A glance into the origin of Christmas, Christmas tree and Christmas decoration. How St. Nicholas became Santa Claus? Saturnalia and the birth of Jesus.
Christmas is almost here and the excitement is building up, but given the present financial climate it’s no wonder that there is a great deal of anxiety for many of us. It is that commercial aspect of Christmas that puts pressure on people: Christmas tree, Christmas decoration, Christmas presents, Christmas dinner … it all needs to be paid for and, of course, you can’t do without Christmas pudding and a lot of mince pies. We are encouraged to spend like there is no life after Christmas. And not only through aggressive advertising by retailers but also by the government- always keen to boost the economy.
This “fiscal” element of Christmas is often criticised by various groups; the environmentalist, for example, would often complain about unnecessary amount of Christmas cards and the consequent damage to the forestry around the world. In this age of e-mail and Facebook, one can hardly dispute the validity of their argument. The others not happy with the present “state of affairs” regarding Christmas are the religious groups (the Christian one, of course) who often argue the true Christmas agenda, that includes family bonding, God awareness, and spiritual elevation, has been hijacked by the overtly earthly categories such as consumerism and pleasure-seeking. Having in mind the reports that year after year suggest increase in criminal incidents (including drink-driving, brawls and thefts) over Christmas period, it is difficult to ignore their complaints too. But, whose exactly is the Christmas and what it meant for people in the past? Here is a short history of its origin and the meaning.
Christmas – A Pagan Holiday?
Christmas has roots in Saturnalia, a week long holiday, celebrating Saturn (Roman God of harvest). The celebration coincided with the winter solstice, a traditional celebrating time of the year in many pagan cultures on the Northern hemisphere. According to the Greek historian Lucian’s observations the Saturnalia was a wildly celebrated event: human sacrifice, singing naked on the streets, public copulation and other unruly behaviour- all going on lawfully and unsanctioned in this particular week. This manner of celebration was widely spread and involved a large population. So much so, that the early Roman-Christian authorities deemed it wise to accommodate (at least to an extent) the existing rituals in order to compete with the pagan customs.
By promising the continuation of the customs the Christian authorities achieved a considerable success in converting a significant portion of population. However, the problem of religious compatibility remained as there was nothing quintessentially Christian about Saturnalia. So, they decided on naming the concluding day of Saturnalia, falling on 25th December, as the Jesus’ birthday. While this ensured the large observance on this prominent day it, initially, did little to change the manner of celebration-the old habits die hard. Eventually, the influence of the Christian church and establishment of Christmas as the most important day in the Christian calendar did it. The human sacrifice are long gone and though you might, nowadays, get a glimpse of exposed cleavage on a high street, it is as likely on Christmas as on any Saturday night. But how much of pagan legacy remains in celebration of Christmas? The best way to answer this is to look at Christmas paraphernalia.
Christmas Tree and Christmas Decoration
Despite being a recognizable feature of modern Christmas, the custom of decorating evergreen trees is not a Christian invention. The custom not only predates Christianity but was not associated with this religion for at least first few centuries of its existence. It was, in fact, a prominent pagan custom to decorate evergreen trees with bits of metal and imprints of different deities during festivities connected with the winter solstice. They would not, however, cut the trees for the purpose of bringing it into homes. This would be too destructive to the nature which they considered sacred. They used, though, to decorate their houses with the clippings of different evergreen shrubs, mistletoe and Yule logs-all of which came to symbolise Christmas in modern days. But what about that character whose non-existence we hesitate to admit to our children once they are old enough to “smell something fishy”?
The origin of Santa Claus can be traced back to the 3rd century Turkey and St. Nicholas – the Bishop of Myra (today’s town of Demre). The stories about his charitable deeds survived into the 19th century when he appeared in a satire about Dutch culture. The “Knickerbocker History”, written by Washington Irving in 1820s, portrayed Saint Nicholas as white-bearded, flying-horse riding Santa Claus, which is a Scandinavian version of his name. Dr Clement Moore, a professor at Union Seminary, picked up on this and published a poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” where pipe-smoking Santa Claus was accompanied by eight chimney- descending reindeer. In the following decades the Santa’s image, with little variations, appeared in various comics and illustrations, but this was a sporadic occurrence. It needed, it seems, a “magic touch” of corporate sponsorship. In 1931 Coca Cola Company commissioned a Swedish illustrator to create a Coke-drinking Santa with bright-red suit. The Swede did a good job and St. Nicholas’ reincarnation as Santa Claus was completed. He since acquired the prominence on a global scale.
Nowadays the cruel and wild elements of the early festive seasons have long gone and Christmas is celebrated in more than one way and not only by Christians. The Nativity plays and Christmas Mass represent, it appears, the formal side of Christmas, involving, on the face of it, far less people than the other less formal yet highly obliging social customs (hence the gift-giving, Christmas tree, Christmas decorations, Santa Claus). It is not an overstatement to notice that, when it comes to Christmas, Santa is in a direct competition with Jesus. The rivalry thus, started in 3rd century, is still going on.
- Tucker, Suzetta. “ChristStory Christmas Tree Page.” ChristStory Christian Bestiary. 1997. (4 Nov. 2010).
- Lucian, Saturnalia,Saturnalia