Christmas has two distinct themes running through it, as study of any
collection of Christmas cards shows. One is the religious aspect,
involving Wise Men, angels, the Star and shepherds, and refers to
the Gospel story of the birth of Christ. The other theme seems totally
unrelated and depicts reindeer, stockings, a sleigh and, of course,
The two main Christmas personalities are Jesus and Santa, as most people
will agree. Everyone brought up in a Christian country knows the
significance of Jesus at this time but just who is Father Christmas and
why should he become part of a religious festival?
We must first look back at history and see why December became such
an important month in the religious calendar in the first place. The
reason is, of course, the Winter Solstice, December 21st, when the
Sun appears to stop in the sky prior to beginning its journey back
across the heavens.
After the Solstice the days gradually get longer and the peoples
of old considered this to be almost the birthday of the Sun. The peoples
of the northern hemisphere were fond of having a festival in mid-winter,
perhaps because they needed something to take their minds off the long,
cold, dark days.
In ancient Rome the feast of Saturnalia was held between December
17th and 23rd and gifts were exchanged. The Romans also held the
feast of Brumalia on the Solstice day itself and considered this to be
the birthday of Mithra the unconquered Sun god. The Norsemen celebrated
Yule at this time, to herald the return of the Sun.
It is interesting to note that Christ is often known as the Light of
the World, a title that continues this theme of darkness in retreat in
the face of good.
The Solstice has long been associated with the idea of people giving
each other presents. Apart from giving gifts at Saturnalia the Romans
also exchanged presents on the feast of the Kalends, which we call New
Year's Day. These customs prevailed all over the Roman Empire when
Christianity was still a new religion.
When Christianity spread to the northern lands they found the
Norsemen worshipping Odin--who rode his chariot through the night sky at
the time of the Winter Solstice, handing out gifts.
Because the exchange of gifts was so linked in the pagan mind with
these old festivals devout Christians were not supposed to exchange
gifts at this time. However, gift-exchange never died out on the
European scene and finally the Church fathers had to do something about
it. They did not want to let people keep on believing that Odin or any
other pagan deity had anything to do with gift-bringing so they looked
around for an acceptable Christian figure to bring them instead. The
person they chose was St Nicholas, the former Bishop of Myra in the
4th century AD.
Not much is actually known about St Nicholas, though many legends
grew up around his kind ly figure. One thing that qualified him for the
role of gift-bringer was his feast day being December 6th, a date
sufficiently close to the Solstice for the two to be connected in the
St Nicholas was a useful saint and could even be described as
all-purpose. His responsibilities included the welfare of pawn-
brokers, boatmen, parish clerks, dockers and barrel-makers among
others. He was the patron saint of both Russia and Aberdeen. The
best-known story about him tells of his leaving three bags of gold on
a poor man's windowsill as dowries for his three daughters. One version
of this tale states that the gold was thrown through the window and
landed in a stocking that had been hung up to dry, which perhaps
explains our custom of the Christmas stocking.
Next: Halloween, A Witches Thoughts (Cecylina Brightsword)