Left: A traditional Father Christmas. Compare this Kris with the King of the May, featured near the end of this article. Image provided by Santamania
Right: Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra (part of modern-day Turkey).
'Tis the season: the in-store holly and ivy went up the week after Hallowe'en, the Salvation Army has installed its members in the city's malls, and the usual seasonal suspects are back on the air. A society grown secular and multicultural often eschews what Christians consider the true meaning of Christmas: Santa Claus has replaced Christ as the central figure. Of course, one could reasonably argue that Claus-- if one considers his whole story-- best embodies the season's past, present, and future.
Despite his current, saintly name, the character's origins pre-date the Christian faith, probably by centuries. The inhabitants of pre-Christian Europe paid careful attention, and religious devotion, to the seasons. Many cultures performed midwinter festivals celebrating the eventual arrival of spring. In fact, people may have believed that the attendant rituals ensured spring's coming. Ancient Rome had two such festivals: Saturnalia, honouring the god of the harvest, and Natalis Solis Invicti, celebrating the birth of the sun. This second date reflects the growth of the cult of Mithras, a now-forgotten god with a familiar birthdate: December 25.
Central figures in some of the ancient European holidays were the the Yule Spirit or Yule King or Winter King or Holly King(later, Father Christmas) walking fertility symbols who may have developed from the Roman god Saturn (though we also have the Lord of Misrule, usually a red or green-robed jester). You might know a version of these characters as the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dicken's A Christmas Carol. A jolly giant, he wears red or green (the traditional colours of fertility), has a well-fed belly (the envy of our ancestors during winter), sports a burly beard (a symbol of male sexual maturity), and a crown of leaves (the sign of spring's return). This character may bear little resemblance to the ho-ho-ho-ing senior citizen we know, but he represents our Santa's origins.1
Midwinter celebrations carried on into the Christian era, much to the chagrin of the Church, which distrusted anything of pagan origin. By the fourth century, many clergymen had decided that, if they could not eliminate the festival, they should incorporate it into their faith. No offical feast date of Jesus's birth as yet existed; the Bible identifies neither the day nor the season. The connections between pagan festivals of earthly renewal, and a Christian figure of spiritual rebirth, however, seem obvious enough. Pope Liberius made the official declaration of December 25th in 353 A.D.. Many old customs would, over time, find their way into the new celebration.
About the same time that a pope was planning Jesus's birthday, a bishop was involving himself with the problems faced by children. Stories spread about how this clergyman of Myra, Nicholas by name, helped young people, and gave presents to the needy. After his death, the Catholic Church proclaimed him patron saint of children. To this day, it is a white-bearded St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas, with bishop's robe and mitre, who brings gifts to many European households.
In others, the pagan fertility figure and the Christian bishop gradually combined to become Father Christmas, or Santa Claus. Other influential figues include, a name most likely derived from Christ Kindl (Christ-child) and Belsnickle, derived from Pelz-nickle (Nicholas in Furs). In the nineteenth century, Christmas grew in cultural importance; correspondingly, Claus increased in popularity. He was still, frequently, a giant in those days, though a white-bearded one. Most of the time, he wore red, green (remnants of the midwinter celebrations) or white (a nod to Nick?), but artists also depicted him in yellow, blue, and other festive colours. Stories were told which housed him in the far north-- where winter never ends-- and horses or reindeer were said to be his method of transportation.2 The elves, meanwhile, appear to be borrowed from Norway and Denmark, where julnissen were said to hide presents on Christmas Eve, to be found the next morning.
He sees you when you're sleeping... This nineteenth-century Santa wears the white of the Christian saint, but he comes off looking a little creepy.
Scrooge confronts the Ghost of Christmas Present, whose Pagan roots are clear.