Christmas Customs and Their Origins

A Christmas card shopper was disappointed that there were only religious cards left.  He asked, “Why do they have to bring religion into this?”  

Of course, there was no Christian religion in the early celebrations that took place after the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere in honour of the sun god.  But as Jesus was worshipped as “Light of the World,” the church fathers, around 440 A.D., saw the opportunity to turn the “sun god” celebrations into a celebration for the birth of the “Son of God.”

As the sun was seen to be gathering strength (evidenced by longer days), and bringing life back to the natural world, so it was proclaimed that Jesus brought light and new life to humanity.  Hence the birthday of Jesus was established to be December 25th (with some variations) in order to match the time of pagan celebrations.


Carol singing comes from the Greek word, choros, a dance accompanied by singing.  It originated with the Roman Christians, many of whom were ignorant of the Latin Bible, but familiar with new-life experiences in Jesus, and were able to tell the story in song.

The practice migrated through Europe to England where, at Oxford University, is preserved the oldest piece of printed musical harmony: the last leaf of a carol by Wynkyn de Worde in 1521 entitled, “Bringing the Boer’s Head.”  De Worde was apprenticed to William Caxton, who printed the first book of carols.


The first greeting card, based on an etching by William Egley, was a festive card featuring a snow scene.



There are several legends about the origin of the Christmas tree.  One suggests that it originated in Germany in 732 A.D.  People worshipped the thunder god, Thor, under an oak tree and, once a year, sacrificed a son of a V.I.P.  A Christian named Wilfred went from England to Germany and, encountering the ceremony, stayed the hand of the executioner and felled the tree.  As it fell, lightning struck and shattered it.  There sprang up in its place a slender fir tree, around which the tribes danced and heard Wilfred tell of the Christ child. Wilfred later became St. Boneface.

These legends have some basis in fact. In northern Germany, pagan norsemen believed evergreen plants such as holy and mistletoe had special powers that offered protection from the evil spirits that roamed in the darkest time of the year. Prominent among them was the Yule tree which people took into their homes to celebrate the Norse god, Jul (pronounced ‘yule’), hence the term ‘yuletide’ we use for this time of year.

Tree Decorations

It is said that Martin Luther wondered at the stars shining through the branches of a pine tree, so he brought it indoors and festooned it with candles to simulate the stars.

The first publicly-decorated tree was in Riga, Latvia, around which people danced, culminating in setting the tree on fire.

Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, brought the Christmas tree from Germany to Britain.  Gifts placed under the tree symbolise the gifts of the wisemen. In 1848, a drawing published in the Illustrated London News depicted the royal couple with a beautifully decorated tree, which popularised the custom


Christmas is more than all its associations, however many.  The name, Christ-mas, has two parts: “Christ,” the Promised One, and “mas” (mass), a service of thanksgiving. Eucharist is a Greek word for the same service, meaning thank you very, very much.

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