Which is, of course, the birth of Jesus Christ, or a pagan fire ceremony, or a midwinter festival, or the Roman Saturnalia, or what you will. And who is or was Santa Claus?
This piece is taken from John Radford’s Don’t You Believe It! Sixty Things Everyone Knows That Actually AIN’T SO, illustrated by Donald Rooum.
Every year, the mass media complain that Christmas is starting earlier, followed by endless features on how to survive it, etiquette for the office party, how to cook a turkey, what toys and games children want this year, the whole affair being referred to, all too often inappropriately, as “the festive season”.
At the same time those of a Christian persuasion complain that the story of the infant Jesus is being neglected, and encourage Nativity plays in schools and decorations in churches (including fir trees which have little to do with ancient Palestine). Others hold that Christians have usurped the original pagan meaning. “Santas” appear in red tunic and trousers trimmed with white “fur”, and red caps are offered in every market – “Get yer santarats ‘ere! One pahnd yer santarats!”
If one were to travel back in time at intervals of say two hundred years, “Christmas” would be radically different at each visit. There is nevertheless some kind of continuous thread. A comprehensive account is given by Ronald Hutton in The Stations of the Sun: A history of the ritual year in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2001).
The thread is that at least in Northern Europe the changing seasons have until very recently been of great significance for survival, and various stages in the progression, including the solstices and equinoxes, have been marked by ceremonies. Some of the most ancient monuments such as Newgrange and Stonehenge, dating back some 5,000 years, are apparently aligned on the midwinter and midsummer sun respectively. Of course we have no idea as to what took place then.
The Roman festival of Saturnalia round about the shortest day (which was not then established scientifically) was a time of feasting, giving presents, and general licence to suspend normal rules.
The Bible gives no indication of the date of Jesus’ birth, and early Christians favoured the spring. The 25th December was first definitely mentioned in 354, and this was gradually accepted over several centuries (though never by some such as the Armenian Church). It acquired the well-known trappings such as the Three Kings, perhaps transferred from the Psalms, as the Gospels specify only wise men.
Various other holy days accumulated round the 25th, 1st January was named as the day of Christ’s circumcision, and the Council of Tours in 567 ordained twelve days of Christmas. For the next thousand years many changing patterns of celebration developed, featuring, variously, religious services, feasting and drinking, songs and dances, folk plays, fires and lights, decoration with greenery of all kinds, and numerous customs and stories, with or without Christian connections.
Many were appropriate to the longed-for return of the sun and the start of a new year. But there is no real evidence for the survival of much older pagan ceremonies, such as mistletoe from its supposed use by Druids at midwinter, which seems to derive from a misunderstanding of a report by the Roman author Pliny. Mistletoe at Christmas is recorded in Britain only from the 16th century.
Much of this ended (in Britain) with the Reformation in the 16th century and the Puritan dominance in the 17th. For a short time all celebrations were forbidden, though not forgotten. Further radical changes came with the Industrial Revolution which largely destroyed the old agricultural way of life, with its seasonal rhythms and the community holidays that went with them. But in the 19th century Christmas revived in new forms, with an emphasis now on the family rather than on religion or the seasons.
The turkey was convenient for a family meal; formerly beef had been favoured for large feasts. Prince Albert helped to popularise the Christmas tree of his homeland. Sir Henry Cole is credited with the Christmas card in 1843, and one Tom Smith with the cracker about 1847, its funny hats and silly jokes (later additions) offering a faint echo of the ancient days of topsy-turvy misrule (as sometimes does the office party). Commercial interests ever more heavily influence present giving (and buying).
The fact is that there is no “true meaning” of Christmas. It has meant, and continues to mean, many things to many people. For some a welcome or unwelcome family reunion, for some an escape to warmer climes, for some, alas, a lonely bed-sitter. No group can claim exclusive rights.
There are also complaints about the supposedly modern use of “Xmas” –”crossing Christ out of Christmas”. This can be found in 15th century printed texts, possibly as a labour saving device when each character had to be set by hand. But similar abbreviations are even earlier, such as Xpes maesse in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, originating in the 9th century.
SantaThis story begins with Saint Nicholas, who was reputedly born in what is now Turkey in 270 CE. He became in some way the patron saint of children, among other groups such as pawnbrokers, and was widely popular in Europe, in particular in Holland with the name of Sinterklaas. He visited children on the eve of his feast day (6th December) and put presents in their shoes, later stockings. (In the distant past there may possibly also lie a memory of the Norse god Woden who rode through the sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir.)
Dutch settlers took him to their colony of New Amsterdam, later New York, but the custom seems to have died out until in 1809 Washington Irving referred to it, using the name Santa Claus, and transferring the occasion to Christmas Eve. In 1822 Professor Clement Clark Moore produced his very popular poem A Visit from St Nicholas (“‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”).
In Britain, a figure representing Christmas featured in an entertainment by Ben Jonson in 1616, and in numerous subsequent pieces including folk plays (perhaps older in origin) over the next 250 years, as Sir or Lord or increasingly Father, Christmas. He generally personified adult feasting and fun. Charles Dickens in his best-selling A Christmas Carol (1843) represented Christmas as a jovial giant in green robes, surrounded by ample food and drink.
• John Radford is Emeritus Professor of Psychology, University of East London