Tara Moore on Christmas Traditions … and Krampus! (Encore Presentation).
Date: December 25th, 2016

While we are still on break, please enjoy this wonderful holiday discussion with Tara Moore from last year.  We will have brand new episodes starting on January 1.

People often celebrate Christmas in different ways, but there are some common traditions that have developed over time.  Where do these traditions come from, and how have they changed?  Prof. Tara Moore, a part-time instructor of English at Penn State University – York, takes us on a joyous exploration of Christmas past and present, revealing little tidbits of historical information that she dug up doing research on her two books, Christmas: The Sacred to Santa and Victorian Christmas in Print (see below for links).  This is definitely a podcast that you will want to listen to so as to impress your family, friends, and colleagues during the annual Christmas celebrations.

Our investigation begins with Prof. Moore herself, finding out how she came to write about Christmas.  Faced with the choice in graduate school of writing a dissertation about Victorian-era nuns or Victorian-era Christmas, the nun route looked pretty grim and so she chose to write on the merry holiday of Christmas.  Tara also notes that her historical studies have led her to celebrate Christmas in a more “low electricity” 19th century style and, at times, to feel the need to correct some folks regarding their misunderstandings of traditions including a play written about her church’s first pastor celebrating Christmas in 1774.  Given her Presbyterian background, and her historical training, Tara noted that Presbyterians would not have been celebrating Christmas in that era, but she nonetheless performed in the play.

We then turn the first Christmas with Tony noting how lucky it was that Jesus was born on that day.  Dr. Moore quickly sets Tony right and we enter into an interesting discussion about the birth of Jesus, thinking about when the birth actually did occur (which would more likely have been springtime).  Tara reviews how we have settled on a late December date for Jesus’s birth, being a symbolic choice for nine months after the assumed date of the Annunciation.  She further notes that Christmas was not a major holiday in the early centuries of the Church and only becomes an official holiday in 336 A.D., and not becoming more universally celebrated until 350 A.D.  Tara provides other interesting observations about the birth narrative of Jesus, discussing the role of shepherds and wise men, and also pointing out that while Romans celebrated birthdays, Judeans typically did not.

The early medieval celebrations of Christmas tended to be periods of fasting, particularly within the Eastern Orthodox tradition.  The celebration of the holiday in Western Europe started in Rome and gradually spread to other parts of Europe by the 9th century.  Early gift giving during this time was centered around food and the noted 12 days of Christmas (which ran past the December 25th date in early celebrations) was all about preparing feats.  A tradition also developed early on with respect to reversing social roles.  At first, the rich would provide food to the poor, but eventually it became a “topsy turvy” part of the calendar when peasants would dress as royalty, and choir boys would get to play the role of bishops.  At one point, the upending of social roles and customs became so raucous that King Henry VIII ended the practice of role reversals.  All of this leads to a discussion of the raucous nature of the holiday, and Tara recounts that in many ways it was a rather adult holiday with drunken carousing (giving way eventually to more tame caroling) and all sorts of fascinating local practices.  She notes that in Haverford, England, local residents celebrate by putting a cake on the horn of an ox, and at other times splash animals with beer!  As print media began to spread throughout Europe, many traditions became more standardized, though local idiosyncrasies persist until today.

This then prompts Tony to ask about a number of the more popular traditions and characters associated with the season.  We start with the Christmas tree, and Dr. Moore explains that the origin of this tradition is hard to trace.  While Romans were known to decorate trees in imperial days, and trees did figure into miracle plays, it wasn’t until the 1700s that trees became a centerpiece of Christmas celebrations.  (Interestingly, the use of trees led to some problems of deforestation and the Salzburg town government had to ban the removal of trees from local forests.)  We talk about the origins of ornaments a bit, noting that they started as cookies and in some places Christmas trees were hung from the ceiling upside down to prevent rodents from going after the baked goods dangling from the limbs.  Of course, we discuss the origins and development of Santa Claus, with Tara recounting the historical details of St. Nicholas of Myra, how he was one of the most popular saints in the 1500s, and then how the Santa arose from this.  While not directly related to St. Nicholas, Santa Claus comes from a variety of sources and tended to start out as a “wild man” of Europe that only became tamed in the mid-19th century with the painting of him done by Thomas Nast and the famous poem by Clement Moore.   This invariably leads to Krampus and the Scandinavian Nisse (woe be unto farmers, we find out).

Our conversation ends with discussion on when and why Christmas was banned at various times and places, as well as some of Tara’s thoughts on commercialization and how Christ has come back into Christmas in recent times.  Prof. Moore shares a few of her favorite family holiday traditions to close us out.  Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!  Recorded: December 8, 2015.


Christmas: The Sacred to Santa, by Tara Moore.

Victorian Christmas in Print, by Tara Moore.


John Mark Reynolds on Dickens and “A Christmas Carol.”

Adam English on the Real Santa Claus.

Jon Sweeney on “Its a Wonderful Life.”

J. Wallace Warner on Cold-Case Christianity and Christmas.

Pamela Edwards on Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Michael Foley on Religion and Booze.

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