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The History of Christmas

THE HISTORY OF CHRISTMAS


For many of us, we believe that we solved the mystery long ago.

My own childhood realization has been retold here. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. So many other questions remain. There are so many other hidden secrets that we as adults have yet to uncover. 


As I hang up the advent calendar, the tinsel and garland, and start baking Christmas cookies, I begin to reflect on Christmases past and present and which traditions I would like to carry on with my own family this year. 

Christmas has been around for over 2,000 years and is celebrated differently across the globe. Trying to find out the true identity of the man in the red suit can be as frustrating as this clip from The Santa Claus


One of the reasons why there are as many Christmas traditions as there are re-gifted fruitcakes is because the celebration of Christmas is actually an amalgamation of three different holidays- Christ's Mass, St. Nicholas Day, and Yule

Also, the Protestant Reformation had a huge impact on the way Christmas is celebrated as well! So without further ado, let's begin our journey to the North Pole!


Although Christmas has gone in and out of favor with religious groups over time, most tend to agree that it is a Christian holiday. The very word Christmas comes from "Christ's Mass" which celebrated the birth of the savior in December. As the saying goes- Jesus is the reason for the season.


Just as Charlie Brown and the gang reminded us about the true meaning of Christmas...


Naturally, this is where a bulk of Christmas traditions come from including manger scenes, the Christmas Star, and countless Christmas songs. 

But Charlie Brown didn't explain things like Santa Claus, Christmas Trees, stockings, etc. These traditions have continued every year despite their mysterious origins.


But before we write our letters to Santa, where can we find out more about jolly ol St. Nick? 


St. Nicholas Day is celebrated on the 5th of December in the Netherlands. As the patron saint of children, this holiday features gift-giving as a major tradition.

According to legend, St. Nicholas came to the Netherlands from Spain bearing a sack full of gifts for all the Dutch Children. Along with him, came a servant to help hand out the toys. I'm not sure whether it is more OR less offensive but I believe that the servant may have been reinterpreted as an elf over the years.

 

There is a direct link between St. Nicholas and Santa Claus. The Dutch name for St. Nicholas is Sinterklaas which is where "Santa Claus" comes from.

Also, many of the representations of St. Nicholas helped inspire the look of Santa Claus- 


St. Nicholas Day was a hugely popular holiday. During the Protestant Reformation, many protestants worried that this holiday was overshadowing the birthday of Christ. 

The Church was especially concerned with St. Nicholas' striking resemblance to the Norse God Odin.


One of the best clues that we have about the history of Christmas is the Yule Log


The celebration of Yule or Yuletide dates back to pre-christian Europe in Germanic and Scandinavian communities.The yule log, which is typically an entire tree, would be burned to celebrate the beginning of winter.

Decorating "Yule trees" was common as well and may have inspired the Christmas tree 


The "Yule Father" was the Norse God Odin who became the inspiration for St. Nicholas and later Santa Claus.


Odin was the most powerful of the Norse gods. He rode a flying eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. Some folktales even describe Odin as driving a flying chariot pulled by reindeer. 

Odin delivered presents to children during Yule. In return, children would leave out their boots with treats inside them for Odin's reindeer. This might be where the tradition of hanging stockings comes from. 


The early Protestants were having none of this. At its best, Christmas venerated the Catholic St. Nicholas. At its worst, Christmas celebrated pagan rituals. To them, Christmas was not Christian enough.


Martin Luther, the chief architect of the Protestant Reformation, said that Christmas was a "Popish holiday." Following his example, many Protestants including the Puritans, DID NOT celebrate Christmas. 


However, the spirit of Christmas was still strong.

Many people were reluctant to give up the traditions that they loved. Santa Claus and gift-giving was very popular across Europe. Faced with this dilemma, Martin Luther hatched an idea to come up with a replacement for Santa Claus.

Instead of Santa bearing gifts, Martin Luther postulated that it was the Christ Child who came to give gifts to children. 


This tradition would be short-lived. The German word for Christ Child is Christkindl which became "Kris Kringle," another name for Santa Claus.

Despite the reluctance of many to give up the celebration of Christmas, there was a very real possibility that Christmas would never come to America. The early settlers, being both Puritans and Protestants did not celebrate the holiday and in some cases, even made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. 

 

Sometimes things have unexpected consequences. 

Washington Irving, who famously wrote "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," crafted another work called "The Knickerbocker's History of New York" which poked fun at the early Dutch settlers. He parodied the Christmas traditions in which a pipe-smoking man with a sleigh pulled by reindeer flies from rooftop to rooftop.

What Washington Irving didn't know was how his description of Santa Claus would capture the hearts and minds of the people and would directly inspire the seminal Christmas work- The Night Before Christmas.


This poem tells the story of Santa's journey on Christmas eve, ties together the traditions, and does it all in a linear and memorable format. From here, the celebration of Christmas in America really begins to snow-ball. So began the yearly tradition of reading the Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve.

The next big step in the American Christmas tradition was the cartoon published by the famous Thomas Nast. This helped cement the image of Santa Claus into popular culture. 


We gradually see a change as Christmas surges in popularity in the United States.

Christmas went from being a folk holiday to a major commercial holiday. Gift-giving meant big business. Companies like Coca-Cola began using the image of Santa Claus to help sell their products. Even Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created as part of an advertising campaign for Montgomery Ward. 



Years from now they will probably be asking where all the things like the Elf on a Shelf, moose mugs, and leg lamps came from?

Christmas has continued to grow over the years and so have the many diverse ways that it is celebrated. Whether you are having ham, turkey, fish, tamales, or Chinese food for Christmas; each of us can celebrate the holiday in our own way.  


This will be my daughter's first Christmas this year. The desire for her to experience some of the best Christmases I've had like opening an NES on Christmas morning is what has inspired me to delve into the history of Christmas and its many traditions.

What are some of your favorite family traditions? Are you one of those lucky people who get to open a present early on Christmas Eve? Is it a competition between you and your neighbors for who has the most lights on their house like Clark Griswold? Do you volunteer at a local soup kitchen? Sound off below!  

As Mary Ellen Chase once said, "Christmas is not a date. It is a state of mind." So get out there and spread the yuletide cheer!

Merry Christmas!
 


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Hoju Koolander Posted on Dec 24, 2016 at 09:29 PM

Thanks for this eye opening look at the fat man in a red suit we take for granted every December. I never would have guessed that throwing Thor's dad, a gift giving Christ Child and fashionable Spanish saint into a blender would give birth to Santa Claus. Very cool.

massreality Posted on Dec 22, 2016 at 04:33 AM

That was one heck of an easy history lesson! Well done!

echidna64 Posted on Dec 20, 2016 at 03:54 PM

Thanks! Odin Claus is definitely the most metal Santa haha

vkimo Posted on Dec 20, 2016 at 03:27 PM

You disguised learning into a fun to read article, darn you! Haha nice write up I prefer Odin Claus delivering gifts on his eight legged steed for sure. "Odin got me a trebuchet for Christmas!"

Vaporman87 Posted on Dec 20, 2016 at 08:59 AM

Thanks for this nice little review of the people and events that shaped Christmas into what it is today. I think we hear or read bits and pieces of this type of info from time to time, but rarely does any of us have the time or inclination to research the whole history. This is a nice way to discover that without having to devote a lot of time and attention to it. Great stuff.

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