Observations of an Expat: Christmas Traditions

Tis the season. Eggnog, mulled wine, presents, Christmas trees, yule logs, Christmas cards, Midnight Mass, food, food and more food… The list goes on and on. The Holiday Season is one tradition after another.

In fact, you could call it the Tradition Season just as easily as the Christmas or Holiday Season. But when and where did the traditions start? Well, they came from all over the Western world and some of the Eastern. Some have deeply religious roots. Others tell a political story. Some are strictly secular money making operations.

There was a time when Christmas was banned. And then there is the controversy about the actual birthday. The Bible does not actually give a date for the birth of Jesus, but Biblical historians believe that references to shepherds sitting outdoors at night on hills indicates that it was in the spring.

Early Christians didn’t bother with celebrating the birth of Jesus. Birthday celebrations were considered pagan. They concentrated on Easter. But Pope Julius I saw an opportunity to pull in pagan converts by setting a date for the birth of Jesus that coincided with the “birthday” of the Roman gods Mithras and Sol Invictus (25 December).

The chosen day also coincided with the feast of Saturnalia when Romans decorated their homes with wreaths (which symbolised eternal life) and greenery, including trees. They also indulged in a week of constant partying and exchanged gifts. Sound familiar?

But other Christmas traditions go back further. Archaeologists have uncovered proof that Druids made extensive use of the parasitic mistletoe during winter solstice celebrations. They believed it encouraged fertility which of course led to the association with kissing, and we all know what kissing leads to.

The actual feasting element is believed to extend back to the start of farming in around 10,000 BCE. It was introduced for the eminently practical reason that farmers could not afford to feed their animals through the winter, so they ritually slaughtered them at the Winter Solstice and ate them.

But back to the cancellation of Christmas. Oliver Cromwell, who ruled England from 1653-58, out did the modern Grinch by literally banning Christmas. This was because the ruling Puritans enforced a strict literal interpretation of the Bible and the Bible mentioned no specific date for the birth of Jesus. The cancellation of the festive season fitted in well with a dour Cromwellian period when theatres and dancing were banned and women were forced to wear black.

Even more severe were the New England Puritans who out-Cromwelled Oliver Cromwell. They continued the Christmas ban for 20 years after it was restored in England. In Boston, anyone who displayed “Christmas spirit” was fined five shillings.

But not all colonial Americans suffered a joyless mid-winter. Virginia was settled by Royalist Cavaliers fleeing the Cromwell government, and the Cavaliers enjoyed to party. They are credited with the heart-stopping Christmas drink eggnog. Virginian George Washington was famous for his eggnog recipe which included: rum, brandy, whisky, eggs, cream and milk.

The United States was a bit slow in grasping the Christmas nettle, possibly because of the anti-Christmas traditions of New England. In fact, many of New England’s churches are still closed on 25 December. It was not until 1870 that Christmas became a federal holiday.

The Christmas tree made its arrival in the US via Pennsylvania in 1830 and in 1870 Christmas trees were being sold for the first time at a Christmas tree lot in New York. Old Tannenbaum debuted in Pennsylvania because William Penn had recruited a large number of German Quakers for his colony.

Spruce and pine trees were first decorated in the Baltic States and Germany, possibly as early as the 8th century. Martin Luther is believed to be the first person to light his Christmas tree. He used candles. In Britain, the Christmas tree was made popular by the German-born Prince Albert. Today nearly 80 percent of American Christmas trees are artificial.

The expression “Yule” also comes from Northern Europe, specifically Scandinavia. As in other parts of the world, the pagan Vikings celebrated the midwinter period with feasting which they called “Yuletide.” A central element was the yule log which was more like a yule tree as it was expected to burn for the 12 days of Christmas. By the way, it is estimated that all of the items in the Christmas Carol “12 Days of Christmas” would now cost a besotted lover $39,094.93.

Speaking of Christmas carols, the world’s oldest carol, “Angel’s Hymn” (129 CE) is not sung and never will be because no one transcribed the tune or words. A number of Christmas carols had their roots in medieval Europe but the lyrics and tunes were not set down until the 18th and 19th century. Jingle Bells was not written as a Christmas carol. Its composer, James Lord Pierpont, was a New England lyricist who supported slavery and moved South just before the Civil War. His song about sleighs, snows and bells was a nostalgic ditty to remind him of Northern winters.

No article about Christmas traditions would be complete without Saint Nicholas. The historic figure was a 4th century Greek bishop who was famous for secret gift giving. On one occasion he is said to have saved three girls from prostitution by filling their stockings with gold so that their father could afford a marriage dowry. This is why we have Christmas stockings.

Saint Nicholas goes by many names: Father Christmas (British), Pere Noel (French), Weinactsmann (German), Papa Noel (Spain and Latin America), Baboo Noel (Italy) and Sinter Klaas (the Netherlands). The name Santa Claus was an American corruption of the Dutch Sinter Klaas. The image of the gift-giving bearded, jolly red-coated elf with a bushy white beard, sleigh and reindeer was created by Clement Moore in his famous poem “Twas the Night before Christmas.”

The patchwork of names for Saint Nicholas reflects the dozens of different traditions across Europe and Western Asia that are added to by thousands of family customs. But underlying them all is the oft-hoped for and rarely realised Biblical message of “Peace and goodwill to all men” (Luke, Chapter two, verse 14).

* Tom Arms is the Foreign Editor of Liberal Democratic Voice. His book “America Made in Britain” has recently been published by Amberley Books. He is also the author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War.”

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Brad Barrows 18th Dec '21 - 12:44pm

    Interesting. Of course the practice of gift giving is also related to the three gifts being brought by wise men to the baby Jesus – not 3 wise men, by the way, but 3 gifts. (Non- biblical traditions name 3 wise men but this is not supported by the Bible.)

    As for Father Christmas, that appears more derived from Norse mythology and may owe more to Odin than Saint Nicholas.

  • John Marriott 18th Dec '21 - 1:02pm

    However, we have Coca Cola in the 1920s to thank for the artistic portrayal of Santa Claus that is generally used today. By the way, Tom, the German word is actually ‘Weihnachtsmann’.

  • Steve Trevethan 18th Dec '21 - 4:55pm

    Thank you for an interesting piece!

    As Saint Nicholas is rightly celebrated for attacking poverty and its attendant evils, might our party attack the poverty which our society forces upon so many of our children.
    4.3 million U.K. children live in poverty: 3 in 10 live in poverty: there has been a 107% increase in children receiving emergency food aid in 2020

    These figures, and those showing the increasing numbers of millionaires, make clear that our current socio-economic structures consistently transfer money from the “Thin Wallets” to the “Fat Wallets”.

    A Merry Christmas for Some?

  • Brad Barrows 18th Dec '21 - 5:27pm

    @Steve Trevethan
    My concern about using the ‘3 in 10 live in poverty’ statistic is that this is a measure of relative poverty rather than absolute poverty. In other words, doubling the income of everyone ‘in poverty’ will not move a single person out of poverty if everyone else gets their income doubled as well. We need to be honest with voters and make clear that they only way to remove people from poverty is to have a massive redistribution of income and wealth, including ensuring that everyone living in benefits gets 60% of average wage. Is that Lib Dem policy?

  • Steve Trevethan 19th Dec '21 - 10:57am

    Might it help if we had a comfortable living threshold?
    Ditto a criterion referenced system not a normative referenced system?
    How valid is a democracy which is not based upon an equitable wealth creation, distribution and use system?
    Might we visualise chronically hungry children the next time we see a grand parade?
    Yes, we do need tax reform to create an efficient society!
    Might our party star ta “Tax Reality Campaign”?

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