Ghosts of Christmas past: the origins of our long-held holiday traditions

Kelly Thorell ‘21, Opinion Editor 

Americans do everything larger: food, lawsuits, and sports. American even do Christmas larger. Right now, there are a projected 350 million commercial Christmas trees growing in anticipation to be strung with golden lights and covered in sentimental and light-catching ornaments. At the same time, Americans’ pockets are growing heavy as we plan to spend over a trillion dollars this year buying gifts for loved ones. 

Over time, Christmas has become very secular and has grown in popularity and importance within American culture. However, many Christmas traditions aren’t American, nor did the holiday altogether even originate in the country. Christmas directly means “mass on Christ’s day” and began with the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, which is present day Palestine. Though, today we know the holiday as Santa Claus and presents.

 How does a holiday go from celebrating the birth of Christ to Santa Clause? And why do we stick a tree in our living room every December? Here is the explanation of the origins of few well-known Christmas traditions:

Santa Claus 

The origins of Santa Claus begin with a real person: Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a Turkish man born in the third century to devote Christian parents. After his parents died in an epidemic, he continued to practice his faith through Jesus’ words of “sell what you own and give the money to the poor.” He lived a life of charity, known for his love of children and immense generosity to the begging class. Despite his hospitality to all, he was soon persecuted and imprisoned for his Christain faith under the ruthless Roman emperorDiocletian. It was not until 1664 when the legend of Saint Nicholas arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the United States—now commonly known as New York City. To preserve the Dutch culture during British imperialism, they created a book called The Knickerbocker’s History of New York, including poems and stories of Saint Nicholas. Later, mysticism was added to Santa—such as him riding on a sleigh—by American storybook writer Teresa Chris. Then during the American Civil War, Harper’s Weekly Magazine hired a new cartoonist, Thomas Nast, to actually put Santa Clause into a drawing of him delivering gifts to Union soldiers. From the Dutch’s description of Saint Nicholas, the mysticism introduced by Teresa Chris, and Thomas Nast’s creativity, the modern-day Santa was born. 


One of the most famous tales of Saint Nicholas was that of him filling stockings strung on the fireplace. This supposedly happened when a poor couple had three daughters and could not afford to pay dowries, the sum of money that parents of the bride would pay to the groom for their daughter in marriage. With this, it is told that Saint Nicholas went onto the roof of their house and dropped a bag of gold. This landed in stockings that were being dried by the fireplace. He later came back the next night to drop more gold down for all the daughters. The news of Saint Nicholas’ great deeds soon spread and a rumor began that whenever someone received a secret gift, it was from Saint Nicholas. We can see how this parallels with our time as we put our stockings on the fireplace, waiting for them to be “mysteriously” filled.

The Christmas Tree

The modern Christmas tree can be credited to the ancient Pagans and Germans. The Roman Pagans believed that the sun was a god who became sick every year, which would cause winter. However, on the winter solstice of Dec. 21, the sun god would revisit and begin to get well again. The evergreen tree (and similar tree species) reminded them of the warmer days of their sun god’s presence because the evergreens remain green all year. With this, the Pagans would decorate their houses with evergreen branches. The Celtic, Egyptian, and Scandanivan Pagans would also do the same with evergreen tree branches for similar reasons. Then, the Germans began to decorate their trees with lights when the reformist and pastor, Martin Luther, did this after witnessing stars twinkling through the evergreens at night. Our trees today do look different today, though, because of our modern lights, the addition of ornaments, and the tradition of putting a tree-topper on it. 


Along with Saint Nicholas’ generosity in giving, the tradition of gift-bringing also arose from the Magi (or wise men) who traveled to bring Jesus gifts after his birth. This is possibly because it was custom to bring gifts to upcoming kings. These men came from the “east” or most likely from present day Persia or Iran. They brought him gold, incense, and myrrh (perfume) which can be referenced in the Bible in the book of Matthew, chapter two. Of course, gift-buying is over inflated with importance and greed today, though humble gift giving with gratitude is always a fun time!

The star on the tree

The star atop the tree is used to represent the star that the Magi saw when bringing baby Jesus gifts in Bethlehem. They saw this star in the sky that let them know that the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, was born and the star would act as a guide to find him. It led them to Jesus’ Earthly parents, Joseph and Mary, who were in the city of Bethlehem for a census within the Roman Empire. The star then led them to a manger, which farm animals eat out of, where the newly born baby Jesus lay. Without the star leading them, the Magi would have had trouble to reach Jesus.

Angel on the tree

Rather than a star, many people may also have an angel to adorn the top of their tree. This is from the believed Gabriel the Archangel. This angel informed Mary, Jesus’ mother, that she was pregnant with “the Son of the Most High.” It was important that she was informed by the angel because Mary was a virgin, only engaged to her fiancé, Joseph. During the culture of the time, women who were believed to be “impure” or promiscuous were to be stoned to death. With this, the angel was able to deliver the news of the pregnancy and calm Mary and Joseph. However, this angel then appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying that he would serve as Jesus’ Earthly father. Later, the angel then appeared in the sky over Bethlehem to announce Jesus’ birth. The angel’s role within the story of Jesus’ birth, Christmas, and finally his appearing in the sky to announce his arrival is why people often put an angel atop the tree. 

On the 24th, as we gaze at the twinkling lights around our town, bask in the glow of our favorite ornaments on the tree, and watch the star light dance across our living rooms, we are reminded of our childhoods and simple times. But even more than that, we are reminded of a long and historic worldwide tradition of Jesus in a manger and a man in a red suit who just wanted to be generous to those in need.

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