A short(ish) history of Christmas and Santa Claus

Few people, if any, know the world’s most popular holiday as intimately as Gerry Bowler, author of four books on Christmas and a history professor at the University of Manitoba researching the intersection of religion and popular culture.  

The original religious inspiration for Christmas, as the symbol of the nativity scene suggests, has everything to do with the birth of Jesus Christ.  

 “…Early Christians seemed not to have been interested in celebrating the birth of Jesus,” Bowler explained.  

Interest was only stoked when Gnostics began asserting a disembodied view of the Christian messiah.  

“When Gnostics began to suggest that he never had a body, that he had never suffered physically, that he had never been born physically, Christians began to be interested in asserting the corporeality of Jesus,” Bowler said. “Celebrating the birth of Jesus then began to make sense.”  

Once the birth of Jesus represented something worth celebrating, the next step was to agree on a date. After a couple centuries of debate, Dec. 25 emerged as the victor – cementing Christmas “right smack in the middle of a bunch of Roman holidays.”  

Such holidays were Saturnalia (a winter festival in honour of the Roman god Saturn), the Brumalia (a winter solstice festival) and the Kalends of January (similar to celebrations of the New Year).  

The customs of these traditions eventually get enmeshed with Christmas celebrations. “Before too long, Christians are giving each other presents, they are talking about the sun, the rebirth of the sun [and] they are bringing greenery indoors,” Bowler explained.  

According to Bowler, all cultures who recognize a midwinter festival emphasize three things: light, feasting and bringing greenery into one’s home.  

The emphasis on light is contrasted by the natural world’s darkness during winter months, whereas feasting has something to do with the cessation of productive harvesting and farming. 

“It’s an agricultural dead period, so there’s not much work to be done but all the food is there to be eaten,” Bowler said.  

“In the absence of refrigeration, that’s when you do your baking … the wine harvest is in [so] you drink all the wine, the barley is in so you drink the beer, all the meat is slaughtered so it’s a time of festivity.”  

The emphasis on bringing greenery into the house is the result of what Bowler called “floral bleakness” – in other words, the grey and white undertones of the natural world in winter. 

Now that we understand how some Christmas traditions began, we might ask where they began. “There is some suggestion that it was first celebrated in North Africa in the late 200s … when Christianity was still being persecuted,” Bowler explained.  

The celebration did not, however, take on an outwardly enthusiastic shape until the persecution ended.  

“When the persecution is over, Christians can come out with their buildings and their festivities … the earliest thing we have real dates for is in the 320s.”  

Today, Christmas is celebrated longest in the Philippines. “They start getting excited in September,” Bowler said. Germany holds the title, at least in Bowler’s view, for the region that celebrates “most intently.”  

“It’s out of Germany that comes the Christmas tree, the advent wreath, the advent calendar … [and] gingerbread.”  

In Canada, where about 90 per cent of the population celebrated Christmas in 2019, some especially unique traditions are practiced.  

Perhaps the most unique among them is the tradition of ‘Mummering.’ Celebrated in Newfoundland and Labrador, this tradition is too befuddling to write about sufficiently here. In short, town inhabitants dress up in disguises and dance their way through town, staging friendly home invasions and putting on plays, among other things.  

Christmas first made its way into Canada when European settlers began exploring Canadian waters. In 1534, the discoveries of Jacques Cartier, a French explorer, would bring the tradition inland.   

It has not, however, remained the same tradition as old. Today, Christmas faces something of an identity crisis: commercialization. According to one survey from the Angus Reid Institute, “69 per cent of Canadians feel Christmas has lost some of its meaning and become too commercialized.”  

Commercialization is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of Christmas. Before the industrial revolution, the only gifts that were given were, by necessity, homemade.  

“Up until the 19th century, Christmas indulgence is all in food and drink … that’s why we have wonderful Christmas foods,” Bowler explained. 

In the 19th century, with the invention of Santa Claus – or, more accurately, the transformation of St. Nicholas – Christmas becomes an unstoppable commercial force.  

“The advantage of Santa Claus is that he is utterly non-sectarian. He is not a Catholic bishop anymore, [so] he can appeal to any family,” Bowler said. “Advertisers seize on this at once.”  

“Santa Claus is the most important fictional character in world history. He is the first fictional character we took advice about buying from … before Betty Crocker or Ronald McDonald, it was Santa Claus.”  

The advent of the industrial revolution coupled with the introduction of Santa Claus led to previously unimagined freedoms for children. “It coincides with a new view of childhood where kids don’t have to be economic contributors anymore. You can have this brief period of childhood innocence before they’re sent off to the factory or sent off to boarding school,” Bowler said.   

Industrialization also meant that there was more stuff to buy – and, of course, to give.  

This idea of childhood innocence, which is going strong to this day, is one of Bowler’s favourite aspects of the holiday. “If you have kids, Christmas is just magnified: the innocence, the magic, the expectation.”  

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