It is a tradition in most countries worldwide nowadays, Christmas. Gathering around a Christmas tree, singing Christmas carols and giving each other presents. But where does this tradition with all its elements come from?
The Christian celebration of Christmas is a derivation of the Germanic celebration of Yule. According to wikipedia, “Yule is attested early in the history of the Germanic peoples; from the 4th century Gothic language it appears in the month name fruma jiuleis, and, in the 8th century, the English historian Bede wrote that the Anglo-Saxon calendar included the months geola or giuli corresponding with either modern December or December and January.”
Despite what many people may believe, the Roman Catholic Church started around the 4th century A.D., when Constantine the Great gathered several scholars, among which philosophers, theosophists and scribes, in order to compose the book that later became known as the Holy Bible, from several scripts and traditions as taught by a person that now goes by the name Jesus Christ. It took until the late 8th century of early 9th century when the Catholic Church implemented Germanic customs into christian rituals. A few centuries later, Yule became known as Christmas.
According to early tradition, the Christmas tree originates from the Celtic custom to gather around an oak tree for celebrating the winter solstice. It is said that druids led the festivities, while the general population followed them in the celebration. After the Middle Ages, this oak tree was replaced by a pine tree or fir, since oak trees do not bear leaves in winter.
There are a lot of misconceptions about this gift-giving figure. Some stories state that it originates from Father Christmas, who is first mentioned in the 18th century. However, it is much more likely that it has a completely different origin than generally thought.
The depiction of Santa Claus as we know it has a commercial background. In 1930, the now known figure of Santa Claus was first depicted as a round-bellied, white-bearded man in a red winter coat in a Coca Cola advertisement. Ever since, he is portrayed as such in numerous other advertisements. Thus in fact, this appearance of Santa Claus is a commercial invention.
However, the story of Santa Claus goes way back in history. Santa Claus is in fact originally called Saint Nicholas. When the first Dutch colonists arrived in what was then called New Amsterdam (modern day centre of New York), they already had a festivity which they called Sinterklaas, and was celebrated on the 6th of December. The English character of Father Christmas was later merged with this Dutch character, and became the phonetic derivation of Sinterklaas – in English Santaclaus. In Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809), Sinterklaas was Americanized into “Santa Claus”, a name that was first used in the American Press in 1773. So, the origin of Santa Claus dates back to Dutch folklore, rather than being an all American tradition.
The tradition of giving gifts as well originates from the Celtic or Germanic traditions. When gathering around the oak tree, part of the celebration of the winter solstice was the tradition of giving the children presents. Other than what some may believe, this had a rather practical background. In order for the adults to peacefully join the celebration, they gave their children small gifts so that they were enjoying those gifts rather than “bother” their parents. This tradition was later copied with the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, which found its way into modern day celebration of Christmas.
Singing Christmas carols always feels good, and literally brings joy to the world as we know it. But the origin of these carols may surprise you. Again, this tradition has its origin in Celtic folklore. When gathering around the oak tree for the winter solstice, the Celts chanted to welcome the turn of the season. This was also done in order to satisfy and invoke the spirits them to bless them by granting them good harvests in the year to come.
This too originates from the Dutch folklore. Sinterklaas was said to have helpers, called Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). These characters were former child slaves with a Moorish background, who – again according to folklore – were freed from slavery and were offered paid jobs by Saint Nicholas.
When Sinterklaas was Americanized and changed into Santa Claus, these former child slaves were changed into Christmas elves. The first mention of a Christmas elf was in 1850, when Louisa May Alcott completed her story entitled Christmas Elves. Later, in 1873, Godey’s Lady’s Book popularized this figure by showing a depiction of a Christmas elf on the front cover of its Christmas issue, showing Father Christmas surrounded by toys and elves.
Despite what you may have know until now, the Christmas celebration has become a fully commercial festivity. It is in fact an Americanized representation of a seemingly christian festivity, but even Christianity has eventually taken several customs from other cultures to make it their own. In the end, things may not always seem what they appear. But remember that every custom has a certain origin. Enjoy your holidays.