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Christmas uncovered: The mythic reality of the Holiday season

by Shannon Stollenmaier

The Christmas season is here, and we are going to do what we have always done at this time of year. We will decorate the tree, help children write letters to Santa Claus, exchange gifts, and drink eggnog. For centuries, western cultures preserved these Christmas traditions, but have you ever stopped and asked yourself, “Why?”

Christmas, regarded as a Christian holiday, observes the birth of Jesus Christ, hence CHRIST – MAS. However, our Christmas traditions replaced a celebration entirely different from the modern one.



Dec. 21 is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. After the solstice the days become longer. Pagan religions that worshipped sun gods believed that the longer days indicated that the sun was getting stronger.

In the month of December, the ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a time of year for feasting and gatherings. Saturnalia was recognized as a festival of fertility, as the return of the sun will result in the vitality of spring.

At that same time of year, northern Europeans celebrated a holiday known as Yule, by making great fires that people would dance around in hopes for the winter season to end. Thus, Yuletide and Yule Log are common words in the Christmas vocabulary.

On other continents, American Indians enjoyed religious dances to correspond with the winter solstice. The Native Americans celebrated to ensure the ending of the winter season and the coming of the sun.

In the Pacific, the Polynesians boasted winter festivities. In Hawai‘i, the months from October to January, known as the makahiki, were regarded as a period of rest and feasting. No fighting or conflicts were permitted during this time. This period led Hawaiians into the New Year, hence, Hauoli Makahiki Hou or “Happy New Year.”

It wasn’t until 200 years after the death of Christ that Christians began to celebrate his birth. In truth, no one really knows the exact birth date of the babe, but Franciscan monks chose the month of December in order to lure people away from Saturnalia, a celebration of pagan customs and pagan gods.

Santa Claus
St. Nicholas is the source of today’s Santa Claus. St. Nick was a Catholic bishop who lived in the 4th century in what, today, is Turkey . While not much is known about him, it is known that he devoted his life to helping needy children. Years after his death, he was canonized the patron saint of children.

Putting Santa Claus in a red suit is a Scandanavian development. His leap down the chimney to fill stockings with goodies is from the Netherlands. Santa’s sleigh pulled by reindeer is of Swiss origin, and our Christmas parades are derived from lavish Latin American processions.
Giving Santa a slightly fattened physique and having him deliver gifts on Christmas Eve, toted by eight named, flying reindeer (c.1822) and Rudolph (c.1950s) too is a result of North American influence – very much packaged, encouraged, and delivered by the media.

Christmas Trees
It was common in the festival of Saturnalia that Romans would decorate a tree in the home. On top of the tree was placed an image of Apollo, the Roman god of the sun. The Druids brought evergreen trees into their homes as a symbol of life.

However, the Christmas tree as we know it resulted from the efforts of Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, who decorated trees with shining lights to symbolize stars shining through fir trees.
German settlers in America preserved Luther’s actions by decorating trees with fruits, candy, and roses made out of paper. Ritual tree decorating did not catch on generally in America until the early 1800s.

Ancient Romans saw mistletoe as an emblem of fertility. It was commonly believed that a woman would be blessed with children if she kissed under the mistletoe.

In the Druid culture, the mistletoe plant was symbol of peace, friendship, and generosity. They believed that the plant had the power to heal and to make enemies drop their weapons in battle in a quest for peace.

Kissing under the mistletoe began in 16th century England. Visitors to England found it unusual that men and women frequently exchanged kisses in greeting and leaving. It was this custom, as well as the belief that mistletoe was a symbol of friendship that kissing under the mistletoe became a common practice. In England, a woman who received a kiss under the mistletoe was guaranteed marriage and good luck.

The Exchange of Gifts
The earliest exchange of gifts occurred in ancient Rome during the festival of Kalends, usually the first day in January. The Roman emperor expected his higher-ranking administrators to present him with gifts of sweets, cakes, and honey.

According to the Christian story of Jesus, the visit of the three kings was the first gift exchange. The kings brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby, and it is from this act that we exchange gifts today.

Christmas Cards
The exchange of Christmas cards dates back to 1843 when Sir Henry Cole of England sent the first greeting cards to his friends. Some sources state that Sir Henry was too busy to author personal letters, so he commissioned J.C. Horlsey to design a card. This practice became widespread with Britain’s first Penny Post or public mail service. Improved printing procedures allowed the mass production of cards, which began in 1860.

Eggnog began as a medical elixir and not a festive drink. Some historians track eggnog to Germany’s egg punch comprised of milk and wine. The drink came to colonial America from Europe and was spiced up with rum and/or whiskey. “Eggnog” is actually an American name for the drink derived from an English drinking container called a “noggin” or “nog.” It was common to drink the creamy substance during any big social occasion. It was a common beverage to serve at holiday parties and gradually evolved into the American Christmas tradition.

Feliz Navidad!
God Jul!



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