Every December 25, billions of people around the world gather together to celebrate the Christmas holiday. While many dedicate the occasion as the Christian tradition of the birth of Jesus, others commemorate the age-old customs of the pagans, the indigenous peoples of pre-Christian Europe. Still, others might carry on the celebration of Saturnalia, the feast of the Roman god of agriculture. And, the celebration of Saturnalia included the ancient Persian Feast of the Unconquered Sun on December 25th. Whatever the case, one can certainly encounter many different ways of celebrating the occasion.
Through the centuries these local and universal traditions have gradually blended together to form our modern tradition of Christmas, arguably the first global holiday. Today, many cultures around the world celebrate Christmas with a wide variety of customs. In the United States, most of our traditions have been borrowed from Victorian England, which were themselves borrowed from other places, notably mainland Europe. In our current culture, many people may be familiar with the Nativity scene or maybe visiting Santa Claus at the local shopping mall, but these common traditions weren't always with us. This compels us to ask some questions about the geography of Christmas: where did our holiday traditions come from and how did they come to be? The list of world Christmas traditions and symbols is long and varied. Many books and articles have been written about each one separately. In this article, three of the most common symbols are discussed: Christmas as the birth of Jesus Christ, Santa Claus, and the Christmas tree.
Origin and Diffusion of Christmas Symbols
Christmas was designated as the birth of Jesus in the fourth century CE. During this period, Christianity was just beginning to define itself and Christian feast days were integrated into the popular pagan traditions to ease the adoption of the new religious beliefs. Christianity diffused outward from this region through the work of evangelizers and missionaries and eventually, European colonization brought it to places all over the world. The cultures that adopted Christianity also adopted the celebration of Christmas.
The legend of Santa Claus began with a Greek Bishop in fourth-century Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). There in the town of Myra, a young bishop, named Nicholas, gained a reputation for kindness and generosity by distributing his family fortune to the less fortunate. As one story goes, he stopped the sale of three young women into slavery by providing enough gold to make a marriage dowry for each of them. According to the story, he threw the gold through the window and it landed in a stocking drying by the fire. As time passed, the word spread of Bishop Nicholas' generosity and children began hanging their stockings by the fire in hopes that the good bishop would pay them a visit.
Bishop Nicholas died on December 6th, 343 CE. He was canonized as a saint a short time later and the feast day of Saint Nicholas is celebrated on the anniversary of his death. The Dutch pronunciation of Saint Nicholas is Sinter Klaas. When Dutch settlers came to the United States, the pronunciation became "Anglicanized" and changed to Santa Claus which remains with us today. Little is known about what Saint Nicholas looked like. Depictions of him often portrayed a tall, thin character in a hooded robe sporting a graying beard. In 1822, an American theological professor, Clement C. Moore, wrote a poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" (more popularly known as "The Night Before Christmas"). In the poem, he describes 'Saint Nick' as a jolly elf with a round belly and a white beard. In 1881, an American cartoonist, Thomas Nast, drew a picture of Santa Claus using Moore's description. His drawing gave us the modern-day image of Santa Claus.
The origin of the Christmas tree can be found in Germany. In pre-Christian times, the pagans celebrated the Winter Solstice, often decorated with pine branches because they were always green (hence the term evergreen). The branches were often decorated with fruit, especially apples and nuts. The evolution of the evergreen tree into the modern Christmas tree begins with Saint Boniface, on a mission from a Britain (modern-day England) through the forests of Northern Europe. He was there to evangelize and convert the pagan peoples to Christianity. Accounts of the journey say that he intervened in the sacrifice of a child at the foot of an oak tree (oak trees are associated with the Norse god Thor). After stopping the sacrifice, he encouraged the people to instead gather around the evergreen tree and divert their attention away from bloody sacrifices to acts of giving and kindness. The people did so and the tradition of the Christmas tree was born. For centuries, it remained mostly a German tradition.
The widespread diffusion of the Christmas tree to areas outside of Germany didn't happen until Queen Victoria of England married Prince Albert of Germany. Albert moved to England and brought with him his German Christmas traditions. The idea of the Christmas tree became popular in Victorian England after an illustration of the Royal Family around their tree was published in 1848. The tradition then quickly spread to the United States along with many other English traditions.
Christmas is a historic holiday that blends ancient pagan customs with the more recent universal traditions of Christianity. It is also an interesting trip around the world, a geographic story that originated in many places, especially Persia and Rome. It gives us the account of three wise men from the orient visiting a newborn baby in Palestine, the recollection of good deeds by a Greek bishop living in Turkey, the fervent work of a British missionary traveling through Germany, a children's poem by an American theologian, and the cartoons of a German-born artist living in the United States. All of this variety contributes to the festive nature of Christmas, which is what makes the holiday such an exciting occasion. Interestingly, when we pause to remember why we have these traditions, we have geography to thank for it.