On December 25th Christians worldwide will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. But where did the traditions associated with Christmas originate?
The early Christians adopted and absorbed the old pagan holidays and made them their own. Saturnalia was an ancient Roman holiday which was celebrated from December 17th to 25th dedicated to the sun God Saturn. Romans would cut trees and bring them into their homes to mark the winter solstice. All business was suspended, slaves were temporarily freed and children and poor people were given gifts.
The modern Santa Claus that we all love has had many names, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Sinterklaas and sometimes just Santa.
Santa seems to have originated from Saint Nicholas, a 4th century Greek bishop. Saint Nicholas was born in Asia Minor (Turkey) and became Bishop of the Greek city of Myra. One story relates how when a local man lost his fortune and could not support his three daughters, Nicholas threw three bags of gold through a window into the house. The gold was then used as dowries to marry off the daughters ensuring their futures. One version I read suggested that the three bags of gold are the origin of the emblem of pawnbrokers, three gold balls. Mind you, another story said that he threw the first bag of gold down the chimney and it landed in a sock that was on the mantelpiece, the origin of hanging a stocking on Christmas Eve for Santa to fill. I don’t know which version to believe if any! The Dutch figure of Sinterklaas (which eventually became Santa Claus) and the British figure of Father Christmas both originate from Saint Nicholas.
The modern image we have of Santa Claus as a jolly, overweight bearded man wearing a red coat with fur collar and cuffs, black leather belt and boots can be traced back to the influence of the poem first published 1823, ‘A visit from St. Nicholas,’ better known as ‘Twas the night before Christmas’ and brought to life by cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1881. This image was further enhanced by the illustrator Norman Rockwell with his depictions for Boys Life magazine in 1914 and various publications in the early 1920s.
Of course, Coca-Cola would have us all believe that they gave Santa his red suit in their advertising campaign in 1931 but Santa’s red suit goes all the way back to the 4th century and Saint Nicholas’s red bishop robes. Having said that the Coca-Cola Christmas advert on TV is the one that signals the Christmas season has started. Well, the Coca-Cola and the Pennys advert with the little girl saying HoHoHo.
Traditions evolve over the years, influenced by media, particularly film. Over the years our Christmas films have changed to reflect our changing world. Remember ‘It’s a wonderful life” and ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ “White Christmas” “Home Alone” “Elf” “The Santa Clause”, the list goes on.
In the last few years, we have seen the arrival of the ‘Elf on the Shelf.’ This new tradition is based on a book written in 2005 by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell. The book describes how Santa’s scout elves are sent to look over the family and report back to Santa each night on who is being naughty or nice. They return each morning and hid in a new spot to play hide and seek with the family. The scout elves get their magic by being named and loved by a child but they cannot be touched. The child can speak to the elf and tell it their Christmas wishes and then on Christmas day the elf leaves to stay with Santa until the following Christmas. What a charming story and a heart-warming new tradition in many households.
So whatever tradition you follow in your household, whether Christian or not, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.