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.