As with Easter, the origins of our Christmas celebrations is rooted in pagan traditions. The Roman Catholic Church created the celebration on December 25 to absorb the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival.
The Saturnalia festival was a holiday in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The festival began in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continued for a month. The festival involved a lot of food and drink. Romans changed everyone's social position during this time and slaves became masters, peasants became royalty and schools and businesses were closed. The birth of Mithra, an infant god of the unconquerable sun, was celebrated on December 25 during this time.
In spite of the fact that the evidence against a winter birth for Jesus Christ (most likely in September ), in the early 400's Pope Julius I chose to celebrate the birthday of Jesus on December 25 in order to transform the pagan holiday into a Christian celebration. Christmas was initially called the Feast of the Nativity and began spreading across the world. As with Easter, the holiday is celebrated on different dates with the eastern orthodox church. Christmas is celebrated on January 6, the Epiphany or Three Kings Day. They believe that this was the day the three wise men found Jesus in the manger. The Catholics were successful with the holiday and by the middle ages, it had replaced the pagan traditions. However, there were still very un-Christian-like celebrations such as drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to Mardi Gras.
Lorenzo Lotto's Nativity shows a traditional scene depicted in typical Renaissance style. What makes this painting different, however, is the crucifix in the background.
In the early 17th century, Puritans reformed Christmas and eventually canceled it. Later, King Charles II reinstated the holiday. When the pilgrims came to America, Christmas was outlawed in Boston. However, Captain John Smith and his settlement in Jamestown enjoyed the holiday. After the American Revolution, Christmas was once again canceled across the country. The holiday didn't make a comeback until 1870. Americans re-invented the holiday and turned it into a family celebration.
In 1819, it was common for the upper class to invite poor people into their homes for Christmas. In 1843, the holiday transformed itself into the celebration we have today when A Christmas Carol came out. Charles Dickens wrote the book that spoke of the Christmas spirit of giving. When the holiday became popular in America, immigrants brought their own traditions that were incorporated into American traditions. Christmas tree decorating, holiday card, gift giving, kissing under the mistletoe, and other traditions defined the holiday into what it is today. The holiday spread like wildfire around the world and is now the most celebrated of all holidays around the globe.
In Mexico, the holiday is called Feliz Navidades and is celebrated for several days. The tradition of the Poinsettias came from Mexico. The missionary, Joel Pointsett, brought a red flowered plant from Mexico to the U.S. in 1828. By 1870, you could buy the flower in New York stores. They became a universal symbol in the 1900's. Mexicans use piñatas in their celebrations. Piñatas are paper mache sculptures filled with candy and hung from the ceiling. Children take turns hitting the piñatas until the candy spilled out on the floor. Americans use piñatas primarily for birthdays.
Caravaggio's Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, painted a year before he died in 1609. This painting was stolen in 1969 and has never been recovered.
The Christmas tree tradition began in Germany. Decorating evergreen trees was part of the winter solstice celebration. They were called Christmas trees in the early 1700's. In the 1820's, German immigrants brought their tradition over to America and by 1900 tree decorating became an American tradition.
The term Yule tide comes from Norway. The word "Yule" comes from the word "hweol," which means "wheel." The Norwegians used the Yule log in fires because they believed the sun was a huge wheel of fire that rolled to and from the earth. When the tradition came to America, Americans began using fireplaces as the location to burn Yule logs. Later, log-shaped cakes, cheeses and desserts were made during Christmas.
Christmas greeting cards came to America from England. John Calcott Horsley produced small cards with festive scenes with holiday greetings. They were sent to the U.S. through post offices and became a sensation. The cards began being created in the U.S. by R.H. Pease and Louis Prang in Albany, New York.
Unusual Christmas Traditions
Perhaps the strangest tradition is Krampuslauf, a parade held on December 6 in Graz, Austria every Christmas season to celebrate Krampus, a mountain demon who once a year comes to the area and snatches up naughty children. In the parade you will find 400 "Perchten", evil demons and several St. Nicholases.
The history of the Krampus stretches back to pre-Christian Germanic traditions and communities around the Alps. The early Catholic Church tried to stop the celebration because the goat-like creatures seemed demonic. After failing to stop the celebrations, it is thought by some that one of the reasons the Catholic Church scheduled Christmas celebrations during that time was to water down this and other pagan celebrations. The Krampus then accompanied St. Nicholas in his journey. Krampus would snatch up the naughty kids in a bag and take them away for a later meal while Santa rewarded the good kids with presents.
Somehow this seems to be more of a child behavior changer than the "naughty or nice" list Santa has. Telling a child that they would be eaten by a goat-like monster if they were bad certainly conjures up more of a negative image than a lump of coal in a stocking. The parade certainly earns itself the scariest Yuletide celebration. It would be the scariest at Halloween parade too!
Another strange tradition are upside-down trees. Hanging fir trees upside down goes back to the Middle Ages, when Europeans did it to represent the Trinity. But now, Christmas trees are shaped with the tip pointing to heaven, and some think an upside-down Christmas tree is disrespectful or sacrilegious. 
A photo of a manger from the period of time of Jesus' birth. Contrary to modern tradition, Jesus' manger looked nothing like the wooden one.
The Reason for the Season
In spite of the pagan origins, the Christian story of Christmas is the birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Churches across the world use the holiday as an opportunity to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. Although most paintings of the Nativity depict Mary and Joseph looking over the baby in a manger in a stable with farm animals circling and shepherds and Magi (Wise Men) bearing their gifts, the actual nativity was actually far from that. The wise men visited at least a year later at the home of Mary and Joseph. In addition, a manger in Bethlehem at that time was not in a stable. Residents regularly kept their animals in their houses on a ground floor at night. Residents slept on the second floor of their homes. Mary and Joseph spent the night on the first floor of the family home along with the animals they brought in for the night.  Most mangers at that time were carved out of stone. The Bible also says nothing of the specific date of Jesus' birth. The only hint is the fact that Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because of the census ordered by Caesar Augustus.
Holiday Lesson Ideas
One of my students with autism redrew Mona with a mandolin and it was so gorgeous, someone donated a hand-made frame and let him give it to his mom for Christmas.
I just finished self-portraits with 3rd graders. They drew a picture of themselves (shoulders up) and made themselves into a Christmas or seasonal character. We had elves, Santa, Mrs. Santa, reindeer, angels and even one shepherd. The funniest one was a boy who made himself into a Christmas tree with only his eyes showing but the eyes looked just like him. We painted with pan tempera and I let them use Glitter Glue to decorate the background. Very popular project.
During my student teaching, the school I worked for made Christmas wrapping paper with stamps and large Kraft Paper.
My classes and I put on a Christmas Crafts for Kids right before Christmas break which offers an afternoon and evening of babysitting for parents to do Christmas shopping w/o kids and an afternoon for the kids to create some homemade presents for their parents, etc.
PREP: I pre-cut the background Fabric to 8" X 10 ½" (20 x 30 cm) which fits nicely onto the Felt backing.
I iron fusible webbing (Wonder-Under) onto different colors of green fabric & then pre-cut these into the strips (6", 5", 4", 3", 2", 1") which will make up the trees.
The students choose their background fabric & felt. they then choose their tree fabric strips, alternating colors. They also choose a tree trunk, which also has Wonder-Under on it.
They remove the paper backing & "build" their trees onto the fabric backing.
The trees are brought to me where I iron the tree strips onto the fabric. (I have them work on old discarded mini chalkboards so that when they bring them to be ironed, they stay flat & in place. Any rigid board would work)
They choose a felt star sticker to attach to the top. (Found at the craft store)
I usually have pre-threaded & knotted some needles with variegated thread. They choose the color they want to sew with. I also sew a button in each corner of their background fabrics to attach them to the felt- kids could do this if you have time!
I give a demonstration on doing a straight stitch & they sew across the strips of their trees. If they get finished, they move on to sewing around the edges.
(Takes Approx. 3-4 art classes- 40 min. each)
I give a demonstration about sewing on the buttons. (I have used puff paint in the past when time was an issue.) When finished with the sewing, they begin sewing on buttons. If they need help, they form a line & I help them one at a time.
Years ago I got an idea off of this list for poinsettias created with sponge prints. Its great. For tiny artists I would make a large petal sponge, have them dip it in white and red and print. Then add a center and Glitter to simplify.
I used to have kinders paint/print a Christmas tree by dipping a marshmallow in green Tempera Paint (put a small amount out on a paper plate) and stamping it on paper. One print, with two in a row underneath, then three, then four, etc. until they have a good sized [basically] triangular tree. Then have them use another marshmallow to stamp on a brown trunk, then have some mini marshmallows and yellow, blue, red paints to add lights and a star, etc. These come out very individualized in shape (and size), and if you trim around them you can hang them up as a small "Marshmallow Forest." Make sure you have extra marshmallows for eating! I plan to do this with my 3 year old grandson on his next visit!
There is a clay table set up each week... An organization in our community, "Any Baby Can" needed props in the form of Nutcrackers for their Christmas fundraiser banquet... so we made several 5' nutcrackers painted and glittered. Afterwards we were able to display them in the school before Christmas. Other ideas, mural projects, Sidewalk Chalk, paintings (make your own chalk/colors w/toilet paper rolls & Dry Tempera Paint). Bowls for the hungry- coil soup bowls for fundraiser for homeless shelter.
Take Oil Paint and Turpentine, and squirt a bit of each into a small squeeze bottle... shake with finger over tip. Prepare as many small squeeze bottles with one color each as your taste prefers. Fill plastic tub ½ full of water (size of tub depends on how large your paper is... you want some wiggle room around the paper). Squirt drops onto the surface of the water from the squeeze bottles.. whatever colors you desire... they don't mix. The colors will naturally swirl around but you can manipulate where they land and the swirling a bit by using a stick or some people suggest a hair pick to move the colors to interact. When you are satisfied with the design floating on the surface of the water, grab white paper's edges left and right.. bow a bit so the center of the paper is curved down (to avoid trapping air bubbles.. you don't lay flat on surface of H2O). Lay the edges gently down and you will see the design immediately print on to the surface. Grab the top two corners and lift.. tilt, allow water to drip off of one of the bottom corners. Lay on newspapers, plastic, etc... to dry. I iron paper flat when dry.
We made Christmas decorations - Tape sculptures are really fun and the kids enjoy them!! I've tried both ways of starting - with Saran Wrap and Double Sided Tape. The saran works better just because of the frustration factor of the sticky side up part. I start with the bottom torso/leg pose first, wrap in saran, then at least 3 layers of good, thick, clear packing tape (not the the thin stuff.) Usually the feet and calf area I put more layers depending on how the figure is standing. I squeeze the tape and check for resistance so the thicker it is the better it can stand on its own. It depends on what you are doing with the sculpture as to how many extra layers you will put on the sculpture.
Cutting the model out - I found the wrapping paper cutters, a protected blade in a plastic handle, works great vs. the possible clothes cutting of scissors. Get several, especially now with the holidays, because the thicker the layers the harder the cutter has to work, and it is just plastic. For the bottom section I cut down the side of the legs so the re-taping isn't so noticeable and it is easier to get the leg and foot out. For the top section, there are many cuts to be made. I usually start on one side and cut up the side and down the arm to the hand. With the other side, it depends on the pose, but you'll need to get the other arm out. It may be that you can do the same thing or go from the neck hole, down the back of the shoulder, down to the hand. The less cuts the stronger the whole piece is so you will have to play it by ear.
The second part would be to saran the top portion of the posed model and repeat the taping. Be careful when you are wrapping with the tape to not make it too tight - it could cut off circulation- and that would be bad. :-) As for the head, I use a styrofoam wig head so I can get a long enough neck to put in the neck hole of the torso section. There's also that suffocation thing that happens when you wrap someone's head so I recommend the wig head.
Once you have all your pieces made then you assemble them together. I close the pieces first, usually taking short tape pieces that mate the cut sides together and then I wrap around the whole section to strengthen the sides. You will have to feel the difference when you put these together. Putting the torso with the leg section you will need extra hands to fit the pieces together, use short tape pieces to link them and then wrap, wrap, wrap them together.
I've created several with kids for school and at home for Christmas decorations. They are a hoot! I have pictures if you would like to see. The ones I created as outside Christmas decorators lasted fine for several weeks and now they hang in my classroom. They are very durable and the spot lights made them look opalescent. I've even created one for our elementary spring production of Willy Wonka. It became the chocolatized Gustav who we fished out of the chocolate river. I spray painted him brown and it still looks great today!
I bought a bunch of large, cheap, clear glass fat cylinders at Wally World.. and I plan to mosaic them with stained glass, glass globs and river stone. Instead of a candle to place inside to light from within (although this is spectacularly pretty in a dim room.. showcasing all the colors of the glass) I wanted to use either Christmas lights or a cord with a a small light bulb at the end to illuminate the inside. I've tried using battery operated Xmas lights and it works fine, but the lights don't last long and batteries are expensive. So... I need to drill a hole in the side of the lantern to have the electrical cord come out to plug in. Hopefully with all the helpful tips given here, I won't crack too many of the cylinders. I think I'll need to practice on some canning jars first.
I did a cardboard house with my Kindergarteners. We used old Christmas boxes and a house pattern, they folded, taped, painted and decorated them. A great green project.
I made 3D Paper Snowflakes from paper last year, and a teacher loved them so much she used them at her wedding reception! They are much sturdier and far classier than the standard and are easy to make. Don't overlook them because they are made from paper... I used silver construction paper when I made them. I actually still have a small one I use as an ornament on my Christmas tree.
We made Christmas bookmarks out of recycled cards mag etc, tie a ribbon on them. I was looking for lots of projects to do with TONS of broken
crayons... 1. Shread and sprinkle on wax paper cover with another sheet of wax paper and iron both together... place-mats, greeting cards... mobile...
I had the kids create holiday scenery backgrounds. I use the roll Kraft Paper, but before I paint on it - I glue (usually Hot Glue Sticks around edges) it onto a cheap white bed sheet. (Walmart $3 and up depending on size) I get whatever sized sheet is needed and attach as much paper as needed to cover it. The paper makes it easy to paint on and the sheet makes it much more durable and lasting. I use simple large paper clips poked through the paper and fabric to hang. When you are done with it - it easily rolls up to use in the future.
I push my tables together for a surface to glue the paper onto the sheet. I cut the paper and lay it out so it overlaps and get it where I want it then use the hot glue mainly on the edges but you have to put some in the middle where the paper overlaps. It is a bit bumpy when it's dry so I only use enough to make it stick. I see the glue bumps a bit when I paint -but it's not that noticeable - probably only to me. After the paper is glued to the sheet I hang it up against a wall. It's much easier to paint this way, but if you have to I have done it on tables or on the floor. I use regular cheap acrylics... watered down a bit if they are thick for large areas. If there is a large area to cover with a solid color first, I use a sponge roller to make things go on quickly... then use various paint brushes to add details. To hang these - I just use large paper clips poked through the sheet and then hot glued to stay in there.
We had a fantastic fundraiser two years ago that raised $800 for my Art Club. We decorated clear Christmas bulbs and sold them for $3.00 a piece. They were beautiful. That was very successful! I don't have any pictures available, but we used Acrylic Paint and some rubbing alcohol and we swirled the paint inside the clear bulb, let it dry, added pretty ribbon and voila! They were very popular and can probably be done every few years. I definitely wouldn't recommend doing it every year. It was a big undertaking.
My kids seem to like making ceramic rattles. Make two pinch pots, add some Moist Clay pieces to the inside, attach them together to form a ball. The clay pieces inside rattle after it's been fired. Then the kids have to turn the rattle into something. One student right before Christmas made a "fat elf". It was hysterical. He added pointy ears, hat, pointy shoes, etc. He had a lot of fun. They can learn about the pinch pot process, appliqué process, coils, scoring, and so on.
My seventh graders have been making lovely fused glass pendants for their mothers as Christmas gifts...
I have made a chart that shows the location of each piece but inevitably a piece gets shifted and then the students try to remember what their piece looks like.
I know that at the NAEA conferences, Delphi lets you make a piece of fused glass...
A fun twist is to add lights to the inside of sculptures. I had to participate in a project like this for my college sculpture class and we taped Christmas lights to the inside of the sculptures. We had to use clear lights but I bet kids would like the colored ones. Then my college had a "Festival of Lights" with the sculptures displayed lit up outside in the evening. Music playing, students had glo-lights, quite nice. It might be a good idea for an evening event at school… concert or open house or art event, etc.
My third graders design patterns for and embroider felt stuffed animals each year. Lots of scraps left over. You could use them to make small tree ornaments around Christmas time if your school has a tree. Or you could use the small pieces to cut up shapes to appliqué to a pillow using embroidery stitches. You could glue the pieces in collage or sew them to paper.
I buy rolls of Tooling Foil from NASCO. It comes in aluminum, copper, and brass in different lengths. A 12 inch (30.5 cm) roll, 25 feet (762 cm) long is $13. I use it for masks, Christmas ornaments, and texture and pattern projects.
I do a wonderful project with the students in which I take the Gospel Luke which deals with the birth of Jesus and divide up the story into story board frames and have each student depict their frame onto a printing plate (either Printfoam or Linoleum). The results are just wonderful and the students become more aware of an "old bible story". We usually begin this project at the very start of Advent. I then display the mounted prints on a large wall so that all can read and reflect on the Christmas story.
Create garlands! This project uses all kinds of saved paper that kids thread on yarn or string in patterns of their choice. As with most of the art I like to do with kids, the creative process takes precedence here... and you will be delighted with the product too, though it's not the most important part of the experience. Consider making a garland with a ‘theme’, such as Winter, Animals, Teeth, The World, or whatever you might be studying, but it is NEVER REQUIRED to make art fit a theme. Art exists as art for arts sake.
from Scribble Art
Collect paper and lightweight materials such as:
Art Tissue paper cut in shapes Beads
crepe paper scraps
straws, cut in short lengths
paper scraps pastas with holes
1. Wrap a piece of tape around the end of the yarn or string to make a simple needle. Or, dunk the end of the yarn or string in white glue, melted paraffin, or clear nail polish. Let it set until hard. A third choice is to thread a plastic darning needle which has a large eye. Keep yarn or thread to a comfortable length, from 12 inches to 36 inches depending on the age or skill of the artist.
2. Any object with a hole in it or light enough to have a hole made in it is suitable for threading on a garland. Begin threading materials in a random fashion or with a planned pattern.
3. When one string is filled, tie a knot and then tie it to another string to make a longer garland. Many garlands can be joined to make one very long, colorful display.
4. Hang from the ceiling in a draping fashion, around the windows or doors, or around a special person.
- Follow a self-made pattern of threading such as: two yellow flowers, one bead, one straw --- then repeat two yellow flowers, one bead, one straw, and so on.
- Create a Hawaiian lei with art tissue flower shapes and paper cupcake liners with sections of cut drinking straws to separate them. Use elastic cord for necklace or lei creations.
- Create a holiday garland for Christmas with red, green, gold, and silver decorations. Use any colors that suggest a particular holiday or time of year: green, yellow, light blue for Spring. Red, pink, white for Valentine's Day.
- Create a theme garland with materials that suggest such ideas as outer space, gardening, or litter/recycling.
Comment: Artists can create imaginative garlands from almost anything lightweight that can be pierced and threaded with colorful yarn, and then draped about the room for special occasions or everyday enjoyment. Garlands also make festive necklaces or leis.
Christmas tongue twisters to Illustrate
Santa's sleigh slides on slick snow.
Bobby brings bright bells.
Running reindeer romp 'round red wreaths.
Tiny Timmy trims the tall tree with tinsel
Chilly chipper children cheerfully chant.
Two trains travel together to Toyland.
Eleven elves licked eleven little licorice lollipops.
Santa's sack sags slightly.
Ten tiny tin trains toot ten times.
Santa stuffs Stephie's striped stocking.
Comet cuddles cute Christmas kittens carefully.
1) I would select holiday ideas that do not trivialize your art program. When I taught in a Catholic School, I did some projects that tied in the season without being too holiday-ish. That was so many years ago - that I can't remember all of them. For first grade, I know I did Starry Night - Silent Night (Crayons resist/Watercolor Paint using Starry Night for inspiration. For sixth grade, we did Poinsettias - drawing from life. They could add a dove, too, if they wanted (I had pictures of doves for them). The drawings were done in ultra fine point marker. The selected one flower as a focal point that they completed with Tissue paper collage. It would have taken far too long for them to do all of the flowers. If you don't want to do tissue collage - you could use AquaMarkers or Colored Pencils - maybe Watercolor Pencils. For second grade, we did collage trains (I took in the The Polar Express - and a book of trains) - 9 x 18 (23 x 46 cm) compositions with cut paper trains across a snow covered ground. They accented with crayons (learned how to draw pine trees along the horizon). We flicked them with white Tempera Paint for snow.
2) You can also make huge house facades - or store fronts - from Kraft Paper (glue two long sheets together so these will be about six feet wide (or double the width of your paper). Make several of these large fronts and decorate them for the season.... You can put a Menorah in one window of a home - decorate that home front for Hanukkah - Decorate another house for Islamic Holiday... another for Christian holiday (could show a Christmas tree in window - star on roof)... and others just seasonal - lights around the windows.. .Candles in window... wreaths. Make them as festive as you want. Have kids research different holiday traditions from around the world and decorate the facades to represent them. You could do one house for each country you study? So many possibilities - have it be a learning experience - learning about religions and traditions. There are many holidays in December. Where will they learn this if not in school? Respect for all world religions.
3) You can also create Christmas Tree with old Readers Digest magazines. You can see the instructions on how to do this on the Readers Digest website.
Janbrett's "the mitten" or the book "the mitten tree" are good intros for any mitten projects for K, 1, or 2. I also have used"twas the night before Christmas" as a starter and each student uses a piece of 9x12 (23 x 30.5 cm) paper held vertically as a house and a large triangle for a roof and they decorate the house with Construction Paper and Crayons or anything you have to put the members of the child's household in the windows and doorways.
Snow Musicians - We worked in groups to plan and produce huge snow people playing instruments. Occasionally a tree or reindeer or penguin would join the snow folks with an instrument or in a chorus. Each separate piece could stand alone as a creative contribution from the artists and hung all together could be an amazing show! When I bought a digital camera, I printed and the artists attached a snap of themselves in production in the studio. The only requirement was winter season, music - no holiday/religious symbols, and large enough to be easily enjoyed from across the room. Rubric was a little more complex. Some students added symbols after taking down the show and before taking home. I kept a favorite that hung over and covered the storage room door with a large snow lady enjoying playing a sax. She wore a flowing scarf designed with piano notes. This was an easy to make a lesson plan that was rich in representation of the art standards both visual & performing. Rubric could be simple or complicated depending on the grade level.
Here it is December... the worst school month of the year. Kids bad? Nah, its just that time of year. Santa, snow, snow days, chorus concerts, Parties candy, trees in all the rooms I'm sure the list goes on. I'm sure the classroom teachers are the same way. Try playing some Christmas music while they work. Maybe have them sing too? Try it. You have to be in control or you can have them put their heads down in silence. Patience. It will soon be a new year and they will calm down.
This time of year, if you are doing Christmas pictures or crafts with the little ones, and one of the kids starts telling the others that he doesn't believe in Santa, or there is no Santa, or asks YOU the teacher if there is a Santa... I have a come back that nearly works every time. I tell them very seriously, stern, and look them in the eye... "When you start saying things like that... (there is no Santa and such) You will end up getting only socks and underwear!!! It works every time! If they are really little... I just say Oh... I LOVE SANTA, they usually say "me too", and walk away. Try it!
My students drew a huge picture of one of Van Gogh's self-portraits (One where he is smoking a pipe) and put it on my door, colored it in Van Gogh style with Oil Pastels. Next they put a Santa hat on him (It was December) Then they spelled out "Van Gogh's top ten Christmas wishes". They then had to look up information on him so that the wishes matched his biography. Students came up with some of the following: An ear muff that fits me, a good therapist, to sell more artwork, a roommate I won't fight with.. They added these to the door. We came back one day to find our door decoration down and a note that Van Gogh was on out of school detention for a tobacco violation. The note said if they wanted Van Gogh back they had to find the answers to the following questions regarding tobacco and alcohol use. They had to turn the answers into the counselor. (You come up with the questions - get with the guidance counselor to play along). We looked up the answers on the Internet and got him back. I though it was a cute way to teach both art and healthy choices.