Ah, Christmas. My favorite holiday of the year. Every year, on December 25, Santa Claus will gather thousands of toys into his sleigh, and, being towed by his 8 or 9 reindeer, will depart from the North Pole on a trip around the world, bringing toys to all the good boys and girls around the world. He’ll sneak down your chimney while you’re sleeping, and leave presents underneath the Christmas tree before he… hey wait a minute, what does this have to do with Jesus’ birthday?
Well, to be honest, very little. The original Christmas was literally Christ mass (a mass for Christ), and it wasn’t even celebrated until the 4th Century A.D. At that time, Dec. 25 was a holiday that many pagans celebrated; early Christians decided to schedule a holiday of their own on that day to attract pagans to Christianity. (Biblical scholars don’t even know when Jesus’ birthday was, though many believe it occurred some time in August.) In fact, the pagans believed that the god Yule was reborn three days after the winter solstice, and it was his doing that lengthened the days of the year (which is where we get ‘yuletide’ from).
So what about Santa? Well, most people know that it was based on a real-life person, Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of giving. One of the stories about St. Nicholas goes that in early December, he threw coins down chimneys to those in need of money. The coins landed in stockings that were hanging by the fireplace. The Dutch pronunciation of this man (Sinter Klaus) gave birth to ‘Santa Claus’. The idea of his eight reindeer didn’t arrive until 1823, when Clement Clarke Moore penned his now famous poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Rudolph’s origin is another story entirely. He (I think it’s a he) was created in 1939, by Robert L. May, as nothing more than a gimmick to attract shoppers to Montgomery Ward department stores. A story was published in 1947, and the song arrived in 1949, as recorded by Gene Autry.
The tree that we put up and decorate in our living rooms? There are a few theories about how that arrived (a few theories!). Some point to 16th century Germany, though apparently there’s evidence to suggest that pagans worshipped evergreen trees around the time of the Winter solstice, due to the fact that they don’t lose their leaves in the winter.
In my research, I also came across the origin of mistletoe (who comes up with these names, anyway?). In case you are unfamiliar with mistletoe, whenever a guy and a girl have some sort of encounter underneath mistletoe, they’re obligated to kiss. Awww. So where did this tradition begin? Well, why don’t I just quote the website I’m looking at in this one. “Witches and other pagans regarded the red holly as a symbol of the menstrual blood of the queen of heaven, also known as Diana. The white berries of mistletoe were believed by pagans to represent droplets of the semen of the sun god. Both holly and mistletoe were hung in doorways of temples and homes to invoke powers of fertility in those who stood beneath and kissed, causing the spirits of the god and goddess to enter them.” Awww. Isn’t that adorable?
So this Christmas, as you partake in your annual somewhat absurd tradition, eating your Christmas ham (pagans ritually sacrificed a boar for their holiday), look around and think about how we got here today. And if anyone can find out why eggnog is associated with Christmas time, please let me know.