The origin of Christmas is often linked to Roman pagan festivals, most often either Saturnalia or Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. Both holidays fall in December. Saturnalia, which was a week-long festival that ran from December 17th until the 24th to honor the god Saturn for agricultural abundances, is said to have included decorating homes with pine branches, lighting candles, and gift-giving. Saturnalia also involved role reversals; the poor were catered to, while the rich served the poor. During Saturnalia, slaves were free, and their labor was done by others. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the other most commonly cited contender for the origin of Christmas, fell on December 25th. During this holiday, Romans celebrated the rebirth of the sun, and similarities to Christmas include the decoration of small trees.
Although evidence that Christmas originated from these Roman holidays is scant, these hypotheses have a long history. For instance, Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer wrote of similarities between these pagan holidays and Christmas in his exceedingly popular book The Golden Bough, which was first published in 1890. Frazer’s work is rarely taught in modern anthropology courses, and you’ll find that the number of scholarly papers that cite his work is surprisingly low. A partial review of Frazer’s absence in modern anthropology can be found in VanPool and VanPool’s (2023) article Anthropology and the Science of the Supernatural: Souls, Ancestors, Ghosts, and Spirits.
When Frazer’s book was initially published, he was criticized for comparing Christian concepts, such as Jesus’s resurrection and Mary’s virgin birth, to early pagan beliefs. His thesis was that beliefs evolved from primitive pagan festivals to monotheistic holidays, and that not all cultures had reached the same stage of evolution. Current anthropologists dismiss Frazer’s work because in the post-modern social sciences the concept that some beliefs are more primitive than others is considered racist and the theory that culture—and, thereby the holidays celebrated by various peoples—can evolve is also seen as racist.
Yet, the link between pagan festivities and Christmas goes further back than The Golden Bough. In 1828, Thomas Gillespie, a Professor of Humanity at the University of St. Andrews, wrote of similarities between Christmas and Saturnalia. Gillispie also noted that the Nordic belief in Odin was absorbed into the Christmas holidays; after all, Odin was believed to have traveled through the sky with a herd of reindeer. Gillispie concluded that Christmas was “made up of a patch-work of Roman, Scandinavian, and Christian observances.”
Much of what we include in our modern Christmas celebrations—Yule logs, caroling, gift giving, and decorative wreaths—has been tied to pagan practices. Yet, biblical archaeologists are less convinced of these ties, and the archaeological evidence for these connections is weak. Most similarities between pagan religions and Christianity—as well as other monotheistic religions—exist in the form of human universals, such as ties between mother and child. Even those who have suggested that Christmas traditions have ancient roots acknowledged the lack of concrete evidence.
Christmas celebrations may have started as early as the 4th century AD, but it really developed into a time of festivity during the late medieval period. The term “Christmas” appears in English writing at around the 12th century AD. And, during the 1500s, some of our modern traditions were started. For instance, turkeys are associated with Christmas dinners as early as 1573 – 150 years before they were associated with American Thanksgiving dinners. Also, during the Middle Ages, gifts were given to “good people” and punishment was also doled out to the “wicked”. This resulted in sham fights, which were once a holiday tradition.
The medieval Christmas faced opposition and cancelation by pious Christians, especially in America, Germany, Scotland, and England. Part of this backlash was based on the rowdiness of the holiday, which often revolved around excessive drinking that would end more often in fisticuffs than merry-making. However, the introduction of Father Christmas, a mythical character who was first introduced in the 15th century in England, may have also led to religious bans on the holiday. During the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Church of England tried to get rid of Father Christmas and return Christmas to a time to celebrate Christ. Later, Father Christmas merged with the concept of Santa Claus. The opposition to Christmas may have been in large part successful. The London Times, for instance, doesn’t mention Christmas at all from 1790 to 1836. But Christmas does make a comeback, in large part to Charles Dickens and the American influence.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries, German and Dutch Settlers in the US brought the concept of Santa Claus to the New World. Santa Claus, unlike Father Christmas, is said to be based on a real individual. Saint Nicholas was said to have been born in the 3rd century AD, orphaned, and raised by his uncle. Upon his uncle’s death, it’s been claimed Saint Nicholas inherited great wealth, which he gave to others. He is also said to have performed miracles, which is why he was granted sainthood. The day of his death, December 6th, is still celebrated in Germany and other European countries as Saint Nicholas Day. Of course, like any good legend, there is probably some truth in this story, but much fabricated as well, as Steven Hales pointed out in his 2010 article Putting Claus Back in Christmas. Although some may argue that the introduction of Santa Claus to Christmas has turned it too commercial or removed the meaning of Christmas, others have argued that Santa Claus is a Christian allegory useful to teach children the importance of giving, especially without taking credit. Santa Claus, unlike so many other mythical characters, doesn’t ask for much: only that children be good — and maybe some milk and cookies!
Perhaps the most important part of Santa Claus and the modern Christmas tradition is the focus on children. With the Baby Boom era starting in mid-1940s, the large number of children in the 1950s was a key component to the American economy and, thus, the commercialization of Christmas increased. But this wasn’t a bad thing. Christmas was commercialized far before then too, but as the culture of Christmas grew, it brought us many wonderful traditions. We have a bevy of classic Christmas movies—Miracle of 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Live—many with emphasis on giving and kindness. New Christmas carols were written, many by Jewish composers—Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire by Mel Torme and White Christmas by Irving Berlin. And the department store Santa comes into his own. The first department store Santa actually dates back to 1841 in Philadelphia. Some Santas were black, so that even during the times of segregation all children could experience the joy of Christmas. Fortunately, those days are behind us, and the concept of Santa unites us. This is evident in the fact that one can find many stories of even very pious Rabbis choosing to dress up as Santa to bring joy to children—John Schlien wrote of this occurrence already in 1959.
Yet, not all embrace these Christmas characters. Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote about the Dijon Catholic Church’s lamentation that Father Christmas, which by this time had merged with Santa, was paganizing Christmas and, thus, they burned an effigy of him in 1951.
Sir James George Frazer correctly assessed that beliefs, which started as polytheistic fertility cults—and the celebrations around—them evolve. Early celebrations, such as Saturnalia, required children to do the work of slaves. Although Odin was believed to fly through the air with the help of reindeer, like Santa, he did so in order to deliver weapons of war to men rather than goodies to children. Recently, however, a return to these primitive ways has taken hold in a new cult—the cult of identity politics. And children are once again being used and sacrificed. They are being sacrificed at the altar of gender-identity gods where children are being misled into believing that they can change their sex and are being turned into lifelong patients. They are being used in anti-racist rituals, such as shaming children for painting their face at games. So, let us continue to progress, allowing children to be children, and focus on bringing them joy this Christmas.
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