Pagans, Sinterklass, and Jesus


Since it is the Christmas season I decided I would post my outline from a talk about the origins of Christmas and Santa Claus from last year. This is very much only a cliff notes type of talk. There have been a few books written about nothing but the origins and influences on it. Unfortunately I did not save my references with it so I can’t tell you exactly where I got all of my information from, but a quick Google search will give you a ton of good information if you are interested in going deeper.

Pagans, Sinterklaas, and Jesus

• Mid-winter celebrations had a long history even before Jesus walked on the Earth. People celebrated around the solstice because the days were starting to grow longer. Scandinavians burnt a Yule log believing that each sparks represented a new pig or calf that would be born. Many Europeans would slaughter most of their cattle so they wouldn’t have to feed them, which lead to large feasts. The Germans had a celebration honoring Odin, many people choose to stay inside during this time because it was believed that Odin made nighttime flights observing people and deciding who would prosper and who would die in the coming year. (That sounds strangely familiar doesn’t it?)

• Rome had three winter celebrations when the Roman Catholic Church took over and they still had these holidays. One was Saturnalia, which was a holiday for Saturn, the god of agriculture. The week before the winter solstice and a month after was a very hedonistic period and the social structure was turned upside down. The poor were honored like rich men and vice versa. Juvenalia was another holiday honoring children. (Both of these seem to have somewhat transferred to modern Christmas) Mithra, the god of the unconquerable son, was celebrated on December 25th, it was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock and this was usually seen as the most sacred day of the year. (Some attribute Jesus’ virgin birth to simply stealing from the tradition of Mithra.)

• Now it was around 300 yrs. after Jesus died before his birth was really celebrated. Easter was the main holiday in early Christianity. (Still a big one, but definitely not as big a Christmas is.) The Bible doesn’t give a date for Jesus’ birthday. (Though some people have tried to guess.) Pope Julius I chose December 25th. Though some “experts” try to say it was coincidence, it was mostly likely chosen to absorb and calm down the pagan celebrations. (Seems to have somewhat worked for a period, but looking at modern Christmas you could definitely say hedonism is back in full force.) Originally called the Feast of Nativity, it spread to Egypt by 432, to England by the end of the 6th century, and all the way up to Scandinavia by the end of the 8th century. Once Christianity had essentially taken over Christmas was highly celebrated, but by giving it the same date as so many pagan holidays meant that it was still celebrated in a raucous way, basically like Mardi Gras today. Many social standards where again flipped and in many ways the rich would repay their “debt” to society by entertaining the poor. If they did not to the poor tended to terrorize them with “mischief”. (This mischief ranged from small pranks equivalent to TPing someone’s yard to more violent mischief.) Christians were not uninvolved in these unruly events; in 1466 Jews were forced to run around the city naked by the Pope. Throughout the 18th and 19th century Jews were paraded around in clown out fits, and in some instances riots would actually start in which Jews were robbed, killed, and raped. (Yea Hitler wasn’t the first person to use Christianity to torture Jewish people.)

• The early 17th century saw Christmas changed when religious reform cancelled Christmas, though it was soon reinstated many of the pilgrim colonies had laws against Christmas, though not all. Christmas really fell out of favor in the U.S. after the American Revolution. In the 19th century Americans began to embrace Christmas, because of social unrest, high unemployment, and rioting during the Christmas season. Remember that at this point Christmas was really more like Mardi Gras. This lead to people in the upper class wanting to change the way Christmas was celebrated. Washington Irving wrote a series of short stories called The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., which basically painted Christmas as a time of peaceful coming together of people across social lines. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens created a sense of charity and good will towards everyone that struck a chord in America. What is important to note is that Irving’s stories actually had many “traditions” from Europe in it that were not actually practiced and for Dickens time Scrooge was actually more of the rule than the exception as he is made out to be. The truth was that most people did not even remotely celebrate Christmas with the spirit that was portrayed in the stories.

• St. Nicholas was a bishop in the 4th century in what’s now Turkey, and gained a reputation for generosity, and for caring for young children and travelers. He was known for going to orphanages and giving presents to children based on their behavior. (Enter the Santa watching you year around, which is super creepy.) As a saint he almost became the equivalent of a guardian angel. He and his saint’s day, December 6th, became very popular (Conveniently it was in the month leading up to Christmas.) So over time he became associated with Christmas celebrations. The name Santa Claus actually comes from the Dutch pronunciation of St Nicholas, Sinterklass. New York, originally being a Dutch colony, still had some traditions around St Nicholas because the anti-Christmas protestant movement in Europe didn’t affect them. In Washington Irving’s writings, St. Nicholas is a Dutchman who rides a wagon pulled through the air by horses on St Nicholas’s day. That all changed in Clement Moore’s “Twas The Night Before Christmas”. Here he becomes an elf, the same size as the other elves. He moves to Christmas Eve and gets reindeer instead of horses. (I didn’t find anything to explain why he chose reindeer over horses.) Over time, mainly through the over 2200 drawings of Thomas Nast, St Nicholas takes on the robed, fur clad, form we now recognize. Nast is also the one who gave a home in the North Pole, the workshop full of elves, and the naughty and nice list. In 1931 Coca Cola contracted Haddon Sundblom to create a coke-drinking St Nicholas. Through the influence of Nast and based off a cheerful chubby faced friend of Sundblom we now have our bright Coca Cola red Santa Claus.

• So what does all of this have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? Absolutely nothing. Sure the early church used it as a means to try and convert pagan religions to Christianity. It obviously did not really work, because it created a ton of religious syncretism. So as a Christian should we not celebrate Christmas? That’s up to you. What’s important is that if you are going to celebrate the gift giving Santa Claus part, make sure you keep it separate from the birth of Jesus part. Do not try and make the two the same thing because they are not.

Got any other cool Christmas facts or stories, or want to talk about Christmas? Leave a comment below!


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