First off, Christmas is now synonymous with Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and gifts; but its original intention was to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The word Christmas actually means Christ’s Mass, i.e. the anointed one’s mass (the chosen one being Jesus of course). So the word Christmas starts to appear around the 10th or 11th century AD, but what happened before that? After all, year 1 is “after death” of… well… Jesus Christ. So why wasn’t it celebrated since year 1? You see, that’s another problem, Jesus’s birth day is not exactly known and wasn’t celebrated until the 4th century. It was actually in the 5th century that pope Leo I decreed that the birth of Jesus was on December 25th, which strangely coincides with the Roman tradition of celebrating Saturnalia (Saturn “being” the “Sun god”). The reason? December 25th is the first day that is noticeably longer than the previous day, i.e. representing the rebirth of the Sun. Now, the logic behind this decision wasn’t without thought or done to mix religion with paganism, but more likely to deter people from worshiping the Sun and turn to worshiping the “Son” (which is not much better when you think about it). Anyways, without debating about the date of Jesus’s birth, let’s move along and see what other Christmas traditions are in vogue.
Let’s talk about Santa Claus, he’s a jolly good fellow, good old Saint Nick. Well, sorry kids, but there’s nothing saintly about him. Ever heard about the Council of Nicaea in 325, that’s 325 AD (c’mon people, we are talking about Christianity after all). So during this council, which was convoked by Emperor Constantine, around 300 bishops and hundreds of priests and deacons attended. What was in play was the Christian doctrine; whether Jesus was son of God (divine) or creation (human) resulting from a miracle of God? During the debate, hot heads prevailed and Nicholas of Myra (deifying Jesus) struck Arius (proponent of monotheism). Nicholas was arrested and taken away. Anyways, the Nicaean creed ended up supporting the claim that Jesus is divine in nature, thus leading to a history of persecutions and killings, headed by the church, towards monotheistic Christians (known as Arians). Fast forward a few centuries and Bishop Nicholas became Saint Nicholas. But in order to become a saint, one must do righteous deeds and accomplish at least 3 miracles. One of the good deeds was to take care of orphans. That’s good… Right?!? At surface value, yes; but when you dig deeper… Many of these orphans were the children of murdered monotheistic parents, the children were cared for by the church (Saint Nicholas) and were indoctrinated to follow the Nicaean creed (to worship Jesus as God and son of God). As for the miracles… Remember when Nicholas slapped Arius, well Nicholas was kept in a cell for the duration of the council but was miraculously freed by Jesus and his mother Mary. That’s definitely a miracle!
Now, as it goes for Santa’s look, that’s more a question of branding (Coka-Cola), folklore, and paganism; rather than history. Basically, Santa Claus (known as Sinterklaas, i.e. Saint Nicholas) is … wait for it… ODIN!!! Yeah! Thor’s dad. So in Norse tradition, Odin lives in Asgard, a realm that is only attainable by crossing frigid inhospitable lands. He had an 8 legged horse that would pull his sled, flying through the sky as he would give gifts to those who deserved them. Oh yeah, these gifts were made by magical dwarves; and all this happened during Yule. Does this depiction remind you of anyone? By the way, one of Odin’s names is Father Yule (Father Christmas).
Now, Odin… I mean Santa Claus, is not the only thing borrowed from Norse mythology. The mistletoe’s berries are the symbol of love; thus, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. There are also wreaths, they were round to represent the cycle of the seasons and then lit aflame to honor the sun. And last but not least, the Christmas tree. Vikings used to decorate evergreens with food, gifts, and ornaments that honored their gods. Actually, for a while, in the 1600s, these rituals were banned in parts of the United States and Great Britain. Moreover, Christmas only became a legal holiday in New England in 1856.
It’s needless to say that celebrations were accompanied by gatherings, feasts, music, and drinking. These are common to most cultures and religions regardless of the holiday. Basically, it’s incredible how events shape the fabric of societies and it’s even more incredible how lies last and intertwine. However, the truth always resurfaces, even if it takes over 2000 years. Next week, In Sha Allah, we shall truly find out who was Jesus (ppuh) and how he is portrayed by Allah in Islam.