Claus. 

The popular radio programs from the year 1927 onwards probably had great influence in formatting the concept with Santa-like costume, reindeers and Korvatunturi (Mount Ear, near Polar Circle) as its dwelling place. Because there really are reindeers in Finland (sadly, part of our agricultural husbandry) and we are living up North, the popular American cult took root in Finland very fast. Maybe the Joulupukki is a little bit more fearsome than Santa Claus, though. Finland is one of the few countries where kids customarily do see Father Christmas in the act of delivering the presents (a hired Santa or Grandpa) and probably the only one where the Saint asks the kids if they did behave during the year. 

The Dutch Sinterklaas delivers the presents on the evening before his 'birthday', the 5th december. He and his black servants come fully dressed in their exotic garments, bringing candy and bags of presents. One of his items is a book, in which it is written how the kids behaved during the last year! "Are there any bad children here" is his standard question when entering the room. Good behavior will get the kid presents, but bad behavior will result in..... the black servants taking him/her back to Spain (where Sinterklaas is assumed to come from) in a bag!


The Dead

In Finland it is customary to place candles on the graves of dead relatives in Christmas. This is partly Christian tradition (from Germany), partly a pagan one - the Winter solstice was a time for the dead and their ghosts which must be placated. 

Countdown to Christmas