Christmas--with deeply-rooted traditions--is the most significant holiday of the year in Western culture. Although Christmas is celebrated all over the world, nowhere is it such a significant holiday as in Central and Northern Europe. Especially in the Alpine regions, where the Christmas observance has incorporated pre-Christian traditions as well. Of these the "Mitwinternacht" (mid-winter night or winter solstice) and the 12 Rauhnächte (the harsh nights) are the most important.

Pagans had traditionally decked their halls with boughs of holly, evergreens and mistletoe to symbolize winter's inability to prevent the renewal of life. Merrymaking came to have a share in Christmas observance through popular enthusiasm. The medieval secular celebrations lasted for a "season," extending from Christmas eve to Epiphany, and in some localities even from St. Thomas' Day, Dec. 21 (honoring the "doubting Thomas," disciple of Jesus) to Candlemas (February 2).

There was some dispute about the proper date of the birth of Christ and not everyone agrees even to this day.

It was not until A.D. 350, that December 25 was declared the official date for celebrating Christmas by Pope Julius I. When the fathers of the church decided to settle upon a date to celebrate the event, they wisely chose the day of the winter solstice, since it coincided with some rival religions' celebrations and the rebirth of the sun (see Year of the Sun Calendar), symbolized by bon-fires and yule logs. December 25 was a festival long before the conversion of the Germanic peoples to Christianity, it seemed fitting that the time of their winter festival would also be the time to celebrate the birth of Christ. The darkness that had frightened and threatened to defeat the ancient pagans, was forever defeated by the coming of Christ.

Because of changes in man-made calendars, the time of the solstice and the date of Christmas vary by a few days. As Christianity spread among the peoples of pagan lands, many of the practices of the winter solstice were blended with those of Christianity. In the dead of winter a celebration of rebirth of life was symbolized in the birth of Christ. The time of the winter solstice, when days grew longer again--the return of the light--became the hope of the world in the birth of Christ, "the light of the world."

In "Merrie England," from the 11th to the 17th century, Christmas had become increasingly the great festival of the year with observance from Christmas Eve (December 24) to Twelfth Night (January 6). It had become a rollicking good time, and after the Norman Conquest, with imported French flair added. By 1252 Henry III was slaying 600 oxen to go with the salmon pies and roasted peacocks. In the holly-decked great halls of the feudal lords, wassailing, feasting, singing, and games, dancing and masquerading, mummers presenting pantomimes, and masques were all part of the festivities. The Christmas feast was brought ceremoniously into the hall, headed by the chief cook carrying in the boar's head, followed by servants bearing an incredible number of dishes.

But the wild license of these celebrations, with no semblance of the inner vision and meaning of Christmas, came under the disfavor of the Puritans. In Scotland, John Knox put an end to Christmas in 1562. In England the observance of Christmas was forbidden by act of Parliament in 1644. When Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector, Puritans declared Christmas was "an extraeme forgetfulnesse of Christ, by giving liberty to carnall and sensual delights." So the House of Commons sat on Christmas day and sheriffs were sent out to require merchants to open for business. Pro-and anti-Christmas factions rioted.

Charles II revived the feast. While the Scots adhered to their Puritan view, England gradually found Christmas again. However, in some places abolition was more permanent than in others. Prince Albert is credited with having brought Christmas from his native Germany and created the "Victorian Christmas" with the decorated tree and all the trimmings. When the term "Victorian Christmas" is used, it refers to the lavish customs and style popular at the time of the reign of Queen Victoria. Prince Albert himself was one of the greatest authorities for the reinvention of the English Christmas, for in his native Germany Christmas had never disappeared. He introduced the first Christmas tree at Windsor (see image with Royal Family), and this quickly became an institution throughout England and Wales. He also helped to popularize carol singing. People living in the new industrial communities had lost touch with the half forgotten customs of their rural past, so while new symbols like the Christmas trees and carols were being imported, other customs were being created (Crichton, p. 89). However, the German influence did not only come from Albert, for Queen Victoria herself grew up German. She was born in 1819, the same year as her first cousin Albert, whom she married in 1840. Her mother was Princess Mary Louisa Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Prince Albert was the son of Ernest, Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the brother of Victoria's mother and Albert's aunt.

Alexandria Victoria was eight months old when her father, the Duke of Kent, died. She was raised at Kensington Palace by her mother and her German governess, the Baroness Louise Lehzen, a native of Coburg. Her mother's nearest advisor was her brother, Victoria's uncle Leopold. He lived at Claremont, where Victoria would visit him until 1831, when he became Leopold I, the first king of the Belgians. Victoria grew up "to regard herself as a Coburg" (Britannica, Vol. 23, p. 125). She ascended to the throne in 1837 after the death of William IV.

The Puritans had brought to New England a Cromwellian detestation of Christmas. Because of the Puritan influence, the festive aspects of Christmas, including the tree, were not accepted in New England until about 1875.

It will be somewhat of a shock to learn that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, most Pennsylvanians did not celebrate Christmas either. Puritanism is a thing of the spirit, and Pennsylvania's Puritans--who included the Quakers, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, as well as the Mennonites and other plain groups, who were Puritans in spirit--shared New England's aversion to paying a special honor to the 25th of December
(Yoder, p. 5).

The celebration of Christmas was made a crime in Massachusetts in 1659. That edict was repealed in 1681, but in 1686 the governor needed two soldiers to escort him to Christmas services. In 1706 a Boston mob smashed the windows in a church holding Christmas services. Due to the early predominance of the Dutch in New York (founded by them and first named New Amsterdam), New Yorkers celebrated Christmas from the 17th century on, but as late as 1874 Henry Ward Beecher, America's most prominent preacher, said, "To me, Christmas is a foreign day."

The Puritans and other Protestant groups were right when they said that Christmas observations in December had their origins in pagan festivals of the winter solstice, and that no one knew in what season Christ was born. Christmas customs have evolved from times that long antedated the Christian period--a descent from seasonal pagan, religious and national practices, hedged about with legend and tradition. Although many of the picturesque customs of the pagan feasts of the winter solstice were suppressed, they nevertheless, contributed much to modern observance.

Since the middle of the 4th century the church has celebrated Christ's birthday as December 25. From the Carolingian times (8th century) up until the Reformation this was also the beginning of the new year in Germany. But the people still viewed the "Rauhnaechte," the twelve nights of Christmas, as a time when ghosts appeared, and dead warriors swept through the night. People lit candles, locked their doors, and stayed at home. The church was gradually able to give pagan customs Christian significance, but without completely replacing the old popular beliefs.

Details of the Christmas story are found in the new Testament's four books of the gospel. From this we have created a Jesus vita and a story that suits us, but it ignores somehow the historical context. There are those who say that if shepherds really were tending their flocks that night, it must not have been winter, for in the winter, sheep in Palestine were penned at night. The abode of Christ's birth was not the kind of stable usually pictured, but most likely a hillside cave which sheltered livestock. Mary and Joseph may have camped in a livestock enclosure where the baby was born, wrapped and laid in a manger. Rugged shepherds in the dark fields near the compound were frightened by heavenly music and voices about an occurrence of "great joy" for "all of the people."

Biblical evidence indicates that when the Magi or wise men visited the child Jesus, he was a toddler, about 2 years of age, not a new-born infant as typically portrayed. The wise men from the East (possibly from Persia and a year's journey away) are said to have found Mary and Joseph's house (they explicitly had a house by this time) and presented gifts. Most depictions of the Wise Men are based on tradition, and tradition says that there were three while St. Augustine and St. Chrysostom said there were 12. Tradition expands upon the story with a rich biography. It says they were Melchior, King of Arabia, age 60, who brought a casket of gold, Caspar, King of Tarsus, 20, who brought myrrh in a gold mounted horn, Balthasar, King of Ethiopia, 40 who brought frankincense in a censer. Gold symbolizes Kingship, frankincense is a gift for a high priest, and myrrh for a great physician. Tradition assigns the date of this visit to January 6, Epiphany, known as Twelfth Night.

Ruth Reichmann
Max Kade German-American Center, IUPUI

Xmas. The familiar abbreviation for Christmas originated in the Greeks. X is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Xristos. By the sixteenth century, "Xmas" was popular throughout Europe. Whereas early Christians had understood that the term merely was Greek for "Christís mass," later Christians, unfamiliar with the Greek reference, mistook the X as a sign of disrespect, an attempt by heathen to rid Christmas of its central meaning. For several hundred years, Christians disapproved of the use of the term. Some still do.
From Panati's Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things by Charles Panati: Harper & Row.

FURTHER RESOURCES compiled by Robert Shea

  • Brauchtum: Weihnachten und der heilige Abend
  • More information on my general Christmas links page
  • Main Christmas Page. All topics, holidays, cultural items, celebration.

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