Nativity scenes, Santa Claus,
reindeer, stars, wreaths and holly, stockings and
presents are all associated with Christmas. Some
traditions are directly related to the Christian holiday,
while others had their origin earlier in various
midwinter or solstice celebrations.
Christmas, or Christ's mass, is the
feast day celebrating the birth of Jesus two thousand
years ago. Since the exact date of Christ's birth was not
known, the earliest Christians didn't celebrate it. But
in 350 AD, the Pope set a date--December 25th.
It was probably observed at this time
because of strong traditions of solstice celebrations.
Winter solstice is the shortest day, and the longest
night of the year. It falls around December 21st. The
earth, in traveling around the sun, is tilted on its
axis. At the Autumnal Equinox, around September 23rd, the
North Pole begins tilting away from the sun. The days
become shorter, the noon sun is lower in the sky, and we
get less sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere. Solstice
means a standing still, because the sun appears at the
same low point for a few days around midwinter. From that
time on, the days become longer, the light grows, and the
coming of Spring has begun. People feared the cold dark
winter. It was natural to celebrate the return of the sun
and hope for the new year. There were many festivals
around this time.
In most cultures, this was the new
year, when the Sun returned, a time of light and hope.
Since Christ was the "light of the world", and the hope
for salvation and new spiritual life, the tone of the
solstice festivals was appropriate for his birthday. The
"Sun" god was replaced by the "Son" of God.
Long before Christ was born, the
Persians celebrated the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun"
on December 25th. They lit fires in honor of Mithra, the
god of light. This date marked the beginning of their New
The Jews had Hanukkah, the Feast of
Lights, in December. The purpose was to commemorate an
ancient victory, in which they drove off an invading army
and then rededicated their temple. Legend has it that
they had only enough lamp oil for the Eternal Lamp in the
temple to burn for one day, but the light miraculously
burned for eight days. The Menorah symbolizes this event.
One more candle is lit each day of Hanukkah, along with
the servant candle or shamash, until all eight are
burning on the last day.
Many of our Christmas traditions are
found in the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia,
honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans wore
masks, danced in the streets, had feasts, and gave gifts.
They placed evergreen branches in their homes at this
time, and crowned Saturn with wreaths of holly. Trees
were decorated and lit with candles. A figure of Saturn
was placed on top of the tree. No war or disputes of any
kind were allowed during the Saturnalia Festival, making
peace and goodwill part of this ancient Roman
For Christians, the birth of Jesus is
the center of the most meaningful traditions. Nativity
scenes, with Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the attendant
angels, shepherds, wise men and animals are found around
the world. People usually render the figures in their own
image, so features will vary from Middle Eastern to
Hispanic, Nordic, Oriental or African. Saint Francis of
Assisi introduced the living Nativity Scene. He set up a
manger in a cave and had real animals and people play the
parts. This tradition continues in many places today,
with whole villages taking part in the Christmas
pageants. In Mexico, people dress as Mary and Joseph, and
visit one house each night for nine nights, reenacting
the holy family's search for shelter. They are turned
away the first eight nights, then on the last night,
Christmas Eve, they are finally given shelter and the
birth of Jesus is celebrated by all.
The star on top of the Christmas tree
represents the bright star of Bethlehem which led the
three wise men to the infant Jesus. Astronomers have
tried to find an explanation for this famous star. There
were no bright novas, or new stars, in the years around
the birth of Christ. No comet was visible then, either.
However, it is possible that Christ was actually born in
the spring of 6 B.C., when there was a close alignment of
three stars in Pices; Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
This particular alignment had great
significance in Jewish history. The same constellation
had appeared together in Pices shortly before Moses was
born. The wise men of the East, learned in astronomy,
might have taken the appearance of these stars as a sign
of some great event about to take place in Israel, and so
begun their journey there. In the Bible, Jesus is called
"the bright and morning star." Today, in many parts of
Europe and the Middle East, Christmas festivities begin
with the appearance of the first star on Christmas Eve.
The three kings, or wise men, are the
center of many Christmas traditions. They were probably
magi, learned priests from ancient Persia. Some eastern
orthodox sects celebrate Christmas on the feast of the
Three Kings or the Epiphany, January 6th. The word
Epiphany means manifestation, and according to church
doctrine, on that day it was manifested to the wise men
that the baby was sent by God. The days between Christmas
and January 6th are called the twelve holy days, with the
Epiphany being the Twelfth Night. The gifts of the Magi
foretold the destiny of the Christ child; the would be a
king, the frankincense that he would be a high priest,
and the myrrh that he would be a healer and martyr.
In Germany and Austria, boys go in
groups of four on the Epiphany, one carrying a star and
the other three dressed as kings. In Spain, children go
out to the gates of the city with cake for the kings,
figs for the servants, and hay for the camels; looking
for the kings silhouetted on the horizon. In many
countries children receive their gifts on January 6th,
either from the Three Kings or from their youngest camel.
Two other gift givers, the Italian La
Befana and the Russian Baboushka, are tied up in the
legend of the Wise Men. As the story is told, La Befana
refused to accompany the Magi to Bethlehem, and Babouska
misdirected the visitors. Since then, both women wander
on the feast of the Kings, leaving gifts for all children
as they search for the Christ child.
Santa Claus is a beloved symbol of
Christmas to children of many cultures, especially
northern Europeans and Americans. He was not always the
jolly old elf of today. His first ancestor was probably
the god Odin, from Scandinavia thousands of years before
Christ. Legend has it that at midwinter, or
Odin would ride an eight-footed horse
through the world, bringing rewards or punishments to
men. Odin's son Thor wore red and fought the gods of ice
and snow at midwinter, conquering the cold and allowing
the return of the sun.
Saint Nicholas is the Christian
predecessor to Santa. He was a kind-hearted bishop in
Asia Minor in the 4th century. Legend has it that a poor
nobleman had three daughters and no dowry for them. When
the time came for the first daughter to marry, a bag of
gold appeared overnight in his home. The same thing
happened with the second daughter. When it was time for
the third daughter to marry, her father kept watch and
caught Bishop Nicholas dropping a bag of gold down the
chimney, where it landed in a stocking hung over the fire
News of the bishop's good deeds got
out. and soon the stories grew into legendary
proportions. The anniversary of his death was December
6th, and soon the legend merged with Christmas.
In Holland, St. Nicholas or
Sinterklaas, would come on a horse. Children would leave
their shoes filled with hay for his horse, and he would
leave them nuts and candies. In Lapland, the saint drove
a reindeer sleigh. The Swedes wait for a gnome,
Jultomten, with the goats of the god Thor pulling the
sleigh. In Germany and Holland the influence of Odin
remained, and Saint Nick carried a switch to dole out
punishment for bad children as well as rewards for good
Americans created a kinder, gentler
Santa. In 1809 Washington Irving wrote of a chubby man
with a big smile. The most popular image of Santa Claus
was in Dr. Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas."
This poem contains all the modern elements--the flying
reindeer pulling the sleigh, entry through the chimney,
stockings hanging by the fireplace, a large sack of toys,
and a fat, jolly Saint Nick.
Certain common themes run through all
the Christmas traditions, from the solstice festivals, to
the pagan gods, to the Christian commemoration of the
birth of Jesus. They all celebrate the return of light
and hope to the world. The sentiments of the season are
peace and goodwill, love and the spirit of giving.
- Holly, Reindeer, and Colored
Lights; The Story of the Christmas Symbols; by Edna
Barth, Seabury Press, New York, 1971.