The fir tree, pres­ents, rein­de­er, wreaths, the color red, Santa Claus … the­se asso­cia­ti­ons and tra­di­ti­ons are omni­pre­sent at Christmas time. But whe­re do the­se tra­di­ti­ons come from?

Christmas is the cele­bra­ti­on of tog­e­ther­ness and con­tem­pla­ti­on. Some of us are exci­ted to see their fami­ly again, spen­ding cozy hours, or — let’s be honest — sim­ply recei­ving gifts. Others look for­ward to the Christmas mass in the church or they are drag­ged the­re by their fami­ly mem­bers. Because, as we all know, Christmas cele­bra­tes the birth of Jesus Christ and it is often view­ed as important to cele­bra­te it appro­pria­te­ly. It is not without rea­son that church­es are not so well atten­ded at any other time of the year. The alle­ged for­get­ting and disap­pearan­ce of the Christian ori­gin in our Christmas tra­di­ti­ons is often deplo­red with in the so­-cal­led “War on Christmas” deba­te. A topic of con­ver­sa­ti­on in the U.S. for some time, it has final­ly arri­ved in Germany and is most­ly taken up by stron­gly devout Christians, righ­t­-wing cir­cles and con­cer­ned angry citi­zens. They all desper­ate­ly want the Christianity in Christmas back. 

But how did the­se tra­di­ti­ons, who­se Christia­nity is so vehe­ment­ly sought to be defen­ded, ori­gi­na­te? And what do they and our associ­ations with Christmas have to do with Jesus? Was red his favo­ri­te color, the fir tree his favo­rite tree? Or do they have no Christian ori­gin at all? Let’s take a look together. 

Christmas as Jesus’ birthday party? 

Many of us don’t cele­bra­te Christmas in a par­ticularly reli­gious way, but we still grow up in the know­ledge of its Christian ori­gins and mea­ning. We cele­bra­te Christmas becau­se on this day Jesus was born. Right? Well, not exact­ly. The Bible, the book that is the foun­da­ti­on of the Christian faith and is sup­po­sed to bear wit­ness to Jesus’ life, does not men­ti­on a spe­ci­fic day. Instead, it is even extre­me­ly unli­kely that Jesus was born in win­ter. According to the Christ­mas sto­ry in Luke 2 1–20, the birth of Jesus was announ­ced to she­pherds in a field by an angel. Interestingly, howe­ver, it is also very cold in Bethlehem in win­ter, so it is high­ly unli­kely that she­pherds were in a field with their herd at that time. So why do we cele­bra­te it on Decem­ber 24 and 25, respectively? 

Today’s December 25 — befo­re the Grego­rian calen­dar reform in the 16th cen­tu­ry, it was December 21 — was alrea­dy veri­fia­b­ly an eccle­si­asti­cal holi­day in the first cen­tu­ries after Christ. However, it was in honor of the birth­day of a dif­fe­rent god. In anci­ent Rome, peo­ple wor­s­hip­ped, among others, Sol Invictus Mithras, the “invin­ci­ble sun god.” In the year 247 of our era, the bir­th­day of the sun god, today’s December 25, was pro­c­lai­med a sta­te holi­day by the emperor of the time. This day was pro­bab­ly dated as the bir­th­day of the Sun God, sin­ce it is the day of the win­ter sol­sti­ce in anci­ent calen­dars, after which the hours of sun­light incre­a­se again. The pre­vious­ly pagan cul­tures, tho­se who belie­ved in no god or several gods, ali­gned their lives and the­re­fo­re their reli­giosity accord­ing to the sun, which is why this natu­ral tur­ning point had gre­at impor­t­ance. The Germanic tri­bes also cele­bra­ted the Mid­winter Festival, also cal­led Jul. From December 17 to 24, the Saturnalia also took place, during which exces­si­ve cele­bra­ti­ons were held. 

Pagan cul­tures ali­gned their reli­gio­si­ty accord­ing to the sun.

Constantine the Great, emperor a few deca­des later, con­ver­ted from the pagan wor­s­hip of Sol­Invictus to Christianity, still a per­se­cu­t­ed reli­gious mino­ri­ty at that time. He beca­me a pro­mo­ter of the new faith — which even­tual­ly beca­me the sta­te reli­gi­on — and made the birth­day of Sol Invictus that of Jesus Christ. In 336, Christmas was cele­bra­ted for the first time on record; in the fifth cen­tu­ry, repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the Church deci­ded that Jesus’ birth should be cele­bra­ted on that day fore­ver, sin­ce ano­t­her exact date was mis­sing. In this way, the con­version to Christianity could pos­si­b­ly be made easier for the pagan peop­le, sin­ce they did not have to give up their cele­bra­ti­ons com­ple­te­ly, but offi­cial­ly “only” chan­ge the occa­si­on. Most import­ant­ly, it was pos­si­ble to cover up when they did not con­vert and cele­bra­ted the win­ter sol­sti­ce on that day ins­tead. This star­ted the prac­ti­ce of the Roman Catholic Church to cover up pagan holi­days with “Christian” names and to Christianize them. Even today, many of the Church’s — and our estab­lis­hed — holi­days fall on ori­gi­nal­ly pagan holidays.

Jul, Christmas, Weihnachten

The ger­man term Weihnachten deri­ves from the Middle High German word wîhen nah­ten, which rough­ly means “holy nights.” This name for the holi­day is attes­ted only sin­ce about the 11th cen­tu­ry in Middle German, in other parts of present­day Germany only later. In Middle Low German, the name k e r s t e s m e s s e (C h r i s t mass) initi­al­ly persi­sted, its rela­ti­ons­hip to the English Christmas being obvious. In Scandinavian coun­tries, Christmas is now cal­led Jul, a rem­nant of the Germanic name for the mid­win­ter festival.

Christmas trees and gift giving are pagan

The Germanic peo­p­les and the peop­le of anci­ent Rome hung fir bran­ches to wor­s­hip their gods and deco­ra­ted them with red ber­ries. A green branch des­pi­te the win­ter is a sign of life. The wor­s­hip of ever­green trees is also known from other parts of the world, and the­se cus­toms were adap­ted and evol­ved until Christmas trees were first seen in Alsace in Germany in the 16th cen­tu­ry. Until about 200 years ago, they main­ly deco­ra­ted public pla­ces, as they were rare in Cen­tral Europe and very expen­sive. The tra­di­ti­on of fami­lies deco­ra­ting their living rooms with their own fir trees deve­loped only with the first fir tree bree­ding com­pa­nies, which made them afford­a­ble and more popu­lar. The pagan ori­gin and con­nec­tion to the wor­s­hip of various gods is also reco­gni­zed by the Catholic Church. Until about 150 years ago, Christmas trees were ban­ned in church­es and still are in some church­es at per­so­nal pre­fe­rence. Also, making wreaths and giving gifts to each other were alrea­dy pagan cus­toms during the Saturnalia fes­ti­val and are not in tra­di­ti­on with the gifts of the bibli­cal three holy kings, as is often assumed.

Not only was the day of the win­ter sol­sti­ce for Christmas adap­ted and Christianized, but so were the tra­di­ti­ons and cus­toms of the origi­nal cele­bra­ti­ons. These were too deeply roo­ted in social prac­ti­ces to disap­pe­ar with the rena­ming and Christianization. We still find pagan tra­di­ti­ons in other Christian holi­days as well, such as Easter, which offi­cial­ly cele­bra­tes Jesus’ resur­rec­tion, but who­se prac­ti­ces were adop­ted from pagan spring festivals.

Coca Cola did not invent Santa Claus — but made him famous

Our fin­dings so far pro­bab­ly mean bad news for all the peop­le who are indi­gnant about a “de­Christianization” of Christmas. But the­re is good news, too: after all, Santa Claus — the Christmas mas­cot par excel­lence — has a Chri­stian ori­gin, name­ly in Saint Nicholas, who lived in what is now Turkey in the 4th cen­tu­ry. He was con­si­de­red extre­me­ly generous and lik­ed to give gifts. The ear­ly church adap­ted this and offi­cial­ly asso­cia­ted gift­giving with Christ­mas. Gods or simi­lar are also known from other coun­tries, even befo­re the time of Christ, who are eit­her accom­pa­nied by a deer, have a white long beard or, like Sol Invictus, had a poin­ted cap. St. Nicholas beca­me Santa Claus over the cen­tu­ries as a result of the mixing of a wide varie­ty of con­cep­ti­ons. In some are­as, the Christ Child is still the gift bea­rer, an inven­ti­on of Martin Luther, who wan­ted to break with the Catholic wor­s­hip of St. Nicholas. However, the idea of Santa Claus lar­ge­ly oversha­dows the belief in the Christ Child. Our cur­rent image of Santa Claus, which we see in adver­ti­sing, films and deco­ra­ti­ons at christ­mas time, was shaped by Thomas Nast’s illus­tra­ti­ons. He was a German cari­ca­tu­rist who lived in the U.S. and drew Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly maga­zine as ear­ly as 1862, along with his now defi­nitive cha­rac­te­ris­tics. His Santa Claus also ser­ved as an ambassa­dor in poli­ti­cal car­toons, for examp­le, he visi­ted the Northern sta­tes during the US Civil War or threa­tened con­gress­men with gift with­dra­wal if they did not advan­ce reforms. Illustrator Haddon Sundblom took up Nast’s inter­pre­ta­ti­on for a 1931 adver­ti­se­ment for Coca­Cola, which would popu­la­ri­ze and famous Santa’s appearan­ce worldwide.

Our traditions are consumer-produced

Just like the estab­lish­ment of the Christmas tree, most of the other tra­di­ti­ons that defi­ne Christ­mas for many have no Christian ori­gin or reli­gious refe­rence, but are brought on by social chan­ges and pro­du­ced by con­sump­ti­on. The first advent wreaths and advent calen­dars were not estab­lis­hed until the 19th cen­tu­ry as a way to shor­ten the time spent wai­t­ing for Christ­mas — and pres­ents — for the child­ren. Spending time with fami­ly and loved ones at Christmas is not an old tra­di­ti­on, eit­her. In the past, Christ­mas was cele­bra­ted in public with mar­kets and nati­vi­ty plays. Christmas did not move into the immedia­te fami­ly cir­cle until public fes­ti­vi­ties were par­ti­al­ly ban­ned around the 18th cen­tu­ry during the Age of Enlightenment becau­se of supers­ti­ti­on, and at the same time the import­ance of the middle­class fami­ly increased.

In 1863 Santa Claus is visi­t­ing the Union Army.
Christmas was never Christian

Christmas, as we know and cele­bra­te it today, has no con­nec­tion to Jesus Christ or other Christian con­tent in its ori­gins. Instead, our beloved tra­di­ti­ons are eit­her born out of con­sumption or adap­t­ati­ons of pagan holi­days and their tra­di­ti­ons. This is also the rea­son why very faith­ful or church­oriented Christians part­ly refu­se to cele­bra­te Christmas. Christmas in its cur­rent form is influ­en­ced by tra­di­ti­ons from various parts of the world and has always been a social specta­cle, just as we cele­bra­te it today.

Text and trans­la­ti­on: Joya Hanisch
Illustration Harper’s Weekly: Thomas Nast (

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