May you and yours have a safe and happy holiday, festive however you like best!
All of our furry and scaly friends wish you holidays filled with treats and toys!
May you and yours have a safe and happy holiday, festive however you like best!
All of our furry and scaly friends wish you holidays filled with treats and toys!
The logical answer would be, “We celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th because that’s when He was born.” But in this instance, the logical answer is probably wrong.
Neither the Bible nor any other record dates Jesus’s actual day of birth. In addition, the season when shepherds would be watching their flocks by night and when the census was taken would argue that the actual birth was either spring or autumn.
According to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, early Christians weren’t bothered by not knowing Jesus’s birthday for “It never occurred to them that they needed to celebrate his birthday.”
Further, according to Nissenbaum, the Church got into something of a crisis, with people tending to believe that Jesus never existed as a man. Instituting a birthday celebration was a way to counteract that trend.
The first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th was 336AD, during the time of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. Perhaps he chose that date because Pagan Romans would be celebrating the Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, and “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” (birth of the unconquered sun god, Mitra) anyway.
Another possible explanation stems from Jewish tradition. Male babies were circumcised and given their names eight days after their birth. Church elders may have settled upon the beginning of the new year as the Naming Day of Jesus; eight days before that would be December 25th.
Pope Julius I is said to have declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the 25th of December. However, the sources for this claim are extremely questionable.
One very early Christian tradition held that on March 25th the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would have a very special baby. The Annunciation is still celebrated on March 25th—and nine months later is December 25th.
The early Church celebrated Christmas, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of Jesus all on January 6th. In some parts of the UK, January 6th is still called Old Christmas.
Then, too, not everyone celebrates Christmas on December 25th even today. Many Christians use other dates or December 25th on non-Gregorian calendars. The dates below are all Gregorian.
If you’re particularly bored (or really itching for a fight) in the next few weeks, go online and declare that you know the definitive birthdate of Jesus. No matter what date you claim, people will swarm to prove you wrong.
CONSIDER THE DOWNSIDE OF CHRISTMAS.
Part of the downside of Christmas is this myth that everything and everyone is merry and bright, and if you aren’t, you must be a Scrooge. Or a Grinch. Or Burgemeister Meister Burgher. Indeed, much of what follows also applies to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Ōmisoka, and other holidays too numerous to mention. Almost everyone (every character?) suffers one or more of these downsides of typical celebrations.
An ambulance driver explained it to me this way:
“It’s like everyone’s on a hurt-yourself schedule, same every year. Early morning starts with the drunk drivers going home from parties, sometimes the homeless with hypothermia, depends on the weather. Then the kids get up way too early and open their presents and start hitting each other with them or falling off anything with wheels and breaking any bone you can think of.
“After that, you get a mix of cooking accidents and alcohol poisonings through the afternoon. Eventually, people hit their limit with family, have too much to drink, and start beating on each other. That’s also about the time ‘lonely hearts’ start calling us, asking to go to the hospital just because they have no place else to go and they don’t want to be alone.
“People eat too much at dinner and get the ‘too-much-macaroni sweats.’ They get heartburn and think they’re having a heart attack. We get more alcohol calls, either people fighting or passing out.
“And then everyone heads home, driving drunk. Better hope your tree doesn’t catch on fire. Happy Holidays.”
Bottom line: These are all for typical Christmases. Consider which might be eased and which might be exacerbated in the year of COVID?
There are those, for example David C. Pack writing in The Real Truth magazine, who denounce the pagan origins of Christmas trees and other greenery. Pack cites Jeremiah 10:2-5 to support his assertion that we should have nothing to do with Christmas trees.
I am not among those. The reality of the world is that things morph and change—the meaning of words, clearly, but other symbols as well. So let’s take a look at the consensus around the evolution of the Christmas tree.
Long before the coming of Christianity, evergreen plants had a special meaning for people in winter. Ancient Europeans hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries, people believed that these would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness. The Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia. Today, Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God. Why can’t it symbolize all those things?
Although evergreen trees are the through-line, in parts of northern Europe, cherry or hawthorn plants or branches were brought inside in hopes they would bloom in time for Christmas.
Many early Christmas trees were hung upside down from the ceiling.
The first documented use of tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations was in 1510, in Riga, the capital of Latvia. After the ceremony (involving men wearing black hats) the tree was burned. This is sometimes associated with the yule log.
The first person to bring a tree into the house, in the way we know it today, is thought to have been the German preacher Martin Luther in the 1500s. The lore goes that he was walking home in winter, was impressed with the stars shining through tree branches, and cut a tree to take home. He put small lit candles on the branches to share his vision with his family.
There are other stories, for example about St. Boniface of Crediton leaving England to travel to Germany. But this isn’t an encyclopedia, so I’ll move along.
But another point of consensus seems to be that Christmas trees took hold in Germany and spread across the world from there. In Germany, early trees were decorated with edible things like gingerbread and gold-covered apples. But by 1605, they were decorated with paper roses, apples, wafers, gold foil, and sweets.
The Christmas tree came to Britain sometime in the 1830s, and became popular in 1841 when Queen Victoria’s German husband had a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. From England to the United States, from candles to electric lights, the evolution continued.
Artificial Christmas trees have long been popular, from the trees made from colored ostrich feathers in the Edwardian period on. Over the years, artificial trees have been made from feathers, papier mâché, metal, glass, and lots of plastic. Now lawns sometimes sport inflatable trees!
So, if pre-Christians and Christians both found good in the green of midwinter, fine with me! I plant hellebores and other evergreens where I can see them on the shortest days of the year.
The Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School is the oldest in existence. Before 1937, Santas were pretty much on their own, and any man with a red suit would do.
To uphold the traditions and preserve the history of Santa Claus while providing students with the necessary resources to improve and further define their individual presentations of Santa and Mrs. Claus, allowing them to enter the hearts and spread the Christmas spirit to everyone they meet.
At the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, more than 200 aspiring Santas gather each year to attend a three-day series of classes where they learn everything from the history of Saint Nicholas to reindeer habits.
In November, 2018, Mental Floss took an in-depth look. Here are several points from their write-up, 13 Things to Know About The World’s Oldest Santa School.
Each year, about 200 Santas (including a handful of Mrs. Clauses) attend class in Midland—but not everybody who applies gets accepted. Co-Dean Holly Valent rejects Santas who don’t seem interested in children or singing. (In other words, Santas who appear to be in it only for the money.) Additionally, she has to place around 40 prospective Santas on a waiting list each year. Thankfully, the workshop in Midland is not the only Santa school under the North Pole.
The most important aspect of being a good Santa is learning how to genuinely listen to all kinds of children. “[Y]ou have to be on your toes all the time, because you never know what the children are going to ask you,” Mary Ida Doan, who plays Mrs. Claus, told WJRT. (Doan would know: She’s a member of the International Santa Claus Hall of Fame.)
During the workshop, the Santas get schooled in child psychology and learn handy tricks from experts and each other: How to deal with squirmy children, crying children, children who are afraid of you, and more. The Santas even learn basic sign language. “It’s important to be able to spread Christmas cheer to all children,” a Santa named Bill told Reuters.
An organization called Santa America provides extra training for Santas to connect with children who need a different kind of communication to reach all that Christmas cheer. The frenetic atmosphere at a typical Santa’s Grotto can be overwhelming and terrifying for any child. Santas who have trained with Santa America can create a quieter, calmer, slower space. These “Sensitive Santas” are in demand at Christmas for hospitals, very young children, children on the autism spectrum, and many others.
Santa America also connects local Santas and their companions with people who might need a visit from Santa Claus any time of the year: during a hospital stay, after major disasters, when a parent is deployed overseas. Part of their mission is to prove that Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, and the elves never go off on vacation when children need them.
Since kids are apt to ask Santa anything, it’s best that Santa draws his answers from real experience. What are the reindeer like? To find out, Santa students study reindeer habits and get to meet real reindeer.
How are toys made? The Santas spend quality time learning how to make wooden playthings.
The Santas also attend lectures about St. Nick’s backstory and the North Pole. “Know who you are,” Valent tells an assembly of Santas, according to CNN. “Know your legend. Know where you came from.”
Since each Santa must prepare for radio and TV interviews, much of Santa school focuses on teaching students how to craft an accurate and authentic persona. “For example, they’re advised to create a backstory for their ‘elves,’ pulling names and characteristics from kids and grandkids in their own circles,” Kathleen Lavey reported for the Lansing State Journal. It also means learning how to deliver a hearty but balanced Ho Ho Ho. “You have to do it mild,” Tom Valent explained. “It’s got to be a laugh.” (And to ensure the Santas are really in the Christmas spirit, they’re also taught how to sing with cheer.)
It’s not enough to nail the laugh. Being Santa requires you to be a full-body actor—and that means perfecting the big man’s jolly, bouncing swagger. The school is stuffed with movement lessons. “The school fitness teacher had them dance as if they were wrapping presents, baking cookies and filling stockings to classic Christmas tunes,” Christinne Muschi wrote for Reuters.
Santas also learn how to properly ease in and out of a sleigh and learn yoga and breathing exercises to keep limber. (It’s important work: Hoisting kids up and down from your lap for hours takes its toll.) As Tom Valent told CNN, “Santa is a healthy outdoorsman.”
Being Santa is not for the faint of heart or the faint of sinus. Pet photos with Santa are increasingly popular, often as part of a fundraiser. The Humane Society, Paws for a Cause, Sidewalk Dog, and many local animal shelters ask Santas to pose for photos with dogs, cats, hamsters, snakes, turtles, and any other pet they can safely hold. Better take that Benadryl!
At Santa school—which costs $550 for new students—they teach classes on marketing, accounting, and taxes. That’s because being a freelance Santa is not cheap. A Santa with a bare chin is advised to buy a custom beard and wig that can cost up to $1800. And while a generic suit costs about $500, a personalized one can run over $2000. Add to that $700 for a pair of authentic boots. And then grooming expenses. Oh, and makeup.
At school, Santas also learn how to curl their mustaches and groom their hair and beards (or wigs) to create a windblown I-just-got-out-of-the-sleigh look. They receive lessons in bleaching their hair to get a snow-white glisten as well as lessons in applying makeup.
According to Lavey, teachers show other Santas all the insider secrets: “How to take the shine off their foreheads with powder, pink up their cheeks with rouge, and add stardust to their beards with hairspray that contains glitter.”
The big secret to making Santa’s beard smell magical? Peppermint oil.
For those who can’t—or won’t—spend three intensive days and nights in Midlands, Michigan, there are options! In-person schools around the country and online for DYIers.
In November, 2018, Business Insider did an article on Santa schools, particularly the finances involved. Here are several quotes from that article.
“There’s two kinds of Santas: There are professional Santas and there are guys in red suits,” Santa Rick, a former mediator and divorce arbiter who runs the Northern Lights Santa Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, told Vox. “And the difference for me is there are those who want to better themselves and learn and master the trade, and there are the others.” This Santa school also has classes for Mrs. Claus and elves.
“I’m very high-energy, so I tend to put on a little bit of a show: The Night Before Christmas, and caroling, and magic,” said Santa Jim Manning, who is the official Santa Claus for Boston’s tree lighting and has covered the Red Sox Christmas card. “A lot of people think being Santa Claus means just showing up, sitting on the couch, and letting kids sit in your lap. But what I do is a lot more.” To the right, see Santa Jim jumping out of an airplane.
“Rick, of the Northern Lights Santa Academy, told Vox that high-end Santas can earn up to $25,000 a season, but the cost of travel, lodging, and garb can eat into the pay. A quality Santa costume and accessories costs at least $1,000 and a beard set made of human hair can range from $1,800 to $2,500, he said.”
Not only does the IUSC offer courses around the world, they have a degree program recognizing a student’s years of dedication. A Santa or Mrs. Claus can earn a Doctorate of Santaclausology (PhD), with options for further advanced study.
Unfortunately, all 2020 International University of Santa Claus in-person classes have been cancelled. Online courses are available, so aspiring Santas can ask their grandkids for help logging in to Zoom classes!
2020 is an atypical year. (You heard it here first!) And this is true for Santas and Santa schools as well. Dr. Fauci has assured the public that Santa Claus is naturally immune to COVID-19, but Santa can still spread the virus. Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, Sinterklaas, and all other Christmas gift-bringers have been declared essential workers and therefore exempt from quarantine or isolation rules.
Some Santas are adapting with smaller grottos, shorter visits, and lots of hand sanitizer. Others are setting up plexiglass barriers or arranging for children to stay more than six feet away. A few mall Santa Grottos are even setting up holographic Santas for photos.
However, possibly the safest option for Santa and for kids is to visit Santa digitally.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Awkward Family Photos for sharing the very best of the very worst photos with Santa Claus.
Bottom Line: There’s more to being a good Santa than putting on a red suit! Consider how Santas and Santa schools might broaden your cast of characters and/or plots.
The subtle, quiet displays of merchants in the area may have hinted at it, but just in case you didn’t notice: Christmas is coming! Yes, I know, it’s easy to overlook the slight adjustments in advertising décor and to miss the odd carol or two playing on radio stations. Santa Claus will be coming to town in approximately twenty days (depending on when you read this).
But did you know that St. Nicholas is also coming? And that Father Christmas is coming? Grandfather Frost will be here with his granddaughter the Snow Maiden. If you’re very lucky, you might even get a glimpse of Befana, Joulupukki the Yule Goat, Amu Nowruz, or Olentzero. The evolution of modern Christmas customs, including Santa Claus, has been discussed on this blog before.
If you’re very lucky and have highly refined literary tastes, you may catch a glimpse of the Hogfather.
But why should you care about all these visitors wandering about your town? (Besides the tendency to trespass and child beating, of course?) If society is reflected in its myths, then the writer can illustrate society by mentioning the myths.
As discussed before, humans tend to follow the sun. When it goes away, we tend to get a little anxious and want it to come back. The tendency to mark the solstices appears in almost every part of the world that sees the effects of axial rotation. Giving gifts is a common theme at this time of year, often contrasted with giving coal or beatings to the deserving.
Writing teachers are always telling us to “show, not tell.” Referring to a culturally specific Santa-esque figure is a great way to show where and when a story is set. Consider some of these holiday figures with a habit of giving sweets, money, and gifts to deserving believers. Many of them are accompanied by a darker foil who comes to punish those who have been “naughty” during the preceding year.
Today, Father Christmas is often depicted as simply the English version of Santa Claus. Look back a few hundred years, however, and you’ll see a very different figure. Oliver Cromwell’s puritan government cancelled Christmas during the English Civil War; the public brought it back during the Restoration of 1660. At that time, Father Christmas was the personification of Medieval customs of feasting and making merry to celebrate Yule. The evolution of Father Christmas since that time follows the changes in common Christmas celebrations in England.
Saint Nicholas Day is almost upon us! Dutch children will leave their shoes on the doorstep or by the fire so that Sinterklaas can fill them with candy and toys. If children have been naughty, Sinterklaas’s assistant Zwarte Piet beats them with a stick or throws them into his sack and sends them to Spain. The historical Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra (in modern Turkey) and patron saint of children and travelers. He arrives by steamboat and parades through town on a white horse, wearing his traditional bishop’s attire, accompanied by his assistants. Sinterklaas carries a huge, red book with a list of all the naughty and nice children in the area. The modern American Santa Claus owes much of his current fashionable ensemble to Sinterklaas.
Zwarte Piet, Black Peter, is a very controversial figure in modern Sinterklaas festivities and worthy of a separate discussion all his own.
In many traditionally Catholic countries, gifts are brought by three figures: the Wise Men from the East mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. On their way to bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Baby Jesus, the Wise Men take a break to deliver gifts to good children in Venezuela, Spain, the Philippines, and many other countries. Very few specifics are actually given in the Bible, but traditions have filled in plenty of details. Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar may have come from Persia, Arabia, Pakistan, India, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Armenia, or Babylon, depending on local custom. Gifts are often given to children on January 4th, the Feast of the Epiphany, instead of December 25th.
Uncle Nowruz gives gifts to children at the Iranian New Year, which occurs at the Spring Equinox rather than the Winter Solstice. He spends the year travelling the world with Haji Nowruz, a soot-covered minstrel. While Haji Nowruz dances and sings, Amu Nowruz gives coins and candy to children.
Ebisu, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Benzaiten, Juroujin, Hotei, Fukurokuju bring their treasure ship Takarabune to Japan on January 2, the beginning of the New Year. Like the early Father Christmas, the Seven Lucky Gods bring good cheer and prosperity to everyone. Those who sleep with a picture of the Shichifukujin under their pillow will have good fortune in the coming year.
Pretty much any setting for a story on Earth has a celebration of midwinter or year’s beginning, complete with a figure who rewards or punishes believers according to their behavior the previous year. But what if the story doesn’t take place on Earth?
Once again, those who have gone before can show us how it’s done. Articles on io9, tv.tropes, and Goodreads show just how commonly a winter festival centered around gifts and the return of light occur in other universes. Tallying the previous year’s sins and distributing charity are common themes.
For a writer, midwinter festivals offer a chance to showcase family bonds, strengthen relationships, demonstrate local superstitions, or just have characters party.
Honestly, I wasn’t sure whether to include Moș Gerilă as a real gift-giving figure or a fantasy. This “Old Man Frost” was created by the Romanian Communist Party in 1947 as part of an attempt to shift Christmas celebrations from the Orthodox Church and the private family to the state. Moș Gerilă was portrayed as a handsome, bare-chested, young man who brought gifts to factory workers. All celebrations were held on December 30th, the national Day of the Republic. Festivities with decorated trees and patriotic music were held in public spaces, and Moș Gerilă would come bearing gifts of nuts and sweets from the Communist Party to well-behaved children. The fate of badly-behaved children is not clear, but I would imagine a gulag was involved. After the fall of the Romanian Communist Party in 1990, Moș Gerilă disappeared and Moș Crăciun (Father Christmas, similar to the Russian Grandfather Snow) took his place.
Futurama, set in the year 3000, has an Xmas episode each season. Celebrants decorate a palm tree with lights and barricade themselves indoors. Santa Claus has been replaced by a robot with a programming error. He judges everyone to be naughty and attempts to exterminate everyone on Earth every year. Kevlar vests and body armor are common gifts.
According to fan gossip, George Lucas attempted to find and destroy every copy of The Star Wars Holiday Special after it aired for the only time in 1978. Life Day is a Wookie holiday centered around the Tree of Life, celebrating children and death. The holiday is traditionally observed by family gatherings, preparing special foods, singing in red robes on Kashyyyk, and exchanging gifts. Also, Bea Arthur runs a cantina on Mos Eisley for some unexplained reason.
Terry Pratchett’s 20th Discworld novel, Hogfather, is essentially a satire of modern Christmas customs. Hogswatchnight is described by the narrator as “bearing a remarkable resemblance to your Christmas.” The Hogfather rides his sleigh pulled by magically flying boars around the Disc delivering toys by climbing down chimneys. Children leave pork pies and brandy for the Hogfather, essentially a wild boar dressed in Father Christmas robes, which raises some disturbing questions about why he eats pork pies.
In the beginning, “Most people forgot that the very oldest stories are, sooner or later, about blood. Later on they took the blood out to make the stories more acceptable to children, or at least to the people who had to read them to children rather than the children themselves, and then wondered where the stories went.” Over the course of the book, there are zany hijinks and wacky shenanigans involving Tooth Fairies, elegant parties, the Auditors of the Universe, a governess, the Death of Rats, and various other Terry Pratchett wonders. Ultimately, Death (a seven foot tall skeleton with glowing blue eyes and a scythe) has to save the day. In doing so, he explains to his granddaughter (genetics are complicated) why celebrations of the sun’s return and surviving through winter are so important.
A previous version of this blog was posted on December 24th, 2015.
For centuries, the Christian holiday of Christmas was celebrated as a season rather than a single day. Beginning at sunset on Christmas Eve and continuing through the Eve of the Epiphany, the Twelve Days of Christmas were a time of parties, feasts, and gifts of milkmaids and birds.
In predominantly Catholic countries (e.g., Spain, Mexico, Poland, and Italy), Midnight Mass is the most important service in the Christmas season. To celebrate the end of the Advent Season and its vigilant fasting, families often share a large Christmas dinner after the Midnight Mass Service. In other countries (e.g., Belgium, Finland, Lithuania, and Denmark), the meal is eaten before the Midnight Service.
Tradition carried over from pagan days dictated that greenery such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe should only be brought into the house on Christmas Eve. Burning a Yule log, kissing under mistletoe, and guarding the house from evil spirits with holly are all pagan customs that have become entwined with Christmas.
In some European countries (e.g. Serbia and Slovakia), the Christmas tree is brought into the house and decorated on Christmas Eve, as well. In Norway, the decorating of the tree is traditionally done by the parents behind closed doors while the children wait outside. “Circling the tree” follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and they walk around it singing carols. Gifts are distributed afterwards.
In Germany, the Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) was traditionally decorated by the mother, in secret, with lights, tinsel, and ornaments. It was lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts, and gifts under it.
In the United States, the decorating of trees, houses, lawns, and people begins weeks before Christmas.
It is also common to go caroling on Christmas Eve. (Click here to read about the evolution of Christmas carols.) In the UK, if not caroling, perhaps wassailing or mumming.
Another wide-spread custom is the hanging of Christmas stockings, preferably on the fireplace, since that’s where Santa Claus is supposed to enter. Traditionally, Christmas stockings are filled on Christmas eve.
Even the Smithsonian can’t trace the origins of hanging stockings, but clearly it was well-established by the time Clement Clarke Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”). In Tuesday’s blog, I mentioned the legend that St. Nicholas provided dowries for three pious but impoverished sisters. One version of that legend has St. Nicholas coming down the chimney at night and putting a gold ball in the toe of each girl’s stocking, recently laundered and hung by the fire to dry.
Of course families have their own traditions of activities, food, and decoration passed on from generation to generation. But one that is nearly universal is that the bringer of gifts now does so on Christmas Eve.
P.S. I have focused on Christmas Eve from the Western Christian perspective. I urge you to explore more broadly, including Eastern celebrations and Jewish Christmas traditions!