Deep down, I think we all know what Christmas is celebrating. However, just like Halloween and Thanksgiving, I’m pretty curious as to how holidays evolve to what they are today and how we go from a baby in a manger to a fat man in a red suit who lives at the North Pole with his toy workshop, elves, reindeer and penguins.
The Christmas Tree
During the Roman celebration of the feast of Saturnalia, pagans would decorate their homes with clippings of evergreen shrubs and decorate live trees with metal and other ornaments to honor the fertility god, Bacchus. They decorated the tree further with 12 candles to honor the sun god.
To honor the god Woden, the Ancient Germanic people tied fruit and attached candles to evergreen tree branches. These trees were symbolic of eternal life and the god is the namesake for “Wednesday.” Other Christmas symbols, the predated Christianity, but can be thanked to the Germanic tribes include: holly, mistletoe, wassail bowl and the Yule log (no, not the cake).
But the transition for the Christmas tree wasn’t instantaneous as many historical religious figures believed it too closely tied to a paganistic ritual. But meld we must and now Christmas trees are found in homes and offices with an angel or star at the top — representing the host of angels or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity.
There are tons of other names for this guy — Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, and Kris Kringle. But most of the inspiration of modern day Santa Claus comes from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, with white flowing beard and cloth bag to carry away naughty children, and much of the inspiration for Sinterklaas comes from Saint Nicholas of Myra.
Ol’ Saint Nick was a 4th Century Greek Christian bishop who lived in now modern-day Turkey. He gave very generous gifts to the poor and is still portrayed in (the Netherlands especially) as a bearded bisop in canonical robes.
And then Sinterklass merged with the British “Father Christmas” who was a jolly, well-fed man who dressed in green, fur-lined robes. Then in 1773, Santa Claus touched down in the United States where he lost his bishop clothes and resembled a more thick-bellied Dutch sailor in a green winter coat and a pipe. And thanks to authors like Clement Clarke Moore, Thomas Nast and L. Frank Baum all the loose ends are tied up with Santa’s place of origin, immortality status, the leaping/flying reindeer and so on.
Stockings and Reindeer
Odin, a major god for the Germanic tribes, would lead a great hunting party through the sky and he and his eight-legged horse would leap great distances (sounds similar to some 8 reindeers we know, doesn’t it?). Children would leave carrots, straw or sugar near the chimney for the flying horse and Odin would reward them by replacing the horse’s food with gifts or candy. But he would put these gifts in their boots. (Which we’ve now replaced with stockings.)
These pagans were certainly inventive. They believed that eleves or house gnomes guarded one’s home and if treated well would help around the house. Elves were also tricksters and if treated badly and they would return the favor. When elves were recruited to help Santa Claus the elves were also used to spy on children and if the children were behaving badly they would receive coal or a bundle of sticks.
Penguins and Polar Bears
Maybe you’ve seen them too. The houses that are strewn about with thousands of Christmas lights also have inflatable penguins and polar bears on their lawn.
But their association with Christmas is coming up a little flat. Could it be their invited to the party due to proximity of the North Pole? Well, if that’s the case, the penguins outta go since they don’t live on the North Pole. Everything else can stay.