Martin Luther, one of the most influential players in the Protestant Reformation, had a lot to say about 16th century Christianity. It should come as no surprise, then, that he also made some contributions to how we celebrate Christmas. Check out these Christmas traditions that Luther himself may have had a hand in starting.
Luther’s Christmas tree — There are reports of people decorating trees during the winter solstice dating all the way back to ancient Rome, but it was in 15th century Germany that historians claim the first Christmas trees began being sold as decorations.
Some people credit Martin Luther with being the first to decorate an indoor Christmas tree. Legend has it that after walking through the woods on a snowy Christmas Eve, Luther was awestruck by the beauty of the stars shining on the snowy branches of evergreen trees.
When he returned home, he brought with him a small fir tree and decorated it with candles so he could share the outdoor experience with his family.
“Away in a Manger” — Some sources attribute the Christmas hymn “Away in a Manger” to Luther, though this is likely only a fable. The author of the hymn’s first two verses is unknown, and so some have suggested that the song was based off of one Luther wrote for his own children.
The hymn itself was first published in 1885 in the “Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families” by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America. Two years later composer James Murray republished the hymn as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn” in the book “Dainty Songs for Lads and Lasses.”
In his book “Best-Loved Christmas Carols: The Millennia Collection,” Ronald M. Clancy writes that the lyrics for “Away in a Manger” may have come from a poem written for the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth, which took place in 1883.
Christkind — During the Protestant Reformation, Luther sought to shift the church’s focus in December from the gift-giving St. Nicholas on Dec. 6 to the coming of Christ at Christmas. To do so, he invented the Christkind, or the Christ Child, a gold-crowned, angelic figure in a white robe who came bearing gifts on Christmas Eve.
Luther’s intention was that “das Christkindl” resemble Christ and thus influence people to anticipate Jesus’ birth during the Advent season. Eventually, though das Christkindl would merge with other Santa Claus myths. In fact, the name Kris Kringle actually is a derivation of Christkind.