Christmas: A Brief History: (Turns out, Jesus is not the reason for the season) by Dr. David Kyle Johnson

All of the following text is from the research and work of Dr. David Kyle Johnson.

Pictures are from his more detailed Christmas paper found here.

Also found in the above linked paper are footnotes and other documentation/sources.

I'd love to post an original post about this, but I'm not very knowledgeable about Christmas history and Dr. Johnson would love to share his research with you :)

Also added below is a video from his Youtube channel!


Christmas: A Brief History

(Turns out, Jesus is not the reason for the season.)

  • Up to 30,000 years ago

    • The “wild man” was worshiped. He was a half-goat/half-man fertility/harvest deity that people thought came out of the wild as winter was setting in (late fall, when everything is dying), and it was only by his “death and resurrection” (which they enacted and later play acted) that spring would be ensured its return. (The more formal versions of this ritual would have been “more recent” (10,000 years ago)?)

  • ca. 4000 Years ago (c.a. 2000 BCE)

    • Mesopotamia: The Zagmuk festival. Had their own way to ensure the return of spring. As winter set in, the King would have to die and descend into the underworld to help Marduk, their god, fight off the monsters of chaos (which he had to fight to create the world in the first place). Kings usually didn’t like to die, so they would appoint someone else (a criminal) as “King for a day” (or for a while), and then kill him so he could go help Marduk. When the battle was won, there were great celebrations—bonfires, parades in the streets, etc.

    • Persians and Babylonians: Sacaea. At the end of the year, in a big party, masters and slaves changed places, in a tradition of social inversion. One slave was selected as a “lord of misrule,” and his every whim was granted. In the king’s household, two criminals would be chosen—one set free, the other was “Mock-King” for a day, but then executed.

  • Ca. 2500 years ago (ca. 500 BCE)

    • Roman Empire: Sacaea became Saturnalia (celebrated over many days, in late December). This was a celebration in the name of the Roman god Saturn, who was thought to be all about peace and equality. So the traditions of social inversions continued, and practices of (small) gift giving arose as well. But this was also the perfect time to party. The harvest was done, grains were fermenting into wine, and it was time to thin the herds by killing many of your animals (so you didn’t have as many animals to feed during the winter). With lots of alcohol, food, fresh meat, and no work to keep anyone busy—woah, boy—Saturnalia became a weeks long party, complete with drunkenness, feasting, sex and debauchery…you name it!

    • The Norse/Scandinavia: Festival of Yule (Jul).

      • Another late December celebration, that included lots of partying and drinking and bon-fires (Yule log).

      • It was also a time of blizzards, which (locked up in your houses) sounded like great armies trampling through the air. They believe that the dead of the last year had returned to earth, led in a “wild hunt” by the god Odin—a one eyed, white bearded warrior, riding an eight-legged white horse. (Such ideas would later influence Halloween as well.) Odin also bestows blessings on the faithful during this visit.

      • The Norse God Thor—pulled in his flying chariot by his flying goats, Nasher and Cracker (thunder and lightening)—is also a December visitor (and clearly a remnant of the wild man).

        They also light candles to scare away the sprits and set evergreen type plans in their house and around the doors. (As the only thing that stays green in winter, they signify the life of spring—plus, evil spirits will get caught in their needles.)

Skip this—We’ll come back to it at the end.

  • 1900s

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    • 1918 Gifts begin to be wrapped in fancy paper (not simply white tissue paper, or brown paper, as before).

    • 1923 - First National Christmas tree on the South Lawn of the White House.

    • Coca-Cola solidifies Santa’s look—a Coca-Cola red fur suit, with white cuffs in 1931. (Pepsi tries, but loses that battle.)

    • 1933 - First Rockefeller Christmas tree.

    • 1939 - FDR moves Thanksgiving to make a longer holiday shopping season.

    • Rudolf is added to the reindeer in a “children’s book marketing scheme” by Montgomery Ward in 1939.

    • Mid -1900’s The song, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” becomes super popular, and spawns many movies and versions.

    • Many other movies and such commercialize on Christmas, but almost none of them are religious.

    • Ca. 1985, David Kyle Johnson figures out that there is no Santa by getting his sister to admit she was present when one his gifts from Santa was purchased.

  • 0-100 CE (The Nativity Story)

    • Between 15 BCE and 15 CE is a decent estimate of when Jesus would have been born.

    • 50’s CE – A Jew named Paul writes epistles about a man/god named Jesus, but mentions no details of his life besides his death, resurrection and last supper.

    • 70’s CE - A gospel is written, under the name “Mark,” but it has no mention of Jesus’ birth.

    • 80’s CE – Two more gospels are written, under the names “Mathew” and “Luke.” Because of disputes about when Jesus acquired his divine status, they both depict Jesus’ birth—but they were written separately, have little in common and contradict each other on major points.

      • Non-common elements:

        • Matthew: Herod, wise-men, slaughter of innocents, star, angel appears to Joseph.

        • Luke: angel appears to Mary, census, shepherds, host of angels, inn and manger, temple presentation.

      • Contradictions:

        • Location: Matthew’s story starts in Bethlehem (they live there), the family flees to Egypt because of Herod’s threat, then they move to Nazareth. Luke’s story starts in Nazareth (they live there), they have to go to Bethlehem for a census, then they go right back to Nazareth.

        • Time period: Matthew has Herod ruling (he died in 6 BCE). Luke has Quirinius as governor of Syria (he began his rule in 6 CE).

      • Common elements: Parents names (Joseph and Mary), virgin conception, born in Bethlehem, story ends in Nazareth.

        • The common elements make it seem that there was at least an oral history of Jesus birth beforehand, that included these facts. However,

          • Matthew and Luke both copied from Mark and Jesus’ mother is named “Mary” in Mark.

          • Mark also says that Jesus was from Nazareth, and OT prophecies place the birthplace of the messiah in Bethlehem.

          • Mathew specifically says that the virgin conception fulfilled Isaiah 7:14; it’s likely Luke got the idea from there too.

            • (They were both using a Greek version of the OT that mistranslated the Hebrew word “young girl” to the Greek word for “virgin.”)

          • The only thing that can’t be easily explained is how they agreed on Joseph’s name.

            • (However, Joseph was a common name and the name of one of Mary’s children in Mark.)

      • Other problems:

        • No census ever required relocation, much less one based on ancestral relations tracing back 1000 years.

        • No record of a census under Caesar Augustus.

        • No record of a slaughter of innocents by Herod in Bethlehem.

        • A star that “leads” and stops over a specific house doesn’t make much sense.

          • By the way, the magi would have not arrived until at least 2 years after Jesus birth.

  • 200-312 CE

    • Romans: A new religion, that worships the sun god, Sol Invictus, becomes popular. It eventually merges with worship of Mithras (another sun god). It is celebrated by Roman elite and soldiers. The sun god’s birthday (which calls for an even bigger party) is on what they believed to be the solstice—the day they thought the “daytime” started getting longer—Dec 25th. (Their solstice was off by a couple days.)

    • Early Christians: do not celebrate their own birthdays, much less the birth of Jesus. That is what pagans, like Herod and pharaohs do.

      • A few dates are proposed for Jesus birth. Only one person places it on Dec 25th (because he thought Jesus was conceived on March 25th). Others suggest Dec 6th; everyone else knows better because shepherds don’t “watch their flocks by night” in December. But nobody really cares about celebrating it, so nothing really sticks.

    • However, they care about the story itself and filled in more of the details by looking at other non-canonical gospels written at the time and by looking at (and misinterpreting) the OT. Other parts of the story that develop during this time:

      • An ox and donkey at the manger (Isa 1:2-3)

      • The magi are kings and travel by camel (Isa 60)

      • Mary’s perpetual virginity (Protoevangelium of James)

        • Joseph was an old man and widower who married Mary, but already had kids of his own and did not sleep with her. This explains why Jesus has brothers in Mark, but Mary never had sex.

      • Virgin birth (which is different from virgin conception. Virgin birth retains the integrity of Mary’s nether-regions. Jesus just “appears.”) (Protoevangelium of James)

        • A disturbing part of the story is that Salome—a friend of the midwife that Joseph got to help out with the birth—won’t believe. “Unless I put forward my finger and test her condition, I will not believe that a virgin brought forth.” After the “test,” God withers her hand for her disbelief, but restores it when she repents. (A handy part of the story to add, if you want people to believe it.)

      • Mary’s Parents (Joachim and Anne), Mary on donkey to Bethlehem, manger was in a cave (Protoevangelium of James)

      • Jesus tames dragons and (from the womb) makes a cherry-tree bow (so Mary can have its fruit) in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

  • 312-ca.500

    • 312 – Constantine converts to Christianity, declares it the state religion of the Roman empire, and sets out to solidify Christian doctrine.

      • One problem, however, is that most of the elite and his army belong to Mithraism. They are not going to just convert straight over—and they certainly are not going to give up their big winter festival Saturnalia, or stop celebrating Mithra’s birthday on Dec 25th. So Constantine tries to “Christianize” the holidays—it’s okay to celebrate, because it’s officially in the name of Jesus. “Whatever, as long as we get to party” say the people—and the partying, drunkenness, feasting and sex continued. (Christianity has been trying to make the holiday “purely religious” every since, but it never really has worked and the pagan aspects of the holiday continued unabated.)

    • Christianity appropriates many other aspects of sun worship (that’s where “the halo” comes from).9

    • December 25th is labeled as Jesus birthday around 340.

    • Dec 6th becomes Epiphany (recognizing the arrival of the Magi), hence the 12 days of Christmas.

    • Popular recognition of celebrating (not just recognizing) the holiday increases through 500 CE.

    • The Norse god Odin becomes more important in Norse religion, becoming their main god, even taking on some of Jesus’ properties (crucified, rose, etc.).

  • 500-1500: Just as Christianity appropriated aspects of sun worship, as it rolls through Europe it appropriates the festivals, traditions and beliefs of the pagans it finds to facilitate conversion.

    • Norse lights, evergreen plants, Yule logs, etc., become part of the December celebrations.

    • Most pagan gods are turned into saints. (Pagans won’t stop praying to them, so they either get saint’s names, or their powers go to existing saints.)

    • St. Nicholas?

      • He may or may not have existed. (If he did, all we know about his life is that he was born in the port city of Myra (Turkey) in about 270.)

      • He may have received his name from a Germanic god “Hold Nickar” (or just be that god with a saintly name), and some version of the wild man “claus.”

      • The sea-faring miracles attributed to him mirror those of Poseidon and Neptune.10 (The sea-farers of Myra were probably told to pray to him instead of these gods).

      • Other stories about Nicholas’ generosity multiply, but it’s hard to trace their origins.11 They probably evolved to explain the gift-giving traditions that will develop about him later.

      • At some point, he merges with the Norse god Odin—and he is soon believed (by some, at least) to have a white beard12 and ride a white horse13 and, as he returns from heaven to bestow gifts to the faithful, on the anniversary of his death, Dec 6th. Children would leave their shoes outside the window or door for St. Nicholas to leave small gifts in., after he had interrogated them about their religious lessons. (Hay for the horse would also be left.)

      • The first gifts are given in St. Nicholas’ name in the 1100’s by French nuns, but punishment was a big part of his job too.

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    • St. Nicholas helpers.

      • Do you remember the old half goat/half man “wild man” fertility/harvest deity? Well, people were still worshiping him. And he wouldn’t quite do as a saint. So the church made him off-limits by equating him with Satan—and from then on, Satan was a half-goat man with cloven feet, goat horns, a pitchfork, tail, etc. (Before this, he was depicted as a blond hair blue-eyed (fallen) angel.) 14,15

      • To “depose him,” some also made the wild-man St. Nicholas’ slave. He would travel with St. Nicholas and if you were bad, it would be the wild-man’s job to punish you. He came in many different forms over the years (and many times appeared without St. Nicholas).

        • Krampus: Covered with fur and possessing one cloven foot, if you were bad, Krampus would whip you with birch rods or his whip. He also had a bottomless sack, in which he could stuff as many kids as he needed…and carry them off to hell.

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        • Black Peter: An impish black faced Spaniard, Black Peter was St. Nicholas’ companion in the Netherlands during Spanish rule. They would arrive on a boat from Spain every Dec 6th.

        • Knecht Ruprecht, who sometimes visits alone, first appeared in Germany (I think—these things are hard to track down).

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    • Old Nick (Hold Nickar?)

      • In the middle ages, St. Nicholas’ main job was punishment. His visit, with threats of punishment if you did not obey the laws of the church, was a very handy way to keep people in line—and a very handy way for parents to keep their children in line.

      • He knew who was to be punished or rewarded by borrowing St. Peters book of life.

      • In many places, he was not well liked. According to the Norse, evil was not from “down low”—but up North, where everything is nasty and cold. It wasn’t long before they thought the North Pole—the northern most place—is where Nicholas lived. This is probably when his white horse turned into reindeer. (He was also known to subdue other animals as well.) (The Laplanders could have been an influence on this too.)

      • Some thought his animals pulled him in a flying chariot, like Thor. (This may be when Nasher and Cracker became “Dunder and Blixem”)

      • Some people threatened to lock their doors and windows to keep him out. But he is so resolute, he was willing to come down the one place you couldn’t lock up to get you—your nasty, soot filled, chimney! (The Laplanders could have been an influence on this too.)

      • Old Nick even became another name for Satan. (The Saint and “wild-man” versions of the gift giver became nearly interchangeable.)

    • The holiday is first called “Christmas,” in honor of the Midnight church service held in honor of Jesus’ birth on Dec 24th, called “Christ’s Mass,” about 1100.

    • But the “party” elements of Christmas never go away. In fact, conversion of pagans was difficult because they knew that Christians in Rome were still partying it up in December.

  • 1500’s

    • 1510 - First reference to a Christmas tree in Germany. It is rooted in the evergreen tradition of the Norse, and the trees are small (usually the top of a fir tree) and set up on a table. It is probably influenced by the medieval “paradise tree”—a tree, decorated with apples, for paradise plays about Adam and Eve in the middle ages. It could also be influenced by the German Lichstock.

    • The Christmas tree tradition remains highly localized throughout Germany and is NOT popular nationwide.

  • 1600-1700s

    • The St. Nicholas tradition is still big with the Catholic Dutch and exists in other places.

    • But Protestants begin to immigrate to the American Colonies, leaving Catholic saints behind, including St. Nicholas.

    • In America, the Pennsylvania Germans merge St. Nicholas and Krampus into “furry Nicholas”—Belsnickel. Black, and dressed in fur, Belsnickel will show up at your house, wearing bells and either begging or offering gifts. He will throw nuts and candy on the floor for the kids, but whip them on the backs as they scramble to get it.

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    • Belsnickle in action!

      But the Puritans hate Christmas. They realize that it is rooted in pagan traditions, and also hate the fact that it is pretty much a giant secular party (drinking, food, and sex) with no religious connotations.

      • In New England they make illegal its practice, making it illegal to give the day off work or even hold a church service, in their communities.

      • In Europe, attempts are made to replace St. Nick by moving the holiday visit to Christmas, and replacing him with “the Christ Child” (Kristkringle). (It doesn’t really stick, and soon St. Nick and the Christ Child are at the door..later St. Nicholas takes on Kristkringle’s name.)

    • But they are never successful in stamping it out, and Christmas finds a resurgence by the end of the 1700s as the puritans lose power.

  • 1800s

    • Christmas celebration in the early 1800s is highly secular—drinking, sex, parades…and wassailing.

    • Wassailing was a practice of “social inversion” that survived from the ancient traditions. The poor and rich would trade places. Masters would open their house to their servants, and the servants could come in and demand their best food and drink in exchange for a song of well wishing. This helped maintain the social hierarchy (as a safety valve).

      • We wish you a merry Christmas is a wassailing song.

      • The practice was common between slaves and their masters in the Antebellum South through the civil war,

      • Boxing Day” (where officers trade places with enlisted men) is still an English military tradition.

    • As immigration and poverty increased, wassailing ceased being a safety valve and became a form of protest. The poor would show up at wealthy estates, demanding entrance, food and drink. If refused, they might throw rocks or worse. (Think of Halloween.) Bands of rowdy unemployed poor going through the wealthy parts of town, waking everyone up, were common. Especially in New York, being rich at Christmas was not fun.

    • Rich New Yorkers crusaded to “domesticate” Christmas celebrations. John Pintard and Washington Irving introduced a punishing St. Nicholas to New York, and stories and poems circulated about him.

    • Probably written originally by Henry Livingston (of German descent), a poem “A Visit From St. Nick” starting appearing anonymously in newspapers around Christmas in 1823. A rich New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore, was probably behind much of its publication and claimed authorship in 1836. The poem was based loosely in the Dutch tradition, but changed many things and added many others.

      • Nicholas is a Saint in name only. He is “defrocked--a lower class peddler, dressed completely in fur (no saintly garb).

        • His stump of a pipe indicates his class.

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      • He only comes to bring gifts—no punishment. He is miniature (an elf), as are his sleigh and reindeer.

      • He has eight reindeer, and they each have a name. He comes on Christmas (not Dec 6th).

      • (Notice also that the protagonist is worried about wassailers, and St. Nick only places gifts in stockings, and there is no Christmas tree.)

    • Because it changes the focus from the poor to “your own children,” the rich elite embrace the poem and begin to trick their children into believing St. Nick will bring them gifts on Christmas Eve. Almost immediately, people think they are participating in an age old Dutch tradition—when, in fact, nearly every part of it is brand new and not Dutch at all. St. Nick’s Dutch name, Sinter Klass, soon changes to “Santa Claus,” and the “tradition” eventually catches on in all classes.

    • The first Christmas tree is seen in a German Pennsylvania home in the 1810s. The Christmas tree tradition reaches Berlin in the 1820’s, and abounds in Germany in the 1830s. Literature including the Christmas tree tradition circulates. Ironically people see it as a way to deal with their already present concerns about “spoiling children” with Christmas gifts. (It presented a way to control gift distribution, and many Christmas tree stories depicted children giving gifts to parents.) The Christmas tree beings to catch on in America around the 1830s.

    • In England, Charles Dickens revives interest in Christmas and changes the way it is celebrated, with “A Christmas Carol.”

    • Business and corporations realize the profits that all this gift giving can bring, and they promote and exploit the holiday celebrations every way they can.

    • 1850s. Santa starts appearing in stores, and Christmas Trees are sold commercially.

    • Mid – 1800s - Scandinavian writers such as Thile, Toplius, Rydberg transformed the image of Scandinavian house gnomes to Christmas elves that are eventually associated with Santa.

    • The Santa and Tree traditions merge and soon St. Nick has to leave presents in stockings and on the tree.

    • Soon the gifts are too big and they go under the tree. As gift size and number increase, the tree moves to the floor and keeps getting bigger and bigger.

    • Older social obligations to give to the poor are fulfilled by giving to organized charities (instead of beggars), and many concentrate on children alone.

    • Thomas Nast depicts Santa as a full grown, rotund person in 1881.

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    • 1889 - Mrs. Claus, Santa's wife, is added to the story by Katherine Lee Bates in the poem “Goody Santa Claus On A Sleigh Ride”

    • 1891 – Benjamin Harrison places the first Christmas tree in the White House (calling it “old fashioned”).

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