Fragments 21-12-06

Santa Claus hands out gifts during the US civil war in Thomas Nast's first Santa Claus cartoon, Harper's Weekly, 1863.
In Western culture, where the holiday is characterised by the exchange of gifts, some of the gifts are attributed to a character called Santa Claus (also known as Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas or St Nikolaus, Sinterklaas, Joulupukki, Weihnachtsmann, Saint Basil and Father Frost).

Santa Claus

Santa Claus is a variation of a Dutch folk tale based on the historical figure Saint Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, who gave gifts on the eve of his feast day of 6 December. The connection between Santa Claus and Christmas was popularised by the 1822 poem ‘A Visit from Saint Nicholas', attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, which depicted Santa driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer and distributing gifts to children.

The popular image of Santa Claus was created by the German-American cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew a new image annually, beginning in 1863. By the 1880s, Nast's Santa had evolved into the form we now recognise. The image was standardised by advertisers in the 1920s.

Father Christmas, who predates the Santa Claus character, was first recorded in the 15th century, but was associated with holiday merrymaking and drunkenness. In Victorian Britain, his image was remade to match that of Santa.
The current tradition in several Latin American countries (such as Venezuela) holds that while Santa makes the toys, he then gives them to the baby Jesus, who is the one who actually delivers them to the children's homes.

Celebration of Christ's birth

The identification of the birthdate of Jesus did not at first inspire feasting or celebration. Christmas was promoted in the east as part of the revival of Catholicism following the death of the pro-Arian Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378. The feast was introduced to Constantinople in 379, to Antioch in about 380, and to Alexandria in about 430.
In the early middle ages, Christmas Day was overshadowed by Epiphany, which in the west focused on the visit of the magi or wise men. But the medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays. The prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned on Christmas Day in 800. King William I of England was crowned on Christmas Day 1066.

By the high middle ages, the holiday had become so prominent that chroniclers routinely noted where various magnates celebrated Christmas. King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which 28 oxen and 300 sheep were eaten.

During the reformation, Protestants condemned Christmas celebration as “trappings of popery” and the “rags of the Beast”. The Catholic church responded by promoting the festival in an even more religiously-oriented form.
Following the parliamentary victory over King Charles I during the English Civil War, England's Puritan rulers banned Christmas, in 1647. Pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities, and for several weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The restoration of 1660 ended the ban, but most of the Anglican clergy still disapproved of Christmas celebrations, using Protestant arguments.

By the 1820s, sectarian tension in England had eased and British writers began to worry that Christmas was dying out. They imagined Tudor Christmas as a time of heartfelt celebration, and efforts were made to revive the holiday. Charles Dickens' book A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, played a major role in reinventing Christmas as a holiday emphasising family, goodwill, and compassion over communal celebration and hedonistic excess.


Christmas and the Great War

In 1914, the first year of World War I, there was an unofficial truce between German and British troops in France. Soldiers on both sides spontaneously began to sing carols and stopped fighting. The truce began on Christmas Day and continued for some time afterward. Although many stories about the truce include a soccer game between the trench lines, there is no evidence that this event actually occurred. In the later part of the 20th century, the United States experienced controversy over the nature of Christmas, and its status as a religious or secular holiday. Some considered the U.S. government's recognition of Christmas as a federal holiday to be a violation of the separation of church and state.

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Jesus not born on 25 December

Christmas marks the birth of Jesus on 25 December in Bethlehem. The likelihood is that Jesus was not born on that date and that he was not born in Bethlehem. Some Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on 7 January.

A winter festival was traditionally the most popular festival of the year in many cultures, in part because there was less agricultural work to be done during the winter. From a religious point of view, Easter was the most significant feast in the church calendar. Christmas was considered less significant, and the early church opposed the celebration of birthdays of church members.

Pictured left: Botticelli's ‘The Mystical Nativity'

Roman festivals

Christmas was celebrated in pre-Christian times. There was a roman festival of Saturnalia, a time of general relaxation, feasting, merry-making, and a cessation of formal rules. It included the making and giving of small presents including small dolls for children and candles for adults. During Saturnalia, business was postponed and even slaves feasted. There was drinking, gambling, singing and public nudity. It was the “best of days”, according to the poet Catullus. Saturnalia honored the god Saturn and began on 17 December.

The Romans also held a festival on 25 December called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun”. The use of the title Sol Invictus allowed several solar deities to be worshipped collectively, including Elah-Gabal, a Syrian sun god; Sol, the god of Emperor Aurelian (AD 270-274); and Mithras, a soldiers' god of Persian origin. Emperor Elagabalus (218-222) introduced the festival, and it reached the height of its popularity under Aurelian, who promoted it as an empire-wide holiday.
Our Christmas day, 25 December, was also considered to be the winter solstice, which the Romans called bruma. It was therefore the day the Sun proved itself to be “unconquered” despite the shortening of daylight hours. The Sol Invictus festival has a “strong claim on the responsibility” for the date of Christmas, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. Several early Christian writers connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus.

Pictured: Third-century mosaic, allegedly of Christ in the form of the sun-god Helios


Christmas in Germany and Scandinavia

Pagan Scandinavia celebrated a winter festival called Yule, held in late-December to early January. Yule logs were lit to honor Thor (pictured), the god of thunder, with the belief that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year. Feasting would continue until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. In pagan greater Germany, the equivalent holiday was called Mitwinternacht (mid-winter night), Wintersonnenwende (winter solstice) and there were 12 Rauhnächte (harsh or wild nights), filled with eating, drinking and partying. As Northern Europe was the last part to Christianise, its pagan celebrations had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul. In English, the Germanic word Yule is synonymous with Christmas, a usage first recorded in 900.

It is unknown exactly when or why 25 December became associated with Jesus's birth. The New Testament does not give a specific date.