Humans have recognized, observed, and celebrated the winter solstice season as early as the Neolithic era. This era, around 12,200 years ago, was the last part of the Stone Age. Archaeologists have unearthed many Neolithic monuments, which align with the winter solstice sunrise believed to be part of religious or cultural celebrations to mark the year’s shortest day and the coming of the spring sun. Cultures throughout the world have similar traditions, most of which pre-date Christianity by hundreds or thousands of years.
Yule was the festival celebrated in the Scandinavian countries. Warmth and light was provided by Yule logs, which burnt well into January. One story tells us that they believed each spark from the fire marked each new pig or cow born in the new year. Druids, or Celtic priests, marked the winter solstice by cutting mistletoe that grew on sacred oak trees. The fruits were considered a symbol of life in the dark and cold winter months. Druids also had a version of the Yule log—a large tree trunk or branch lit on fire and brought into the home to provide light and heat. The light was meant to drive out the darkness of the season, rid the space of evil spirits, and usher in good luck for the new year. The festival Yalda, or Shab-e Yalda, is a Persian celebration, which marks the victory of light over darkness along with the birthday of the Sun God, Mithra. In China, and in other Asian cultures, the Dongzhi Festival marks the solstice and the end of the harvest season. Tang yuan, a type of sweet or savory rice ball, is a typical seasonal delicacy.
In ancient Rome, the festival of Saturnalia was celebrated with games, feasts, gift giving, and a swapping of social order. The celebration was held in honor of Saturn, the Roman God of agriculture and time. What started as a single day quickly turned into a weeklong festival, which began on the Julian calendar’s December 17 and December 25 on the Gregorian calendar. Romans would bring greenery into their homes along with plenty of light.
Indigenous Peoples in North and South America also had winter solstice celebrations. Many featured dancing and music, fasting, and ushering in the light of the new year. The Zuni People of New Mexico have a series of dances and ceremonies called Shalako, which mark the end of the harvest season. In Peru, the Incan festival of Inti Raymi marks their solstice in the middle of June (it is the Southern Hemisphere, so winter happens in June). The celebration is filled with feasts and sacrifices in honor of the Sun God, Inti. The Spanish banished the holiday but it has since been revived by native Peruvians, (with mock sacrifices of course!)
These celebrations have very common threads: the welcoming of the sun, bringing light and greenery into the home, gathering together to mark the harvest, and ushering away darkness and evil spirits. Over the years, Christians incorporated many of these traditions in order to make the Christmas holiday feel familiar in their effort to convert non-Christians. In truth, that is the reason that Christmas is celebrated in December.
The Christmas holiday marks the date of Jesus’ birth but the Bible gives very few clues as to when that actually took place. Scripture in Luke states that the shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks at night. If the birth happened in December, it is likely that shepherds would have their flocks sheltered over night to keep them safe from the cold, rainy season. Others cite the reference to a census, registration, or taxation of the world by Caesar Augustus. The truth is, we simply do not know when that may have occurred. Some historians and theologians place Jesus’ birth in the spring, others in the summer, some in the fall, and others in the winter. So how was December 25 chosen?
When Roman Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity in the 4th century, the Roman world turned Christian. New Church leaders wanted to help convert the Romans who had spent centuries celebrating Saturnalia, so they adopted the time of year and some of the traditions to make that transition as smooth as possible. This trend continued as the Christian reach spread throughout Europe, adopting pagan holiday traditions everywhere the Christian Church conquered.
It was around this same time that the foundations of “Santa Claus” were laid. Saint Nicholas was a Greek man born late in the 3rd century. He was a staunch defender of his faith and nearly gave his life for refusing to denounce Christianity. When Constantine finally ended the Great Persecution, St. Nicholas continued his work publically. He was the bishop of Myra, a Roman town in modern-day Turkey and became the patron saint of many groups including prisoners, sailors, and orphans. Stories from his life were passed down over time and inspired tales of gift giving and saving children. He died on December 6, around 343, and that date has remained dedicated to him around the world. Many cultures continue to celebrate their version of St. Nicholas Day on December 6.
St. Nicholas also ushered in the concept of deciding which children were good and which were naughty. He was a strict bishop and over time his stories were combined with legends from other cultures. The idea that good children were rewarded and bad children were punished was born. These stories continued to evolve with new characters and endings, eventually adding in “bad” versions of St. Nicholas to work as a sort of sidekick. These included the Ru-klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), and Pelznickel, or Belsnickel, (Furry Nicholas).
In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas was beloved. Their version of St. Nicholas has classically been depicted as an elegant and elderly man with white hair and a long beard. He’s typically dressed as a bishop with a long red chasuble over a white alb, a red stole, and red mitre. He wears a ruby ring and holds a gold crosier, as he rides his white horse (a nod to the Norse God, Odin, who is sometimes depicted flying through the air). He brings with him a large book containing two lists to mark which children have been good and which have been bad. His helper is known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), a Moor from Spain whose roots aren’t so ancient. Some believe that he was inspired by an enslaved person purchased by the Dutch royal family. Over time, Piet came to be depicted in the stereotypically black face found in minstrel shows. People across the Netherlands would dress as Piet, complete with blackface, and parade through the streets. In recent years, there has been a strong pushback against this racist depiction and many in Holland have called for Zwarte Piet to be left behind.
Similar figures appeared throughout Europe like Father Christmas in England and his French cousin, Père Noël. There is one European figure, though, who has become quite a figure in popular culture recently, and he’s not one of the nice ones. Krampus serves as a German sidekick to the much nicer St. Nicholas figure. He is depicted as a half goat – half demon with horns, long dark hair, and a long tongue. He is often seen with a chain and a bundle of sticks used to beat the bad children. After beating those bad children, he would typically kidnap them and take them to his underworld lair. This is done on December 5, the night before Nikolaustag. Today, Krampus is a pop culture icon around the world with books, movies, and festivals that take over streets as people dress up and dance around as the Christmas beast.
In the New World, Christmas was essentially forbidden by the Puritans and even into the early 19th century, Christmas was not a major holiday in America. To Christians, Easter was a much more significant time of celebration. It’s not until European traditions crossed the ocean that Christmas blossomed into the American holiday we see today. What took so long? Well, it wasn’t until a popular public figure began to display Christmas in her home that folks got on board in a big way. That figure? England’s Queen Victoria.
Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, introduced many Christmas traditions at Buckingham Palace, including the Christmas tree which was quite popular in his home country of Germany. An image of that tree was depicted in the popular Illustrated London News and it quickly spread to North America. Soon, Americans wanted their own Christmas trees and nearly 200 years of Christmas commercialization began. German ornament makers saw a new market and amped up production of glass ornaments. Artisans, craftsmen, artists, and authors followed along. Soon, songs, cards, books, poems, and art were rapidly published for a desiring audience.
One of the first, and perhaps most important, artistic contributions was a poem written by Clement Clarke Moore. He was inspired by a sleigh driver, a plump Dutchman with a long beard, who drove him around Manhattan on Christmas Eve. He penned the poem for his six children in 1822. The poem was first published in 1823 without Moore’s permission but its popularity grew and he published it under his name in 1844. The poem? A Visit From St. Nicholas, but you probably know it as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The poem tells the story of a family waiting for Christmas morning with classic lines like:
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!
“Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!”
With this work, the foundation of Santa Claus’ look was almost complete. While other authors and artists had created stories, the staying power of Moore’s work proved insurmountable and it has been reproduced countless times. Literature also gave us A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This classic tale was published in 1843 and tells the story of a happy but less fortunate family and the father’s curmudgeonly boss, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is visited by several Christmas Ghosts who warn him of what is to come if his behavior doesn’t change. The work has been told on the stage and screen, animated, shared over the radio, inspired operas and ballets, and even recreated in comic strip series.
By the mid-19th century, Christmas was well established but one more person had yet to put his finishing touches on the modern look. His name was Thomas Nast and he was a political cartoonist, a staunch supporter of the Union with incredibly progressive views, and happened to work for one of the most popular magazines in America. Nast used his platform at Harper’s Weekly to bring images of the Civil War to the masses but he’s mostly remembered for his Christmas scenes.
Arguably, Nast is responsible for the image of Santa Claus that we know and love today. During the war, he used Santa Claus to help further the Union cause and inspire support. His depictions changed over time, from an elf-like figure who resembled Moore’s version, to a military Santa dressed in an American flag style suit. One of his works shows Santa holding a doll of the Confederate President Jefferson Davis by a noose. Another Christmas spread showed the decapitated heads of Confederate military leaders. Needless to say, Nast’s Santa had a war-related job to do and he did it well. Following the war, Nast continued his depictions of Santa and other Christmas scenes, 33 Christmas spreads in total. He still threw in his political opinions but over time they became a little less bold.
By the end of the 19th century, the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of Christmas were set. If you’d like to learn more about Christmas in the 20th century and beyond, be sure to check out our “Christmas in Popular Culture” Time Capsule blog.