Though I’ve been a bit preoccupied with my law studies of late, I’ve received a lot of requests to do another ’13 things’ article, and many of those specifically mentioned one of the most misunderstood holidays in the Western World: Christmas. To be perfectly honest, there are FAR more than 13 things to say about this, the literal holy-day. That said, here are some of my favorites, just for this special last list of the decade.
1) Christmas isn’t Christmas: the Bible clearly says that Jesus was born in the spring.
2) Christmas was transplanted to its present date in 320 CE to compete with other religions’ holy days, most of which had something significant going on around the time of the winter solstice. Doing this also allowed converts from those pagan faiths to keep their traditional celebrations.
3) The same is true of the decorations. The pine tree is not native to Bethlehem. Nor is mistletoe, holly, or many of the other trappings we associate with Christmas today.
4) Those particular adornments belonged to another holiday you might have heard of: Yule (a pre-Christian feast held on the winter solstice).
5) In fact, the word ‘holiday’ itself is derived from Holly. Herbage was so important to many European traditions that some ceremonies were not considered truly sacred (holy) without holly.
6) Most of us know that Santa Claus is also a latecomer to the party, appearing nowhere in the Bible; however, fewer of us know that Santa really did exist – sort of.
7) St. Nicholas of Myra (aka Nikolaos the Wonderworker) lived in the 4th Century, in a Byzantine Greek settlement in what is now Turkey. He is credited with various miracles, including a Jesus-like multiplication of wheat from a grain ship. Because of all that, he is the Patron Saint of Greece, Turkey, Sailors, and several others.
8) Though St. Nick’s legend grew over the years, his Patronage of children was based on a real habit he had of slipping coins into the shoes of the faithful at night. This also gives us the modern Santastical tradition of filling stockings with goodies.
9) During the 11th Century, St. Nick’s bones were stolen in the confusion of war and taken to Bari, in Italy. Because of that, St. Nick is also the Patron Saint of thieves.
10) The origin of the reindeer is murkier, with the earliest solid reference to them being in the famous 1823 poem, “A visit from St. Nicholas” (aka ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’). As far as can be determined, they were the creation of that work’s author (whose identity is still controversial today).
11) The red-coated Santa of today is also a fairly modern invention. The historical St. Nick was an Eastern Orthodox priest, and wore their vestments. Traditional Santas all wore the attire of their respective regions, such as Kris Kringle’s fur outfit. The red-suited Santa rose to prominence in New York City in the 1920’s, in part due to his cheery bright colors, and it was this Santa that was adopted by the Coca-Cola company for its famous ads in the 1930’s, cementing the image’s permanence.
12) Even Christmas’s “legal” holiday status is relatively new. The first American state to declare Christmas a holiday was Alabama, in 1836. Oklahoma was the last, in 1907.
13) Early Americans, including the very Pilgrims who gave us Thanksgiving, actually tried to abolish Christmas in the New World because it wasn’t “pure” enough for their Puritan sensibilities.
Santa’s Net, “Christmas Facts”
Snopes.com, “The Claus that Refreshes”
St. Charles Christmas
The History Channel, various
And, of course, years of personal poking around into the mysteries of modern traditions.
Happy Yule and Merry Christmas, everyone, and to all a good night!