All About Christmas Or Christmastide

Explore the meaning, spirit, traditions, customs, mythology & Legends of Christmas

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Christmas is a special and exciting time of year for most of us, but especially for children. Sadly many of the traditions, rituals and general fun things that used to happen over the Christmas season, and which contributed to the spirit and goodwill of Christmas, are forgotten or being replaced by things driven more by commercial interests than goodwill towards men. I would like to do my part to try and keep "Old Christmas" alive and have put together this collection that documents many of these wonderful old Christmas traditions. If you are an doing an academic research or merely want to know a little more the collection of Christmas related books on this site provides a very extensive reference on the subject. (Links to the included books are toward the end of the page.)

OVERVIEW It is unknown exactly when or why December 25 became associated with Christ's birth. The New Testament does not give a specific date. Sextus Julius Africanus popularised the idea that Christ was born on December 25 in his Chronographiai, a reference book for Christians written in AD 221. This date is nine months after the traditional date of the Incarnation (March 25), now celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation. March 25 was considered to be the date of the vernal equinox and early Christians believed this was also the date Christ was crucified.

The Twelve Days of Christmas are the twelve days from the day after Christmas Day, December 26, which is St. Stephen's Day, to the Feast of Epiphany on January 6 that encompass the major feasts surrounding the birth of Christ. In the Latin Rite, one week after Christmas Day, January 1, has traditionally been the celebration the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Christ, but since Vatican II, this feast has been celebrated as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. In some traditions the 12 days of Christmas start on Christmas Day (25 December) and the 12th day is therefore 5 January.

In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was overshadowed by Epiphany, which in the west focused on the visit of the magi. But the Medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays. The forty days before Christmas became the "forty days of St. Martin" (which began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours), now known as Advent. In Italy, former Saturnalian traditions were attached to Advent. Around the 12th century, these traditions transferred again to the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 26 – January 6); a time that appears in the liturgical calendars as Christmastide or Twelve Holy Days. Christmas during the Middle Ages was a public festival, with ivy, holly, and other evergreens, as well as gift-giving. The Yule boar was a common feature of medieval Christmas feasts. Caroling also became popular, and was originally a group of dancers who sang.

Following the Parliamentary victory over King Charles I during the English Civil War, England's Puritan rulers banned Christmas, in 1647. Pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities, and for several weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The Restoration of 1660 (which was mainly the reinstating of King Charles II) ended the ban, but many of the Nonconformist clergy still disapproved of Christmas celebrations, using Puritan arguments. In Colonial America, the Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas; its celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. At the same time, Christian residents of Virginia and New York observed the holiday freely. Christmas fell out of favour in the United States after the American Revolution, when it was considered an English custom. By the 1820s, sectarian tension in England had eased and British writers began to worry that Christmas was dying out, in particular the writer William Winstanley played a crucial role in popularising the festival again. Charles Dickens's book A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasizing family, goodwill, and compassion over communal celebration and hedonistic excess. Interest in Christmas in America was revived in the 1820s by several short stories by Washington Irving appearing in his The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon and "Old Christmas", and by Clement Clarke Moore's (or, possibly, by Henry Beekman Livingston) 1822 poem A Visit From St. Nicholas (popularly known by its first line: Twas the Night Before Christmas). Irving's stories depicted harmonious warm-hearted holiday traditions he claimed to have observed in England. Although some argue that Irving invented the traditions he describes, they were widely imitated by his American readers. The poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas popularised the tradition of exchanging gifts and seasonal Christmas shopping began to assume economic importance. In her 1850 book "The First Christmas in New England", Harriet Beecher Stowe includes a character who complains that the true meaning of Christmas was lost in a shopping spree. Christmas was declared a United States Federal holiday in 1870, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.

Santa Claus and other bringers of gifts Santa Claus Originating from Western culture, where the holiday is characterized by the exchange of gifts among friends and family members, some of the gifts are attributed to a character called Santa Claus (also known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas or St. Nikolaus, Sinterklaas, Kris Kringle, Pere Noel, Joulupukki, Weihnachtsmann, Saint Basil and Father Frost). The popular image of Santa Claus was created by the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840–1902), who drew a new image annually, beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast's Santa had evolved into the form we now recognize. The image was standardized by advertisers in the 1920s. Father Christmas, who predates the Santa Claus character, was first recorded in the 15th century, but was associated with holiday merrymaking and drunkenness. In Victorian Britain, his image was remade to match that of Santa. The French Père Noël evolved along similar lines, eventually adopting the Santa image. In Italy, Babbo Natale acts as Santa Claus, while La Befana is the bringer of gifts and arrives on the eve of the Epiphany. It is said that La Befana set out to bring the baby Jesus gifts, but got lost along the way. Now, she brings gifts to all children. In some cultures Santa Claus is accompanied by Knecht Ruprecht, or Black Peter. In other versions, elves make the toys. His wife is referred to as Mrs. Claus. The current tradition in several Latin American countries holds that while Santa makes the toys, he then gives them to the Baby Jesus, who is the one who actually delivers them to the children's homes. This story is meant to be a reconciliation between traditional religious beliefs and modern day globalization, most notably the iconography of Santa Claus imported from the United States.

  The Night before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tinny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"
The popular image of Santa Claus was created by the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840–1902), who drew a new image annually, beginning in 1863.



Christmas Related Books on this site.
Old Christmas Recalled - Washington Irving's description of Old Christmas circa 1886

Christmas In Ritual & Tradition - The Observance Of Christmas In Various Lands And Ages circa 1912

Christmastide, Its History, Festivities And Carols circa 1890

Book Of Christmas, The Customs, Ceremonies, Traditions, Superstitions, Fun, Feeling, And Festivities Of The Christmas Season
Also check British Popular Customs Present And Past - Customs, practices & rituals from the traditions & folklore of the British Isles. Arranged According To The Calendar Days Of The Year. And for what it is really all about: THE CHILDREN'S BIBLE - Selections From The Old And New Testaments In Simple English. Also With Many Illustrations in Colour and Duo-tone.
For Christmas Music & Carols check the Christmas music page on my traditionsl music site. You may also be interested in Christmas Carols, Ancient And Modern - 15th to 19th century with extensive historical information also on my traditional music site.