by Tyler Kindred
Countless celebrations have marked the occasion we now call Christmas down through the ages. Not only a religious celebration, but astronomically, a time when the sun falls to its lowest point, commencing winter solstice; and from there, emerges upon the horizon victorious from the winter’s cold. Cultures of old have announced the event through festivities, myths and time spent with family and friends. Gift giving reciprocates the seasonal time of the sun’s gift of light and warmth brought once again.
Perhaps the greatest pre-Christian celebration of the winter solstice was the Roman Saturnalia, a celebration period that started on December 17 and ended from the 23 to the 25. Centered on the Roman god Saturn, Saturnalia was a winter festival of light with numerous candles lit to symbolize the quest for knowledge and truth. As described by Macrobius, the late antiquity writer, in his famous book Saturnalia, ‘it was a celebration of the renewal of light and the coming new year.’1 It was a time of gift giving, and singing in the streets - a precursor to modern caroling. Social norms were reversed; gambling was permitted, and masters gave table-service to their servants.
The Romans were not alone in celebrating their holiday. In Scandinavia there was Juul in honor of the Roman Thor, and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or ‘Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun’, for followers of Mithras in and around Persia. Krishna of India’s celebrated birthday was December 25, as well Attis of Phrygia (now Turkey) and Dionysus in Greece.
The remnants of these sun god myths still live with us today, undetected beneath the surface of our language. The Egyptian sun god Horus was said to take twelve steps across the sky in the increments we now call ‘hours’. His brother, Set, conversely the god of the night and evil, took him to battle eternally each day, until the two would get caught just above the horizon (or Horus-risen), taking the form of a ‘sunset’ - both sun and Set. That Horus was born of ‘The Great Virgin’ Isis on the winter solstice is thought to be a euphemism for the hour that the Virgo constellation rises above the horizon on December 25, giving ‘birth’ to her ‘sun’2 . The ancient Egyptian calendar that would begin in Virgo would end in Leo, explaining the shape of the mysterious Sphinx- a virgin’s head with a lion’s body.
Now for the Christmas story we’re more familiar with.
Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, as written in the New Testament of the Bible, in what is estimated as 3 B.C. Though his birthday is today celebrated on Christmas day, the gospels do not pinpoint a date. As Christianity grew after the death of Jesus and the Pentecost, surrounding religions gave way to the radically practical and moral developments that had occurred in Jerusalem and were spreading to Greece and Rome. Individuals were eager to accept a savior who promised eternity in heaven for all, and just sanctification for any sin they may have incurred on their Earthly voyage. This was a significant change from the sacrifice-requisite religions of the ancient Middle East.
Christianity, which encapsulated the foundations of Hebrew the lineage, combined with parallels to the moral developments occurring in Hellenistic Greece, found no match in nearby religions. The early Christians would proclaim the spiritual importance of the individual, just as the Greeks were establishing the social and political importance of the citizen. Egypt, too, would be swayed. The majority of the Egyptian religion, which had remained unchanged since the 5th and 6th dynasties (approx. 2494-2181 B.C.E.), embraced Christianity after the preaching of Mark the Apostle in Alexandria in about 69 A.D. Mithraism, an early rival in popularity and a favorite among Roman soldiers, would soon be eradicated and replaced by a new, ultra-pacifist belief system, whose followers would willingly be martyred or exiled for the centuries to follow.
It is estimated that in the 4th Century A.D., Christianity imported the Saturnalia celebration3, converting the large number of pagans along with it. Because of its non-Christian origin, the Puritans banned the Christmas celebration and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. Anyone caught celebrating Christmas in the colony was fined five shillings3.
Perhaps as interesting as the passing of Saturnalia into Christmas is the story of our evolving tradition of Santa Claus; formed in part by the life of a fourth century saint, some Northern European folklore, and a little bit of American commercialism.
Saint Nicholas was born to wealthy parents in a Greek village named Patara in A.D. 270. As his story is told, he became orphaned at an early age when his parents passed from a wide spread epidemic. It was than that young Nicholas sold his inheritance for the poor and committed to a life of helping the young and the impoverished.
Though Nicholas’ reputation for generosity would greatly spread, he would be exiled and imprisoned under Roman Emperor Diocletian during the years of ‘The Great Persecution.’ Under this period, which lasted until A.D. 324, all inhabitants of the Roman Empire were ordered to sacrifice to Roman gods or face imprisonment or execution. The strict regulations couldn’t prevent Christianity’s growth, and the majority of Christians would avoid persecution. The Roman Empire’s religious status would drastically shift once Emperor Constantine, a Christian convert, would come to power. Saint Nicholas was freed, and he became a participant in the ‘The First Council of Nicaea’ in A.D. 325, a highly influential meeting that would help to unanimously establish biblical canon and the accepted beliefs of Christianity. He passed December 6th 345 A.D.; Pope Julius 1 would commemorate the day as ‘St. Nicholas Day’.
The St. Nicholas figure held enormous popularity in Northern Europe as SinterKlaas, and his day was widely celebrated. The 15th Century Protestant Reformation urged to bring the focus of the season away from Saint Nick and back to Jesus, but the surrounding areas, like the Netherlands, didn’t give up their Saint Nicholas story so easily. The SinterKlaas tradition would eventually be brought to the New World.
As the Christianization of Germanic Europe spread, the traditional Yule celebration of the German god Odin, mixed with the Christmas celebration. As Margaret Baker writes, ‘The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts.’5
By 1776, Christmas was not widely spread in North America. It wasn’t until 1809 that Washington Irving established Santa Claus in America through his book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, portraying the pipe-smoking Nicholas soaring over rooftops in a weightless wagon. The cartoonist Thomas Nast would further iconify the Santa Nicholas image in 1881, with a ruby red coat and white fur trim. Coca-Cola would famously commission Haddon Sundblom to develop the 1920’s rendition of Santa Claus with a coat of pure Coca-Cola red.
Santa would be given more companions, born from the same commercial advertising pool. ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ began in 1939 from a Montgomery Ward gimmick to lure shoppers. ‘Frosty the Snowman’ was rolled up by a whiskey-maker in 1890, and became the favorite icon for alcohol ads for years to come.6
The gradual traverse from a religious savior-birth celebration to a secularized holiday brought along with it a slow change in purpose. The spiritual blessings of a creator source were replaced with material gifts from a different kind of omni-potent mythos. As Christ, and even St. Nicholas, would preach the sacrifice of material possessions for their spiritual counterparts, Santa Claus would begin to bring the focus back around; and in so doing, become an ideal mascot for the corporate sector.
Christmas comes in many names and many customs, but the underlying spirit of the season is something that will continually envelop our culture. As the sun grips our Earth and pulls us back closer to its orbit, we, too, tend to pull nearer to those with whom we’re closest. It is a time of sharing, and a time of giving, and we hope you enjoy yourself this year.
1. The Chronography of 354 AD. Part 12: Commemorations of the Martyrs – The Tertullian Project. 2006. Retrieved 2011-11-24.
2. Rachel N. Schnepper (December 14, 2012). "Yuletide's Outlaws". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-12-15.
3. The Chronography of 354 AD. Part 12: Commemorations of the Martyrs – The Tertullian Project. 2006. Retrieved 2011-11-24.
4. Rachel N. Schnepper (December 14, 2012). "Yuletide's Outlaws". New York Times. Retrieved 2012-12-15.
5. Baker, Margaret (2007 1962). Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore: A Guide to Seasonal Rites Throughout the World, page 62. Osprey Publishing.
6. "10 Things You Didn't Know About Christmas". Time. December 24, 2008.