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All About Christmas

Well, we can look to the Romans for the origins of these December celebrations. The Roman pagans introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, which was held during the week of 17th to 25th of December. The Roman courts closed and, better yet, Roman law stated that no one should be punished for petty crimes! It became a week when lawlessness ruled – love and peace to all mankind wasn’t top of the agenda then! It was a week of depravity and excess, culminating in a final horrific act.

When the week began the authorities chose what they termed ‘an enemy of the Roman people’. This someone represented the ‘Lord of Misrule’ who gave license to the citizens to behave in a roudy and very often drunken manner. Each Roman community would then choose a ‘victim’, whom they would force to indulge in eating and drinking and other physical pleasures throughout the week. Then, when the festival came to an end, the Roman authorities would brutally murder this innocent person – man or woman – in the belief that they were destroying the forces of darkness. A celebration happier for some than others!

Lucian was a Greek poet and historian during that time, and he was able to observe these rituals first hand. As well as human sacrifice, he writes of widespread intoxication, going from house to house singing – with no clothes on; rape and other sexual deviations; and the making and eating of human shaped biscuits – the ginger bread man of today, still made and happily eaten in Europe during the Christmas season!

During the 4th century Christians were anxious to convert the pagan masses to Christianity and so introduced the Saturnalia festival into the Christian calendar, hoping to bring the pagans into the Christian faith along with their festivals. Christian leaders promised the pagans they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia even if they became Christians. Unfortunately there was a slight problem – nothing significant occurred in the Christian calendar on that date to make the transition seamless. What could they do? The answer was to name the last day of Saturnalia – December 25th – the birthday of Jesus. The early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25th didn’t believe that Christ was born on that day, but because of the widespread practice of Saturnalia in Rome, they were willing to integrate the pagan dates with the Christian calendar in order to convert the pagans. Most modern Christians still celebrate Christmas despite its early pagan origins.

However, the Christians were unsuccessful in trying to refine the celebrations. They had struck a bargain – by ensuring mass observance of the anniversary of the birth of Jesus by assigning it to December 25th, they had unwittingly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated in more or less the same way it had always been. And so the Christmas holidays continued to be celebrated by indulgence – drinking, lewd sexual practices and of course singing naked in the street, which is still done today by carollers – fortunately these days they keep their clothes on!

Christmas customs – where do they come from?

Every year we raid the loft for our Christmas decorations. We haul home the tree and dread the dropping needles. We strategically place the mistletoe in the hopes we may actually have time for a kiss in the midst of the panic and hard work! And the presents! How much should we spend? What do we get for granny this year? And whatever we do we mustn’t forget the glass of sherry and the mince pie for Santa and the carrot for Rudolph.

But why do we do it? Where have all these customs come from? There are several theories but here are a few of the accepted origins.

Christmas trees have their origins with the pagans. They had long worshipped and revered the natural world including the trees in the forest. They would bring them into their homes and decorate them. So the early Christians adopted this custom at Christmas time in order to convert the pagan masses, and the church made it Christian.

Mistletoe was used in Druid ritual. They would use it to poison their unfortunate sacrifice victim! It is believed that today’s custom of kissing under the mistletoe is the integration of the licentious sexual practices of Saturnalia (please read our article on the origins of Christmas), with the sacrificial cult of the Druids – a successful attempt to keep the followers of both religions happy, and integrate them into the Christian church.

Christmas presents began with the greed of the pre-Christian Roman emperors. Originally, the emperors ordered the citizens they liked the least to bring them offerings and gifts during the festival of Saturnalia in December, and Kalends in January. The custom quickly spread to the general populace and giving gifts to each other at this time became commonplace. The Catholic Church, ever anxious to convert the pagans, gave it a Christian flavour by introducing Saint Nicholas and his customary gift giving.

Santa Claus originates with Saint Nicholas. Nicholas was born in Turkey in the 1st century and eventually became a bishop. He wasn’t named a saint until the 19th century. However, in the 11th century some sailors who idolized Nicholas, removed his remains from Turkey and took them to a sanctuary in Italy. There they had a female goddess called The Grandmother or Pasque Epiphania, who would fill the children’s stockings with her gifts. Nicholas soon took her place and became the centre of the Nicholas cult. Those who worshipped him would hold a pageant on the anniversary of his death – December 6th. During the pageant they would give each other gifts.

The cult soon spread and the German and Celtic pagans adopted it. They worshipped Woden who was their main god. He had a long white beard and would ride a horse through the heavens on one evening every Autumn. So Nicholas became merged with Woden. He lost his Mediterranean appearance, grew a beard and rode a flying horse. His appearance was rescheduled from autumn to December, so then of course he had to wear heavy winter clothing.

Once again, in an attempt to convert the pagans, the Catholic church adopted the Nicholas cult and taught that he distributed gifts on December 25th instead of the 6th. They also encouraged the people to give gifts to each other at this time. The name Santa Claus has its origins in the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas. Its popular use is thanks to Washington Irving. He wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, and in 1809 the wrote a book called Knickerbocker History, which was a satire on Dutch life. In it he referred several times to Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name, Santa Claus.

Thirteen years later, in 1822, Dr Clement Moore, a university professor, published a poem based on the character Santa Claus. You are probably familiar with it!

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In the hope that Saint Nichols soon would be there…’

In this poem Moore suggested that this Santa flew through the skies with 8 reindeer and that he came down the chimney to leave presents for everyone. Here was the beginning of the legend of the modern day Santa Claus.

The illustrator Thomas Nast added to this image He drew over 2000 cartoons of Santa for Harper’s Weekly. Until this time, Saint Nicholas had been shown in many diverse guises including a stern bishop and a sort of gnome in a frock! Thomas Nast gave Santa a home and workshop in the North Pole filled with busy, helpful elves and the list of good and bad children. All he needed now to make him the Santa we know and love today was his red outfit.

Coca Cola came to the rescue in 1931. Haddon Sundblom was the Swedish commercial artist commissioned by Coca Cola to create a coke-drinking Santa. The Santa Sundblom drew was modelled on his friend Lou Prentice who had a cheerful, chubby face. Coca Cola insisted that Santa’s fur-trimmed suit should be a bright Coca Cola red of course! And so the Santa that comes down our chimneys today was born. A unique blend of pagan god, Christian crusader and commercial idol!

Have a very Happy Christmas!