Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Origin of Christmas, "The twelve days of Christmas", and Santa Claus

Where did Christmas originate?

Traditionally, Christmas is known to be the celebration of the birth of Christ.  There are some that debate whether the date of Christ's birth was actually known and that the date corresponds more closely with celebrations of the ancient Roman's Winter solstice or other winter festivals.  For Christians, Christmas is usually a minor celebration day and is the start of Christmastide or Yuletide as it's Pagan predecessor was known.  Christmastide or sometimes referred to as "The twelve days of Christmas", begins on Christmas day and and ends on January 6 or Epiphany.  This is sometimes a larger celebration or feast which comemorates the Magi visiting baby Jesus in the manger.  Many people in modern times and mostly non-Christians, mistakenly believe that "The twelve days of Christmas" refers to the twelve days before Christmas.

A representation of Epiphany

Origins of the word Christmas

The word Christmas comes from the Middle English word Christemasse, meaning Christ's mass.  It is sometimes abbreviated Xmas and this is not a random choice.  The word Christe in Christemasse is derived from the Greek language. The first letter of Christ according to Greek language is chi or the letter X.  This led to the abbreviation Xmas.  The French have always referred to Christmas as Noël, which made it's way into some early English songs such as "The First Nowell" meaning The First Christmas. This made it's way to America as "The First Noel" and many refer to Christmas as Noel.

Origin of Christmas Decorations

Actually starting prior to the onset of Chistianity, the use of evergreens was used by the Pagans to celebrate the winter solstace by bringing them inside to represent the living green world through the dead of winter. The practice was then adapted by Christians and expanded to include other available green plants such as ivy which many believe that the heart shaped leaves represented Jesus' arrival.  The thorns of the Holly plant was seen to represent Jesus' crown of thorns worn at his crucifixion and the red berries represented his blood that was spilled.  Holly was also believed to offer protection from witches and pagans.  The evergreens eventually expanded and the use of actual evergreen trees were first used in Germany and became the first Christmas trees.  The poinsettia plant and it's red flowers were imported from Mexico and used as a decoration to represent Christmas as well.

The holly plant as used in Christmas decor originally representing the crown of thorns worn and the blood spilled by Jesus
Poinsettas were imported from Mexico and used as Christmas decor starting in the 19th century
Early Christmas trees were decorated with candles
Modern day Christmas tree and decorations

Origin of mistletoe

The use of mistletoe  has origins starting prior to the onset of Chistianity as well.  It it believed to be part of an ancient Scandinavian custom.  It was used to represent fertility and good luck.  A spring of mistletoe was to be hung at some point in the home to bring luck and fertility to the house hold.  Contrary to what many may believe in the modern era, at the onset of Christianity, the mistletoe was hung all year round and a new mistletoe hung on Christmas Eve.  The custom of kissing someone when meeting under the mistletoe was true then, however, after the kiss a berry was to be plucked from the sprig of mistletoe.  When all of the berries are gone, the kisses run out until a new mistletoe is hung the following year.

Origin of Santa Claus

Many believe the legendary Santa Claus actually was a real person, the bishop of Myra, Saint Nicolas.  He lived in what is now modern day Turkey in the 4th century and was noted for his generosity towards children. The name Saint Nicolas was derived from the dutch name Sinterklaas.  Which evolved into the modern day Santa Claus in the United States.  Saint Nicolas was honored for his kindness with a celebration in his honor on December 6, or Saint Nicolas day of which feasts were held and gifts were exchanged to represent his kindness.  The Protestants during the Reformation, moved the gift giving day to Christmas and references made to Saint Nicolas became Christ Child or Christkindl which eventually evolved into Kris Kringle.  Thus, the Christian tradition of Christmastide and the celebration of Saint Nicolas became one.

A portrayal of Saint Nicolas or Sinterklaas who many believe was THE Santa Clause
Early depiction of Kris Kringle

The image of Santa in his red and white fur lined suit and hat with his eight reindeer began in the United States.  The name Sancte Claus was derived from the dutch Sinterklaas and replaced the English Kris Kringle due to the willingness of the post-Revolution colonists to obscure English tradition with something else.  Cartoonist Thomas Nast had German origins and created what would become the modern image of Santa Clause in 1863.  With the onset of commercialisation in the early 1900's , Nast's image of Santa Clause would be adapted by all and is what we know as Santa Claus today.  There are some who believe that Nast's inspiration for his character was actually based on Pagan legend of The Wild Hunt which was at its peak during the Yuletide celebration.

The image of the modern day Santa Claus

  Related articles:

The Origin of Yuletide

Origin of the Candy Cane 

The Origin of Valentine's Day

The Origin and History of Halloween

The Origin of St. Patrick's Day 

The Origin of Thanksgiving 

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