Christmas has two distinct themes running through it, as study of any collection of Christmas cards shows. One is the religious aspect, involving Wise Men, angels, the Star and shepherds, and refers to the Gospel story of the birth of Christ. The other theme seems totally unrelated and depicts reindeer, stockings, a sleigh and, of course, Santa Claus.
The two main Christmas personalities are Jesus and Santa, as most people will agree. Everyone brought up in a Christian country knows the significance of Jesus at this time but just who is Father Christmas and why should he become part of a religious festival?
We must first look back at history and see why December became such an important month in the religious calendar in the first place. The reason is, of course, the Winter Solstice, December 21st, when the Sun appears to stop in the sky prior to beginning its journey back across the heavens.
After the Solstice the days gradually get longer and the peoples of old considered this to be almost the birthday of the Sun. The peoples of the northern hemisphere were fond of having a festival in mid-winter, perhaps because they needed something to take their minds off the long, cold, dark days.
In ancient Rome the feast of Saturnalia was held between December 17th and 23rd and gifts were exchanged. The Romans also held the feast of Brumalia on the Solstice day itself and considered this to be the birthday of Mithra the unconquered Sun god. The Norsemen celebrated Yule at this time, to herald the return of the Sun.
It is interesting to note that Christ is often known as the Light of the World, a title that continues this theme of darkness in retreat in the face of good.
The Solstice has long been associated with the idea of people giving each other presents. Apart from giving gifts at Saturnalia the Romans also exchanged presents on the feast of the Kalends, which we call New Year's Day. These customs prevailed all over the Roman Empire when Christianity was still a new religion.
When Christianity spread to the northern lands they found the Norsemen worshipping Odin-who rode his chariot through the night sky at the time of the Winter Solstice, handing out gifts.
Because the exchange of gifts was so linked in the pagan mind with these old festivals devout Christians were not supposed to exchange gifts at this time. However, gift-exchange never died out on the European scene and finally the Church fathers had to do something about it. They did not want to let people keep on believing that Odin or any other pagan deity had anything to do with gift-bringing so they looked around for an acceptable Christian figure to bring them instead. The person they chose was St. Nicholas, the former Bishop of Myra in the 4th century AD.
Not much is actually known about St. Nicholas, though many legends grew up around his kindly figure. One thing that qualified him for the role of gift-bringer was his feast day being December 6th, a date sufficiently close to the Solstice for the two to be connected in the mass mind.
St. Nicholas was a useful saint and could even be described as all-purpose. His responsibilities included the welfare of pawn- brokers, boatmen, parish clerks, dockers and barrel-makers among others. He was the patron saint of both Russia and Aberdeen. The best-known story about him tells of his leaving three bags of gold on a poor man's windowsill as dowries for his three daughters. One version of this tale states that the gold was thrown through the window and landed in a stocking that had been hung up to dry, which perhaps explains our custom of the Christmas stocking.
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Last modified: June 12 2016 13:22:57