The Origin of Santa Clause and Other Christmas Traditions

Updated on April 10, 2019
Stephen C Barnes profile image

Stephen is a serious history buff who enjoys researching and writing about the smaller stories within larger historical events.

Our modern version of Santa is usually depicted with a long, white beard, glasses, and a pointy hat.
Our modern version of Santa is usually depicted with a long, white beard, glasses, and a pointy hat. | Source

The Origin of Santa Claus

The idea of Santa Claus can be traced back some 1700 years to an early Christian monk, Saint Nicholas. The good saint was born in Patara, near Myra, in what is now Turkey around the year 280 CE. As a monk, he became well-known and respected for his piety, acts of kindness, and concern for the poor and oppressed.

Over the years, the legend and popularity of Saint Nicholas continued to grow such that by the time of the Renaissance—nearly 1000 years after his death—he had become the most popular saint in Europe. This held true even after the protestant reformation when the veneration of saints was strongly discouraged, and all but the most celebrated and revered fell by the wayside. And nowhere was he more popular than in the Netherlands.

It is this popularity of Saint Nicholas with the Dutch that is responsible for his introduction to and acceptance in North America and its Christmas traditions. The Dutch brought the tradition of the Saint Nicholas day feast—held each December 6th on the anniversary of the saint's death—with them to the New World. A New York Newspaper reporter in the late 18th century became aware of a large gathering of Dutch families for the celebration and reported on it, thus spreading the tradition.

The Dutch are also largely responsible for Saint Nicholas becoming known as Santa Claus in North America. The name Santa Claus is derived from Sinter Klass, the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas.

Though the Dutch are responsible for bringing Saint Nickolas to North America, it is an Episcopal minister from New York City, by the name of Clement Clarke Moore that is primarily responsible for the version of Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) that we have today. It was in his 1822 poem, "A Visit From Saint Nickolas," now known as "The Night Before Christmas," that the world was first introduced to the jolly, plump, red-suited, white-bearded, pipe-smoking, sleigh-riding gift-giver that we know and love today.

Modern Christmas stockings often look like ornate and oversized socks.
Modern Christmas stockings often look like ornate and oversized socks. | Source

The Origin of the Christmas Stocking

The most popular legend for the origin of the Christmas stocking is related to the legend of Saint Nicholas. As the story goes, a poor widowed gentleman was worried that his three daughters would not be able to find husbands because he could not afford to provide them with dowries. At that time, daughters who could not be married off and whose parents could not afford to care for them were often sold into slavery or prostitution.

On hearing this man’s plight, Saint Nicholas wished to help but knew that the man was too proud to accept any kind of charity. So one night, under the cover of darkness, he went to the man’s home, slid down his chimney, and filled the girl’s stockings—which were hung on the mantle so that they could be dried by the fire—with gold coins, then slipped away unseen.

Why We Use the Word "Xmas" to Mean Christmas

Even though it is quite common to use Xmas as an abbreviation for Christmas, most people have no idea where this comes from, and many people believe it is, at the very least, disrespectful and at the worst, blasphemous.This is not, however, not the case.

The origin of this term goes back to the early days of the Christian church when it was necessary for Christians to use secret symbols to identify one another. X (chi) is actually the first letter in the Greek word for Christ and was used by early Christians to indicate their membership in the church. So, Xmas and Christmas mean exactly the same thing: Christ-mass.

Christmas trees have become an integral part of most Christmas celebrations in the United States.
Christmas trees have become an integral part of most Christmas celebrations in the United States. | Source

Why We Put up a Christmas Tree

Evergreen trees have been used to celebrate winter festivals for thousands of years, long before Christianity, when Pagans in Europe would decorate their homes with evergreen branches to remind them of spring and help lift their spirits during the long cold winter months.

The idea of the modern Christmas tree, however, began in Germany in the 16th century when Christians began bringing evergreen trees into their homes and decorating them with gingerbread, nuts, and apples. The custom caught on with nobility, and spread to royal courts across Europe, where the decorating became more elaborate.

In North American, however, the Christmas tree was still thought to be a foreign, Pagan custom until the mid 19th century. Then, in 1848, the Illustrated London Times published a drawing of the British Royal family, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children, celebrating around a fully decorated tree, complete with lit candles and sweets, thus securing for all time the place of the Christmas tree in Christmas holiday celebrations.

Why We Call the Day After Christmas Day Boxing Day

There are actually two stories for the origin of boxing day, both come from Great Britain, and both seem equally likely, and are both most likely true.

One story tells that it was the English custom in the 19th century for the upper classes, on the day after Christmas, to give a "Christmas Box" to trades people, servants, or anyone else who had rendered them a service throughout the year, as a kind of gratuity. The boxes would usually contain fruits, meats, candy or other treats, or small gifts.The other story explains that December 26 was the day the church would gather up boxes of alms to distribute among the poor. As both of these practices are known to have existed it seems most likely that both had a hand in the naming of the day after Christmas Boxing day.

This is an artist's rendering of a 19th century Tibb's Eve celebration.
This is an artist's rendering of a 19th century Tibb's Eve celebration. | Source

The Newfoundland and Labrador Tradition Known as Tibb's Eve

Tibb's Eve, also known as Tipp's Eve or Tipsy's Eve depending on what region of the province you are from, is a uniquely Newfoundland and Labrador Christmas tradition. The term Tibb's Eve is an old one in certain parts of Newfoundland, and was a kind of tongue in cheek expression meaning never. For example: if someone were to ask " Hey Garge, when ya gonna give up dat pipe bye", the person being questioned may respond, "on Tibb's Eve I spose". (no misspellings, phonetically rendered Newfoundland dialect) Meaning that he never intended to give it up.

It wasn't until sometime around World War Two, on Newfoundland's South Coast, that the term Tibb's Eve became associated with December 23, the day before Christmas Eve. It began as just a lighthearted way to extend the Christmas season. The idea being that one could begin his Holiday alcohol consumption on that day instead of having to wait until Christmas day or the day after, as the religious traditions of the day dictated.

The idea was a popular one, and the tradition quickly spread throughout the entire province. Today Tibb's Eve parties are held all over Newfoundland and Labrador, and even in other parts of Canada, and the world, where expat Newfoundlanders have taken the tradition with them.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! | Source

These are just a few of the many Christmas traditions observed and celebrated world wide, with individual cultures, countries, and regions having many of their own interesting and unique traditions. However you and your family celebrate Christmas it is the joy, happiness, and togetherness of the season, the love for one another that comes through in everything, that makes the season special.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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    © 2018 Stephen Barnes

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