The Heathen Roots of Christmas
Elves Often Appear Around Christmas Time
A Mishmash of Holidays
No doubt about it, Christmas is the biggest holiday in the Western world. It is definitely the one where we spend the most money and if you happen to be one of those lucky souls, who can keep the celebration going through the New Year's holiday, it is also our longest holiday.
If you take a closer look at how the holiday evolved, it may come as little or no surprise that Christmas is the embodiment of many different traditions, which are all employed at the same time to honor the birth of Jesus of Nazarath.
Christmas Window Displays
That December 25th Thing
Christmas has been celebrated on the 25th going back all the way to the fourth century A.D., when Roman Emperor, Julius I, declared the 25th day of December to be the occasion, when all good Romans would celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Ever since, this date has been widely observed, as the Christian religion has spread around the world.
However, historically speaking, this is probably not the actual day that Jesus was born, but rather it coincides with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, the winter solstice and most specifically a special Roman holiday, called Die Naturlis Solis Invicti, which landed squarely on December 25th. This pagan holiday roughly translates as the "birthday of the unconquered sun" and most likely the date has something to do with the time of year when days first begin to grow longer. For the joyous Romans, this was a time of celebration with feasting, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees, which just happens to sound a lot like our contemporary Christmas.
The Ole Yule Log
Why Is Christmas Sometimes Called Yuletide?
Traditionally, the Yule Log was a sizable piece of timber that was hauled from the forest to the home and then slowly burned for the twelve days of Christmas. If any portion of the log remained, it was saved until the following year, when it would be used to ignite the next Yule log. Today the Yule log is symbolic, usually in the form of a small piece of wood containing candles or an edible log-shaped cake, also containing lighted candles.
And as far as the meaning of this word goes, "yule" appears to originate from the Old Norse, "jol", or the Old English, "geol" . In both cases, the word references a twelve day pagan festival that began around the time of the winter solstice.
The Evolution of Santa Claus
Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas
Saint Nicholas was a real Saint, who lived in what is now Turkey. He was especially known for gift-giving and protecting children from harm's way. Not only is Nicholas, the inspiration for our modern-day Santa Claus, but he is also the patron saint of children, sailors and pawn brokers.
As an early Christian bishop in ancient Greece, Nicolas was thrown in jail, only to be released when Contantine became Emperor of Rome. During medieval times, the legacy of Saint Nicholas spread across Europe, eventually forming the basis of the ever-popular Santa Claus.
Religious Icon of Saint Nicholas
Those Eight Tiny Reindeer
The eight tiny reindeer from the Clement Clarke Moore's epic poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas, may have been rooted in Viking mythology. According to the Norse, the god, Odin sometimes rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, who supposedly had shamanic powers of his own. Furthermore, it is believed that at the winter solstice, the god, Odin, would mount his steed and ride at night above the villages of Scandinavia. The fearful god was definitely a terror to behold, but at the same time he would drop presents and candy down chimneys, as gifts for all the children.
Santa Claus Takes Shape
Two New Yorkers Create a Modern Day Santa
The modern-day Santa Claus appears to have evolved from a short poem by a college professor and a few drawings by a popular illustrator into the popular, overweight man with a white beard that we all know today.
In 1822, Clement Moore was an unheralded professor of literature and theology, who liked to write poetry. Mainly as an effort to entertain his three daughters, Moore anonymously penned a poem that was originally called "An Account of a Visit from Saint Nicolas". This imaginative story went on to become the now legendary, Twas the Night Before Christmas. Then several decades later, another New Yorker, Thomas Nast, put a face on Ole Saint Nick that is still appreciated today.
All Around the Christmas Tree
And Don't Forget Those Evergreen Boughs
And finally, in case you are wondering where the custom of displaying all those evergreen boughs originated, the best answer might be "all over heathen Europe". A quick survey of the continent will reveal that ancient Romans, Barbarians, Vikings and Druids all used the evergreen plant as a symbol of life. It is especially important to note that these cultures brought the greens into their winter homes to celebrate the return of spring.
In a way, the origin of the Christmas tree, has its roots in the use of evergreen branches and cuttings in the home. Supposedly, Germany was the first place, where this pagan ritual was fused to Christianity. This began in the 1600s, when German Christians began erecting a cut evergreen tree in the home to celebrate the birth of Christ and the advent of Christianity. The custom was slow to spread across the Atlantic to the US, not really taking hold until the early part of the 20th century.
It's a Wonderful Life
After looking at the pre-Christian roots of Christmas, the Nordic traditions of Germany and Scandinavia seem to have the greatest influence on this most popular holiday. And this comes without even considering the question of elves, which are also very popular in Germany and Scandinavia as well as the British Isles.
Historians are getting wise to the fact that there is no evidence in the bible to support the birth of Christ on December 25th. Nonetheless, most Christian traditions currently celebrate Christmas in late December or early January as a special time to honor the birth of Jesus Christ.