A Christmas History Story
Ahhh Christmas time. It is a season for joyous occasions and happy reunions. You can hear Jimmy Stewart proclaiming that it is a wonderful life, or Ebenezer Scrooge declaring a Merry Christmas to one and all. I love the Christmas traditions, and I decided to learn more about how Christmas got started, and how Santa Claus came to be the figure he is today. I thought it would be a good Christmas gift to share what I learned with you. I will try to keep this history lesson brief, so you will only be getting a quick overview, but hopefully we can all know a little bit more about this wonderful season.
“Christmas” is a compound word stemming from the term “Christ’s Mass”. The practice of celebrating Christ’s Birth on December 25 seems to have started around 354 AD in Rome. In the Eastern half of the Empire, Christ’s birth was on January 6th which was changed around the end of the 4th century to match the Western half. This is different than what I had heard previously, that Christmas was originally a pagan belief converted to Christianity. Several elements of what is considered a traditional Christmas, such as the gift giving and the yule log, were pagan customs. Winter festivals were popular in many European pagan cultures, and these rituals were integrated into the Christmas tradition as the tribes were converted to Christianity. This has resulted in Christmas being banned by certain Protestant groups, such as the Puritans, due to the concern that the holiday was too pagan or unbiblical.
You can’t have Christmas without Santa Claus. Old Saint Nick starts to appear everywhere this time of year. Malls, parades, street corners, you name it, Santa is there with that mischievous grin and only sometimes creepy laugh. Yet how did we get this modern image of an overweight chimneysweeper that leaves gifts for children and flies around in a sled pulled by reindeer?
Santa Claus is derived from Saint Nicolas of Myra who was a 4th century Christian bishop. Saint Nicolas was a very devout follower of Christ, and devoted his life to helping and giving gifts to the poor. In some European countries children still receive their gifts on St. Nicolas Day, which is December 6th.
Another influence on the modern image of Santa Claus is the Germanic god Oden. During the Yuletide season Oden would lead his people in the Wild Hunt through the sky. Oden had a long white beard and rode a grey horse for his nighttime hunts, which many believe was simply traded for reindeer in North America.
Father Christmas is yet another element of the modern Santa concept. Father Christmas dates to the 16th century in England, and was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He brought with him the spirit of good cheer, peace, joy, good food, wine, and revelry. While his appearance would change over the years, his main image was that painted in Charles Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol as a large and joyful man who sparked Christmas cheer wherever he went.
I’m glad I took the time to learn some more about the Christmas traditions, and how this big holiday extravaganza came about. I hope you learned some things as well, and now know a bit more about Christmas and Santa. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!