The Story Behind Christmas

ByABC News
December 21, 2005, 1:04 PM

Dec. 21, 2005 — -- Christmas is the one time of the year when the world goes completely mad. We cut down trees, bring them into our homes and cover them in lights and tinsel. We hang green branches with poisonous berries and kiss strangers beneath them. We drink copious quantities of alcohol and behave like children. And we pay homage to a plump, bearded old man who flies around on a cart pulled by reindeer. Why?

The madness of modern Christmas evolved from our pagan past. For 10,000 years, Christmas was linked to the winter solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, and the pagan festival of the invisible sun. In times of yore, people believed that the sun was a god and that winter came every year because the sun god had grown sick and weak; ceremonies were held for his recovery.

Not surprisingly, it was the Romans who took things to excess and transformed these ceremonies into the debauched festivals of Saturnalia and Bacchus, which form the origins of today's Christmas parties.

It was probably due to drug- and alcohol-induced memory loss that the Romans in the 4th century felt it important to fix the date of Christmas on Dec. 25. But in the Dark and Middle Ages, a stern solemnity replaced the sense of fun, and Christmas was banned by many Christians.

In 1659, Gen. Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance on Dec. 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense, and people were fined for the heinous and, at times, barbarous crime of hanging decorations. Thankfully, America is built on immigration and we should share a glass of Christmas cheer this year with the Germans and Irish whose 19th-century influx undermined our Puritan legacy and reminded us all how to have a good time.

Christmas is also an expression of our shared global origins. The accoutrements of Christmas originate from ancient traditions around the world. The idea of bringing a tree into the home began in Germany, but it wasn't until Queen Victoria and her German Prince Albert were pictured in the London Illustrated News standing beside a Christmas tree that tree-hugging entered the mainstream. Our Christmas lists read like a worldl history book: Lights came from the Protestant reformer Martin Luther; tinsel from the French; eggnog from America; mistletoe, to increase fertility, from the Celtic and Teutonic peoples; the yule log from Norway; plum pudding from the English Middle Ages; and Christmas greeting cards, in the 1830s, from the quirky Englishman John Calcott Horsley.

For many, Santa Claus personifies Christmas, and the mythology surrounding him originates from the true stories of St. Nicholas, while the name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch Feast of Sinterklaas and the Dutch Sint Nikolaas. Nicholas was born sometime around 280 in Patara, near Myra, in modern Turkey.

A bishop distressed by the poverty of his parish, Nicholas began delivering -- secretly and at night -- gifts to his parishioners. Before long, he became a legendary figure, and his legend turned into our modern-day Santa.

Soon Christian pilgrims from all over the world came to visit the church of St. Nicholas and carried his legend back to their native lands, melding it within their own cultural smorgasbord of much earlier traditions, such as that of the gift-giving shaman.

But the image of Santa we hold today stems from 1881, when political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on a poem called "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" to create the first likeness that matches our modern image of Santa Claus. Nast's cartoon, which appeared in Harper's Weekly, depicted Santa as a corpulent, cheerful man with a full, white beard, holding a sack overloaded with toys for fortunate children. Originally cast in green, Nast gave Santa his bright red suit spruced with white fur, North Pole workshop, elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus. Some with furtive imaginations believe that Nast's inspiration and colors came from his recreational use of magic mushrooms, in particular, the fly agaric (red and white). However, in the 1930s, Coca-Cola, in a bid to move from the adult to the children's consumer market, launched a massive advertising campaign fronted by Santa, and trademarked the particular color red that we see now see on Coca-Cola and associate with Santa Claus.

But none of this explains how Rudolph can fly. The ancient lands of Lapland and northern Siberia are thought to be the homelands of much of the modern Rudolph myth. Far within the Arctic Circle, the Koryak shaman of a Siberian reindeer tribe enter dwellings each midwinter via the smoke hole in their tents to dispense gifts of the aforementioned fly-agaric mushrooms before their hallucinating tribal companions saw them climb out and depart on their "flying" reindeer. The Sami reindeer herders of Lapland traditionally dress like the legendary elves in red suits, long felt hats and reindeer pelt shoes that curl up at the toe, while the ancient story of Jultomten, a jolly Scandinavian elf who delivered gifts each winter solstice in a sleigh drawn by goats, has obvious resonance.

While the meaning of Christmas has changed over millenniums, its origins lie in many shared global traditions. Beyond the tripping reindeer herders, debauched Roman parties, consumerism triggered by the Coca-Colorization of Christmas, lies a past we all share. There is much that pulls the world apart today, but Christmas is a time for recognizing and celebrating the positive things we share in life, in our unity and our diversity.