Centuries before Jesus was born, people were already celebrating light and birth during the winter season with various traditions. One celebrated among the Norse people was “Yule” and came around the time of the winter solstice, December 21st. 

Yule Traditions
One of Yule traditions  involved the men and their sons dragging evergreen trees into the house as  remembrances of life. They also burned logs in the fireplace to symbolize good  fortune – also called Yule Logs.
Pagan God  Mithra
Ancient Rome had its own  winter festivals. Soldiers and government officials worshipped the pagan god  Mithra, the Sun God. Mithra’s birthday was on December 25th and was the most important day of the  year to his followers. 

December  25th Selected as Christmas Day
By the first century AD  pagan beliefs were being seriously challenged by Christianity which was sweeping  across the empire.  Christ’s birthday was  unknown and not documented in the Bible. Since Rome already celebrated December 25th as Mithra’s birthday, it appears that  the Church adopted this date for the birth of the Christ child. By the  4th Century it became  official as the Church made it the feast day of the nativity. 
Church  Adopts Pagan Traditions
The pagan traditions of  this time period were too ingrained for the Church to outlaw during Christmas so  they merely adopted them to fit Christianity. For example, the evergreen trees  they took and decorated them with apples so that they would symbolize the Garden  of Eden. These eventually morphed into the ornaments we put on our Christmas  trees today. 

Saint  Nicolas and Sinterklaas
It was during the  4th Century that the legend  of Santa Claus gets started. A Turkish bishop by the name of Nicolas was known  for his giving nature. There were many stories of his kindness in giving to others. The date of his death, December 6th, became “Saint Nicolas Day” and was commemorated by giving good children toys and nothing to the children who misbehaved.  This tradition lived on throughout Christian Europe until it merged with the celebration of the Christian Holy Day. Saint Nicolas went by many names throughout Christendom.In Holland he was called
“Sinterklaas.” Later when the Dutch settled the North Eastern part of the America’s his name became “Santa Claus.”

Clarke Moore  and the “Night Before Christmas”
1500 years later an  American, named Clement Clarke Moore, a professor of oriental and Greek  literature, took the legends of Nicolas and Sinterklaas and wrote a historic  poem called, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” later changed to, “The Night Before  Christmas.”  It was a 58 line poem that  created the modern American vision of Christmas.  In his poem Santa was neither a Priest from  the 4th
Century nor a  Norse-type Odin character like Sinterklaas. Instead Moore dressed him in furs,  and he made him more elfish with a twinkle in his eye and a pipe between his  teeth.He toted a sack on
his back full  of toys for the children. Moore is also responsible for creating the sleigh and  the eight reindeer that pulled it through the sky – including the names of each  one of them.

Thomas Nast  Puts on the Finishing Touches
Santa Claus, as we know  him, was on his way thanks to Moore, but he still lacked a place to live (the  North Pole) and Elves to help him in his workshop, not to mention and naughty  and nice list. These and other details came from the imagination of another New  Yorker named Thomas Nast. He took Moore’s Santa and made him much more like we  see envision him today. In 1862 an American Magazine called “Harpers Weekly,” commissioned Nast to draw its Christmas illustrations. Nast transformed Moore’s  jolly old elf by making him taller and much grander. His images depicted Santa  living at the North Pole and reviewing a naughty and nice list and eventually  gave him elves and a host of other characteristics which are part of the icon of  Santa Claus.

Of course the legend continues to grow today with cartoons, and various stories of how Santa got his  start and how he involves himself in the lives of people who doubt his existence.


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