Listen: Katrina Roe chats to history researcher Bronwen Neil about the origins of Christmas traditions.
We have no way of knowing Jesus’s actual birthday, the Christmas tree has nothing to do with Christ, and Santa Claus’s suit was red and white long before Coca Cola got hold of it.
Those are some of the surprising facts about Christmas traditions that surfaced when Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe chatted with history researcher Bronwen Neil from the Centre for Early Christian Studies at the Australian Catholic University.
Christmas Day Not Really Jesus’ Birthday
It can be confusing, especially for children, to learn that Christmas Day is a celebration of Jesus’ birth, and then later discover it’s not his actual birthday.
In fact, December 25 probably doesn’t have any historical connection to Jesus’ birthday at all. So why the specific date?
While the answer is a matter of debate among historians, Bronwen explained we may have a 5th Century Pope named Leo the Great to thank for the tradition.
“It seems to have come in as a replacement for the date for the feast of Saturn the Sun-God, also known as the Saturnalia,” Bronwen said of Christmas Day.
“It’s a contentious theory that not everyone agrees with, but Leo the Great (a Pope) in Rome, in the 440s, decided it would be a good idea to distract people from this pagan festival by having the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Son of God. So a different kind of Son. But also Jesus has the title of the Rising Sun. And Sun imagery was often used for Jesus.”
Bronwen added that census that was conducted at the time of Jesus’ birth can’t be used as a reference date.
“People were going to great lengths in the fourth and fifth century to say that [December 25] was a historical date, but because we don’t have any official record of when the census was held, we can’t actually tie it to any day of the year, or even any particular year.”
According to HistoryToday, some experts disagree with the Saturnalia connection, such as Dr David Gwynn, an ancient history lecturer at the University of London.
Writer Matt Salusbury says the date of Christmas may date back to Jewish traditions that link the time of prophets’ birth or conception, to the time of their death. “Early ecclesiastical number-crunchers extrapolated that the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy following the annunciation on March 25th would produce a December 25th date for the birth of Christ,” Sallusbury writes.
Christmas Trees: An Ancient Symbol of Life
If the celebration of Christmas had originated in the southern hemisphere, the Christmas pine tree tradition would never have emerged.
Bronwen explained to Katrina that the Christmas tree is in fact a pagan German fertility symbol, but it came into popularity after Prince Albert introduced it to England when he married Queen Victoria.
“That’s how we got it in England, and then from there to Australia and so on,” she said. “It’s just a symbol of life, really, in the middle of winter, which in the northern hemisphere was a time when most things were dying.
“Christmas trees were something that were still around and you could bring into your house and decorate with candles and so on. It wasn’t actually about Christmas.”
According to history.com, evergreen branches were brought to hang over doors and windows inside homes long before Christianity emerged. “In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness,” according to the website.
Giving Gifts Thanks to Saint Nicholas
While many Christians associate Christmas gift-giving with the example of the ‘wise men’ who brought gifts to Jesus, it also dates back to Saint Nicholas’s Day, a Dutch tradition that actually falls on December 6. The night before Saint Nicholas’s Day, Dutch children would traditionally put clogs out for Saint Nicholas to fill with small presents or coins.
The celebration is in memory of a 4th century Christian Bishop from Turkey, who was also called Nikolaos of Myra.
“Saint Nicholas used to do good deeds for the poor, especially for young women who didn’t have dowries,” said Bronwen. ”He’d go around at night leaving money on the doorstep for their families so that the girls could get married. That’s where the gift-giving came in.”
Boxing Day and Giving to the Poor
According to Bronwen, the charity element of Christmas time is also an old tradition, and it may be the foundation to what we now call Boxing Day.
“On Boxing Day they used to open the alms boxes, which were money boxes for donations to the poor in the churches, and distribute the contents to the poor,” Bronwen said.
“And a lot of people do need help at Christmas, especially when people are coming to visit.”
A Time Magazine article suggests that this is one of the possible explanations for the naming of December 26 as ‘Boxing Day’, as is another tradition in which the aristocracy used to give boxes of gifts to servants and employees.
Santa’s Famous Red and White Suit
While the power of the internet has taught many of us that Coca Cola popularised the image of a rotund, child-friendly Santa Claus in his red and white suit, the image actually emerged in the 1850s, according to Bronwen.
Before this, Father Christmas used to come with an MA-15+ rating.
“He didn’t wear the red and white, and was kind of a medieval symbol of adult merry-making, getting drunk and eating too much,” Bronwen said. “Then in the 1850s they kind of domesticated him and made him the red and white old man.”
The Coca Cola company claims that they are responsible for making Santa’s red and white suit his standard uniform in the 1930s, but according to myth-busting website Snopes, it was firmly planted in his wardrobe long before Coca Cola picked up on it.
“The red-and-white Santa figure…had already become the standard representation of Santa Claus before he began his tenure as a pitchman for Coke,” writes David Mikkelson.
“Illustrations of lavishly bearded Santas…showing figures clothed in red suits and red hats with white fur trimming, held together with broad black belts, were common long before Coca-Cola’s first Sundblom-drawn Santa Claus advertisement appeared in 1931.
“What Coca-Cola popularized was an image they borrowed, not one they created.”