Lesson Plan Booster: Surprising Origins of Modern-Day Christmas Traditions
The Christmas holiday and its associated traditions have evolved over many years; American modern-day observances sometimes scarcely resemble those of old. Yet despite these changes, Christmas celebrations have always drawn their inspiration from a variety of cultural and religious customs.
Grade level: 9-12
Student learning objectives: Students will understand how a holiday observance can include both secular and religious elements and how popular forms of celebration can change over the centuries. By examining the origins of modern-day American Christmas traditions (including the December 25 observation of the holiday, the Christmas tree, Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), young people will gain a better appreciation for the contributions that different cultures and even different religions—both Christian and non-Christian—have made to the holiday. Students also will reflect upon how celebrations of the holiday may differ from one American family to the next, depending on culture/ethnicity, personal preference and other factors.
|The Dutch hero Sinterklaas, inspired by a real bishop, later inspired the American Santa Claus.|
NOTE: This Lesson Plan Booster is consistent with legally permissible public-school classroom activities as established by key court cases. Public-school teachers also should consult their district’s guidelines or policies regarding instruction related to holidays that incorporate a religious component.
One often-cited federal appeals court decision, Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, established that when teaching about holidays (such as Christmas) which have both a religious and secular (“mainstream” American cultural) basis, “the historical and contemporary values and the origin of [the holiday should] be explained in an unbiased and objective manner, without sectarian indoctrination.”
In the spirit of inclusiveness, it is desirable for public-school teachers to address the origins of other holidays observed in December, such as Hanukkah, Ramadan and Kwanzaa. Since the lesson plan also references ancient pagan rituals, educators should be aware that celebrations of the Winter Solstice continue in the present day.
For more information, see American Center for Law and Justice’s December 2010 guide: Christmas Activities in the Public Schools: What You Can and Cannot Do.
Begin preparing for the student discussion by familiarizing yourself with the historical origins of the four modern-day Christmas traditions below, as well as traditions associated with other December holidays.
Some interesting facts about the origins of Christmas celebrations include:
Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25? Before the rise of Christianity, late December was known for its many pagan celebrations. (Paganism is known as a polytheistic or pantheistic religion, as distinguished from Christianity, which is a monotheistic religion.) December 25 already hosted two related festivals: Natalis Solis Invicti (which roughly translates to “Birthday of the Invincible Sun God”) and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian “Sun of Righteousness” whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. Additional December celebrations included Saturnalia, a Winter Solstice ritual.
Christian church leaders—some estimate around the year 273—chose the date of December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ. Some argue that the date was chosen to distract from the pagan celebrations, or based on the assumption that pagans would be more likely to convert to Christianity if they were able to maintain their winter celebrations, albeit for a different god.
Christians first began to celebrate Christmas on December 25 in the year 336, after Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire's favored religion (Constantine used Christianity to empower his government throughout the Roman Empire). The custom of observing the holiday on this day gradually spread to Christians in other areas of the world.
The Christmas Tree
You may be surprised to learn that the custom of the Christmas tree was inspired by both a comic-book hero and a tradition of ritualistic human sacrifice.
Back before organized religion had a significant reach, pagan (also known as polytheistic or pantheistic) groups worshiped a myriad of inanimate objects such as trees, rocks and mountains. In Norway, the locals worshiped the thunder god Thor by ritualistically sacrificing humans and animals at the tree they designated “Thor's Oak.” (Thor, depicted more recently in Marvel Comics and on film, is also the subject of a 2012 Avengers movie.)
The Norwegians’ sacrifices were cause for concern by Christian missionaries. One such missionary, Winfred (Saint Boniface) discovered a sacrifice in progress and stopped it by taking an ax and chopping down Thor's Oak. Eventually a tiny fir tree began to grow from the hacked trunk. Because the fir tree’s triangular shape represents the Christian Trinity, Winfred used it to convert the pagans, and a Christian tradition was born.
It wouldn’t be until the 16th century, when Germans began to decorate their trees with apples, that decorating Christmas trees became fashionable. In the 1800s, a German immigrant named August Imgard brought the tradition to America. He was the first to place candy canes on the tree and a star at the top.
Students may find it interesting that the courts consider the Christmas tree a secular rather than religious symbol (public schools would therefore legally be allowed to display one). For more information, see American Center for Law and Justice’s December 2010 guide: Christmas Activities in the Public Schools: What You Can and Cannot Do.
The iconic image of the secular holiday is literally a “knockoff of a knockoff” of a Catholic saint. Our beloved “jolly old elf” is derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas, who was inspired by the legend of the Catholic Saint Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra, in what is now the country Turkey.
Nicholas was well respected for his charitable activities. His reputation for gift giving comes partly from a story of three young women who were too poor to afford a dowry for their marriages. As each reached marrying age, Nicholas secretly threw bags of gold into their homes at night. Some versions of the legend say that the girls’ father, trying to discover the donor, kept watch, whereby Nicholas dropped the bags down the chimney instead.
Much later in the 16th century, founder of Protestantism Martin Luther invented his own Christmas symbol, Kristkindl, when he began his feud with the Catholic Church. Luther invented a flamboyant character described as a “blonde, radiant veiled child figure with golden wings, wearing a flowing white robe and a sparkling jeweled crown, and carrying a small Christmas tree or wand.” It is from this incarnation that we get the Santa pseudonym “Kris Kringle,” although apart from the name, Luther’s version didn’t gain much traction.
In the 1600s, Dutch settlers in what is now New York and New Jersey brought their Sinterklaas customs to America. These customs continued to change over the years, based on elements Americans liked from the tales of Saint Nicholas and Sinterklaas. Thor, the Norse God of Thunder, even comes back into the Christmas picture, as his father Odin inspired some of Santa’s characteristics. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the name and modern image of “Santa Claus” (in fur-trimmed red suit) took hold in America, drawing inspiration from Harper’s Weekly magazine illustrations by German-born Thomas Nast.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
While other Christmas symbols and icons got their start in ancient history, Rudolph, his song and all of the products that followed were nothing more than a marketing campaign launched by the Montgomery Ward department store.
Every year the Chicago-based store would hand out coloring books to kids at Christmas. Rather than continue to purchase the books, in 1939 the Montgomery Ward brought the project in-house, assigning it to copywriter Robert L. May. What May came up with was a story about a misfit reindeer who uses his abnormality to save Christmas. As we all know, the story became a runaway hit.
Despite the incredible success of the books and the story, Montgomery Ward relinquished the rights to the story and the character to May. At this point his brother-in-law penned the song that has been played in perpetuity ever since, inspiring a classic television special and countless products generating countless dollars.
Introducing discussion to students
Many of the American Christmas traditions celebrated today started off as something completely different. At this time of year, when Christmas is so “front and center” in American culture, it is important to think about the many different cultural and religious traditions that have contributed to the popular holiday that many observe today.
Options for student discussion questions
Last updated 12/1/2014.