Jesus was born roughly between 2 and 7 BC, according to historians, theologians and the Pope himself. The mistaken calculation was made by Dionysius Exiguus (470 – 544 AD), the inventor of the modern calendar and the one responsible for splitting history in two, before and after Jesus’ birth, which was later used in the Gregorian Calendar. No matter the case, Jesus’ actual date of birth is unknown and we can only logically deduce that it took place during a spring night, as the stable narration we all know refers to shepherds and their livestock being outdoors.
Long before Christianity’s spread throughout the Roman Empire, even before Jesus’ birth, various customs similar to Christmas were observed, like the Yule of the German paganism, the winter solstice celebrations and the Saturnalia.
The winter solstice (25 December according to the Julian calendar) was very important to the ancients, as the communities of the time did not know whether they would last the winter and had to make 9 months preparations to make it without going hungry; a common plight. According to the custom, they would cut down a big log (Yule log) and burn it. The fire had to last throughout the dark winter season, symbolizing light and birth, until the coming of spring.
So, due to the importance of the season and because the farmers didn’t have hard work to do in the winter, and given that in the days of celebration they would slaughter animals and therefore have plenty of food for a while, many types of celebrations were being had in the period from mid-December till spring.
One of such celebrations was the Saturnalia (as in ‘Saturn’) that lasted one week (17 to 23 December) and dates several centuries before Jesus. It was celebrated throughout the empire. During the Saturnalia, sacrifices were made in the Temple of Saturn (or ‘Kronus’), along with public meals, granting gifts to children or grown-ups and many festivities. There was a general festive atmosphere, with the citizens performing otherwise illegal activities, such as gambling. Traditionally, the roles of master and slave were reversed, where the former would serve the latter while being unable, during those days, to punish the slaves, even for showing insolence towards them. The poet Catullus refers to the Saturnalia as “the best of days” and Horace as “December’s liberty”. The market, the schools and the courts would remain closed and war could not be declared during the Saturnalia. After the end of the public ceremonies, the celebration would continue in a familial atmosphere at home and, those who could, would sacrifice a pig. Moreover, during the Saturnalia the celebrants would put on costumes, a habit that evolved into Halloween.
The Juvenalia was founded by Nero in 59 AD, when he first cut his beard, symbolizing the passing from childhood to adulthood. It was a fertility festival centering on teenagers and was celebrated with dances, mimes and theater plays, but all citizens participated; young and old, men and women.
With the spread of Christianity, such pagan festivals had to be abolished, something that proved difficult to achieve due to their popularity. In the third century objections appeared against the anti-Christian character of the birthday celebrations, based on these kinds of celebrations being honored by Herod (Mark 6:21-27) and the Pharaoh (Genesis 40:20-22), and on the basis of several saints having damned their date of birth, like Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-15) and Job (Job 3:1-16). Even though these objections were easily countered, in 303 AD Arnobius ridiculed the idea of the gods’ birthday being celebrated, which shows us that up to the early 4th century, in the eastern Roman Empire, Christmas was not yet made popular; ancient customs remained so.
But it was already set that the 25th of December was the date of Jesus’ birth, and gradually its celebration replaced the pagan festivities, though keeping many elements from them. The general festive atmosphere, the pause of public activities (closed markets, schools and public services) and the family oriented character of Christmas stem from these festivities, as does the giving of presents that slowly earned a central role of the celebration, assimilating Saint Nicholas’ deeds, mixed with traditions from the north.
Saint Nicholas (270-343 AD) earned his popularity by having a generous attitude towards the poor. Most important is a particular incident when he offered dowry to the three daughters of a pious Christian so that they wouldn’t end up on the street. During the Middle Ages gifts would be given to children in his name, on the eve of the holiday named after him (6th of December). During the Reformation (15th -16th century), Luther, wanting to focus the children’s interest on Christ and remove it from the saints, changed the date of this custom from 6 to 25 December.
During the christening of the German tribes, the image of Odin was assimilated into the new religion. Odin was bearded and wore a blue hood, giving out presents from his eight-legged grey horse.
In Norway a mythical figure going by the name of Tomte gave presents on Christmas wearing a red hat.
The burly Father Christmas of England, apart from presents, spread the jolly feeling of the days dressed in green garments. His most famous illustration is as the “Ghost of Christmas Present” in Dickens’s book A Christmas Carol.
And so, the customs of Saint Nicholas, “Sinterklaas” in Dutch, passed on to America and he was renamed as Santa Claus by English-speaking locals, changing the horse into a reindeer sleight, dressing him in red like Tomte and illustrating him as a chubby, jolly Father Christmas.
In the poem of a priest (A visit from Saint Nicholas, 1837), Santa Claus’ habit of landing on rooftops and climbing down the chimney with a bag of gifts was established. The first drawing with his figure as we know him comes from the Harper’s Weekly magazine (in 1863), drawn by Thomas Nast. The North Pole as his place of residence, is probably owed to the priest as well, from a collection of his works that included a poem with this detail. Later, his wife was added to the myth, as well as his elves that make the, always handmade, toys.
It was much later, in the 1930s, that Santa Claus was used by Coca-Cola on ads, and it was not even the first company that used his image with his current form. In 1923 he showed up in ginger bear ads, in 1915 in White Rock water ads and in the late 19th century in Puck magazine.
An interesting fact is how the myth of Santa Claus reached other European countries after passing through America. It reached Greece in the 1950s, through immigrant relatives who sent postcards with his image to their families. But in Greece, and other countries with Christian Orthodox majority people, it’s not Saint Nicholas who gives presents but Saint Basil. Saint Basil (or the Great Basil or Basil from Caesarea), who had nothing to do with sleights, reindeer, snow or giving presents, earned his fame through his charity work, instituting the Almshouse. There, poor, foreigners and other members of sensitive social groups were given care. His story was connected to the story of Santa Claus rather by necessity, since the Orthodox Church honors the name-days of saints (which cannot change) and the giving of presents could not be made in 6 December (15 days before Christmas Day), as the continuation of the custom would be lost. As an alternative, Saint Basil was chosen, probably because of his charity work -it being somewhat relevant to giving gifts- and due to the closeness of Christmas to his name-day (1st of January).
From the German tradition comes the ornamenting of the Christmas tree, which was followed in the country since the 15th century. When, in 1840, Queen Victoria married her cousin Prince Albert of Germany, he transferred this custom in England and then it spread throughout the western world.
Many times, the celebration of Christmas was banned by the Protestants, as it was deemed to be too pagan or non-biblical.