Christmas rites and rituals

Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, revolves around many customs and traditions handed down through the generations. Many of these myths, legends and customs are of pagan origin.1 In some countries, Christmas is associated more with customs of good omens than religion.2

Christmas in Singapore
In Singapore, Christmas celebrations are not unique.3 Christmas in Singapore is like that in any cosmopolitan city – malls are decked with glittery tinsel, twinkling fairy lights, Nativity scenes and other lavish decorations. The trend for buildings and malls dressing up in festive finery started in the early 1980s. The Christmas light-up along Orchard Road has become a tourist attraction.4

Christmas is traditionally a time for thinking about the less fortunate. Various charitable organisations are involved in caring and sharing the festivities. The Christmas Kettle is one fundraising activity organised by the Salvation Army. Christmas Kettles were first launched in 1988 at the Wisma Atria shopping centre.5 Volunteers play Santa, taking turns at ringing the bells.6

Traditional dishes include roast turkey, smoked ham, plum pudding with brandy sauce and mince pies.7 There are also superstitions and rituals about the festive foods, such as consuming 12 mince pies in the belief that this would ensure 12 happy months ahead.8

Santa Claus
Santa Claus is a 19th-century American invention.9 The image of this cheerful character was popularised by Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom as part of an advertising campaign for Coca-Cola in 1931. From the 1860s to 1880s, this figure was caricatured by cartoonist Thomas Nast.10 This image originated from Saint Nicholas, who lived during the fourth century. Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, Lycia (in present-day Turkey), and was noted for giving gifts to the poor.11 In Holland he became known as Sinter Klaas, and in Germany, Sankt Nikolaus. Saint Nicholas was often depicted as a thin man in bishop’s robes.12

Gift-giving is an integral part of Christmas. This is another ritual derived from ancient paganism, namely the Roman Saturnalia and Kalends festivals. The practice was adopted by the Christian faith as it paralleled the gift-giving by the Magi to the Christ child, which symbolises Christ’s gift of salvation to the world. In the past, the courts of kings regulated the exact amount to be spent for gift giving during Christmas. In Batavia (Jakarta), it was thought that the infant Jesus himself delivered the presents, so they called him Liebes Christkind (Dear Christ Child).13

In the Western way, the recipient of a gift normally opens it in front of the giver and expresses thanks, but this is unusual in Singapore.14

Christmas tree
The use of Christmas trees during Yuletide festivities was first noted in the early 17th century. Its origins can be traced to pagan tree worship.15 Rituals involved sacrificing or decorating homes with greenery to ensure a good harvest the following year. A Christian association is the legend of Saint Boniface, who cut down a sacred oak on Christmas Eve, beneath which human lives had been sacrificed. Placing candles on the branches of the tree is another practice, and this is attributed to Martin Luther King, who struck upon the idea one Christmas Eve.16 The Christmas tree is also a symbol of Christ as the Tree of Life amongst Christians.17

It is easy to assemble plastic replicas of the Christmas fir tree.18 Although real Christmas trees are still popular – even in Singapore – some may prefer the convenience of an authentic-looking artificial tree. There are even pine-scented sprays for fake trees.19 The Christmas tree is the most widespread of festive symbols that heralds the season. In Singapore, it is found outside hotel porches, forecourts, in offices, sitting room corners of homes and in some churches. The modern Christmas tree is lighted with glittering ornaments and adorned with presents placed beneath.20

Christmas card
The first Christmas card was produced in 1843 with the advent of the penny-postal system in Britain.21 The practice of sending Christmas cards became popular when improvements in the printing process made the cards more affordable.22 Today, sending good wishes has become a tradition.23

The mistletoe is described as the “crown” of all the evergreen traditions associated with Christmas. A doorway adorned with mistletoe is a pledge of peace and friendship.24 Besides the mistletoe, homes are also decked with holly, a practice descended from the Roman Saturnalia festival.25

The ringing of Christmas bells originates from pagan midwinter celebrations, when the cold or lack of sun was believed to be an indication that evil spirits were present, and that the ringing of bells would drive these spirits away. The practice later became incorporated into the Christmas festivities, symbolising rejoicing and goodwill.26

Christmas carols originated in Italy.27 They date back to the 12th century, when people danced to secular songs during festive occasions. Carols did not become Christmas songs until the 16th century; by the 19th century, they had become synonymous with Christmas hymns.28 Christmas is the only festival for which carols have been written.29

Candles are lit everywhere during Christmas; in the modern world, they are often replaced with fairy lights. Candles are a common element in pagan festivities of the winter solstice, while the Christian community uses the lit candle as a symbol of Jesus as the light of the world.30

Suchitthra Vasu

1. M. Westaway, “Pagan Customs Still Survive,” Singapore Free Press, 8 December 1949, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Grace Tan, “Charming Traditions Live On,” Straits Times, 13 December 1987, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Anna Ross, Michael Goh and Lee Chiu San, “Toasting X’mas Conformity,” Singapore Monitor, 18 December 1983, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. June Cheong, “Untitled,” Straits Times, 23 December 2007, 48. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Paula Grosse, “Time to Ponder the True Spirit of Christmas,” Straits Times, 10 December 1995, 2; “Salvation Army Puts Its Kettle On,” New Paper, 11 December 1989, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “Singapore’s Own Volunteer Santa Brigade,” Straits Times, 13 December 1987, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Sumathi Vaidyanathan, “Wetide in Santa's Own Hometown or on the Beach,” Straits Times, 15 December 1991, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Bridget Jones, “Some Customs and Beliefs,” Straits Times, 30 November 1986, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Corrine Kerk, “A Tapestry of Traditions,” Business Times, 21 December 1996, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Christmas Around the World,” New Nation, 17 December 1981, 48; Chan Siew Ling, “The Many Faces of Santa Claus in History,” Business Times, 22 December 1995, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Kerk, “Tapestry of Traditions”; Thomas George Crippen, Christmas and Christmas Lore (Detroit: Gale Research Co, 1971), 152. (Call no. RUR 394.268282 CRI)
12. Jones, “Customs and Beliefs”; Beng Tan, “Time for Just the Family,” Straits Times, 1 December 1991, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Kerk, “Tapestry of Traditions.”
14. Raelene Tan, “Thoughtful Giving,” Straits Times, 14 December 1997, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Crippen, Christmas and Christmas Lore, 152; Rosemary Nash, “What Some Traditions Mean,” Straits Times, 29 November 1987, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Kerk, “Tapestry of Traditions.”
17. Crippen, Christmas and Christmas Lore, 153.
18. Kerk, “Tapestry of Traditions.”
19. “Tree of a Kind,” Straits Times, 12 December 1999, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Yeo Kim Seng, “The Mystery of the Christmas Tree,” Straits Times, 27 November 1988, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
21. George Buday, The History of the Christmas Card (Detroit: Tower Books, 1971), 6. (Call no. RART 741.68 BUD)
22. Kerk, “Tapestry of Traditions.”
23. Buday,  Christmas Card, 3.
24. Crippen, Christmas and Christmas Lore, 20–21.
25. Crippen, Christmas and Christmas Lore, 20–25; Jones, “Customs and Beliefs.”
26. Crippen, Christmas and Christmas Lore, 67–70.
27. Crippen, Christmas and Christmas Lore, 40.
28. Kerk, “Tapestry of Traditions.”
29. Crippen, Christmas and Christmas Lore, 43.
30. Kerk, “Tapestry of Traditions.”

Further resources
Mark Connelly, Christmas: A Social History (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999). (Call no. R 394.2663 CON-[CUS])

Tanya Gulevich, Encyclopedia of Christmas and New Year's Celebrations (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2003). (Call no. R 394.261 GUL-[CUS])

The information in this article is valid as at 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


Ethnic festivals