Christmas is so yesterday

December 26, 2006|by SARA MARTENS

The gift-giving frenzy is over for another year. We're done with plastic trees, artificial lights and pop-music versions of seasonal songs.

Most people know about the Christian origins of Christmas - it's Jesus' birthday, remember? - but do you know the origins of the modern Christmas traditions we practice?

Name, date and colors

The word "Christmas" comes from the Old English christes masse, which means Christ's Mass. The origin of the date of Christmas dates back to a time when Christianity was still a relatively new religion among many religions that had existed for decades, even centuries, in the eastern Mediterranean region of the Roman empire.

Many pagan holidays - the most prominent being the Roman holiday of Saturnalia - occurred near the winter solstice on Dec. 21. Early Christian leaders concluded that, in order to overcome these pagan religions, they could have their own holy day. So, despite the improperness of celebrating one's birthday at that time, it was decided that Christ's birthday would be celebrated Dec. 25.


The two colors most associated with Christmas are red and green. Red represents blood shed by Jesus in his self-sacrifice. It also stands for cheer and joy that usually accompany this season. Green stands for eternal life, the reward for people who follow Jesus' teachings.

Plant-based customs

There is the common tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. Mistletoe is believed to be a powerful healing herb as well as to bring peace and fertility. The custom of kissing underneath the mistletoe came from a Norse myth. The Norse goddess of love, Frigga, had a son, Balder, who was slain by an arrow made of mistletoe. After her son was revived, Frigga blessed mistletoe and kissed anyone who passed under it.

Bad Santa

One of the most popular Christmas symbol of is Santa Claus. The first Santa, of sorts, was Saint Nicholas, a Turkish man known for his piety and generosity.

Legend tells us that a poor nobleman, newly widowed and quite depressed, squandered away his fortune, leaving his three daughters without a dowry and therefore without a chance of marrying. When Saint Nicholas heard of their situation, he was eager to help. Wishing to remain anonymous, he tossed three small pouches of gold coins down the chimney.

Many European countries have gift-giving figures, including Pere Noel in France, Christkindl and Kris Kringle in Germany, and Babbo Natale in Italy. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas rewards good children while Swarte Piet punishes bad children.

Santa's modern appearance comes from Clement Moore's poem known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Moore described a version of the Dutch gift-giver Sinterklaas - "He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot ... A bundle of toys he had flung on his back ... the beard on his chin was as white as the snow ... He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf." The poem was published in 1823.

This description was strengthened by drawings by New York cartoonist Thomas Nast, who worked for Harper's Weekly magazine. During the Civil War, he drew several versions of Santa Claus bringing good cheer to Union troops. In 1881, he drew an illustration based on Moore's poem.

Sources: Christmas Lore at The Ohio State University Web site at's pagan Christmas traditions Web site at

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