Christmas traditions:
Old and cherished folklore or public relations gimmicks?

Most of us seem to hold one of two views of the trappings of Christmas, things like Santa Claus, Christmas trees, caroling, and miniature replicas of Christ's nativity scene. We either sentimentally revere them as long-standing, perhaps ancient, traditions rooted in religion and family values or we sneer at them as manipulative commercialism foisted on us by greedy merchants pushing us to buy gifts for one another. Personally, I try not to fall for either extreme. That's because I'm a bit of a traditionalist but also enough of a realist to recognize when public relations tactics are being used to persuade me of something.

There are, however, some elements of Christmas we can all be sure of:

  • December 25th has always been celebrated as Christmas, the birth of Christ.
  • Christmas trees (or "tannenbaum" in German) sprang directly from ancient Druid custom of tree-worship.
  • Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, a bishop in Turkey during the 4th century, who gave gifts to "good little girls and boys."
Right? -- No. Wrong on all counts.

December 25 -- was the day pagans worshipped Mithra, the sun-god, long before Christ was born. It wasn't until the 4th century that the Catholic Church started calling December 25 "Christmas" to honor of the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God. It was a direct attack on Mithraism intended to discourage worship of the sun-god.

Christmas trees -- were not mentioned in any published documents until 1820. They did, however, become wildly popular in the U.S. and many European countries in the 1830s, but they weren't linked to Druidism at that time. In fact, existing drawings and descriptions of the Druid practice of using evergreen boughs to decorate their homes and places of worship indicate that branches were used, not complete trees. And, there is no indication these branches were ever decorated with candles, ornaments, or garlands.

Santa Claus -- may somewhat evoke Saint Nicholas, but it's not an ancient tradition. Santa first appeared in the 1820s and in the United States. Washington Irving's tongue-in-cheek history of Dutch settlers in New York included tales of St. Nicholas driving a wagon "over the trees and across the sky" to deliver presents, and Clement Moore's immortal poem Twas the Night before Christmas described Saint Nick as "a right jolly old elf" who came down the chimney with a bag of presents on Christmas Eve. They were the first links between Saint Nicholas and Christmas. Before then, Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of children and, in many European countries, his saint's day on December 6 was a day for children to receive presents, but it had nothing to do with Christmas. Nor did Saint Nicholas keep a list of "who's been naughty and nice;" that idea came in a 1934 song "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" written by Haven Gillespie and John Coots.

So, the bottom line is: our Christmas traditions are neither as ancient nor as deeply rooted in folklore and religion as many of us were led to believe. And, there can be no doubt they have sometimes been commercially exploited for public relations and advertising purposes. -- But that's a story for another time. -- For now, have a delightful December.

:  Initially created to support the public relations courses I taught at Northern Kentucky University, it's now used as a supplemental text in scores of university courses worldwide. It's also used as a reference or refresher by PR professionals, especially those preparing for accreditation or certification exams. Since I retired, site updates are no longer on a strict schedule but usually occur every 6-8 weeks.

Michael Turney, Ph.D., ABC, Professor Emeritus
Northern Kentucky University

Want to learn more
about Christmas traditions?

Just how much do you know about the origins of our "cherished Christmas traditions?" -- Beyond the three cited in the article above, are they really ancient and rooted in religion and folklore, or are they recent creations of Madison Avenue and public relations gurus who gave them a patina of antiquity and folklore to make them seem more meaningful?

I was as uncertain as you probably are until I began researching. What I found were hundreds of books and thousands of online sites that claim to tell part of the story, but comprehensive viewpoints were few and far between.

Two books which do offer broad overviews of the origin of Christmas traditions that I highly recommend are:

  • The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum
    (Knopf hardcover: 1996; Vintage paperback: 1997) and
  • Inventing Christmas; How Our Holiday Came to Be
    by Jock Elliott (Harry N. Abrams, publisher: 2002).
They're not new, and that's important. They've stood the test of time and the carping of critics to remain popular and respected resources. They're both excellent and well worth reading, although they have different appeals and strengths.

Nissenbaum's book is the bigger, more in-depth, and more serious of the two. It was meant to be; it's a scholarly work and is very well-researched and documented. It thoroughly explores each topic it tackles, perhaps a little too thoroughly at times, because there are places where it become rather slow-going, almost ponderous.

Elliott's book is much-less detailed. Unlike Nissenbaum's book which is meant to be studied with care, Elliott's is a "coffee table book" that can be brought out at Christmas each year and casually thumbed through and read on a hit-or-miss basis. It's family-friendly and offers an overview rather than an in-depth exploration. As such, it's much easier and more fun to read.

Neither belabors the role of public relations in developing of these traditions. They certainly offer no step-by-step guidelines for doing it, but there are plenty of public relations insights if you look for them.


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News releases may seem "old hat,"
but they're still an effective PR tool.

As noted in my tip sheet on writing news releases, "News releases attempt to gain media coverage for an organization, event, or issue by providing media gatekeepers -- editors and reporters -- with ready-to-use news stories."

Thus, when social media started becoming an alternative to traditional news media, social media gurus began heralding the death of news releases as a public relations tool. Sadly, some practitioners actually believed this and stopped issuing news releases even though many of the self-proclaimed gurus knew little or nothing about public relations or journalism.

Wiser practitioners took the time they needed to analyze the needs of their clientele and of the media they worked with. Then, they thoughtfully revised the ways they told their clients' stories. They still wrote and issued news releases, but not in the same ways or with the same frequency as they had before. And, their releases were accepted and used by the media.

The reality is: news releases were an early 20th century innovation suited to the technology and mind-set of that time. Now, in the 21st century, a news release shouldn't be the first or most important response to every public relations issue that arises. Nor should a release be considered the best and most effective way of getting media attention. And, they shouldn't be produced or distributed using out of date methods.

Certainly the basic reason for issuing a news release hasn't changed. It's to get the most-favorable possible news coverage of your client disseminated through the media. Traditionally that meant writing, recording, or otherwise preparing a nearly-ready-to-use "news story" and distributing copies of it to all media reporters, editors, etc. who might want to use it -- or not.

Ideally, at least some media would run the story exactly as you submitted it but making it appear to be "objective reporting" by their own staff. More often, they would edit it -- maybe shortening it, adding to it, or changing its perspective -- and run a modified version of it. In worst case situations, they'd throw it away without using it at all.

All of these options remain the same today.

More about issuing news releases.     

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Then, NKU announced it would no longer support "personal faculty websites" and I moved it here.

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Updated: 12/05/2018