It’s that time of the year again. The streets are bustling with shoppers, the radio is playing the same five songs over and over, and the weather is cold and miserable. Yet most of us are in high spirits this time of the year despite all the inconvenience and annoyances, because of the joy and magic that Christmas brings.
But where did this holiday come from? How did many traditions that it encompasses come to be. Read on as we delve back through the annals of time and unwrap the origins and history of Christmas.
In exploring the origins of Christmas, it’s important to understand that it doesn’t just come from one set of beliefs and practices. Like many old traditions, Christmas was shaped through the merging of many different beliefs and cultures.
Many different people and cultures have held celebrations during the middle of winter for a very long time, hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. Early Pagan Europeans (Note that Paganism is not one unified set of beliefs, but the umbrella term used to describe many similar religions in Europe at the time) celebrated at the time of the winter solstice - The 21st of December, which was the day when the sun is the lowest at its peak, only just hovering above the horizon). They had endured the worst of winter and could once again look forward to longer days and higher temperatures.
In Scandinavia, the winter Yule celebrations lasted from the 21st of December through to Early January. In celebration of the return of the Sun, people would bring home large logs to set on fire at the hearth for warmth. They would enjoy large feasts until the logs had fully burned out, which could take as long as two weeks. The Nordic people believed that each spark that came from the fire represented a new pig or calf to be born in the coming year.
In Rome and the surrounding areas, winter was not nearly as harsh as it was for those in the far North. People there celebrated Saturnalia in honour of the god Saturn, the god of agriculture. In the week leading up to the winter solstice and for a month afterwards, the festival of Saturnalia reined and turned the otherwise rigid Roman social order into chaos. For the month, slaves were free to do as they pleased and businesses and school were shut, with food and drink in plentiful supplies.
The Christian (Or not so Christian?) influence
Around the 4th century, the influence of Christianity was expanding throughout Europe and the Church was eager to convert the native Europeans. In the early beginnings of Christianity, Easter was the most important holiday and Christmas was not celebrated at all. It wasn’t until later on that Church officials made the decision to make the birth of Jesus a holiday of its own. There was just one problem – the Bible does not mention the date of his birth, so a number of patchwork guesses from various scholars were the best lead to Jesus’ real birthday.
However, the 25th of December coincided closely with Yule, Saturnalia and many winter pagan festivals and this is probably why this date was chosen for the official birthday of Jesus Christ. The Church adopted pagan tradition and culture into their own religion to make the transition to Christianity smoother for the Europeans. Although Christianity had replaced pagan customs in Europe by this time, the pagan trappings of the celebrations did not die down for quite a while and Christmas remained a hedonistic time for food, drink and sex. A great number of these traditions have survived to this day. Some of these include:
The Christmas Tree
Many pagans worshipped and decorated trees, and this tradition was especially prominent during the celebrations of Saturnalia. As such, the Christian Church rebranded this tradition, calling the trees Christmas Trees but allowing the pagans to carry on the same for the most part.
Christmas carolling also originates from Paganism, although it used to be much rowdier with drunken people skipping naked through the streets and singing. Again, the Christians allowed this tradition to stand and incorporated into their own, though they insisted that people put some clothes on.
Norse Mythology tells of how the god Balder was killed by an arrow of mistletoe by his rival god Hoder whilst fighting for the woman Nanna. Because of this tale of a divine conflict for love, Mistletoe became symbolic of love, and the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe evolved from this belief. However, the practice back in the day was not as romantic as it is today. Pagan druids used to sacrifice their victims by poisoning them with mistletoe, with the rituals often involving an assortment of sexual acts. Therefore, Christians toned this practice to merely kissing underneath the mistletoe.
Pagans also believed that mistletoe has healing properties and could ward off evil spirits, so they would hang it outside their houses. As Mistletoe was already deeply enriched into European traditions, the Christians imported it into their own culture – whilst deciding to leave out the mentions of other gods and ritualistic human sacrifice, for obvious reasons.
As it would happen, the Romans already had traditions revolving around gift giving before Christianity. The nobles of Rome would compel the most despised citizens of the state to offer them gifts during Saturnalia and Kalends (December & January respectively). Later on, this tradition expanded to the general populace. It is believed that the Church re-flavoured this custom by tying it to the gifts the Three Kings gave to the baby Jesus.
The winter celebration went by the name of Feast of the Nativity originally, before being renamed to The Mass of Christ or “Christ’s Mass” and eventually just Christmas. It didn't take long for this new holiday (and Christianity as a whole along with it) to spread across Europe, and soon reaching new parts of Africa within a generation, and England by the sixth century. By the 8th century, also Scandinavians widely celebrated Christmas.
However, not all Christians embraced Christmas – two common examples of this can be found in the 1600s within England the U.S state of Massachusetts.
In England, after Oliver Cromwell defeated the royalists with the new model army, his puritan forces vowed to rid England of the immorality and the pervasion of the Christian faith they believed had been allowed under royal rule. As such, Christmas was outlawed.
Christmas was briefly outlawed in the U.S state of Massachusetts around the same time and for similar reasons. Anyone caught celebrating would be fined 5 shillings – a lot of money in those times.
Santa Claus and the Reinvention of Christmas
But wait! We couldn’t write an article on the origins of Christmas without mentioning Father Christmas himself, now, could we? As luck would have it, it’s around this time Santa Claus becomes a major part of the Christmas holiday.
As many of you probably already know, Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, a Dutch saint who became famous for giving gifts and his generosity to the poor. The stories say that Saint Nicholas Of Myr was a kind and compassionate priest, who wished to help the poor people around him, but was incredibly shy and didn’t wish to draw attention to himself. Stories told that he would drop golden coins down the chimneys of the homes of poor children, often landing in the stockings they had left out to dry in front of the fire – establishing another two traditions about Christmas: Santa coming down the chimney and putting gifts in stockings.
Now, stories of Saint Nicholas and the giving of gifts were always a part of Christmas – but only a minor part, nowhere near the central stage they take today. But the explosive innovations and advancements in manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution alongside the rise of advertising placed the gift giving aspect at the very centre of the holiday and transformed into a huge commercial holiday we know it as today; meaning that a popular central figure for Christmas whose entire shtick was giving gifts was just what was needed. And several authors were ready to step up to the challenge, reinventing Nicholas of Myr in various ways.
In 1809, the novelist Washington Irving writes a satire of Dutch culture called The Knickerbocker History. The satire refers to Saint Nicholas several times by his Dutch name: Santa Claus. And thus, the Dutch version of the name was quickly popularized.
Not long after in 1822, Clement Moore (A professor who went on record after having read Irving’s Knickerbocker History) published a poem based on the character of Santa Claus. This poem is the original source for many widely known Christmas traditions – it depicted Santa Claus as flying through sky carried by eight reindeer and descended down chimneys to deliver gifts. The poem was also originator of the famous line “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
In 1843, the classic A Christmas Carol was released, detailing the redemption of the miserable and greedy old Scrooge as he was visited by three ghosts on the night of Christmas. The story’s message of goodwill and charity struck a chord in the hearts of many across both sides of the pond, especially as this was a time of high levels of unemployment and poverty.
Meanwhile, Prince Albert of Germany brought his country’s tradition of decorating Evergreen trees at Christmas to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria in 1840. A photo of the royal family posing around their 40ft decorated Christmas tree was published in American magazines in 1848, prompting them to join in on the tradition as well.
Back to Santa; The illustrator Thomas Nast was the next in line to influence the legacy of Saint Nick.
Through 1862 to 1886, Moore drew hundreds of different versions of Santa Claus before settling on the elderly, jolly old man in a large fur coat with a sack full of toys. Before Nast, Santa had been depicted as a wild variety of different figures, from a stern priest to a gnome in a colourful frock. Nast’s work was also the first to show Santa as living in the North Pole, having a workshop full of toys made by Elves and to keep a list of all the children who have been naughty. There was just one small matter of inconsistency: the colour of Santa’s coat ranged from drawing to drawing, being tan, green or red most often, but Nast never settled on one colour.
It was in 1931 that Coca Cola commissioned the Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create a version a coke-drinking version of the popular festive figure. Haddon based his version of Santa on his friend, chosen for his chubby appearance and cheerful demeanour. Coca Cola insisted that their version of Santa use bright red colours and through the use of heavy advertising, the red coated Santa stuck and became the commonly accepted image.
The final touch came in 1939 when the Montgomery Ward department store tasked Robert May with the challenge of creating a colouring book that their stores would hand out as promotion during Christmas. Taking influence from the ugly duckling story and his own childhood of bullying, May weaved the tale of a young misfit reindeer with a red nose called Rudolph who would save the day when Christmas too foggy to fly.
And with the addition of one red-nosed reindeer to the many tales of Christmas, the holiday as we know it now was finally complete.
And that’s all the major events and history behind the most widely celebrated religious holiday in the world. We here at Knowledge is Key would like to wish a Merry Christmas to all of you who celebrate this holiday and would love for you to share your own Christmas facts and stories in the comments section. After all, knowledge is the greatest gift and one we hope you’ll share our passion for giving all year round.