Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the Jewish political activist, preacher, and messiah Yeshua ben Youssef, aka Jesus. So what has the fat man in the red suit got to do with it? Like the bunny with chocolate eggs, Santa Claus shares Christmas with Jesus (a talented out-sourcer of holidays), and just like the Easter Bunny, Santa was around long before Jesus.
Ancient Pagans celebrated the winter solstice with carols and mistletoe and gifts. They believed that the god Woden/Odin flew across the sky on solstice night with ravens who listened at chimneys to find out who’d been good or bad – and good children got presents. Sound familiar?
Ancient Rome celebrated the winter solstice festival, dedicated to the sun god Sol Invictus, on December 25. The carnival atmosphere of Saturnalia was a time for feasting, promiscuity, and gift-giving.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 AD, the sun god festival was re-allocated to celebrate the birth of Jesus (the Light of the World), giving us the enduring date of December 25 for his birthday.
In the European Dark Ages, Christmas remained a minor festival while the Celts and Pagans continued celebrating winter-solstice festivals, and elements of these – mistletoe, Yule logs and carols – are incorporated into modern Christmas celebrations along with common themes of feasting, charity and gift-giving.
In the middle ages Christmas was popularised by the (supposedly) divinely appointed narcissistic god-kings Charlemagne and William I. Then came the Puritans who frowned on sinful revelry, and in 1647 Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas celebrations. But as every successful cultural imperialist knows, the people are jealous of their holidays and, by necessity, Christmas was revived within a decade by the decadent Charles II.
Fast forward to New York, 1821, when an anonymous poem appeared in the New York Sentinel. ‘Old Santeclaus with much Delight’ was the first description of a benevolent fat man travelling in a sleigh pulled by reindeer and piled with children’s toys, loosely inspired by the Dutch celebration of St Nicholas. The idea of Santa meant that now anyone could celebrate Christmas, not just Christians, and the concept of a non-denominational Christmas appealed to multi-cultural New York. But it wasn’t until January 3, 1863, that the world finally had its first image of Santa, created by artist Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly. Santa, in essence a contemporised version of Woden, had returned to inspire the world.
Santa’s popularity grew, particularly in the US, until in 1930 the Coca-Cola company used him in a wildly effective Christmas advertising campaign to sell their cocaine-laced soft drink. It was marketing genius and everyone leapt aboard – from the Salvation Army to the world’s department stores. The rest is retail history.
It is easy to mistake Santa and Christmas for retail greed and blatant profiteering, but don’t succumb to the cynical Bah Humbug. Instead remember that behind the crass commercialisation Christmas carries an ancient message of charity and love, a gift passed down to us by our distant ancestors.
So merry Christmas everyone. And you’d better not shout, you’d better not cry – Woden’s ravens are listening.