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 (

0 0 vote
Arti­cle Rating
Benachrichtige mich bei

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments