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The origins of Christmas

13 December 2021

How did we get from a manger in Bethlehem to flying reindeer? And did Santa Claus exist before or after turkeys graced the festive table? Kieron Connolly turns time-travelling detective and tries to unravel some of our festive traditions...

A nostalgically retro painting of Santa and his reindeerr

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year – presents laid out under the twinkling lights of the tree, mince pies awaiting Santa’s visit down the chimney, stockings hanging from bedposts, and families tucking into turkey and plum pudding.

But what do all these traditions have to do with each other? And how have they all slotted together to create the Christmas with which we are so familiar?

To find out, we have to go back to the beginning. Though not the very beginning as, in the first centuries of Christianity, Christ’s birth wasn’t important to the Church. It wasn’t until the fourth century AD that Pope Julius I decreed the Nativity would be celebrated on 25 December.

Why that date? There was a view in the ancient world that great men died, rather neatly, on the day that they had been spiritually born – that is, when they were conceived. So, as Jesus died at Passover, around the spring equinox in March, it was believed that he had been conceived on that date. If Mary became pregnant in the spring, then Jesus was born nine months later in December.

That’s the theologians’ reasoning. Others might just suggest that by fixing the Nativity to mid-December, Pope Julius could graft his holy day onto existing midwinter festivities and the winter solstice. These days, 21 December is the year’s shortest day, but to the ancient Romans following the Julian Calendar, it was 25 December.

Part of Roman midwinter merrymaking was kalends (1-3 January), which involved topsy-turvy games where servants swapped places with their masters. This might explain why today we play at being kings and queens wearing paper crowns. During kalends people also made wreaths and decorated homes with greenery, as we do.

From the fifth century, Advent – the period of preparation for the birth of Jesus – was recognised by the Church, but it wasn’t a time of parties, mulled wine and mince pies. It was intended as a period of penitence, with Christmas Day a fast day. Intended, because Christian piety at Christmas has always jostled for position with secular feasting.

And when did Christmas reach Britain? The earliest English reference to Christmas comes in 877AD, when Alfred the Great made the 12 days of Christmas a holiday. After the ninth century, the words Cristes maesse replaced Yule – the Norse word for midwinter festivities – in the Church calendar. Within 200 years, churches here were staging Nativity plays.

During the later Middle Ages, English homes were decorated with shrubs at Christmas, but our trees have their origin in medieval Germany. There, a Paradise play was staged each 24 December. The play told the story of Adam and Eve, using an evergreen fir hanging with apples to represent the Tree of Knowledge. Are today’s baubles representations of those apples?

As for Santa Claus, he has come a lot further than Lapland to deliver those presents. His roots are found in St Nicholas, whom it’s said – the historical record is weak – was the Bishop of Myra (now Demre in Turkey) in the fourth century. St Nicholas’s legend grew until he eventually became the patron saint of children. As early as the 12th century in France, St Nicholas’s Day, 6 December, was celebrated rather like a visit from Santa is today. While everyone was asleep, he would leave a small present such as fruit or nuts in the shoes of good children, while the badly behaved would receive coal.

This tradition spread across Germany and the Netherlands, and when Dutch immigrants settled in America in the 17th century, they took St Nicholas with them. It was another couple of hundred years before Santa really began to resemble the kindly fellow we picture today – and partly because of a joke. Washington Irving’s 1809 book A History of New York is a spoof fondly mocking the idea that the only true New Yorkers were the New Amsterdammers – those Dutch settlers with their traditions and quaint St Nicholas cult.

But the joke was on Irving. His send-up of the Santa legend, including silly details he’d added about hanging up stockings, St Nicholas riding over the tops of trees and climbing down the chimney, was lapped up by readers. Rather than piercing the bubble of the St Nicholas story, Irving inflated it.

He didn’t, however, come up with the reindeer. They first appear in 1822 in a poem in a children’s magazine, even though Santa wasn’t at that time associated with the far north. The following year, another poem, Clement Clarke Moore’s ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, shifted Santa’s visit from 6 December to Christmas Eve. And while previously badly behaved children had been punished by Santa, in Moore’s poem all children had their stockings filled with presents. Santa was becoming a softie.

But what did he look like? It’s a myth that we have Coca-Cola to thank for the rosy-cheeked, rotund, red-suited figure. By 1931, when Coke’s Santa poster campaign first appeared, his appearance was already established, largely thanks to illustrator Thomas Nast, who drew Santa for American magazines from the 1860s to 1880s. Nast had initially presented Santa as elf-sized, wearing dark clothes, but over the years he gradually grew taller, fatter and cheerier. And, with colour printing becoming cheaper, his suit became a vibrant red.

Sinterklaas – the Dutch name for St Nicholas – arrived in America in the 17th century, but Santa Claus was an American export of the 1860s. In Britain, since the Middle Ages, an allegorical figure known as Father Christmas appeared in plays. His name may have survived, but by the end of the 19th century his character had become Santa. Coca-Cola may not be responsible for Santa as we know him, but America certainly is.

As far back as the Roman festival of kalends, gifts were given, while in Britain during the Middle Ages small presents were exchanged among friends around New Year. At Christmas, more expensive presents were given upwards. Tenants might give their landlord a capon to show gratitude.

Finally, for many the most important part of Christmas: the food. Introduced to Europe from North America in the 1520s, within 50 years turkeys became part of the British Christmas feast for those who could afford them. For centuries, goose and beef remained the cheaper options.

Mince pies were savoury and made of shredded beef, mutton or veal, and only sweetened with sugar in the 18th century. Plum pudding, originally a savoury beef soup thickened with breadcrumbs and dried fruit, was eaten on special occasions in the 1700s and 1800s, before being associated solely with Christmas.

By the end of the 19th century, rich and poor were celebrating Christmas much as we do now. In 1932, George V gave his first radio Christmas message; Elizabeth II made her first TV address in 1957. Otherwise, our traditions haven’t changed that much since Queen Victoria.

Christmas today may seem a hodgepodge, but traditions built up over centuries usually are. We observe them not because we have to, but because we like to. For historian Judith Flanders, it’s more than that. ‘While the holiday has altered, it has survived, it has thrived, because, ultimately, Christmas is not what is, or even has been, but what we hope for.’

Kieron Connolly’s Christmas short story The Errand is in the e-book anthology Home Stories (Comma Press).

To find out more about the impact of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and how the Christmas Tree was fixed in the British imagination – subscribe to Saga Magazine.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.