What would you think if Christmas wasn’t really about Jesus’ birth or Santa Claus? You’d probably be curious enough to learn more. In this chapter of ORIGINS, we take a look at the true history of Christmas, Santa Claus, and the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the most celebrated and most controversial holiday, Christmas crosses both physical and religious borders. Connected to two of the most popular figures in time, Jesus Christ and Santa Claus, this international celebration has a following in both the Christian and secular communities. While the reason for the season is to celebrate the birth of Christ, the irony is that his birth was nowhere near December 25th and Jews don’t celebrate birthdays to begin with (and yes, Jesus was Jewish…he celebrated Chanukah.)
The celebration of birthdays is linked to astrology. Stars from the day you were born are studied and horoscopes are produced, something common practice for kings and queens of old, such as Egyptian pharaohs. Astrology is not a Christian practice or a Jewish one in the sense of the timeline of the Bible, so this “need to know” someone’s birth date was not a necessity. In fact, most of the mentions of birthdays in the Bible are for “villains” in the stories and usually attached to some heinous consequence of the birthday celebration.
Historically, the celebration of the “Lord Moon” occurred near Christmas time with candles and a special cake known as a Birth-Cake in Greek, Chaldean, and Egyptian history. Lit candles produced a fire that held magical powers, as did the wish of a happy birthday, a type of spell that connected to the personal spirits who arrived annually. These spirits would even hover over the birthday boy or girl’s bed while they slept and inflict dreams that would predict the future for that person. Good wishes were said to bring fortune, while running into an enemy on your birthday meant bad things to come. The Greeks believed a demon, connected to whichever god ruled the star you were born under, was assigned to everyone at their birth to watch over them. The Romans tweaked this concept over time to become the Guardian Angel we all know so well. So saying “happy birthday” was more than well-wishing. It was a request for protection and a plea for your friend’s safety.
In Judaism, the yahrzeit, or death anniversary is remembered, not the date of birth, another assurance that Jesus Christ wasn’t born on December 25th (and even if he was there would be no record of such because Jewish tradition didn’t record the birth date). Each year, during the Hebrew date of death, a special chant known as kaddish is recited at the synagogue and candles are lit at home. This falls in line with the Bible’s documentation of Jesus’ death, a date that is clearly mentioned, marked, and made in the New Testament.
So although we celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25th (a decision most likely made by Constantine in 336 AD to fit in nicely with the already celebrated pagan winter solstice feast, by the way), like Santa, there is more myth than fact to its ORIGINS. More likely, Jesus was born in the fall during the Feast of Tabernacle or Sukkot, which is a Jewish holiday that requires a census be taken Everyone must return to their town or origin to be counted. Sukkot is also a reminder of Moses’ 40 years wandering the wilderness when God providing everything, including food and shelter, thus celebrated by living in temporary places like tabernacles during the feast. With so many traveling, it would line up with Bethlehem having no rooms in their inns and with why Mary was on vacation so far along in her pregnancy, not to mention that the only place available was a “tabernacle” shown in so many Christmas plays and church displays as a stable for the animals. In astronomy, the star of Bethlehem also appears in the fall.
Another indicator of the birth date is the birth of John the Immerser (or John the Baptist), whose mother, Elizabeth, was Mary’s cousin and pregnant six months earlier than Mary. By going through the bloodline of priests—you know all that “boring” stuff in the Old Testament that lists people’s names and their kids and stuff that you don’t think means anything so you just breeze over it?—we find that her husband, Zechariah, was serving in the temple when he was told he would become a father. Based off the Jewish calendar, his turn to serve, plus the nine months till birth, and the additional six months for the beginning of Mary’s term, we find ourselves in September, lining up with Sukkot and the Star of Bethlehem. There’s a lot of study behind all of that, but it’s in there if you’re willing to look.
Christmas has roots as far back as you can imagine. The Norse celebrated the Yule on December 21st, with the boys and men dragging in a large log that was set on fire. They celebrated until the log burned out, which lasted as long as 12 days or more. The fire was thought to hold magic and each spark meant a new pig or calf would be born. I wonder who held the clicker to keep track of all those sparks. Lots of cultures killed animals for feasts at the edge of winter to feed on during the harsh cold when hunting was not possible. Of course, this meant lots and lots of drinking too because…well, why not get drunk and gorge in a large festival hall? The fearful Germans believed Odin made winter flights to spy on his people and see who was naughty and who was nice (sound familiar?) to decide who would live and die in the coming year. Again, another reason to stay indoors, get drunk, and gorge.
The Puritans, after taking over 1645 England, cancelled Christmas (bah, humbug!) to rid England of its self-indulgent debauchery. The Pilgrims brought that idea across the Atlantic and didn’t celebrate the holiday for decades, outlawing it in Boston from 1659 to 1681, fining anyone caught celebrating five shillings. In Jamestown, Christmas was alive and well, celebrated freely as reported by Captain John Smith. The American Revolution left bigger fish to fry and celebrating Christmas just wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas was declared a federal holiday, something still in practice today. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that the traditions and love for the holiday moved from a raucous carnival to a family-centric annum, thanks to literature. (Yes, you can thank an author for Christmas!) Washington Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., that incredible author who gave us the classic scare in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and Charles Dickens who scared us into reality with A Christmas Carol, gave us a roadmap for Christmas tradition and a reminder of children in need. Both helped to solidify Christmas as a family centerpiece.
On the lore side of things, we have a mix of the Santa Claus who rides a sleigh drawn by eight tiny flying reindeer and the Saint Nicholas who really existed and walked the earth. Let’s take a look at the ORIGINS of Santa.
Santa Claus is the jolly old elf wearing a red suit and hat (handmade by Mrs. Claus, of course), who slides down the chimney to give gifts to children lucky enough to make the nice list. In a previous chapter of ORIGINS, we looked deeper into Krampus, who takes on the dark role of Christmas. Santa wears black boots with fur trim, dons a long white beard, and carries a sack filled with toys. Father Christmas wears similar garb, though his robes touch the ground as a cardinal’s, connecting him more closely to the true Claus or St. Nicholas, a Turk from the 14th century believed to be the true Santa Claus. The round-bellied, rosy-cheeked Santa we all love and know is based off art produced by the Coca-Cola company in their 20th century ad campaign. Yes, it’s official to say that Christmas is commercialized. Originally, Santa was drawn as a mischievous elf, skinny and even a bit scary, as he should be. I mean, whether we want to admit it or not, this lore is about a guy who watches children sleep and then sneaks into their bedrooms at night. Kinda creepy. But Coke recognized this connection and built their Santa as the sample for all department store, Macy’s parade, and Norman Rockwell Santas to come.
Still, Santa’s unique look is different from all others. Where did it come from? And what about the other things that comprise Santa’s Christmas like his sleigh, the reindeer, a midnight ride through the sky, plummeting down chimneys with bags of goodies, and the decorated houses the chimneys are attached to? Believe it or not, Siberian indigenous tribes are probably the roots for our present-day Santa. (Also official, Santa Claus is from the North Pole).
Some legends say that the shamans of the Kamchadale and the Koryak tribes would eat mushrooms, not the ones smeared in balsamic, but the ones with hallucinogenic properties. The shaman soaked the mushrooms in water to make a powerful tea that once ingested on the night of the winter solstice would launch him into a spiritual journey toward the tree of life by the north star, a large pine housing all the answers to the tribes’ problems faced in the previous year. If you’ve ever watched a Disney film, you’ve seen these mushrooms: red-capped with white polka dots, like the dresses worn by Minnie Mouse (and seen adorning the cars of Disney’s version of Uber or Lyft, which are absolutely adorable, by the way.) The Shaman would dry the ‘shrooms out by placing them in a sack and carrying them back to the village from the pine tree where he found them. Drying them out removed a great deal of the toxicity from the fungus. Similarly, feeding these ‘shrooms to reindeer would get the animal high, but when they peed it out, most of the toxins had been filtered by Bambi’s liver. This magic pee made for a wonderful drink, so I’m told. And don’t worry, you animal activists: reindeer love them and eat them every chance they can get. Dressed in a red suit adorned with white trim to honor this magical mushroom, the shaman also wore tall boots to walk in the snow made from deer hide, which became black with exposure to the elements. And like a warped version of Santa, the shaman would come back to the village in his red suit, carrying a sack of mushrooms and a bladder of reindeer urine-laced with magic.
Oh, no…the Shaman is snowed out. What is he going to do? He looks up to the roof and has an idea. He can shimmy down the chimney! He climbs the roof, grabs hold of the central pole of the home, and slides down to the floor, with his sack on his red-clothed back. And the Old Shaman hung those mushrooms by the fireplace, like the stockings of good boys and girls, though the candy inside was toxic mushrooms. His faithful reindeer stayed outdoors, their muscular systems effected by the toxins as if superhuman strength had befallen them. The prancing beasts looked as though they were flying in the yard as they lifted above the snow-covered ground from the surge of power in their magic livers. The high humans thought they could fly too, thus believing that the shaman and his reindeer would fly to the tree of life, above the North Pole, every Winter Solstice.
Sounds exactly like Santa Claus. Doesn’t it?
Ironically, drawings of Saint Nick in Victorian times and on early Christmas cards always included the image of this particular red-polka-dotted mushroom. Ancient Druids carried down these tales of the shaman and they were mixed with other European lore involving Wotan and Odin, whose excursion would bring forth bloody foam from the horses’ mouths after their great chase. This befallen blood would hit the white snow and grow into…you guessed it… mushrooms. This chase turned into eight reindeer prancing around on Christmas eve, flying through the air. Then, the tales of the great Turk St. Nicholaus and his love for children reached the myth of the flying reindeer and the red-suited Shaman who led them to the North Pole, finding his place as Santa Claus, the immortal giver of gifts and father of Christmas to this day.
I’m Jaimie Engle, and you’ve just discovered ORIGINS.
ORIGINS is a bi-weekly podcast that shares the story behind legends and lore, written and produced by me, award-winning author Jaimie Engle of The Write Engle. If you like stories with a supernatural slant, I happen to write them. You can learn more about my books, read show notes, and study this topic through provided links by visiting podcastORIGINS.com. Please follow on all social media @theWRITEengle. I follow back. As always, subscribing, liking, and sharing this podcast is your greatest compliment. Thank you. I’ve also opened a Patreon account. If you like what you hear, consider donating a buck a month to say thanks. And finally, stick around and be dazzled by a short poem entitled “Christmas Stall” about Christmas morning from the perspective of a parent (and if you like short stories, check out my collection titled The Toilet Papers!)
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