12 Christmas traditions and items that have Christian origins. The beginning of a great conversation.
When you hear the term “Conversations at Christmas,” what image comes to mind? Perhaps you think of sitting around a roaring fire, roasting marshmallows, and sharing memories. Or perhaps it’s not quite so festive…you think of tense discussions with distant and difficult family members.
Regardless, conversations are intended to move us closer to other people. Dialogue and discussion are the portals to real friendship and engagement.
This is what Conversations at Christmas: when the past & present converge is meant to do: help you begin faith conversations with those who don’t know Christ. We are offering you the histories of 12 Christmas items and traditions that have Christian origins or customs attached to them:
- Candy canes
- The Christmas Tree
- Gift Giving
- Santa Claus
- Live Nativity Plays
- The Use of Xmas
- The Carol "O Holy Night"
- The Carol "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman"
- The Carol "Silent Night"
Share these with your non-Christian friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. You never know...it just may be the beginning of a very interesting conversation.
See the histories below or download the full PDF version of Coversations at Christmas
12 Christmas Traditions & Items with Christian Origins and/or Meaning
1. CANDY CANES
The candy cane is thought to have originated around 1670, when a choirmaster at the Cologne Cathedral in Germany had sticks of candy bent into the shape of a shepherd’s crook and passed them out to children who attended the live Christmas nativity service in order to keep them sitting quietly.
The custom of passing out the candy crooks at such ceremonies soon spread throughout Europe. According to the National Confectioner’s Association, in 1847 German immigrant August Imgard used the candy cane to decorate a Christmas tree in Wooster, Ohio. In the 1950s, Catholic priest Gregory Keller invented a machine that automated the production of candy canes. This led to the increase in popularity of the candy cane.
Christians have placed various meanings on to the candy cane: the ‘J’ shape symbolizes the shepherd’s crook, the white color is the purity of Jesus, the red stripes represent the blood he shed on the cross, and the peppermint flavor points to the hyssop plan that was used for purification in biblical times.
2. CHRISTMAS BELLS
The history of bells dates back to antiquity when bells were used in ancient Babylonia, Egypt, and by the Romans and Greeks. In the 4th and 5th centuries throughout Europe, large bronze bells were traditionally placed in bell towers of churches to call people to church for various services and special occasions. Church bells are rung to announce the coming or arrival of an event, activity, or occasion. Christmas bells proclaim the birth of Jesus and are therefore a sacred Christian symbol relating to the nativity. Jingle bells are commonly used on Christmas decorations, ornaments and featured in many Christmas card illustrations.
3. CHRISTMAS STOCKINGS
According to legend, St. Nicholas (see Santa Claus) helped a noble man who had three daughters. When the man’s wife passed away, he was overwhelmed with sorrow and when his daughters became eligible for marriage, he had no dowry to offer their future husbands. One evening, the daughters washed their stockings and hung them to be dried near the fireplace. St. Nicholas, who was wandering through the town where the man lived and heard villagers discussing that family’s plight, was moved by the plight of the daughters and put a bag of gold in each stocking. The next morning, the nobleman realized he had enough for his daughter’s marriage. The daughters got married and lived happily ever after. Today, the tradition of hanging stockings continues.
4. CHRISTMAS TREES
It is commonly believed that 16th-century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther started the indoor Christmas tree tradition as we now know it. When walking home one winter’s night, Luther noticed the stars twinkling amidst the evergreen branches and was taken by the beauty of the scene. He went home, put a tree in the main room, and placed lighted candles on its branches. The first Christmas trees were decorated with edible things such as gingerbread and gold-covered apples. Glass makers would also make small ornaments similar to decorations used today. In the beginning, a figure of baby Jesus was put on the top of the tree. Over time, this changed to an angel/fairy that told the shepherds about Jesus, or a star like the wise men saw.
The Christmas tree was brought to England by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, who was from Germany. In the late 19th century, Pennsylvania Germans brought the Christmas tree to America.
5. GIFT GIVING
As with many Christian traditions, the true origin of gift giving lies in Pagan beliefs but has strong Christian connections as well. During Saturnalia (the ancient Roman festival of Saturn in December, a period of general merrymaking and the predecessor of Christmas), children would often be given presents as a reminder of gift sacrifices given to the god Saturn as payment for good harvests.
However, the tradition of gift giving has strong historical roots to the three wise men who visited Jesus and gave him gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and gold (Matt. 2:11). These men, “Magi,” were likely priests in a sect of the ancient Persian religions such as Zoroastrianism. These astrologers were likely very rich and held in high esteem in their own society and by people who weren't from their country or religion.
6. GOD REST YE MERRY GENTLEMAN
The origins of the popular carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” go as far back as the 15th century, when the songs of organized religion were written in Latin and their melodies were somber and dark, offering singers and listeners little joy. But while lay Christians continued to attend church, they created their own music outside the walls the church. In this way, the peasant class led a quiet rebellion against the tone of religious music by writing songs that were lively and penned in the common language. These songs became the foundation of Christmas carols.
What Americans hear when they listen to this song is nothing like what the English peasants meant when they first sang the song. When we say ‘merry’ the word means happy. However, when the carol was written, ‘merry gentlemen’ meant great or mighty men. The word ‘rest’ in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” simply means keep or make. Yet it is imperative to insert a comma after the word merry in order to understand the original meaning. Therefore, in modern English, the first line of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” should read “God make you mighty, gentlemen.”
It took hundreds of years before “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was finally published in the 19th century. By that time—thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s love of carols—the song found favor in the Anglican Church. Soon, even Protestant English clergy of the Victorian era taught it to their parishioners.
7. LIVE NATIVITY PLAYS
The first nativity play was thought to have been performed by monks in Italy in the 13th century. St. Francis of Assisi and his followers acted in the first play in 1223 to remind the local population that Jesus was born into a poor family, thus helping them identify more with the Christ child. St. Francis told the part of each character himself using wooden figures. Several years later, the play had become so popular that real people played the parts of the characters in the story and sang the accompanying songs.
Although live animals are still used on occasion in live nativities, it is more common that children will play their part. In many countries today, the crib is the most important Christmas decoration. The city of Naples, Italy, has used cribs to decorate houses and churches since the 1020s, long before Francis of Assisi acted in the first play. Naples is also the home to the world’s largest nativity crib scene, which has 162 people, 80 animals, angels, and 450 smaller objects.
8. O HOLY NIGHT
In 1847, a commissioner of wine in France, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, was asked by his parish priest to write a poem for the Christmas Eve service. Cappeau agreed and found himself imagining what it would be like to witness the birth of Christ. The wonder of the moment led to the poem "Cantique de Noel" ("Song of Christmas”). Cappeau then asked his friend Adolphe Charles Adams to put the words into song. Adams was a trained classical musician, but he was of Jewish faith. Nevertheless, he agreed and the song was performed for the congregation on Christmas Eve.
Ten years later, John Sullivan Dwight heard the carol and translated it into English as “O Holy Night.” As an American abolitionist, he was particularly drawn to the lines, "Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease" and the song became popular in the North during the American Civil War.
It is also fascinating that on Christmas Eve 1906 Reginald Fessenden (a former colleague of Thomas Edison) was experimenting with a microphone and the telegraph when he began reading the story of the birth of Jesus from Luke 2.
Wireless operators around the world began to hear a man's voice come out of their machines. It was the first radio broadcast of a man's voice. Fessenden then picked up a violin and began to play "O Holy Night." It was the first song ever played over the radio.
The poinsettia is native to Mexico, where it blooms for only a short period close to Christmas. An old Mexican legend tells the story of Pepita, a poor girl who was walking to the Christmas Eve service and felt badly because she had no gift to give baby Jesus. Her cousin, Pedro, encouraged her by saying that even a small gift, given by one who loves Jesus, will make Him happy. Not wanting to go to church empty-handed, Pepita picked some weeds along the road, made a bouquet, and placed it near the nativity at the front of the church. All of a sudden the weeds became beautiful red flowers, which later became known as “flowers of the Holy Night.” The flower and leaves of the poinsettia resemble a star shape that reminds us of the Star of Bethlehem that the Wise Men followed to find Jesus. The red flower represents the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross, and the white flowers symbolize His purity.
10. SANTA CLAUS
The original Santa Claus was actually a real person—a Greek monk named St. Nicholas born around 280 A.D. in a small town in what is now Turkey. Nicholas was kind and wealthy, having received a large inheritance from his parents. He would say, “I am Nicholas, a sinner, a servant of Jesus Christ.” St. Nicholas loved to give gifts, and although he sought to give them anonymously, it wasn’t long before he became famous for giving gifts, especially to children. He gave away his inheritance and traveled around helping those who were poor and sick. His popularity spread all over Europe and came to America along with the immigrants.
The name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch, Sint Nikolaas, which was shortened to Sinter Klaas. St. Nicholas Day is Dec. 6th, and many children still celebrate the tradition of putting out shoes on this evening, and finding small gifts in them the next morning. The image of Santa sporting a white beard and red suit and flying around the world in a sleigh came about in the 19th century through the imagination of writers such as Thomas Nash and Clement Moore.
11. SILENT NIGHT
One of the most popular Christmas carols, “Silent Night” is sung in more than 300 languages around the world today. Its creation began in 1816. Assistant priest Joseph Mohr at Mariapfarr in Lungau, Austria, penned the poem during a very difficult time after the Napoleonic wars (1792-1815), which had caused great suffering, came to an end. Two years later, Mohr, now assistant priest at St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, approached church organist Franz Gruber on Christmas Eve to compose a melody to fit the text and to be sung by two solo voices together with a choir. The song would be accompanied by guitar since the organ was not working.
Weeks later, the organ was repaired and Gruber began playing the melody to test the instrument. The organ builder, deeply impressed, took “Silent Night” back to his home village and from there it began to spread across Prussia. Nearly 50 years after first being sung in German, the song was translated into English.
12. The USE OF XMAS
Using Xmas in place of Christmas is sometimes seen by Christians as a deviation into secularism. However, the origins of the word are strongly Christian. In fact, the term ‘Xmas’ has been used since the 16th century. In the abbreviation, the X stands for the Greek letter Chi, the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. Jesus’ name has also been abbreviated as XP, a combination of the first and second letters of the Greek word for Christ. From XP comes the labarum, a holy symbol in Orthodox Christianity that represents Jesus.