Santa had an evil twin? Here are 3 fun facts you didn’t know about Christmas

You’ve probably seen a greeting card or decorations with the words “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Well, for Christians, yes, Jesus is the central figure of the Christmas story and the end of year holiday celebrations and events.

But Christmas isn’t the only holiday observed at the end of the year. In fact, there are 14 religious holidays in December including Hanukkah, Bodhi Day and Yule. As time passes and our culture evolves, our traditions have evolved with them. Some traditions got mashed together to create a new modern tradition with ancient roots.

Reckon spoke with Sabina Magliocco, academic chair of the study of religion at the University of British Columbia, about modern Christmas traditions and their ancient roots.

Christmas trees, wreaths and garlands

Bet you didn’t know that decorating with evergreen plants during the wintertime, especially around the time of the winter solstice, was a reminder of the coming spring.

As the weather gets colder. most plants turn brown and enter a dormant season , but plants like pine and fir trees stay green despite the cold temperatures.

“Prior to the 17th century, people all over Europe would bring greenery into the house during the season of the winter solstice. They would go to the woods and cut pine and cedar boughs, holly other types of plants that remain green throughout the year because of its symbolism at a time of year when all other deciduous trees and plants lose their leaves. The greenery symbolizes the hope of the return of the sun, and the returning spring.”

Many people assume this is where the tradition of the Christmas tree came from, but not quite. The Christmas tree was first introduced in the 1700s in Germany. The first Christmas trees were decorated with food and snacks.

The practice was introduced in England by Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria in the early 1800s.

“From there it took off like crazy and it became an icon of Christmas during the Victorian era, an era in England which gave us so many of our contemporary Christmas icons. Many of the things that we associate with Christmas today are very strongly rooted in the Victorian era,” Magliocco said.

The Christmas tree isn’t directly related, but the use of evergreens certainly has a pagan background in the winter solstice

It ain’t Jesus’ actual birthday

Spoiler alert: Jesus wasn’t born on December 25. Based on the account of his birth in the Bible and analysis of astrological events, it seems Jesus was likely born during spring, Magliocco said. But that didn’t stop early Christians from applying Jesus to existing traditions.

“The early Christian fathers simply grafted the story of the Nativity, on to these already existing celebrations, because the story -- the birth of a savior that brings hope to humankind can graft pretty easily onto existing stories about the return of the sun, the return of the light, the beginning of a new year and the hope for the future,” said Magliocco.

Santa’s evil twin

If you’ve never heard of Krampus, he is essentially St. Nicholas’ evil counterpart, who instead of giving good children gifts, punishes bad children during the Christmas season. According to some lore (and a movie), he throws the especially bad children into hell.

Beast-like creatures like Krampus have appeared in ancient folklore from across Europe. While some anthropologists have linked Krampus to pagan practices, Magliocco said these creatures and the lore surrounding them are so widespread it’s hard to pin Krampus on one particular belief.

“If you look at European folk traditions, we see lore about these frightening horned figures, often wearing very shaggy pelts or shaggy clothes, or clothes that mark them as wild and uncontrollable, and they parade through the town and they scare the heck out of you,” she said.

But one thing is certain, some Christians embraced Krampus as the holidays became Christianized.

In much of Europe, they were given a Christian reinterpretation as Christianity became the dominant religion. These hairy horned figures were reinterpreted as kind of devils who would take children who had not been good, and literally take them to hell,” Magliocco said.

The Catholic Church tried to ban Krampus. Anyone dressed as Krampus in Nazi Germany was sentenced to death because Krampus was seen as a demonic figure rooted in pagan traditions, according to Brittanica.

Some Germanic countries like Austria still include Krampus in their holiday lore. Austria even has a Krampus parade every year.

December is filled with lots of lore, and it seems there’s a new movie or weird party game to add to the rotation of traditions each year. Are there any traditions you can’t live without?

Anna Beahm

Anna Beahm |

I report on the intersection of religion and sexuality in America. Follow me on Twitter @_AnnaBeahm

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.