Pagan is sort of a hodge-podge term for people who celebrated local and regional religious customs. A major part of the pagan umbrella was druidism. Druids and other pagans celebrated and worshipped nature and revered trees. Many sects would place a tree in their home throughout the years but it came to be popular around mid-winter. In many areas it was believed that evergreen kept away evil.
However, in the sixteenth century Germany is credited with beginning the Christmas tree tradition we know today. Though early America viewed the Christmas tree with suspicion (because of the pagan roots) so they didn’t accept it entirely until the ever popular Queen Victoria posed with the tree in a seasonal drawing.
Food and Feast
In Scandinavia, Yule was celebrated near the winter solstice. The yule log was lit and would generally burn for days, during this time the town or region would feast and be merry. They believed each crack of the fire represented the number of sheep, calf, or piglets to be born the coming spring. A number of the cattle would be slaughtered at this time so they wouldn’t have to feed them through the winter and much of the fermented spirits would be ready to be drunk.
As you can see from today’s traditions, there was plenty of food and drink to consume at that particular festival. In Rome the holiday Saturnalia was celebrated. Rome was obviously not as cold as where Yule was celebrated, however Rome was a very hedonic area at the time. Food and drink were a plenty. Saturnalia celebrated the god of agriculture so it was fitting, again, for them to feast.
Also, around this time Juvenalia was celebrated in Rome, the infant god was born of rock on December 25th, his name was Mithra and was considered one of the most important gods. By holding new Christian holy days around the time these pagan festivals were held they ensured people didn’t miss out on their favorite feasts (smart move!).
Red and Green
During the previously mentioned Saturnalia, holly wreaths were given as gifts. When the church began rivaling the pagan holidays many Christians believe Christ bore a holly crown, the berries originally white and when his blood touched them they turned red.
In the 1300s, there was an Adam and Eve’s day celebrated around December 24th, and a Paradise play that depicted the garden of Eden. Pine trees were already in people homes in Germany, where the play was very popular, and apples were used to decorate them as the play garnered popularity. The poinsettia became a popular holiday plant when the first ambassador to Mexico, Joel Poinsett, first introduced it in the States in 1828.
Santa Claus and Gift Giving
The story of old Saint Nick can be traced back thousands of years to around 280 CE, near Turkey. A monk named Saint Nicolas was very admired for his kindness and piety. He is said to have given away all of his fortune and he traveled the countryside making sure the sick and poverty-stricken were taken care of. His feast day was celebrated on December 6th; he was known as a protector of women, sailors, and children. He became the most popular saint by the time the Renaissance hit, even after Reformation he remained a positive figure.
The name Santa Claus evolved from the dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas which was shortened from Sint Nikolaas. New York Historical Society helped popularize the image of Santa giving gifts, in 1804 they gave wood carvings that depicted him as a gift giver. Washington Irving a few years later helped perpetuate this by calling St. Nicholas the patron saint of New York. This began the rejuvenation and rebranding of the holiday in America.
Around 1820, stores began to advertise “Christmas shopping.” Clement Clarke Moore wrote “Twas the Night Before Christmas” for his daughters, an account that gave great descriptions of Santa Claus. In Philadelphia thousands of children gathered to see a life size model of Santa in a local shop in 1841. The model’s popularity created the idea for a “live” Santa, with many stores adopting this custom quickly. In 1881, Thomas Mast illustrated Moore’s poem and the image we know today is mostly adopted form his rendering.
Similar gift-givers pop up throughout history and have woven themselves into the Santa Claus story. There is Kris Kringle of Swiss and German myth. In Scandinavia there’s an elf named Jultomen (who drove a sleigh with goats to deliver his gifts! Cute!). English legends make note of Father Christmas who visits house on Christmas eve to fill stockings with treats. Pere Noel in France fills children’s shoes with goodies. In Russia, an elderly woman, Babouschka, gave wrong directions to the wise men, in the end after feeling remorseful she began delivering presents to children in hopes they were the child Jesus. Finally, in Italy, a kind witch named La Befana, rides a broomstick down chimneys to deliver toys to good children.