Christmas Traditions

Santa Claus

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Twelve Days of Christmas

Besides being a tediously long song about an assortment of really strange gifts, The Twelve Days of Christmas refers to the 12-day period between Christmas and the Epiphany (January 6th.) Epiphany represents the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles when the Magi arrived and worshiped the infant Jesus. While many American Protestant churches celebrate the Epiphany, relatively few celebrate Twelve days of Christmas. This celebration is sometimes called "Twelvetide" and sometimes "Christmastide". There are subtle differences but each day would be celebrated with a feast. The "Feast of the Nativity of the Lord" is on Christmas Day, the "Feast of Stephen" is December 26th, the "Feast of Pope St. Sylvester" is on December 31st. There are others, you can read about them here

The song lists twelve eccentric gifts that have become part of Christmas lore. There is a belief that the gifts listed are a code for Catholics living in England under oppression during the 16th to 19th centuries, but it is much more likely that the song developed as a game just to see if you could get through it. But since I love a good conspiracy theory, here are the gifts listed with their coded counterparts:


Troll the ancient yuletide carol

(troll means to sing)

Recently I read an article about Swedes in Malmö calling Christmas "The Winter Celebration" so as not to offend the Muslim immigrants. It was a "click-bait" type article intended to provoke a response, and it worked. Not because it was true, but because Swedes never called it Christmas, but Jul. You pronounce it Yule.


If Christmas may have evolved from pagan winter festivals, Yule clearly did. Yule is a 12-day celebration that evolved among the Germanic people and can be traced back to the fourth century. Yule has ties to Norse mythology; one of the names of Odin (Thor's father - looks like Anthony Hopkins) is jólfaðr ("Yule father") or jólnir ("the Yule one"), and jólnar ("the Yule ones") would be a plural reference to Norse gods in general. This connection to Norse mythology is due in part to Yule being an adaptation of an old European folk tradition of The Wild Hunt, a spectral procession of hunters said to be led by Odin.

Yule is based on a German lunar calendar making the dates a little different each year (like Hanukkah.) This year it is From December 21st to January 1st. The ancient traditions are vague but it would typically begin with midwinter and last until the food and the ale ran out. The holiday became Christianized along with Norway by King Haakon I of Norway sometime in the 10th century. Haakon himself was Christian, and by the time of his rule, Christmas was an established holiday. Modern-day Wiccans still celebrate the pagan aspects of Yule. Now days, Yule is celebrated in Northern European countries as a Christmas holiday and though we don't see many of the Yule traditions in our western culture, some are interesting: The Sonargöltr - a sacrificed boar (like Christmas ham), The Yule goat - a Christmas ornament, and the Yule log - nowadays, a tasty chocolate cake.

The Yule Log

I've seen the "Yule Log" cakes, but I wasn't sure where the tradition came from. It's pretty neat.

So your people, or clan, or family would go into the woods and pick out a good sized tree since it would have to burn for twelve days. You would cut it down and drag it back to the house and use a portion of last years log to light the new one by placing the large end of the tree in to the hearth. A family member would ceremoniously wash their hands and set the old log on fire. Once it is going, you use it to light the new log. Over the course of twelve days, you feed the new log into the hearth with the rest of the tree extending into the house. You gather around this fire, feasting on meat cooked over it, drinking ale, and singing songs. The Yule log's burning should be the sole light source at night. On the twelfth day, you extinguish the remaining portion of the log and preserve it until next year. It should be stored in the home because it brings good health and good luck, including against house fires, ironically.

As much as I think this is how Christmas should be celebrated, I don't think this could be adopted in modern houses. It would be hard on the carpets.

Santa Claus

Saint Nicholas

First and foremost, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS!! Saint Nicholas lived in the Greek city of Myra (Turkey) in the 3rd-4th century during the time of Roman rule. Since the earliest records were written long after his death, there are likely some apocryphal events associated with him but there are some accepted facts.

He was born to wealthy Christian parents in Asia Minor and was orphaned at a young age. Nicholas dedicated his life to Christianity and became an early Christian bishop in Myra. There are many miracles associated with him. He is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students. He also had a history of gift giving.

The most famous story attributed to Saint Nicholas that reflects the Santa Claus story is him giving dowry money for three daughters of a poor man. The man had three daughters of marrying age but no money for the dowry. One night, Nicholas tossed a bag of gold through a window (some versions say "down a chimney" and into a stocking hung by the fireplace) providing the dowry for the oldest daughter. He repeated this the next night for the middle daughter and when he returned for the third daughter, the father was waiting to see where the gold was coming from. Nicholas asked him to keep silent, but clearly, word got out. There are many miracles attributed to Saint Nicholas, you can read them here: While Saint Nicholas is often portrayed in art with a beard, he generally doesn't look like our Santa Claus. The Feast of St. Nicholas or Saint Nicholas Day is December 6th and in the middle ages, gift giving took place on this day.


After the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, The Catholic figure of Saint Nicholas became problematic. So the newly formed Lutheran Church promoted the Christkind ("Christ Child", sometimes Christkindl) as the gift giver in a move away from Catholic traditions. This is the figure on top of many Christmas Trees that we Americans call an angel (okay, some of them are angels.) It is also when gift-giving changed to Christmas Eve (the 24th) for many and it is where some of the familiar Santa attributes come from. For instance, Children never see the Christkind and he will only come when they are asleep. Also, it is pronounce with short 'i's and is where "Kris Kringle" comes from.

Meanwhile, back in England and also during the 16th century, the gift-giver came to be known as "Father Christmas" (sometimes "Old Man Christmas") and the day to give gifts was moved to the 25th of December. This is where Santa Claus starts to act and look like the guy in the Coca-Cola ads. Father Christmas was the bringer of good cheer, feasting ,peace and joy. The character of the Ghost of Christmas Present is an adaptation of Father Christmas and a 1843 illustration by John Leech has been influential in our modern Santa Claus.
Ghost of Christmas Present

The name "Santa Claus" comes the old Dutch legend of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is a figure based on Saint Nicholas and dates back to the middle ages, even to the beginning of Yule. I wanted to mention it because it is a very old legend that survived the "Catholic Purge" during the reformation. The Dutch Republic did become Protestant, but they kept their Saint Nicholas tradition. In our culture, Santa Claus faired better than Christkind. Sinterklaas also gave rise to the idea of delivering presents through the chimney.

St. Nick

"Saint Nicholas" enjoyed a renaissance in the early 19th century when Victorian era writers rediscovered the old stories. This is the period that produced "'T'was the Night before Christmas" by Dr. Clement Clarke Moore in 1823. This poem introduced the eight reindeer and named them. Rudolph came along in 1949. Also called "A Visit from St. Nicholas", this story shaped much of how we currently see Santa Claus. By the way, I learned that only female reindeer retain their antlers during winter. This means that Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen are all girls.


In the 1920's, Coca-Cola used Santa Claus in an advertisement and this is the picture of him we have today. The Coca-cola artists did not create this image though, they simply put a Coke in his hands. The picture they used as a basis for the ad was taken from a 1881 Harper's Weekly and was drawn by Thomas Nast. This is the version we all grew up with.
Harper's Weekly Santa

Ho, Ho, Y'all