santa claus nast, santa claus and his works, thomas nast santa
MSU Museum
A colored illustration from Thomas Nast’s
“Santa Claus and His Works,” 1866.

Q&A: The History of the Christmas Celebration

December 17, 2013 10:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
Find out why we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, when the holiday became popular in America, and from where the traditions of Santa Claus and the Christmas tree are derived.

Why Is Christmas Celebrated on Dec. 25?

The Gospels give little indication of Christ’s birth date. Early Christian thinkers theorized many different days for his birth, most in the spring and winter. In the fourth century, Romans began celebrating his birth on Dec. 25, and the date soon spread through other parts of Europe.

Many historians believe that Christians chose the date to coincide with the numerous pagan festivals taking place at the same time, such as Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Others, including Pope Benedict XVI, argue that the date was arrived at by taking the traditional date of Christ’s death (March 25), assuming that it was also the date of his conception, and adding nine months.

When Did Americans Begin Celebrating Christmas?

Christmas was not widely celebrated in early America. Most European settlers were Puritans, who did not believe the birth of Christ should be celebrated because his birth date was not given in the Bible. Furthermore, they believed that the celebration, particularly the more decadent aspects derived from pagan festivals, encouraged immoral behavior.

The celebration of Christmas was actually banned by the Puritan government in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. It remained unpopular through the American Revolution due to its association with English customs.

It was not until the early 19th century that Christmas began to take hold in America, as authors such as Washington Irving and Charles Dickens redefined it as a peaceful family holiday.

What Are the Origins of Santa Claus?

The earliest inspiration for Santa Claus is Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra (in present day Turkey) in the early fourth century, who was known for helping the poor and giving presents to children. In the Middle Ages, Christians celebrated his feast day, Dec. 6, by leaving gifts for children in their shoes.

Santa Claus is also derived from Odin, a pagan god of Norse and Germanic origin. Odin had a long white beard and rode through the sky on an eight-legged horse to deliver gifts to good children on Yule, a mid-winter pagan celebration.

The Protestant Reformation discouraged celebrations for Saint Nicholas, but he remained popular in the Netherlands, where he was known as Sinterklass. Dutch immigrants in New York celebrated Sinterklass in the late 18th century. In 1809, Washington Irving spread the legend and added new details, writing that St. Nicholas flew through the air in a wagon delivering presents in stockings hung by the chimney.

Many of the details of the modern Santa Claus were developed in the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” published in the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel on Dec. 23, 1823. Also known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the poem describes Santa as a plump, cheery man who travels in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer and enters home through the chimney to deliver toys from his bundle.

The modern image of Santa Claus was created by Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast, who sketched Santa in a series of 32 cartoons between 1863 and 1886. Nast, whose depiction of Santa Claus derived from “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and his German heritage, may also have invented the idea that Santa lives in the North Pole.

The Santa Claus legend was boosted in 1897, when the New York Sun published an editorial in response to 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who asked if Santa Claus existed. Penned by Francis Pharcellus Church, it responded, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.”

Marketers in the 20th century used Santa Claus in promotions, greatly expanding his popularity. The most famous marketing campaigns were produced by Coca-Cola, which beginning in 1931 began featuring its own variations of Nast’s Santa Claus.

What Are the Origins of the Christmas Tree?

Trees and other plants, such as holly and mistletoe, were used in pagan mid-winter celebrations. “Since pagan times evergreens have been valued for their ability to retain signs of life in the middle of winter … Early Christians displayed evergreen plants in the home to symbolise everlasting life,” explains the BBC.

The custom of decorating trees for Christmas is believed to have originated in 14th and 15th century Germany, though the first written record of a decorated tree is found in 1510 in Riga, Latvia. Germans brought “paradise trees,” which symbolized the Garden of Eden in plays about Adam and Eve, into their homes on Dec. 24 and decorated it with wafers. They later began to add other cookies and candles, and the practice became widespread in 17th and 18th century.

The British began to adopt the custom in the late 18th century. It was popularized by Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria, who decorated a tree in the royal household beginning in the 1840s.

Americans were slow to embrace the custom; it wasn’t until the 1890s that it began to spread outside of German immigrants. American trees were larger than the typical German tree, which measured about four feet, and were decorated with brightly colored ornaments rather than cookies and nuts.

“Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end.,” says “With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.”

Beginning the 1923, the White House began its tradition of decorating a tree on the White House lawn. The first Christmas tree was erected in New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1931, and the first tree-lighting ceremony was held two years later.

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