Part of my personal history involves a very painful wrenching to and fro between religions resulting in Christmas being cancelled, people dying, and – on my part- a thorough investigation into where, when and how all these beliefs came from anyway. I knew that Christmas was an appropriation of pagan rituals, I knew (because of a Dutch mother) of Sinterklaas, and the Feast of St. Nicholas, and also knew about Coca- Cola’s influence (although I couldn’t tell you when I learnt that tit bit).
All of this culminates in the confusing situation of having a child who believes in Santa, a mother who has mixed memories of Christmas, and a household that doesn’t teach Christianity.
Many households are secular in their beliefs, and many propagate the legend of Santa, enjoying the gift giving opportunities his story offers. However, the truth needs to be told eventually, and that year is now for me.
When faced with this dilemma, many parents write the increasingly popular “is Santa real?” type letters. I couldn’t do that, because it didn’t tell the whole story, the history of the legend, the beliefs, the practices so entrenched in our lives – that the letter itself felt untruthful. Instead, I decided to offer my daughter the knowledge of Christmas, and it will be a story I will read to her, explain, and detail how the Christmases with her have provided me with new memories to replace the tainted visions in my head.
I want her to understand the way humans use stories to create memories and experiences, and that her experience of Christmas is a wonderful one, and is a gift she can offer others as she grows.
I printed off the story, and added pictures from all of her Christmases so far, and I hope she will like this gift of knowledge I offer her.
The story is below…
The story of Christmas.
The story of Christmas is an evolving one, and it has changed so much over the centuries. Your memories of Christmas are only a small part of the whole picture.
The word Christmas is a compound word – originally being Christ’s Mass – a Christian service held in honour of Christ’s birth. Christ is another name for Jesus, and followers of Christ are called Christians. That’s why so many people say that Christmas is really only for Jesus, and to celebrate other things is wrong.
However, those people have forgotten, or are completely unware of the history of Christmas. Some of it is sad, most of it is interesting, and all of it makes you realise that humans just like to have special days of celebration.
Long before scientific knowledge guided our thinking, people knew the world through nature. They understood the sun rising and setting, the times when animals would give birth, and when crops would grow most effectively. These same people understood that as the days grew warmer, the sunlight stayed for much longer, and the opposite was true in the colder months. They knew the days on our planet were a cycle, from hot to cool, to cold and back to warm again. While they didn’t understand the universe and solar system, the axis of the Earth, or any of the other aspects that made those things happen, they did know those cycles to be true, so celebrated them accordingly.
Most of our ancestors lived in Europe, and the midwinter solstice was on December the 21st or thereabouts. This is where the Christmas traditions come from, and this time was special to people then as it marked the time when the winter days would start to get warmer and move into spring. Spring meant new birth of animals and better crops, so was seen as an important time. Mid-winter was a good time to celebrate too, because the goods that had been harvested in autumn were plentiful, and families could stay warm near fires. Like most people who don’t understand the science of things, the people at the time made up stories to help them make sense of the world. All of these pre-Christian beliefs were called pagan beliefs, and the people were considered Pagans, a word used derogatively to describe people who didn’t follow Christianity.
In Scandinavia, the Norse would feast for twelve days from around the 21st of December. They feasted around a large burning log they called a Yule Log, which was the largest log they could find. The festivities usually ended as soon as the log burned out.
Nearby, the Germanic people believed in a god called Oden (or Woden). They thought he flew through the air at night-time on the winter solstice and decided who would prosper or perish. They were so scared of him they stayed indoors to stay safe.
Evergreen trees symbolised eternal life for these people, so they liked to bring in a tree and decorate it with fruits and eventually candles. They often decorated their houses with evergreen greenery to offset the lack of greenery elsewhere. Another part of the tradition was to place a tree in the barn as a place for birds to rest.
As you can see some of our current Christmas traditions stem from those early practices.
Before Christianity took hold in Rome, the Romans used to celebrate Saturnalia on December the 19th – a time to thank the god of farming and agriculture in the week leading up to the winter solstice. This celebration of the god Saturn, was a hedonistic time of partying and lack of social order where the slaves became the masters, and the citizens offered gifts to the emperor to garner favour.
Some people also celebrated the birthday of the god of the sun, Mithra – who was an infant god, on December the 25th. This belief in Mithra came from eastern Persia (now Iran), and shows how many early religions have merged to suit the believers.
Christianity was a new religion in the first few centuries of the Common Era (CE), and early Christians celebrated the death of Jesus more than his birth. This death was at the time we now see as Easter, and, like Christmas, was a pagan time that was adjusted to suit Christian needs. After approximately 400 years of Christianity at around 340 CE, The Roman pope, Pope Julius I, chose December the 25th as the date of Jesus’ birth as no-one really knew when he was born. They had previously thought it to be on other dates such as the 6th of January, or a time in March, but choosing December the 25th allowed the pope to amalgamate the Saturnalia festival with Christmas, and the people would be happy because the partying ways of Saturnalia continued as a part of Christmas.
Saturnalia doesn’t have a squeaky clean history. While some of the traditions are clearly linked to Christmas, such as the naked singing in the streets is link to modern groups walking from house to house singing Christmas Carols (luckily not in the nude), the festival is also very dark. Many Christians believed that it was the Jewish people who killed Jesus, so feel the need to punish Jews. There has been ongoing anti-Semitism over the course of history, and some people have used these festivals as a way to continue their xenophobic and prejudiced ways. In 1466 CE, after feeding Jews a large feast, Pope Paul II made them run naked through the streets to be mocked and jeered by the other citizens. Later, in the 1700s and 1800s the Jewish people and their leaders (Rabbis) were made to walk the streets to have food thrown at them.
Over the years, many Christian Leaders started to dislike the pagan and hedonistic ways of Christmas celebrations, so shunned them, and insisted people go to church. There was even a time when Christmas celebrations were banned for being too pagan, and people became quite upset at this. Over time, people took the celebrations and traditions back, either by moving from the area where the celebrations were banned, ignoring the bans, or waiting for those rule maker’s time to be complete before starting the celebrations again. In reality, people who say those who do not celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas-time are wrong, don’t fully understand the scope and history of the celebrations; it really wasn’t about Jesus at all in the initial stages. Christmas as we know it today, is an amalgam of the early pagan rituals and some Christian ideals, all cemented into lore by literature, story-telling and advertising. It is important for people now-a-days because it is a magical way to make children feel happy, and allow us to shower children with love and gifts.
One of the main parts of the modern Christmas lore is Santa Claus. He is based on a real man called Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a Bishop from Turkey who looked after the poor and sick, and sometimes gave gifts to children. He died on December the 6th, and in countries such as Holland and Germany, gift giving continues on the feast day of Saint Nicholas. He was originally known as Nicholas of Myra and was named a saint in the tenth century CE by the Roman Catholic Church. There were many stories of his generosity, but the main one was of him helping a poor father out with money for his daughters, and the money was thrown through the window or down the chimney, landing in stockings set to dry on the hearth. His followers celebrated and honoured his life on the anniversary of his death by giving out gifts to children. This is a tradition that continues in Holland, and is a story that spread around the world as Dutch people moved to new countries. The Dutch called him Sinterklaas, and this was where the name Santa Claus came from.
As the ideas spread, they merged with the story of Woden/ Oden, and became a part of the Christmas celebration. When some Christian leaders cancelled the pagan aspects of Christmas, people became upset and continued to give gifts to their children, using some aspects of the story of Saint Nicholas to create a figure called Father Christmas or Old Man Christmas. Some people even said it was Jesus himself who left gifts for the children. When Christmas celebrations became acceptable again the stories again merged, and many people know of Santa Claus as Jolly Saint Nick or Father Christmas.
Modern and secular Christmas has evolved from all of this, and Santa Claus has become a part of our lives through literature written in the 1800s. In 1822, Dr. Clement Moore wrote the poem A visit from Saint Nicholas, a story now known as ‘Twas a night before Christmas (based on the first line of the poem). Moore added eight reindeer to the story of Saint Nicholas. Charles Dickens, in 1843 wrote the novel, A Christmas Carol, the story of a rich and nasty man who learned to be kind and giving at Christmas-time, and cemented the concept of being kind to the poor and sick at this time.
The way we saw Saint Nicholas, and later Santa Claus was mainly due to the illustrations made by Thomas Nast for an American Magazine – Harper’s Weekly. Nast drew for the magazine between 1862 and 1886, and added a home at the North Pole, a workshop full of elves making toys, and a naughty and nice list. Some of these ideas descend directly from the Scandinavian beliefs in Woden, and Nast based his pictures on the description of Saint Nicholas as a jolly fat man made by Moore.
Moore and Nast were both in New York, and Christmas traditions were heavily influenced by the Dutch, who moved there and called the land New Amsterdam. When the British colonised the area, they renamed it New York, but the Dutch traditions of Sinterklaas remained and became the modern Santa Claus. While Moore and Nast wrote about, or drew, Santa Claus, the character wasn’t always in red as he is today. The original Saint Nicholas was often depicted in red bishop’s robes, but he was also shown in robes that were brown or green, and Nast even drew him in the American Stars and Stripes colouring at times. It wasn’t until 1931 that Santa Claus was really well known as wearing red.
From the 1920s, the Coca Cola Corporation had been depicting Santa Claus in the advertisements, and in 1931 asked artist Haddon Sundblom to draw a coke drinking Santa, and he replaced the pipe Nast often drew Santa holding with a bottle of Coca Cola. Sundblom modelled Santa Claus on a friend of his, but drew heavily from the ideas suggested by Moore and Nast. The picture from 1931 is the most enduring picture of Santa Claus and impacted how the character is seen today. Sundblom continued to draw for Coca Cola and his final version of a Coke drinking Santa was in 1964.
Most parents wrap up a few gifts to be from Santa Claus, just so the memories and traditions of Sinterklaas can continue. Sometimes in this world there are so many things to worry about, that it is nice to imagine a kind old soul delivering gifts to wonderful children. This is a special thing that adults like to do for children.
Not everyone is aware of all of the true origins of Christmas, and when you become aware of the history of the festival, it is easy to see how all the ideas have merged into what we know as Christmas today. For many people, Christmas is a happy time, full of celebration and frivolity, but for some it isn’t so nice.
Many people have soured memories of Christmas, and that is why so many parents try their hardest to make Christmas special for their children. Some people don’t have enough money to buy things for Christmas, and feel the pressure from society to have lots of things to give to other people.
My family struggles with Christmas for some of these reasons. The other reason is the religious group they were in. This meant that there were many years when they were banned from seeing their cousins because of clashing religious beliefs, and due to incredibly strict interpretations of the Bible. By 1984 Christmas was seen as a pagan festival of worship. Previously, Christmas was a day of fun and some of the best memories of the day include the lounge room floor covered in lollies. While the gifts were second-hand, they were given with love, and all of the children enjoyed the day. The part of the day most looked forward to was a visit to their Aunty B’s house, but this too, soon morphed into a worrisome affair as the sibling adults, B and M, would make remarks to each other throughout the day. This angst was not present in the years of 1984 and ’85, because visits to the P household were banned by this stage. Fun-filled memories of Christmas were replaced with aggressive removal of Christmas trees and decorations, items that were burned in the backyard incinerator in the hope of expelling the devil from these items. To placate the upset children, the adults cited the bible, namely the Exodus chapter from the Old Testament, which told stories of a wrathful God who became angry at his people who worshiped false gods. The tree was labelled a false god, and thrust outside. The years of religious fervour started to abate in 1986, but only after the death of Mary, your maternal Oma. That Christmas we were sent to Tasmania and had some sense of normality back, but the years that followed were difficult, often due to lack of funds, and stress associated with surviving as a family without an income. The idea of Santa wasn’t there because money didn’t allow it, and there were some Christmases when the family relied on help from others. Each year one of us was sent to Tasmania for Christmas, separating us from each other, and in 1989, while we could stay with each other, we were made to travel to another family to spend Christmas with them. This prolonged sadness and stress at Christmas-time has left us with lasting traumatic memories. The best way to overcome these is, luckily, to create new memories – which have been made with you.
The W family always spent Christmas together with their Oma and Opa who would come to their house every Christmas. The parents and grandparents all liked to pretend that Santa had visited all the homes and left gifts. Despite loving Christmas, your dad, never liked Santa, and was always scared of him.
You were five and a half weeks old at your first Christmas, and despite it being summer, we had a hail storm that made the garden and deck white as snow. It was very cold that day, and everyone wanted a cuddle with you.
It wasn’t really until your third Christmas that you knew what was going on – you came out and delighted at the lounge filled with gifts, exclaiming, “What’s this?!” at everything you found. You called it Crimpas then, and wondered what “Father Crimpas” had brought you.
You loved setting out your stockings and, took great care to do so. In our first home you liked to hang them from the fire guard, but when we moved to Emerald, you enjoyed them dangling from the fireplace. We make sure everyone has a stocking, even the cats – Skye and Orbit.
We have many Christmas traditions that we’ve tried to make a part of your life. You love thinking about how Santa will come and visit you, and you write such sweet things to him – it really shows how precious you are. You also started to make a Lego display for Santa, and you’d leave it on the fireplace. The area was a beautiful display every year. We have delighted in the way you have enjoyed all the Christmas magic, and we glad that we could make this happen for you.
We’ve started to go to The Carols by Candlelight rehearsal in Melbourne on the 23rd of December. You also loved going to the school carols too, and wore your best Christmas dress or T-Shirt for the occasion. It was all a part of the lead up to Christmas, and you would start making things for Christmas in the month leading up to the special day. Some of the things you love to make are the gift tags for presents, and any decorations you make are always given a prideful place on the tree or in the house. We love them all – your part in our Christmas joy is evident, and we love watching you happily make and bake, creating for the day.
As you get older, these things won’t change. We will continue with the traditions, and will keep the magic alive for you. You might be a little sad to see the story of Christmas came from a lot of ideas from many different countries and times in history, but in reality, Christmas is what you and your family make it to be. Christmas with you has been magic, and your spirit and joy has helped bring the magic of Christmas back.
It is important that you understand the history of Christmas and its traditions, but only tell younger children if you know they are ready to hear the story. Sometimes people are mean and like to tell children, just so they can be the ones to break the magic. Other times some people overdo Christmas, and make children who don’t receive very much wonder why there is unfairness in the day. It is better to be the kind person and remember that all of the Christmas ideas came from a time when the people recognised the wondrous aspects of the world and celebrated them. Sinterklaas was a real man, whose memory lives on in the actions of mums and dads who are able to leave special gifts for their child.
You have been privileged enough to have joyous Christmases every year, so the new gift we offer you is knowledge and trust. We offer you a chance to be a keeper of the knowledge, and build the magic for others over your life. Your part in the magic has changed, but Christmas will always be a magical time for you – our job is to make it so. One day you’ll have a much bigger part in creating the magic, but for the time being just enjoy being a child who loves Christmas.
Extra reading and References
Who Was St. Nicholas?