I celebrate Christmas. I do this out of tradition. It is what my family did when I was a child. It is what I most identify with. So for me, it is not a religious observance, but a tradition.
Notice, I said observance. Not anniversary. Christmas is the day that modern Christian based religions celebrate the birth of Christ. But this isn’t really his day of birth. No one knows that, so far as I know. But based on the lore handed down and written, he was likely born in September. But in my opinion, that’s not as important as the observance of the event. Also, the Catholic Church does not consider Christmas to be the most important holiday, which would be Easter [which has nothing to do with rabbits, we’ll talk about that then] .
The modern version of Christmas is an evolution of traditions and the combination of them. Some of what we know in the US is really only done on this continent, primarily U.S. and Canada. The date, December 25th, is from Pagan origin and was used to mark the end of Saturnalia. It never was intended to be the birthday of Christ. It got labeled that much more recently by evangelical parts of Christianity trying to form more rigid definitions to the religion and holiday.
There was an original tradition in Austria about St. Nicolas that would reward good children. Some say candy was the reward, some say presents. He did this over night from December 5th-6th. The recent rise of the character Krampusnacht [Krampus] is simply a revisit of this same tradition. Krampusnacht was the one who would visit the bad children, or kidnap them. If you were slightly bad, he would beat the child with a stick. If very bad, the child would be taken back to Krampusnacht’s lair and be eaten. Tough world back then…
Now Krampus is likely Norse in origin, as this is close to the same name as the son of Held, Goddess of the underworld. The Catholic Church tried to ban Krampus due to him being too demonic. They tried to ban him in the 12th century and again in the 1930s. But, he keeps returning, as traditions often do. The church has yet to learn that banning anything never works, unless your goal is to promote it.
So from Austria we have S. Nicolas. And we have Krampus on a return tour, from Norse mythology via Austria.
Then we have La Befana from Italy. La Befana was an old widow who had lost her child when the child was a baby. Her house was visited on January 5th by the three magi [kings]. They were searching for the new baby that had been born and stopped off at her house to collect food for gifts. The magi had none of the traditional gifts we sing of today, that is a modern advent.
They offered for her to go with them on their trek but she turned them down. She later changed her mind and set off after them but she could not find them. For some unknown reason she took with her, a broom. Presumably to clean for Mary? No clue on that one. But she could not find the three magi but she bumped into an angel hanging around somewhere and to make her quest easier, the angel made her broom able to fly. This made her job easier but she was still unsuccessful. So, instead she chose to use her broom to bring food and candy to all the children of the world on this night. Like any grandmotherly type, she feeds you, just you know, from a broom. She is also of Pagan origin.
Now it is the turn of the Dutch. They bring us Sinterklass. Ok, he came from Turkey originally but the Dutch stole the idea. He is the first to KINDA resemble modern Santa in appearance. He looked a lot more like a slightly younger father time. So the legend goes that in November he starts a journey from Spain, via boat, to Holland [that’s a slow boat]. He comes to Holland with a list of good and bad children. [this is the origin of the list.] So he arrives in Holland, greeted by the Mayor of Amsterdam and is paraded on a horse. He gives gifts to the good children. Now he does not travel alone, he has Zwarte Piet. He travels with Sinterklass.
Children leave out shoes and Sinterklass leaves candy for the good kids. The kids also leave out hay for the horse. Sinterklass’ Piet, listens at the chimney [origin of the chimney part of the tradition] and determine what kids are good and bad. So the Zwarte Pieten are eves droppers. So the bad kids get kidnapped and taken back to Spain. The Zwarte Pieten dress in colorful costumes and look a little like a jester, but with painted black faces. [This is the origin of the elves].
We don’t have December 25th coming up yet, we have December 5th-6th and January 5th. The Bible never mentions December 25th. But, as mentioned, it was a Pagan Holiday already called Saturnalia. This was a week long period starting on December 17th going to December 25th. This time frame was marked by singing, [caroling] but back then it was done naked and drunk, sex parties and lawlessness ensued.
Christians hoped that by making December 25th the holiday marking the birthday of Christ, it would calm the festivities since it led to and was concluded by such a somber event. It did little to calm the party of Saturnalia so many sects of the Catholic Church banned Saturnalia
So from Saturnalia we get the caroling and December 25th. Not so much on the drinking and sex.
Now many claim that the origin of the Christmas tree is German, some say it is Italian but I tend to doubt many Italian origins since they are likely co-opted ideas by the church. But there is no doubt it is Pagan. Pagans had reverence for trees so they would often bring evergreen branches and occasionally trees into their homes in the winter. So the Pagans brought us trees in the house in the winter.
So we have December 25th and caroling from Saturnalia, a pagan event. We have good and bad children tradition and presents from St. Nicolas in Austria. We also have good and bad children tradition and the list and chimneys and elves from Holland. We have a flying contraption from Italy as well as the three magi, or kings from there. And we have the tree from pagan tradition, druid in nature [pardon the pun].
But let’s bring this into the more modern definition.
Enter Washington Irving. The same man who brought us The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He gave us the first modern taste of St Nicolas, a pipe smoking gent in New Amsterdam [NYC today] but he was more of a satire. He also was the first to identify the gesture of putting his finger by his nose. This was published on December 6th, 1809. [deliberate date of publish]
This was kinda the basis for Clement Moore’s, A Visit From St. Nicolas in 1823. This became The Night Before Christmas. From this poem, much like a poem about Paul Revere, we get much of what we take as fact today.
From this poem we get new:
Eight Reindeer and all their names cept Rudolf. [ all would have to be girls by the way, boys lose their antlers in the winter]
The description we have of Santa Claus today is from this poem, the beard, the suit, his build his behavior and demeanor.
From this poem he adopted from the sources listed before:
Stockings adapted from shoes.
Sugar Plums adapted from candy.
Long winter’s nap connected to the winter solstice.
Bag of toys.
The finger by his nose gesture.
Thomas Nast who’s most known artistic work is the political party symbols, the elephant and donkey, made illustrations for this poem for Harper’s Weekly eventually and he added the cookies and letters to Santa.
Next comes Haddon Sundblom, an artist for Coca-Cola in the 1920s-30s. He is the one who took all of this and put it all together as the image we have today.
Now, a few additions are also worth noting. Jingle Bells, was a drinking song, much like the music to our national anthem. The jingle bells sound was made by the ice in the glasses belonging to the drinkers.
Rudolf came from Montgomery Ward. They were buying and handing out coloring books during the Christmas season and got tired of buying them to give away. So they published their own coloring book to hand out but they needed original art and they came up with Rudolf. They did not invent him though, the song came out 10 years before that.
Of note, there is also the story of the Christmas Truce in WWI. This has been dismissed as myth or fable but it did happen, once. It was the first year of the war and largely happened between the British and Germans. The French did not trust the Germans enough to widely engage in it.
The soldiers met in no-man’s land and exchanged property or food or garments. The Belgians largely used the truce to collect the dead from no-man’s land and bury them. No, the song silent night was not spontaneously written then but it was sung that night by them. It was written in 1818.
The reason for all this, other than knowing how we got here even if it is a bit uncomfortable is this … In the pre-google world (PG) we used to more easily accept that things did not come about in a straight line with a single source. Christmas as we know it, is a stew. We bring the best or the most fun or the best fitting traditions together and make a day of it and traditions are born.
I have friends who are Jewish who observe Christmas, not because they are marking the birth of Jesus, but because it is cultural. I have friends who are not religious, but go all out for the day and the meaning of it as they have adopted it. I know a family who on the evening of every Thanksgiving watches A Muppet Christmas, and their next generation has adopted that, as have I. Every Christmas Eve I watch Fiddler on the Roof from an experience I had with my first girlfriend.
The day is about many things to many. The gift everyone can give is to accept that it is not owned by anyone or any religion. It should be a day we mark with our own traditions and leave the division out. Everyone is welcome in my home, bring your traditions with you. Maybe park the Reindeer in the back yard though …