Christmas Eve Pre-Christian Traditions

Go to Twelve Days of Christmas

Christkind, Santa Klaus, and Knecht Ruprecht - Talking Animals and other Wonders of Christmas Eve - Scandinavian Beliefs about Trolls and the Return of the Dead - Traditional Christmas Songs in Eastern Europe - The Twelve Days, their Christian Origin and Pagan Superstitions - The Raging Host - Hints of Supernatural Visitors in England - The German Frauen - The Greek Kallikantzaroi.

Why is December 24th called "Christmas Eve"?
In old times, days started at sunset, so the evening of the day, the "eve" happened first. Then we changed to days starting at midnight. So now the "eve" is evening of the previous day. So "Christmas Eve" is the day before Christmas.


Clement A. Miles: Christmas in the narrowest sense must be reckoned as beginning on the evening of December 24. Though Christmas Eve is not much observed in modern England, throughout the rest of Europe its importance so far as popular customs are concerned is greater than that of the Day itself. Then in Germany the Christmas-tree is manifested in its glory; then, as in the England of the past, the Yule log is solemnly lighted in many lands; then often the most distinctive Christmas meal takes place.

Where does the word "Christmas" come from?
Christmas = Christ - Mass = "The Mass of Christ"
Christ = Jesus Christ
"Mass" = Roman Catholic religious Church service of "mass".
The word "mass" probably comes from the last words of the service of "mass", which are "you are dismissed" = "missa est" in Latin.
From the Latin word "missa" comes the English word "mass"

We shall consider these and other institutions later; though they appear first on Christmas Eve, they belong more or less to the Twelve Days as a whole. Let us look first at the supernatural visitors, mimed by human beings, who delight the minds of children, especially in Germany, on the evening of December 24, and at the beliefs that hang around this most solemn night of the year.

First of all, the activities of St. Nicholas are not confined to his own festival [Dec. 6]; he often appears on Christmas Eve. We have already seen how he is attended by various companions, including Christ Himself, and how he comes now vested as a bishop, now as a masked and shaggy figure.

[The modern jolly fat Santa Claus comes from the way St. Nicholas was pictured in Coca-Cola advertisements of the 1930's and 1940's. Swedish-American Artist Haddon Sundblom created the rosy-cheeked Santa used in Coca-Cola's Christmas advertisements in 1931. Sundblom used a cheery-faced Coca-Cola truck driver as his model for the portrait.]

The names and attributes of the Christmas and Advent visitors are rather confused, but on the whole it may be said that in Protestant north Germany the episcopal St. Nicholas and his Eve have been replaced by Christmas Eve and the Christ Child, while the name Klas has become attached to various unsaintly forms appearing at or shortly before Christmas.

We can trace a deliberate substitution of the Christ Child for St. Nicholas as the bringer of gifts. In the early seventeenth century a Protestant pastor is found complaining that parents put presents in their children's beds and tell them that St. Nicholas has brought them. "This," he says, "is a bad custom, because it points children to the saint, while yet we know that not St. Nicholas but the holy Christ Child gives us all good things for body and soul, and He alone it is whom we ought to call upon."

The ways in which the figure, or at all events the name, of Christ Himself, is introduced into German Christmas customs, are often surprising. The Christ Child, "Christkind," so familiar to German children, has now become a sort of mythical figure, a product of sentiment and imagination working so freely as almost to forget the sacred character of the original. Christkind bears little resemblance to the Infant of Bethlehem; he is quite a tall child, and is often represented by a girl dressed in white, with long fair hair. He hovers, indeed, between the character of the Divine Infant and that of an angel, and is regarded more as a kind of good fairy than as anything else.

In Alsace the girl who represents Christkind has her face "made up" with flour, wears a crown of gold paper with lighted candles in it - a parallel to the headgear of the Swedish Lussi; in one hand she holds a silver bell, in the other, a basket of sweetmeats. She is followed by the terrible Hans Trapp, dressed in a bearskin, with blackened face, long beard, and threatening rod. He "goes for" the naughty children, who are only saved by the intercession of Christkind.

In the Mittelmark the name of de hele (holy) Christ is strangely given to a skin- or straw-clad man, elsewhere called Knecht Ruprecht, Klas, or Joseph. In the Ruppin district a man dresses up in white with ribbons, carries a large pouch, and is called Christmann or Christpuppe. He is accompanied by a Schimmelreiter and by other fellows who are attired as women, have blackened faces, and are named Feien (we may see in them a likeness to the Kalends maskers condemned by the early Church). The procession goes round from house to house. The Schimmelreiter as he enters has to jump over a chair; this done, the Christpuppe is admitted. The girls present begin to sing, and the Schimmelreiter dances with one of them. Meanwhile the Christpuppe makes the children repeat some verse of Scripture or a hymn; if they know it well, he rewards them with gingerbreads from his wallet; if not, he beats them with a bundle filled with ashes. Then both he and the Schimmelreiter dance and pass on. Only when they are gone are the Feien allowed to enter; they jump wildly about and frighten the children.

Knecht Ruprecht, to whom allusion has already been made, is a prominent figure in the German Christmas. On Christmas Eve in the north he goes about clad in skins or straw and examines children; if they can say their prayers perfectly he rewards them with apples, nuts and gingerbreads; if not, he punishes them. In the Mittelmark, as we have seen, a personage corresponding to him is sometimes called "the holy Christ"; in Mecklenburg he is "ru Klas" (rough Nicholas - note his identification with the saint); in Brunswick, Hanover, and Holstein "Klas," "Klawes," "Klas Bur" and "Bullerklas"; and in Silesia "Joseph." Sometimes he wears bells and carries a long staff with a bag of ashes at the end-hence the name "Aschenklas" occasionally given to him. An ingenious theory connects this aspect of him with the polaznik of the Slavs, who on Christmas Day in Crivoscian farms goes to the hearth, takes up the ashes of the Yule log and dashes them against the cauldron-hook above so that sparks fly. As for the name "Ruprecht" the older mythologists interpreted it as meaning "shining with glory," [c.f., Lucifer], hruodperaht, and identified its owner with the [Scandinavian] god Woden. Dr. Tille, however, regards him as dating only from the seventeenth century. It can hardly be said that any satisfactory account has as yet been given of the origins of this personage, or of his relation to St. Nicholas, Pelzmarte, and monstrous creatures like the Klapperbock.

In the south-western part of Lower Austria, both St. Nicholas - a proper bishop with mitre, staff, and ring - and Ruprecht appear on Christmas Eve, and there is quite an elaborate ceremonial. The children welcome the saint with a hymn; then he goes to a table and makes each child repeat a prayer and show his lesson-books. Meanwhile Ruprecht in a hide, with glowing eyes and a long red tongue [Demonic?], stands at the door to overawe the young people. Each child next kneels before the saint and kisses his ring, whereupon Nicholas bids him put his shoes out-of-doors and look in them when the clock strikes ten. After this the saint lays on the table a rod dipped in lime, solemnly blesses the children, sprinkling them with holy water, and noiselessly departs. The children steal out into the garden, clear a space in the snow, and set out their shoes; when the last stroke of ten has sounded they find them filled with nuts and apples and all kinds of sweet things.

In the Troppau district of Austrian Silesia, three figures go round on Christmas Eve - Christkindel, the archangel Gabriel, and St. Peter - and perform a little play before the presents they bring are given. Christkindel announces that he has gifts for the good children, but the bad shall feel the rod. St. Peter complains of the naughtiness of the youngsters: they play about in the streets instead of going straight to school; they tear up their lesson-books and do many other wicked things. However, the children's mother pleads for them, and St. Peter relents and gives out the presents.

In the Erzgebirge appear St. Peter and Ruprecht, who is clad in skin and straw, has a mask over his face, a rod, a chain round his body, and a sack with apples, nuts, and other gifts; and a somewhat similar performance is gone through.

If we go as far east as Russia we find a parallel to the girl Christkind in Kolyada, a white-robed maiden driven about in a sledge from house to house on Christmas Eve. The young people who attended her sang carols, and presents were given them in return. Kolyada is the name for Christmas and appears to be derived from Kalendae, which probably entered the Slavonic languages by way of Byzantium. The maiden is one of those beings who, like the Italian Befana, have taken their names from the festival at which they appear.

No time in all the Twelve Nights and Days is so charged with the supernatural as Christmas Eve.... And yet many of the beliefs associated with this night show a large admixture of paganism.

First, there is the idea that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals have the power of speech. This superstition exists in various parts of Europe, and no one can hear the beasts talk with impunity. The idea has given rise to some curious and rather grim tales. Here is one from Brittany [France]:-

"Once upon a time there was a woman who starved her cat and dog. At midnight on Christmas Eve she heard the dog say to the cat, `It is quite time we lost our mistress; she is a regular miser. To-night burglars are coming to steal her money; and if she cries out they will break her head.' `Twill be a good deed,' the cat replied. The woman in terror got up to go to a neighbor's house; as she went out the burglars opened the door, and when she shouted for help they broke her head."

Again a story is told of a farm servant in the German Alps who did not believe that the beasts could speak, and hid in a stable on Christmas Eve to learn what went on. At midnight he heard surprising things. "We shall have hard work to do this day week," said one horse. "Yes, the farmer's servant is heavy," answered the other. "And the way to the churchyard is long and steep," said the first. The servant was buried that day week.

It may well have been the traditional association of the ox and ass with the Nativity that fixed this superstition to Christmas Eve, but the conception of the talking animals is probably pagan.

Related to this idea, but more Christian in form, is the belief that at midnight all cattle rise in their stalls or kneel and adore the new-born King. Readers of Mr. Hardy's "Tess" will remember how this is brought into a delightful story told by a Wessex peasant. The idea is widespread in England and on the Continent, and has reached even the North American Indians. Howison, in his "Sketches of Upper Canada," relates that an Indian told him that "on Christmas night all deer kneel and look up to Great Spirit." A somewhat similar belief about bees was held in the north of England: they were said to assemble on Christmas Eve and hum a Christmas hymn. Bees seem in folk-lore in general to be specially near to humanity in their feelings.

It is a widespread idea that at midnight on Christmas Eve all water turns to wine. A Guernsey woman once determined to test this; at midnight she drew a bucket from the well. Then came a voice:-

"Toute l'eau se tourne en vin,
Et tu es proche de ta fin."
[All the water turns to wine,
and you are close to your end.]

She fell down with a mortal disease, and died before the end or the year. In Sark the superstition is that the water in streams and wells turns into blood, and if you go to look you will die within the year.

There is also a French belief that on Christmas Eve, while the genealogy of Christ is being chanted at the Midnight Mass, hidden treasures are revealed. In Russia all sorts of buried treasures are supposed to be revealed on the evenings between Christmas and the Epiphany, and on the eves of these festivals the heavens are opened, and the waters of springs and rivers turn into wine.

Another instance or the supernatural character of the night is found in a Breton story of a blacksmith who went on working after the sacring bell had rung at the Midnight Mass. To him came a tall, stooping man with a scythe, who begged him to put in a nail. He did so; and the visitor in return bade him send for a priest, for this work would be his last. The figure disappeared, the blacksmith felt his limbs fail him, and at cock-crow he died. He had mended the scythe of the Ankou - Death the reaper?I

In the Scandinavian countries simple folk have a vivid sense of the nearness of the supernatural on Christmas Eve. On Yule night no one should go out, for he may meet uncanny beings of all kinds. In Sweden the Trolls are believed to celebrate Christmas Eve with dancing and revelry. "On the heaths witches and little Trolls ride, one on a wolf, another on a broom or a shovel, to their assemblies, where they dance under their stones .... In the mount are then to be heard mirth and music, dancing and drinking. On Christmas morn, during the time between cock-crowing and daybreak, it is highly dangerous to be abroad."

Christmas Eve is also in Scandinavian folk-belief the time when the dead revisit their old homes, as on All Souls' Eve in Roman Catholic lands. The living prepare for their coming with mingled dread and desire to make them welcome. When the Christmas Eve festivities are over, and everyone has gone to rest, the parlor is left tidy and adorned, with a great fire burning, candles lighted, the table covered with a festive cloth and plentifully spread with food, and a jug of Yule ale ready. Sometimes before going to bed people wipe the chairs with a clean white towel; in the morning they are wiped again, and, if earth is found, some kinsman, fresh from the grave, has sat there. Consideration for the dead even leads people to prepare a warm bath in the belief that, like living folks, the kinsmen will want a wash before their festal meal. (The bath-house in the old-fashioned Swedish farm is a separate building to which everyone repairs on Christmas Eve, but which is, or was, seldom used except on this one night of the year.) Or again beds were made ready for them while the living slept on straw. Not always is it consciously the dead for whom these preparations are made, sometimes they are said to be for the Trolls and sometimes even for the Savior and His angels. (We may compare with this Christian idea the Tyrolese custom of leaving some milk for the Christ Child and His Mother at the hour of Midnight Mass, and a Breton practice of leaving food all through Christmas night in case the Virgin should come.)

It is difficult to say how far the other supernatural beings - their name is legion - who in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland are believed to come out of their underground hiding-places during the long dark Christmas nights, were originally ghosts of the dead. Twenty years ago many students would have accounted for them all in this way, but the tendency now is strongly against the derivation of all supernatural beings from ancestor-worship. Elves, trolls, dwarfs, witches, and other uncanny folk - the beliefs about their Christmas doings are too many to be treated here; readers of Danish will find a long and very interesting chapter on this subject in Dr. Feilberg's "Jul". I may mention just one familiar figure of the Scandinavian Yule, Tomte Gubbe, a sort of genius of the house corresponding very much to the "drudging goblin" of Milton's "L'Allegro," for whom the cream-bowl must be duly set. He may perhaps be the spirit of the founder of the family. At all events on Christmas Eve Yule porridge and new milk are set out for him, sometimes with other things, such as a suit of small clothes, spirits, or even tobacco. Thus must his goodwill be won for the coming year.

In one part of Norway it used to be believed that on Christmas Eve, at rare intervals, the old Norse gods made war on Christians, coming down from the mountains with great blasts of wind and wild shouts, and carrying off any human being who might be about. In one place the memory of such a visitation was preserved in the nineteenth century. The people were preparing for their festivities, when suddenly from the mountains came the warning sounds. "In a second the air became black, peals of thunder echoed among the hills, lightning danced about the buildings, and the inhabitants in the darkened rooms heard the clatter of hoofs and the weird shrieks of the hosts of the gods."

The Scandinavian countries, Protestant though they are, have retained many of the outward forms of Catholicism, and the sign of the cross is often used as a protection against uncanny visitors. The cross - perhaps the symbol was originally Thor's hammer - is marked with chalk or tar or fire upon doors and gates, is formed of straw or other material and put in stables and cow-houses, or is smeared with the remains of the Yule candle on the udders of the beasts - it is in fact displayed at every point open to attack by a spirit of darkness.

Christmas Eve is in Germany a time for auguries. Some or the methods already noted on other days are practiced upon it - for instance the pouring of molten lead into water, the flinging of shoes, the pulling out of pieces of wood, and the floating of nutshells - and there are various others which it might be tedious to describe.

Among the southern Slavs if a girl wants to know what sort of husband she will get, she covers the table on Christmas Eve, puts on it a white loaf, a plate, and a knife, spoon, and fork, and goes to bed. At midnight the spirit of her future husband will appear and fling the knife at her. If it falls without injuring her she will get a good husband and be happy, but if she is hurt she will die early. There is a similar mode of divination for a young fellow. On Christmas Eve, when everybody else has gone to church, he must, naked and in darkness, sift ashes through a sieve. His future bride will then appear, pull him thrice by the nose, and go away.

In eastern Europe Christmas, and especially Christmas Eve, is the time for the singing of carols called in Russian Kolyadki, and in other Slav countries by similar names derived from Kalendae. More often than not these are without connection with the Nativity; sometimes they have a Christian form and tell of the doings of God, the Virgin and the saints, but frequently they are or an entirely secular or even pagan character. Into some the sun, moon, and stars and other natural objects are introduced, and they seem to be based on myths to which a Christian appearance has been given by a sprinkling of names of holy persons of the Church. Here for instance is a fragment from a Carpathian song:-

"A golden plough goes ploughing,
And behind that plough is the Lord Himself.
The holy Peter helps Him to drive,
And the Mother of God carries the seed corn,
Carries the seed corn, prays to the Lord God,
`Make, O Lord, the strong wheat to grow,
The strong wheat and the vigorous corn!
The stalks then shall be like reeds!"

Often they contain wishes for the prosperity of the household and end with the words, "for many years, for many years." The Roumanian songs are frequently very long, and a typical, oft- recurring refrain is:-

This evening is a great evening,
White flowers;
Great evening of Christmas,
White flowers."

Sometimes they are ballads of the national life.

In Russia a carol beginning "Glory be to God in heaven, Glory!" and calling down blessings on the Tsar and his people, is one of the most prominent among the Kolyadki, and opens the singing of the songs called Podblyudnuiya. "At the Christmas festival a table is covered with a cloth, and on it is set a dish or bowl (blyudo) containing water. The young people drop rings or other trinkets into the dish, which is afterwards covered with a cloth, and then the Podblyudnuiya Songs commence. At the end of each song one of the trinkets is drawn at random, and its owner deduces an omen from the nature of the words which have just been sung."

Excerpted from Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, by Clement A. Miles, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 2nd Ed. 1913, pp. 229-247

Go to Introduction of Christmas into Christianity
Go to 12 Days of Christmas
Go to Christmas Tree and Decorations Go to Christmas and New Year Gifts

Go to Literature Index Page

This URL is