Northern Europe has been the historic cradle of many customs and traditions we associate with Christmas today. Below are four of them.
Gift-giving has its roots in pagan rituals held during the winter. When Christianity folded these rituals into Christmas, the justification for bearing gifts was redirected to the Three Wise Men, the Magi, who gave gifts to the infant Jesus. But in early modern Europe, it also had its roots in Christmas begging. At that time, Christmas bore little resemblance to the family-centered holiday celebrated today. During the holiday seasons, bands of young men, often rowdy, would "wassail" from home to home and demand handouts from the gentry, says Stephen Nissenbaum, author of "The Battle for Christmas." Christmas involved an exchange between the social classes.
But when Christmas was domesticated in the 1800s in the United States, the recipients of gift-giving shifted from the lower classes to children, given by versions of Santa Claus. It was then that a marketing opportunity was created, bringing us to the Santa-in-the-shopping-mall phenomenon that we recognize today.
Like so many other Christmas traditions, carols have their roots in pagan rituals appropriated by the nascent Christian Church when, in the 4th century, it officially named Christmas the celebration of Christ Jesus' birth. The first carols were liturgical songs, with little in common with what we might call carols today.
At the same time, the practice of "wassailing" in early modern Europe gave rise to the door-to-door phenomenon – though it was rejected as a sin by the Puritans, because it was associated with heavy drinking and rowdiness. The rise of peaceful, "modern" singing of Christmas hymns, either in church or on the streets, came in vogue in the Victorian Era.
It's during this period that the famed "Good King Wenceslas" was written, and that "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," "The First Noel," and "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" were popularized.
Long before the arrival of Christianity, northern Europeans used plants and trees to decorate their homes to celebrate festivals that coincided with the winter solstice. The Christmas tree that we recognize today, however, is a tradition that dates much later, to the beginning of the 17th century in Strasbourg. It was not until a visit by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Strasbourg – when he witnessed a Christmas tree firsthand and recorded it in his 1774 novel "The Sorrows of Young Werther" – that the custom spread across Germany.
While German settlers did erect trees in Pennsylvania, they are not responsible for the mass acceptance of the tree in American society, says Stephen Nissenbaum, author of "The Battle for Christmas." It was introduced in the United States in the 1830s by intellectuals pushing for ways to make Christmas less commercial and more rooted in tradition, he says. The first image of a Christmas tree printed in the US was in Boston in 1836. It is widely believed that a photo in 1848 of German Prince Albert and his wife, Queen Victoria, next to a Christmas tree led to its mass appeal on both sides of the Atlantic.
The origins of Santa Claus trace back to what is now Turkey, to legends surrounding St. Nicholas, a monk. Revered for his kindness, he became known as the protector of children. But modern Santa, whose name is derived from the Dutch "Sinterklaas," came later. At the turn of the 19th century, Christmas was a time of rowdy revelry. John Pintard, a member of the New York Historical Society who was attempting to tame Christmas, introduced St. Nicholas to the United States in the early 1800s. At about the same time, Washington Irving popularized the figure with his "A History of New York" in 1809 in which he mentions St. Nick 25 times. Santa's modern "right jolly old elf" image comes from the 1822 poem "An account of a visit from St. Nicholas," better known as " 'Twas the Night before Christmas," by Clement Clarke Moore.