With another holiday around the corner, it’s easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of it all. But have you ever wondered what it is you’re actually celebrating when you put that tree up or when you wrap those gifts?
Have you ever considered that not everyone feels the same about Christmas or even celebrates Christmas in the same way you do? Well—believe it. The Christmas holiday has changed over the decades. There are countries all over the world that celebrate this time of year… just in their own way.
What Is Christmas?
Christmas is said to be the celebration of the birth of Jesus. That is— a very Christian holiday. But it wasn’t always this way. Christmas didn’t always belong to the Christian religion.
A Pagan Festival
Before Christianity took off as a major religion, Christmas and even days surrounding it were a part of the Pagan Midwinter festival. But because Paganism was frowned upon, the entire festival was essentially scrapped and turned into what we now know as Christmas.
Christianity Saunters In
Exactly how it sounds— Christianity sauntered into the world and established that the birth of Jesus was more important than whatever Pagans were celebrating during their Midwinter festival. They chose to make Christmas a “holy day”, transforming Pagan traditions with sweetener and creating transitions of their own.
The Reason It's On the 25th
The end of year already had its holidays. Romans celebrated the Festival of Saturnalia. Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah. The week of Christmas was essentially already spoken for. So, why the 25th of December? Christians believed it was in direct 9-month correlation with the conception of Jesus. So, it made sense that he would be born exactly 9-months later.
The Pagan Traditions Carried Over
Because Christmas was initially a Pagan celebration, there are some traditions that have carried through into our current Christmas routine. But instead of the peculiar reasoning behind their rituals, we’ve coated everything in a red and green, sugar-coated layer of joy.
Wreaths and Mistletoe
Mistletoe used in pre-Christmas days as a way to ward off evil spirits. When Christmas moved West, the greenery stayed and the meaning behind it transformed into a romantic gesture of love and flirtation. Wreaths were hung on doors and worn as headdresses in Roman days to illustrate status. Present day wreaths are hung on doors for the sole purpose of the longevity behind the tradition. The greenery of the holiday has indeed transformed in meaning, but also in its appearance.
Unlike other Christmas traditions, carols are more of an oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation. While all of the older carols were originally written in Latin and were usually sang all year round, only the tradition of carols during the Christmas season have survived. And, it didn’t become mainstream or associated with Christmas until the 13th century.
The Controversy of Gifts
Going back to the Roman holiday of Saturnalia and the Pagan Winter Solstice Festival, gift giving isn’t really a new tradition. It was actually common to give and receive gifts during the entire month of December. When Christmas became Christmas, gift giving became associated with the Three Wise Men. It’s only recently, within the last few decades, that Christmas gifts have become a capitalist jackpot.
Who is Santa Claus?
Santa is known by many names all around the world—Kris Kringle, Saint Nicholas, and Sinter Klaas. With so many stories circulating around who Santa Claus is and where he came from, many have associated his mystic-being with a monk from hundreds of years ago named St. Nicholas who had a reputation for helping the poor and people in need. Santa Claus’ stories lost traction for a little time until the 16th century when children in the UK developed stories about Father Christmas. From there, the stories raged on.
Christmas Traditions Vary From Country to Country
Christmas doesn’t belong to the U.S. You’d be surprised to know that it’s celebrated in other countries all over the world. Everyone who does celebrate, of course, celebrates in their own way, but it’s just as magical. While the U.S sees Christmas as a time of joy and new beginnings, some countries see Christmas as more of a superstitious block of time.
Christmas in Norway
In December, the people of Norway celebrate Christmas on the 25th, but exchange their gifts on Christmas Eve. Santa Claus goes by the name of Julenissen, bringing people gifts. Sometimes he has the help of little gnomes known as Nisse. While the people of Norway exchange gifts on Christmas Eve, they celebrate throughout the entire month of December, exchanging small gifts and lighting candles for every day leading up to Christmas.
Christmas in Australia
Christmas in Australia falls during the summer months. It isn’t wild to find people celebrating the holiday on a beach, at a barbecue, or some kind of summer soiree. In place of the reindeer, kangaroos are prominent in Australia’s holiday traditions. The most special time of the Christmas season falls on a day called Carols by Candlelight, where people get together at night to light candles and sing carols in each others’ company.
Christmas in India
India is no exception to the Christmas season. There might be a minority of 2% of the population who are Christian, but that doesn’t stop those individuals from soaking in all of the Christmas spirit they can. Because India is so large, each country within the continent has its own way of celebrating this time in December. Church mass plays a major role to the Roman Catholics wandering the streets of India, Southern parts of India light put a lantern on their roofs to symbolize the importance of Jesus, and some people in North-West India fast an entire week leading up to the Christmas holiday.
Christmas in the Philippines
While children in the US leave stockings for Santa Claus to fill with goodies in the middle of the night, children in the Philippines leave wooden shoes by the door for the Three Wise Men to leave gifts in on their way through town. The Philippines actually celebrates the longest running holiday season out of anywhere in the world, celebrating for 4 months out of the year—this Ber season begins in September.
Christmas in Canada
The special part about the way Canada celebrates Christmas is due to the many cultures that Canada embraces. With cultural influences from places like France, Scotland, and Germany comes many various traditions that Canada just absorbs in different provinces. There’s a group of volunteers that dedicate themselves to responding to cards sent to the north pole. There’s a designated postal address and everything, talk about keeping with the tradition of being the nicest place ever.
Christmas in Mexico
Mexico celebrates Christmas for longer than 4-days. They celebrate for an entire month—from December 12 to January 6. From the posada tradition of a Christmas party with lots of food, drink, and pinatas to nativity scenes covering lawns all over the neighborhood to the over-the-top decorations, Mexico celebrates the Christmas holiday with such vibrancy. And although there is no Santa Claus to speak of and no gifts are exchanged on Christmas day, except for the areas with a heavy Western influence, January 6th holds true as an important day for everyone in Mexico.
Christmas in France
Along with la Pere Noel is a funny character known as la Pere Fouettard. La Pere Fouettard is a character told in scarier holiday stories long ago in the 12th century. He apparently travels around with Father Christmas and disciplines the naughty kids. Aside from this askew tradition, France celebrates Christmas for roughly the entire month of December. They aren’t too concerned with Boxing Day and they aren’t very strict on when they exchange gifts.
Japan in the 70s
Christmas isn’t technically a national holiday in Japan. But the Western world has definitely had its influence on Japanese culture and traditions. In the 1970s, the introduction of KFC chicken became the most sacred of Japanese Christmas spirit. Since then, Christmas has become a romantic season, almost resembling an American Valentine’s Day. There are markets and Christmas parties to attend, Christmas gifts to exchange, and beautiful decorations to see.
America in the 60s
Aluminum trees became a thing in America in the 1960s. It was a shocking change from the traditional pine trees that used to fill everyone’s homes. Multichromatic decorations were introduced because of the fire hazard lights posed to the trendy aluminum trees. Christmas cards that were exchanged throughout the holiday season were displayed on a designated, Christmas-themed clothespin. What better way to show your holiday spirit than to string them up?
Netherlands in the 50s, the 1850s
Perhaps the most controversial of Christmas traditions rests on the story of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in the Netherlands. Back in the 1850s, before slavery had the chance to be aboilshed, a children’s story depicting Santa Claus with a slave was created by Jan Schenkman. The children’s story became a Dutch tradition and people started to dress as Black Pete every year. It was symbolic for a time and then became incredibly controversial with the ever-growing biracial population.
Britain in the 40s
During World War II, Britain celebrated what became known as “Blitzmas” due to the heavy fire they were under from German bombs. People were already spending time in shelters constantly because of the UK’s position in the war at hand, but that didn’t put a damper on the Christmas holiday. During that time, people across Britain celebrated with shelter Christmas parties, those of which included dancing, skits, and singing.
Coca-Cola Santa in the 30s
The way we know and adore Santa Claus in the US to this day is said to be based on the Santa Claus Coca-Cola introduced to us in the 1930s. It was the first time any particular color was every strongly and heavily tied to the mystical holiday figure. And what do you know, his color just so happens to be Coca-Cola red.
America in the 21st Century
Celebrating Christmas no longer depends on whether you’re religiously tied to its origins, i.e practice Christianity. Since the 19th century, the Christmas holiday has turned into something less godly, more commercial, but just as sacred as ever. A study showed that 8 out of 10 people celebrate Christmas in the US, which is saying something considering there are various cultures living in the trail mix of the states.
While we hate to think of Christmas as a Pagan celebration once upon a time, we should pay our respects to the traditions they had because we immersed them into the 21st century. A few new traditions have become common for many families worldwide like building gingerbread houses, Christmas shopping in your pajamas, and ditching the Christmas cards altogether and texting everyone “Merry Christmas” in a group message. We didn’t say these new traditions were better.
Why We Celebrate Christmas Today
Today, Christmas has become more about presents and less about celebrating the season. There is an entire market around the holiday that businesses have tapped into. The Christmas holiday has gained so much popularity within the world, that it has even slid into the month of November. Red and white decorations, mistletoe, and Christmas songs are on a loop from the day after Thanksgiving until the first day of the new year.
Santa's first appearance in a department store was in 1890
Santa made his first live appearance in a department store in 1890. Before 1890, stores would have life-sized models of Santa. James Edgar from Brockton, Massachusetts, had a Santa suit tailored for him. That December, he donned the red suit and surprised adults and kids alike.
He was a bachelor until the late 1800's
Santa Claus was never said to have a spouse until James Rees wrote the short story "A Christmas Legend" in 1849. Mrs. Claus then started to appear in weekly publications. However, Mrs. Claus did not become popular until 40 years later, when Katherine Lee Bates published her poem "Goody Santa Claus on a Sleigh Ride." Goody was a term meaning Goodwife or Mrs.
His list of naughty and nice kids has roots in Belgium
The naughty and nice list was not Santa's idea. It dates back to a different time and culture. Sinterklaas, the Santa of the Netherlands and Belgium, kept a list to keep track of children. However, others believe that the idea dates to Norse mythology. Odin, the King of Asgard, was said to use his ravens to list at chimneys to see who was naughty and nice.
His sleigh weighs several tons
Santa would need a giant sleigh to hold all the toys for children around the world. The weight alone would clock in around 400,000 tons. Now nine reindeer would not be able to pull that weight. In reality, Santa Claus would need close to 360,000 reindeer. Hope he's ready to remember all those names.
He eats thousands of cookies in one night
On Christmas Eve, children leave out cookies specifically for Santa. The most popular cookies left for him are chocolate chip and Oreo. If he ate two cookies at each household, he would intake 374 billion calories; this would also include 33,000 tons of sugar and 151,000 tons of fat. To burn it all off, he'd have to run an eight-minute mile for 109 centuries.
His first appearance was in 1616
The first appearance of Father Christmas was in a masque written by Ben Johnson in 1616. A masque is a performance similar to a play, though these usually involved pantomime and dance. The masque was called "Christmas, His Masque." It followed Father Christmas and his ten children with names like Carol, Misrule, Gambol, Offering, Minced-Pie, and Baby-Cake.
There is a college for Santas
Located in Colorado is Santa Claus University. Here, people can learn how to become a professional Santa Claus. They learn skills such as beard care, knowledge of toys, poses, and interacting with children and pets. Someone could make up to $100,000 a year if they are a perfect Santa.
He was featured in Coca-Cola ads since the 1920's
Since the 1920's, Santa has been a part of Coca-Cola's holiday marketing. The company began to advertise for Christmas, taking out spots in The Saturday Evening Post. Thomas Nast's image of Santa served as the inspiration, though Santa didn't appear sweet and jolly until Haddon Sundblom started to illustrate for Coca-Cola in the 1930's.
In real life, he was a Greek Bishop
The inspiration for Santa Claus comes from the real-life Greek bishop who was born around 280 A.D. in Myra, modern-day Turkey. St. Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, and many legends surround his life. He was said to have given away all his wealth to the poor and helped the sick. He also saved three sisters from being sold into slavery by giving their father a dowry.
The real-life Santa looks different from what we've pictured
Over the years, we have developed an image of Santa. However, the real-life Santa looks a bit different from the one we have created. In 2014, Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University's Face Lab reconstructed his face. He had an olive complexion, grey hair, and a grey beard, as well as a broken nose.
Santa has parallels with Odin
Santa has many similarities between the King of Asgard. For one, they are both similar in appearance: white hair and a white beard. Odin was known for flying a Sleipnir, a flying eight-legged horse. Odin was a gift-giver and had gift-making elves. And during the nights of Yule, would reward the good and punish disobedient.
He used to have more variety in his wardrobe
Santa didn't always wear red and white, contrary to popular belief. Past illustrations portrayed St. Nick wearing robes of blue, green, brown, and mauve. All that changed in 1931, Coca-Cola featured a Christmas ad with Santa sporting these colors. Then red and white were solidified as a part of Santa's wardrobe.
Washington Irving influenced our view of Santa
In 1809, Washing Irving published A History of New York, a satirical novel that shaped our views of Santa and the holiday season. Before its release, the image of Santa was that of a thin bishop. Irving described Santa as a stout, bearded man who smoked a pipe. He wrote that Santa rode a wagon in the air and delivered presents to children by going down the chimney.
He originally had different named reindeer
Santa originally had eight reindeer, Rudolph was not added until 1939 when Robert L. May wrote a Christmas poem to bring traffic into his store. Then his friend, Johnny Marks, wrote a song about it that was recorded by Gene Autry. However, the original reindeer's names were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, and Blixem.
John Pintard helped people learn about Santa
John Pintard helped establish the idea of Santa Claus in the United States. He founded the New York Historical Society, and made Saint Nicholas its patron saint. He celebrated Saint Nicholas Day, or Feast Day, every December 6, which marks the anniversary of the death of Saint Nicholas. A holiday which is still celebrated today around the world.
Santa's letters go on a very exciting journey
Some of these letters will go to Santa Claus, Indiana. Here a group of volunteers, who call themselves Santa's Elves, will respond to each letter to Santa. The children's letters that remain at USPS go into the Operation Santa program. Anyone can participate by choosing a child's letter to respond to and spread holiday cheer.
He has to travel at super speed to deliver all the gifts
There are over 2.1 billion children in the world. With an average of 2.5 children per household, Santa would have about 842 million stops on Christmas Eve. His trip around the world would cover close to 218 million miles. So he has to travel around 1,280 miles per second. Luckily with time zones and the Earth's rotation, he'd have 32 hours to complete this.
He is known as one of the most powerful mutants to the X-Men
Yes, Santa Claus did appear in the X-Men comic books. In 1991, he was in a 6-page story as a part of the "Marvel Holiday Special." He was detected by Cerebro on Christmas Eve as the most powerful mutant that it had detected so far, so he is not the most powerful mutant in the X-Men universe, but he is still powerful nonetheless.
He is excluded from the Forbes Fictional 15
Every year Forbes makes a list of the top 15 wealthiest fictional characters. Starting in 2006, Santa was not allowed to be on the list. The magazine kept receiving too many letters from children insisting that Santa was real, so he was finally removed from their list.
He talked to John F. Kennedy, sort of
In 1961, Michelle Rochon, who was eight-years-old, overheard her parents talking about Russians testing bombs at the North Pole. She was so concerned about Santa Claus that she wrote a letter to President John F. Kennedy. He responded to her letter saying that he had spoken with Santa, and he was okay to make his rounds for Christmas.
A poem influenced how we view Santa today
The poem by Clement Clarke Moore called "A Visit From Saint Nicholas," written in 1882, created the image of the modern-day Santa. Most popularly, this poem is called "Twas the Night Before Christmas." This poem also introduced Santa's eight reindeer.
Santa is the world's most popular non-Biblical saint
Throughout the world, Santa Claus has become the most popular non-Biblical saint. There have been hundreds of churches dedicated to him. Now technically, the churches were dedicated to Saint Nicholas, but by this point, they are the same person. There are 376 churches in England, and over 2,000 churches in France and Germany dedicated to the saint.
He uses miles of wrapping paper each year
Santa and his elves use a lot of wrapping paper each year for children's Christmas gifts. If each present took about 31.5 inches of wrapping paper, that's a total of 1.6 million miles of wrapping paper. Let's hope this is eco-friendly because that's enough to wrap around the Earth 60 times.
He drinks a lot of milk in one night
Every Christmas Eve, children leave out milk and cookies for Santa. If all 2 billion children left out an 8-ounce glass of milk for Santa, he would drink around 4 million gallons of milk every hour. After delivering all the gifts, he would have 137 million gallons of milk. However, the human stomach can only hold anywhere between 2–4 liters of liquid.
Coca-Cola did not create the image of Santa Claus
Thomas Nast takes the credit of creating the first illustration of a jolly, round Santa Claus in a red suit. He made the illustration for Harper's Weekly. However, Coca-Cola did make this idea of Santa more mainstream when Haddon Sundblom used his friend, Lou Prentiss, as the model for Santa. After his friend passed away, Sundblom used himself as the model.