What is Christmas, Really?

Well, someday I just may write a book on all this crap. But for now, you’ll have to be satisfied with what little I provide here. I’ll try to keep it short.

Before I start, let it be known that I have nothing against tradition. I love tradition. The great thing about tradition is that there’s no need to know why you do it, just that it has always been done. But in the case of Christmas, you might be better off not knowing.

Christmas is a “Christian” holiday. If it weren’t for the fact that Christmas celebration was originally instituted to celebrate the birth of Christ on Earth, I would laugh that claim right down the toilet. What has become of Christians, and what have they done to mar what should be a very straightforward celebration? Let’s get started shall we?

Who the Heck is Santa Claus?

Most of us know that Santa Claus is a variation of the catholic monk Saint Nicholas. St. Nicholas’ feast day is December 6th, the day of his death. He is the protector of children and sailors. Go figure, huh?

The transformation to Santa Claus began as a result of St. Nicholas’ Dutch name, Sinter Klaas. In the early 1770’s, a New York newspaper reported the gathering of Dutch families to honor Sinter Klaas on the anniversary of his death.

The New York Historical Society began distributing woodcut images of the now familiar Santa Claus with hanging stockings filled with toys. The popularity of St. Nicholas grew in America with the 1809 publication of The History of New York, in which author Washington Irving referred to St. Nicholas as “The Patron Saint of New York”.

Modern Traditions Begin

Irving later penned The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon in 1819, spreading his idea of an ideal Christmas celebration as it took place in an English manor house. American readers took Irving’s idea of Christmas being a peaceful holiday that brought the rich and poor together, crossing class lines, as a factual description of a typical English celebration, though it was a completely fictional. Up to this point, Christmas was actually a very raucous, drunken celebration in most parts of the world.

It should be noted that during this time of America’s early years, Christmas was primarily an English celebration, frowned upon by Separatists (and later, Americans). In fact, Christmas was even outlawed in parts of America (most notably in Boston), and the American Congress was actually in session on Christmas day, 1789. It would be nearly 100 years later that Christmas was declared a federal holiday.

Santa Claus Flies through the Night Sky with Eight Magical Reindeer, Delivering Toys to Good Boys & Girls

This idea seems to have originally appeared in the story ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, written by the Episcopal Minister Clement Clark Moore. Modern ideas of Santa Claus in America come from Moore’s poem. Moore appears to have borrowed from many ancient beliefs and traditions to create his vision of a flying fat man driven by magical reindeer.

You’re probably familiar with the Norse god Odin. If your memory needs a refresher, Odin is the father of Thor.

In Germany, people honored Odin (typically spelled Oden in Germany, also Woden, which is where we get the name for the day Wednesday (Woden Day or woods day) during mid-winter, believing that he made nocturnal flights through the sky to keep an eye on his people, rewarding the deserving and causing others to perish. It’s likely the idea of Santa flying through the sky and rewarding good children came from stories and beliefs about Odin.

Furthermore, Odin – who was also a shape shifter – often appeared as a grey-bearded old man. In Iceland, Odin is known as “The Father of All”.

Some scholars believe that parts of Odin’s life is a garbled version of Christ’s crucifixion (particularly the story that has Odin hanging himself and piercing himself with his own spear in order to gain wisdom… essentially offering himself up as a sacrifice to himself (since there was no higher god, he could only sacrifice to himself). Many Christians believe that Christ is the same as the Father, or the “highest” god).

Why December 25th?

The Catholic Church ordered the celebration of Christ’s birth on Earth during the 4th century. But they had no idea when this grand event happened. Logically, his birth probably happened in the spring (note shepherds tending their flocks at the time of Christ’s birth).

December was probably chosen because of its universal significance around the world with so many different societies. This midwinter time was celebrated around the world as a time for new beginnings. In Rome, December 25th was the birthday celebration of the sun god Mithra.

The huge Roman festival of Saturnalia also happened in December, and it is commonly believed that Pope Julius I selected a December date for just this reason. By incorporating or absorbing the traditions of Saturnalia, the Catholic Church hoped the gain converts.

However, Saturnalia was only one of many midwinter celebrations. The mutation of Christmas, I believe, is to be blamed on the placement of its date. By coinciding with worldly midwinter celebrations, the church lost the ability to dictate how Christmas is celebrated. This was also done purposely on occasion, as is mentioned in the next section.


Perhaps the biggest influence on Christmas tradition, Yule is the ancient Scandinavian celebration which begins on December 21st in which people danced, feasted, and celebrated for days on end (for as long as a log would burn (thus the Yule log), typically taking about 12 days) to ensure that the sun would return.

Holly represents the old year. The Holly King was sacrificed by his son and successor, the Oak King (representing the new sun).

Yule celebrations also included the sacrifice of a pig, which is why we typically feast on ham. Other “inherited” traditions include the pine tree and the mistletoe.

Why have we incorporated so much of the Yule celebration in Christian holidays (not just Christmas, but Easter as well)?

When the first Christian missionaries began showing up in Scandinavia to convert the Anglo-Saxon heathens, the Pope suggested, “…that converting heathens is easier if they are allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditional pagan practices and traditions, while recasting those traditions spiritually towards the one true God instead of to their pagan gods…”

This is supposedly acceptable according to the Bible, as God did the same with the ancient Israelites.

7 thoughts on “What is Christmas, Really?

  1. QueenMeadow

    Very cool stuff! I really enjoy learning more about traditions and holidays. I think you should come up with some new ones and we’ll try to make them popular. You may end up in a history book someday. “Stu is the one that started the butt drag dance to be done only during a Christmas party…”

  2. Anonymous

    Very insightful with great detail.

    Christmas has evolved into many things for many people. It has become the time each year where I appreciate and thank my family and friends for their love and support. That along with good food and time away from the daily stresses of work make this a favorite time of the year.

    Thank you Stu for this Blog!

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  4. Tracy

    I LOVE CHRISTMAS!! TIme for goodies and goodies and the chance to make goodies for the fun of it….all sorts of wonderful yummy stuff to eat.

  5. Pingback: Christmas: Not Just for Christians Anymore

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