Research: Xmas’s ancient traditio(n)s

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Modern Christmas is a mish-mash of customs — a merging of traditions that evolve as cultures and families blend.

The word “tradition” derives from the Latin “traditio” — a delivery, an instruction. America’s Christmas traditions were delivered from a broad variety of places, people, and religions.

The “X” in Xmas wasn’t meant to disrespect. In the Greek alphabet, X is the letter chi, an ancient symbol for, and first letter of, Christ.

Christmas wasn’t always cheery. In 1643, British parliament banned Christmas celebrations because the Church frowned on festivities. From 1649 to 1660, Oliver Cromwell forbade caroling. Christmas was a seriously solemn occasion.

Mistletoe has a mystic, Celtic origin. Ancient Druids believed it could ward off evil. In Scandinavia, mistletoe is a symbol of the goddess of love, ironically called Frigga (which sounds frigid).

St. Nick has several backstories, including one about girls’ stockings. A 14th century Italian painting by Lorenzetti depicts Saint Nicholas putting gold coins in the stockings — hung by the fire to dry — of poor maidens to fund their dowries.

Historians agree Jesus could not have been born in December. For a time it was celebrated on Jan. 6, but by mid-4th century, Pope Julius re-designated it Dec. 25. That coincided with the pagan feast days of ancient sun-gods, Attis of Phrygia and Mithra of Persia (Dec. 25); Rome’s Saturnalia (Dec. 24); and the Norse holiday Yule (beginning Dec. 21). Placing Christmas celebrations at the same time was meant to supplant pagan traditions and beliefs, which eventually worked.

Speaking of the festival of Saturnalia, at least their decorated tree and wreath traditions survived.

Sleighbells ringing? Naughty and nice lists? Thank that fearful German god Oden, who flew winter’s night skies to observe his people, deciding who would prosper or perish.

We have Macy’s to thank for last-minute shopping. In 1867, they defied tradition by staying open until midnight Christmas Eve. Not that it’s supposed to be about “stuff.”

“Remember this December, that love weighs more than gold.” — Novelist Josephine Dodge Daskam.


Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at

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