claim is that the most “Christian” part of Christmas is actually
Santa Claus/Father Christmas. As most enlightened people know, the Church
bluntly “stole” an already widely popular pagan celebration and
just transformed it into a celebration of Christ instead. At every Christmas,
children and everyone else is told that Christmas’ original background
is the miraculous birth of Jesus. This is of course utter nonsense.
The original celebration of “Christmas” started in ancient Egypt as a celebration of the god Aion or Osiris (who, by the way, was also born by a virgin mother). The “Saturnalia”, the fertility festival of the Roman god Saturn (aka the greek Chronos) was celebrated on the 17th of December and the following days. The festivals of Aion/Osiris (often called the Light of the World) and Saturn merged over time, and in the fourth century BC the celebration was moved to the end of December. The Saturnalia was a hugely popular and very important public holiday (feriae publicae). In the last century BC this celebration merged with the also hugely popular celebration of Natalis Solis Invicti, the birthday of the personified sungod Mithra on the 25th of December. (Mithraism also had a profound influence on the concepts and teachings of Christianity, se more here).
In Germanic Europe they also celebrated a festival of light and of the turning of the sun at winter solstice in the end of December. They celebrated the turning of the sun and for good health and abundant crops in the coming year. The Germanic name for the celebration was (and still is in Skandinavia) “jul” (yule, noel). The European celebration of Yule is actually an age-old communal Germanic festival, far older than Christianity in these parts.
The birthday of Jesus?
The date or even the time of year of the alleged birth of Jesus is not known. Even the gospels do not know the precise year of this birth. According to St.Luke, Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod (the great) and when Quirinius (Publius Sulpicius Quirinius) was governor of Syria. The problem of course, is that king Herod died in 4 BC and Quirinius became governor in Syria first around 6 AD. At a Church Council in 353 AD, the Church simply decided, with simple majority, that the birth of Jesus was to be celebrated on the 25th of December. This date was already a well established and widely celebrated as the festival for the sun god Mithra all over the Mediterranean world. This way, the Church wanted to replace the date’s association to the sungod with the mythical birth of Christ. This also became the starting point for the Roman Abbot Dionysos Exiguu’s (died c. 550 AD) new Christian calendar he came up with in the beginning of the sixth century, and that we still use.
Before 353 AD the date of the birth of Jesus varied within the different Christian congregations. As examples, both the 19th of April, 20th of May and 17th of November were thought to be the holy date, until the Church just decided upon the 25th of December. So the date itself has originally nothing to do with Jesus.
Food and Drink
In the Old Norse sources the pagan celebration of Yule in the Nordic countries is often described as “to drink jul/yule”. The central aspect of the pagan Germanic celebration of midwinter was to eat and drink well. To bake and to produce ale and mead were important preparations for the celebration. On medieval wooden calendars and pre-Christians picture stones, this celebration is still symbolised by a barrel of ale, or a drinking horn. So the emphasis on food and drink traditions is originally pagan trait of the “Christmas” celebration.
The Christmas Tree
Trees are important symbols in most religions. Depictions of trees are found in the rock art from the Bronze Age, and suggest that trees were important symbols in the pagan religion or myth even then. The significance of the evergreen trees as a symbol of life and immortality has been important, especially in the northern regions of Europe where most other vegetation seem to die in the cold winter. So celebrating an evergreen tree as a symbol of immortality and life in midwinter, have strong pagan roots. In the Old Norse religions the world itself was symbolized by a giant “world tree”, the Yggdrasil. This giant ash shelter the worlds of god and men, and at its base you find three wells, - the well of Wisdom, the well of Fate and the well that is source of all the rivers. The evergreen Taxus baccata – (English Yew) was also considered to have magical properties in the pagan Norse mythology.
At the Roman Saturnalia, which originally was an agricultural celebration of fertility, the Romans decorated their homes with greenery being hung over doorways, windows and furniture. The Romans also decorated trees outside with ex. sun- and star symbols. Food was also an important decoration, and children were allowed to pick the treats from the trees.
The Christmas tree custom, as we know it, is essentially a modern tradition, first known in Germany in the end of the 16th century. It became widespread and popular in the rest of the world first in the beginning of the 20th century.
A festival of Light and exchanging gifts
The celebration of Christmas is also a celebration of light, both because its origin as a celebration of (the turning of) the sun and the light/candle traditions of the Saturnalia. At the Saturnalia candles were lit in Saturn’s honour, slaves were given liberties and switched places with their masters for a day, and gifts were exchanged! The story of the tree wise men who give baby Jesus gifts, have little to do with the gift-giving traditions at Christmas. (By the way, the story of the three wise men is only mentioned in the gospel of St.Mathew). The tradition of gift-giving at Christmas has obvious roots back to the pagan Saturnalia, but is today mainly connected to the myth of St. Nicholas (aka Santa Claus/ Father Christmas).
Santa Claus is based on the myth of Saint Nicholas who was a Christian bishop in the city of Myra in Asia Minor (today Kale in Turkey) in the second century. Bishop Nicholas died the 6th December 343 AD (according to tradition) and was canonised as a catholic Saint by the church in the 10th century. St. Nicholas is the patron of f.ex. barrel makers, bakers, druggists, judges, sailors and children. It became customary to give the children gifts in secrecy on his memorial day 6th of December. This tradition originates from the legend of how Nicholas saved three poor girls from prostitution by giving them dowry. He supposedly tossed sacks (or barrels) of gold/money through their open window at night. This legend exist in several versions, but the essence is that the bearded bishop in his bishops-gown and pointy hat in secrecy giving gifts in the night.
To see the act of gift-giving at Christmas as a Christian tradition because of this can hardly be correct, since it would be ridiculous to define all the alleged actions performed the more than 4500 different Catholic saints as particularly “Christian” deeds. In the 14th century French nuns celebrated St.Nicholas by placing food outside the doors of poor people. Over time the gift giving traditions were associated with the celebration of Christmas/Yule, and the St.Nicholas became the mythical Father Christmas. The tradition became particularly popular in Germany and the Netherlands. With the Dutch immigrants their tradition of Sinterklaas came to America, and became the Santa Claus tradition we are familiar with today.
In the Scandinavian folklore there is a figure often confused with Santa Claus, and therefore has been associated with midwinter and Christmas time. It’s the “nisse/tomte”, a small gnome kind of being, a fairly unpleasant choleric guy with a red pointed cap, watching over the cattle and the farms. If not treated with porridge at Christmas he could instigate bad luck and illness among both people and cattle. He has nothing to do with Santa Claus, he does not give gifts to anybody and he despises children.
Santa Claus is a fairly modern part of the Yule/ Christmas-celebration in the Nordic countries, introduced first in the very end of the 19th century. The costume and colours of Santa Claus come from St. Nicholas red bishop gown, and the pointy bishop’s hat. The depictions of St.Nicholas/Santa Claus have varied over time. Today’s picture of the fat and jolly Santa Claus in his red costume with the white fur trimmings, black belt and boots, and flying reindeers, is actually made by the Coca Cola Company. The image originated in a commercial campaign Coca Cola started in 1931, made by the swedish/american illustrator Haddon Sundblom. He used himself as model.
The date and time of year of Christmas, the food and drink traditions and the very celebration itself are of pagan origin, and have nothing to do with either the birth of Jesus or other Biblical traditions. The Christmas celebration as a festival of light has obvious pagan roots, and the Christmas tree have certainly no foundation in the Bible whatsoever. The gift-giving tradition was very prominent in the pagan Saturnalia, and can hardly be seen as of Christian origin. As a Christian bishop, and later mythological catholic Saint, St. Nicholas or Santa Claus, is actually the most “Christian” aspect of our Christmas traditions.
(c) R.L. Borsheim