Although “tradition” seems to proclaim that you should not decorate your house for Christmas while “Sinterklaas” (which is celebrated in The Netherlands among other countries) is still in the country, we will start with the Christmas decoration this weekend.
I know that I have talked before about Christmas and its origin, but it is something that keeps my interest and every year I learn something new.
The origin of Christmas
That Christmas is not an Christian celebration by origin is generally accepted I think. The origin of Christmas goes way more back then Christianity.
Celebration the birth of Jesus on 25 December is based on pagan traditions or better said, by celebrating it on that day the Christian Church tried to get rid of these pagan traditions. According the bible Jesus was born in fall somewhere between 4 and 7 before AD…. that is, if Jesus has ever existed at all (but that is another discussion).
It all started with the midwinter celebrations. Ancient Germanic tribes celebrated on December 21 that the days became longer. Yule or winter solstice was celebrated throughout Northern Europe. Often with all sorts of cults and rituals. Of some celebrations is known that the oak tree was central.
In the Scandinavian languages Christmas is still called Jul.
Although the dating as December 25 predates pagan influence, the later development of Christmas as a festival includes elements of the Roman feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra.
Customs of Christmas
Christmas, and all the customs around it, is one big collection of influences of all different cultures.
The Christmas tree itself find it origin in pagan believes. Way before Christianity in Europe people already decorated there homes around Saturnalia (in December). They decorated living trees with small pieces of metal to honour their god Bacchus.
Decorating a home with evergreen boughs was strictly forbidden by the Christian Church in the 3rd century. And the decorated Christmas tree, as we know it now, is only since mid 19th century around.
There have been quite some disputes around the Christmas tree. In America William Bardford, a Calvinist, tried to “stamp out these pagan traditions of Christmas”.
The Christian custom of “kissing under mistletoe” is related to what used to be a sexual agreement of the Druidic sacrificial cult. Also nice to know is that the berries of the mistletoe are poisonous and were used during Druid rituals to poison their human sacrificial victim.
In pre-Christian Rome, the emperors compelled their most despised citizens to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (in December) and Kalends (in January). Later, this ritual expanded to include gift-giving among the general populace. The Catholic Church gave this custom a Christian flavor by re-rooting it in the supposed gift-giving of Saint Nicholas
And then Santa Claus
Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 and later became Bishop of Myra. He passed way on 6 December 345. It was not before the 19th century that he was named to be a saint.
He was one of the bishops who worked on the new testament in 325 (Council of Nicaea) and there they described the Jews as “the children of the devil” who sentenced Jesus to death.
The Nicholas cult spread North through Italy and people started to give each presents on 6 December, the day that Nicholas passed away (We here in The Netherlands, and other countries, we still celebrate “Sinterklaas” on that date).
In Northern Europe the celebrations around Nicolas were adopted by German and Geltic pagans. As they merged Nicolas into their own culture Nicolas lost his Mediterranean appearance. He got a beard, was dressed in cold protecting clothes and mounted a horse that could fly.
To please the pagan people in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church Nicholas cult adopted Christmas and taught that they should give gifts on December 25th instead of December 6th.
Early 1800’s Washington Irving wrote a satiric novel about the Dutch culture called “Knickerbocker History”. In that novel a white bearded man riding a flying horse called “Santa Claus” (“Sinter Klaas”) was more then once mentioned.
Some years later Clement Moore wrote. after reading “Knickerbocker History”, a poem about Santa Claus. And with this poem the 8 reindeers and the delivering of the presents through the chimney were introduced.
From 1862 through 1886 Thomas Nast made many cartoon images of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly. He almost completed the image of the modern Santa Claus. Nast placed the home of Santa Claus on the North Pole, give him his elven helpers and the book with good and bad deeds of all children of the world.
In 1932 Coca Cola hired Haddon Sundblom to make an advertisement with Santa. Here Santa got his cheerful and chubby face. Coca Cola insisted on a bright and red suit.
And there is was… Santa Claus, a mixture of a Christian crusader, a pagan god and an commercial idol.
Happy holidays everyone
Credit photo’s: Rob)