So we’re approaching that time of year again. Prices will be marked up, queues will be big and Christmas music will be blaring into every orifice. But hey, it’s all worth it to wake up on that underwhelming Christmas morning to then proceed to eat non-stop and slump in front of the TV. Seriously though, Christmas is great. The tree, the markets, that weird uncle dressed as Santa Claus… we wouldn’t have it any other way. But where did all these traditions come from? How did Christmas end up being what it is today? Here’s a whirlwind tour of the origins of Christmas itself, with all the trimmings.
We may as well start with the big one. We all know the story, don’t we – it’s the time of year when we celebrate the day of Jesus’ birth. Wrong! No-one actually knows when Jesus was born. Instead, the origins of Christmas arise from a rather delightful Roman pagan festival called Saturnalia, which was a week-long period of lawlessness in the period December 17 – December 25. The festivities began when an ‘enemy of the people’ was chosen (to represent the ‘Lord of misrule’) who was then ‘invited’ to indulge in a vast array of activities, including forced feeding (this is basically Christmas dinner anyway), being intoxicated often and also sexual proclivity. Then on the big day itself, the ‘enemy’ was brutally murdered, as a way of repelling the forces of darkness. What a waste of wine.
So when Rome converted to Christianity in the 4th century, they imported the Saturnalia festival as one of their own, hoping to encourage pagans to adopt this new religion – I’m guessing that they succeeded. The problem was though, there was nothing really ‘christmassy’ about this festival. So the authorities decided to make the last day of the festival, December 25th, Jesus’ birthday. Neat.
People have been bringing bits of tree into their house to celebrate the winter solstice for a long time, however we have the Germans to thank for introducing the Christmas tree tradition as we know it – they just brought bits of wood into the house and started to decorate it. Of course, in Britain, Queen Victoria made the decoration of the tree fashionable over here, as she was sketched standing around her lavishly decorated tree with her family, and as many people love copying the royals (see Kate Middleton) the practice was soon adopted nationwide.
Obviously the most important bit about Christmas, the origins of this once again come back to the Saturnalia festival. The Roman emperors made the most despised citizens bring gifts to them during this festival, which was then expanded to giving gifts to the general population – that’s a lot of gift wrapping! Christian leaders adopted this practice but gave it a twist: these gifts were instead going to be given by good old (dead) Saint Nick.
You all know by now that ‘Santa Claus’ is actually St. Nicholas (who, incidentally, was only named a saint in Victorian times). He had a hand in compiling the New Testament at the Council of Nicaea, and was one of the most prominent bishops in the Church. The Santa Claus name derived from ‘Sinterklaas’, which was just a Dutch way of saying Saint Nicholas. In 1087, long after he had died, a couple of Nicholas fanatics moved his bones to Bari, Italy, where his shrine ousted that of a deity called ‘the grandmother’, who used to fill children’s stockings with gifts. Thus a cult developed, and people started exchanging gifts every December 6, the anniversary of his death.
The Saint Nick cult was then adopted by Northern pagans, who gave him a beard and made him wear winter clothing (after their own Norse God). Christians, eager for more converts in the north of Europe, adopted this image and decreed that people should give gifts on the 25th December, instead of the 6th. The author Washington Irving gave Nick his ‘flying horse’, and Clement Moore published a poem in 1822 – which started with the line ‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house…’ – where eight reindeer were invented. In the late nineteenth century, the illustrator Thomas Nast portrayed Nick as living at the North Pole, with elves as his workers, possessing a list of all the good and bad children in the world, and wearing a red suit. Then, of course, Coca Cola came along, who instantly popularised the image of a jolly, red-suited Santa. So he’s really a combination of a Pagan God, a Christian bishop, and and advertisement for Coca Cola.
This story’s a good one. Norse mythology tells us that one God was killed by another God by the means of an arrow of mistletoe whilst fighting for a female. Also, druids used mistletoe to poison their sacrificial victim. The Saturnalia festival, of course, was known for the level of promiscuity it allowed, so therefore the custom of kissing under the mistletoe came about as a combination of rampant sex, druid sacrifices and a couple of Nordic gods fighting over a woman.
Again, we have Queen Victoria to thank for the modern Christmas dinner – she was credited with bringing Turkey (duck or rabbit was previously eaten) and roast potatoes to the table. Sprouts, of course, are a long-term tradition, although they are only included as they were easy to grow in the winter. Plus, they are delicious. Mince Pies, on the other hand, are technically illegal to eat on Christmas Day, thanks to Oliver Cromwell. With it’s origins of actually having mince meat in them, they have long been a terrifying part of the Christmas period to small children.
So when you’re tucking into your turkey on Christmas Day after opening your presents and reluctantly giving your (very marry) gran a kiss under the mistletoe, give a thought to the weird and wonderful history that makes up our Christmas traditions!
But Santa is still real, right?