Celebrations around mid-winter and the winter solstice go far back in history, being marked in many ways, longer than the 2,000 since the stated birth of Christ.
In the year 340AD, Pope Julius I fixed the date of Jesus’s birthday to 25 December, with at least three other dates being used to mark the date prior to this, including 29 March, 6 June, and a date in January.
There are, of course, several traditions dating back to before this time, but one such pre-Christian tradition is that of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. And since the winter solstice on 21 December 2020 (the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere) marks the Great Conjunction of the planet Saturn with Jupiter (the closest the two planets have been at night since the 13th Century and being to referred to as “The Christmas Star”), an appropriate topic perhaps…
Saturnalia, as you can maybe guess, is named after and in honour of the God Saturn. Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture, or sowing and seed, and this ancient festival derived from previous farming and agriculture related rituals held during mid-winter.
Saturnalia was held on 17 December, with festivities later extending to 23 December, with businesses, schools and courts all closing. Much like some today, people would decorate their homes with wreaths, spending the days singing, gambling, feasting, and gift giving. Gifts would include such things as cerei (wax taper candles) and signillaria (terracotta figures).
Roman slavery even came to a halt, with the enslaved being allowed to join in festivities. It is even said that some would sit at the head of a table during feasting, with their masters waiting on them.
It was also custom for some households to choose a Saturnalicius princeps – “leader of Saturnalia” or “Lord of Misrule”, who would cause mischief during the festival celebrations.
The festival of Saturnalia is clearly hugely influential in many celebrations of Christmas and New Years in parts of the ‘Western world’ today.
A slightly darker side to Roman myth tells of Saturn himself devouring his own children. A prophecy was told to Saturn that one of his sons would overthrow him; responding to this Saturn is said to have eaten his sons as soon as they were born. This may show Saturn himself in a different light to a festive figure like ‘jolly’ Santa Claus, but there were some aspects from Saturn associated with him (more on that next).
Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St Nick – he goes by several names, but how did he come to be associated with Saint Nicholas?
Saint Nicholas was said to be born around 270-280 years after the birth of Christ and was a Bishop of the Roman town of Myra, in modern day Turkey. He became the patron saint of many groups: including sailors, pawnbrokers, wolves, and, more appropriately, children and gift giving. His patronage of children and gift giving is said to come from two legends from his life, which G. Q. Bowler talks about in his book Santa Claus: A Biography.
One famous tale is one of Nicholas hearing about three sisters who were forced into a life of sex work to earn enough money to eat, and so he tossed three coins down their chimney to help them out.
Another legend tells of an innkeeper who had murdered three boys, pickling and dismembering their bodies and placing them into barrels. Saint Nicholas is said to have sensed this crime and helped by also resurrecting the children.
The Bishop and Saint is noted to have died on 6 December, around 343 AD, with celebrations of gift giving centered around this day, inspired by these tales. Saint Nicholas was also known by the moniker Nicholas the Wonderworker, due to alleged miracles attributed to intercessionary prayers. is also said to have taken on some aspects of deities such as the Roman god Saturn, by both being bearded men with the attribution of miracles and powers of flight; bringing some possible associations with Saturnalia festivities.
But with the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, the Saints’ popularity decreased. Celebrations and gift giving were then moved to the time of Jesus’s birth date, Christmas, with Jesus being chosen as a new central figure for gift giving dcelebrations. In some European regions, due to the questioning of Christ’s capacity to carry gifts, legendary, and slightly scarier, figures were introduced as his helper, based on Saint Nicholas: Ru-Klaus (Rough Nicholas), Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas) and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas).
But it seems the inspiration for the name Santa Claus may have begun in the Netherlands. The country did not want to lose Saint Nicholas as their gift bringer, giving him an informal Dutch name and abbreviation of Sint Nikolaas: Sinterklaas
Christmas was celebrated much like Saturnalia for many years, but in the 19th Century several writers began to revive Christmas as more of a family celebration among Christians, with Saint Nicholas/Santa Claus as the central figure. Other names were adopted, such as Father Christmas, and Père Noël.
One piece of literature, said to be one of the earliest in terms of describing modern Christmas traditions in the west, and specifically the United States, is that of Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker’s History of New York, in 1809.
But there is also another creepier legend associated with Santa Claus – that of his horned helper Krampus, who is likened to other legends such as Ru-Klaus, and associated with others who are also said to be companions of St Nicholas.
Krampus is most likely to have originated from pre-Christian Alpine traditions, but some trace the origins of the legend back to Norse mythology, suggesting Krampus was the son of Hell, while others go back to demonic creatures in Greek mythology, or to Satan himself.
In European folklore, Krampus is a half-goat half-man who is said to help Santa Klaus deal with unruly children. As with Saint Nicholas above, 6 December was an important date in the legend of Krampus, with folklore suggesting he visited the children the night prior, on Krampusnacht.
While Santa gives out gifts to those who had been good all year, Krampus chases the ‘bad’ children with whips and chains. He would then throw them in a wicker basket to take them down to hell for the year.
Remember to behave, children.