The festival of Christmas has all these curious traditions which when questioned sound something like this – where did the Christmas tree and Santa Clause come from? What about Rudolf the rednosed reindeer? How do we know that Jesus was born on December 25? Natasha Rego scrimmages through the internet to bring you some forgotten tales that don’t quite answer these questions, but will make you wonder about them.
After the death of Jesus, when Christianity was sprouting throughout Europe, many practices from contemporary religious rituals were adopted into the Christian culture because of the influence it had over the people. The church tried doing away with these celebrations, but the people would not relent. Since the early church couldn’t beat them, scholars say, it simply decided to join them.
In the beginning
During the cold dark winter, when the days were short and the nights long, when the early Europeans had harvested their crops and slaughtered their animals in preparation for the season, there was enormous celebration taking place indoors. In the North country (now Germany), the people celebrated the Yuletide festivals honouring the god Odin (see picture). Fathers and sons would drag home an evergreen tree (spruce, pine or fir), the only tree that braved the winter. It symbolised the persistence of life and fertility in those cold times. They also dragged in the largest log they could find and set it on fire. For as long as it burned, usually 12 days, it was a time of over-indulging and merry-making in the biggest party of the year.
At the same time in Rome, the mid-winter festivals were on their way. A week before the Winter Solstice, the Romans would begin celebrations of Saturnalia, a month-long festival named after the god Saturn. It was a drunken, delirious time for the people. It was a time when masters and servants would switch social roles to celebrate. One of the festivals was Juvenilia, which celebrated the children.
During the Winter Solstice which occurred for three days from December 22, the upper class Romans also celebrated, but in honour of a different god. On December 25, when the sun would rise again after three days at its lowest point, they observed the birth of the sun god, Mithra.
After Jesus’ death, the church was established and Christianity was spreading rampantly. It was a time when people recognised the death of a saint, not the birth, for death took the soul to heaven. So for a long time there, they didn’t pay attention to his birth. Some scholars say that biblical references suggest Jesus may have been born in a more favourable season than winter. After all, it was a time when the shepherds were watching their flock by night. The first Christmas as we know it today was observed on December 25, 336 AD, which inadvertently adopted many celebrations of the contemporary festivals of that time.
Fast forward to 19th century America
America had just got its independence from the British and an industrial revolution was sweeping the country. New York was the centre of commerce and is where most of this story takes place. The new capitalist society gave rise to a burgeoning middle class, and so also to widespread poverty. This class inequality was most visible during Christmas when the people of money were seen obtaining their gifts, cooking hot meals and celebrating, while the lower classes would take to copious amounts of alcohol and lash out. What was once drunken merry-making with a little bit of foolhardiness, had now become riotous and uncontrollable.
Winter solstice is an astronomical phenomenon which marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Winter solsticeoccurs for the Northern Hemisphere in December and for the Southern Hemisphere in June.
This was the time when Christmas literature captured the imagination of the people, especially the rich, and defined the spirit of Christmas for all the days to come. Three authors were instrumental in describing Christmas as we perceive it today – Washington Irving, Charles Dickens and Clement Clarke Moore.
Irving’s biographer Andrew Burstein believes that his work “profoundly influenced the American Christmas” by reinforcing the image of the Dutch patron saint, St. Nicolas, and the wintry celebrations of old Europe. His stories described a feast where the rich and the poor dined together as equals on Christmas day. “Within a decade of the publication of Irving's ‘Sketch Book’,” Burstein says, “New Yorkers were greeting each other with Christmas wishes, and stores on Broadway extended their hours to accommodate shoppers.”
Dickens’ classic, the ‘Christmas Carol’, explored the miserly qualities of the rich through that raw old character Ebenezer Scrooge. The moral lesson from the story was widely received by the classes and transformed the spirit of Christmas. It went from a time of self-indulgence to a time of giving.
Moore painted the perfect picture of Santa Claus with his poem ‘A Visit From St Nick’ which he had quietly written for his children.
'Twas the night before Christmas (excerpts)
...He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot...
...His eyes – how they twinkled! His dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
‘He had a broad face and a little round belly,
that shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly...
By Clement Clarke Moore
In the mid 19th century, Victoria, queen of England, was wedded to prince Albert of Germany. With him came the decorated evergreen tree which had long been part of the German culture for the winter. Sometime after the wedding, the ‘London Illustrated News’ published an illustration of the royal family around a decorated Christmas tree. A few years later the English people were putting up the Christmas tree and believed it had always been a part of Christmas. It wasn’t long before the settlers in America caught on.
The first Christmas card was also illustrated around the same time by J C Hersley in England.
Ol’ St Nick
St Nicolas Day was, and still is in Western Christian traditions, celebrated in honour of a 3rd century Greek orthodox bishop. There are many legends told about St Nick that bear an uncanny similarity to our beloved Santa Claus. On St Nicolas Day children would be rewarded with little gifts for being good, while the bad children would sulk in the corner.
The Dutch people called him Sinterklaas and, when they settled in New York, they told the other settlers of his legend. One of the stories was of a poor man who had three daughters but couldn’t afford to pay their dowry. This would soon force the oldest of the three girls to take up prostitution and, if things didn’t improve, the other two would have had to follow. Hearing of their plight, St Nick decided to help them out. Legend has it that after dark one night, St Nick placed a pouch of gold coins in one of the girl’s shoes. The next night he did it again for the second girl. On the third night, the girls’ father decided to keep awake to discover the mysterious source of generosity. And thus he found that it was St Nick.
Drawing from these stories, Clement C. Moor, an Episcopal minister, in 1822 wrote a poem for his children. He read it out to them that same night and thought nothing much of it since. But good work seldom stays hidden, and soon the poem found its way to the publishers. It was published under a pseudonym due to the non-Christian references made in the poem and the poet’s association with the church. It was accompanied by an illustration of Santa Claus, as described in the poem, drawn by the artist, Thomas Nast. Moore and Nast became the final word on Santa Claus. ‘A Visit From St Nick’ captivated readers and soon children were searching the night sky for Santa in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
In the immediate years before and after Christ's death, Europeans would drag in a log and set it on fire for 12 days in the winter
A depiction of the Saturnalia celebrations
Notice the evergreen boughs on the walls in early German celebrations
Rudolf the rednosed reindeer
So Christmas became a festival of giving – giving to the people who have less than you and giving to your children and your family, especially to your children. It was a set marketing ploy for retailers and Santa Claus was the perfect mascot. But every mascot needs a sidekick.
Rudolf the adorable rednosed reindeer was created by Robert L May, a copywriter for a retail store in America, in 1939. With an embarrassingly red nose, Rudolf was the outcast among Santa’s reindeer. However, Santa found good use for his nose and chose him to lead the sleigh as he swished through the night sky on Christmas Eve to deliver his presents. When the outcast child and the grandfatherly Santa found each other, the Christmas story was complete.
And thus we have Christmas as we know it today, a tradition anchored by authors, poets and copywriters. Its non-spiritual quotient has helped propagate it through the many societies in which it is celebrated. Hence the people, no matter their religion, join in the revelry with the Christians of their societies. Plus it makes good marketing sense for the marketers. All this just skims through the vast history of our Christmas traditions. The deeper one dwells though, the darker it gets. So, I implore you, seek only if you truly wish to find.