The celebration of the birth of Christ on 25 December dates back to the fifth century, when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. The date was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice and the Roman festivals associated with the shortest day of the year, which falls between 22 December and 25 December. This was seen as the day when the Romans celebrated Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – "the birthday of the unconquered sun". It was also Jupiter's birthday and, further back, the birthday of his Greek equivalent, Zeus. In Eastern Europe, the various Orthodox churches – the Russian, Greek, Armenian, Serbian et al, follow the old Gregorian calendar, and in which Christmas Day is 7 JanuaryI've seen it claimed that Jesus Christ's actual birthday would have most probably occurred in the autumn, around August or so, if the shepherds were in the fields at the time.
There is no Santa Claus in the Gospels.(Really? What about Frosty the Snowman?)
Santa Claus, it seems, is a Dutch import via colonial New York (even the name comes from the Dutch "Sinterklaas", or St. Nicholas). They got rid of the six to eight black men he is invariably accompanied by in the Dutch tradition, though, and who are tasked with the thrashing of naughty children.
In 1863, the cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of drawings in Harper's Weekly, based on "The Night Before Christmas", in which Santa Claus, as he had now become known, could be seen with flowing beard and fur garments. Around 1869, he turned up for the first time in a bright red suit, with a white belt, but he was not invariably dressed in red until the mighty Coca Cola corporation appropriated him for an advertising campaign that began in 1931, and ran every Christmas for 35 years. That is also when the reindeer became full size. In Britain, this American import merged with an older folk hero called Old Christmas, or Old Father Christmas, a fun-loving heavy drinker who seems to have arisen in reaction to the Puritans.
The reindeer, it seems, are a wholly American invention (despite their German-as-stollen names); not only that, but Rudolph is a non-canon reindeer:
On 23 December 1823, the Troy Sentinel, in New York State, published an anonymous 56-line poem variously known as "A Visit from St Nicholas" or "The Night Before Christmas." which fused the feast of St Nicholas with Christmas, and had the St Nicholas that Irving created arrive on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer. The author was probably a Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature named Clement Clarke Moore, who did not want to sully his fine academic reputation by putting his name to some nonsense he wrote to amuse his children. The reindeer had names, but none was called Rudolf. He of the Red Nose was created by an advertising copy writer in 1939.
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