When you look past the commercialization of Christmas and focus on its rich history, Christmas becomes the most interesting holiday of the year. Almost everyone is familiar with the Christian aspects of the Christmas story. However, most of the traditional foods, events and decorations have nothing to do with Christianity. Christmas is an blend of many cultures.
The timing of Christmas reflects the time of year when Rome celebrated Saturnalia, the god of agriculture. In more familiar terms, Christmastime celebrates the winter solstice. No one really knows the date of the birth of Jesus so by the fourth century AD Christians had adopted the practice of participating in the old pagan celebrations by refashioning it as Jesus’ birthday.
This may cause a person to believe that the tradition of giving gifts is the result of the gifts the wise men brought to the child king. But, once again, the Romans beat the Christians to the punch. Giving children wax dolls as gifts was a Saturnalia festival tradition. The dolls symbolized human sacrifices offered to Saturn for the blessing of abundant harvests. Decorating with greenery is also passed down from this Roman festival and represented harvest bounty.
Despite the fact that some religious factions see a conspiracy behind the abbreviation “Xmas”, the roots of this can actually be traced back to early Christianity. In the Greek language, the English letter X represents the Greek letter Chi which is the first letter of the Greek spelling of Jesus’ name. His name was often abbreviated by writing XP and is actually a holy symbol among Orthodox Christians. The abbreviation “Xmas” has been in use from as early as the 16th century, gaining more common usage by the 18th century.
As you hang your stockings by the chimney with care, rather than think of Santa Claus filling them Christmas morning, consider that it is actually Saint Nicholas that popularized this tradition. During the 4th century, a bishop named Nicholas known for his compassion towards children who were often forced by conditions of poverty to spend their childhood in the workhouse. As his habit of leaving charitable gifts of fruit and clothing became established, children began leaving out stockings so he would have a handy place to leave their gifts, or so the story goes. Scandinavian lore has its own claim to fame where stocking tradition is concerned. According to their ancient pagan beliefs, children would stuff their shoes with gifts of carrots and hay for Odin’s horse, Sleipnir. In exchange for the gifts, Odin would leave treats in the shoes for the kids.
As you hang a festive wreath on your door, don’t mistake it for just a pretty decoration. From ancient times, wreaths have been symbols of strength and power. Roman and Greek leaders wore wreaths of laurel as crowns, embodied with the values of Apollo. Agricultural communities used wreaths in harvest rituals. The choice of evergreen boughs can be traced to animists from Europe and symbolized the strength of life that could survive harshest winters. Because of this connection, Christians began to use wreaths in funerals to represent the eternal life they believed a person passed on to after death.
So, what of that great icon, the Christmas tree? The worship of trees was common among European druids and pagans. Egyptians, Jews and Chinese can also find tree worship in the ancient history of their cultures. In all cases, the evergreen tree represented immortality and strength. Throughout the Middle Ages decorating Christmas trees with apples was common. This could be the tradition that transformed into the decorative balls commonly use today. During the Protestant Reformation, Catholics displayed nativity scenes and the Protestants distinguished their difference by prominently displaying Christmas trees. Which has led to the gaily decorated trees covered in dazzling lights that mark our modern Christmas tree tradition.
Of all Christmas traditions, caroling may be the only one Christians can claim they started. The early days of caroling were public displays of circular dancing and singing hymns. Eventually carolers would travel to the homes of those who could not attend and sing outside their door.
So what about that old parasitic piece of greenery known as mistletoe? Considering that it sucks the life out of the tree it grows on, it doesn’t seem so romantic to stand underneath it with your sweetheart and steal a kiss. Eddic tradition teaches that mistletoe was the only thing that could slay Baldur, the god of light. It was also thought to protect homes from lightning and fire. It was often brought inside and hung about the house. The first known traditions of kissing under mistletoe dates back to 16th century England where it was believed to bless romantic union with the legacy of progeny.
And all of this brings us to the star of the modern Christmas, Santa. There are other historical figures than Saint Nicholas who have added to this character we know as Santa Claus. Sinterklaas, of Dutch tradition, is most likely the inspiration for today’s Santa Claus. He wears the same traditional colors and has elves that help him. The elves of Sinterklaas were responsible for punishing the naughty children with willow canes. Father Christmas emerged in 17th century England and was a character of joy and fun. So, despite what you may have learned in America, Coca-Cola did not invent Santa Claus. He had already been around for quite some time before Coca-Cola began their holiday ad campaigns.