Witches, goblins, demons, and saints. Even though this sounds like a troop more fit for Halloween, this odd collection of ancient folklore is at the very center of a holiday that has been celebrated in different forms as far back as history has been written: Christmas, aka Yuletide, aka Saturnalia. It turns out that the holiday we are all familiar with today is a strange conglomerate of many European winter traditions. The true history of Christmas is long, complicated and rife with religious oppression. So conjure up an egg-nog and get comfy by the fire, because this is about to get complicated.
Santa Claus, aka St. Nicholas, aka Kris Kringle, aka Father Christmas, was first popularized in North America in 1823 when a poem by Clement Clarke Moore titled A Visit From St. Nicholas (aka The Night Before Christmas) was published. A few decades later, an illustration by Thomas Nast depicted St. Nicholas as a jolly fat man smoking a pipe. Together, these two accidentally created the modern image of the Christmas gift-bringer, Santa Claus. However, even this version was not popularized in media until the 1920s, thanks in part to Coca-Cola and their Christmas campaigns which often featured the man in red. This is where the North American version of Santa Claus came from, but it does not fully explain how a random dude from the North Pole became the mascot for a holiday that’s been around, practically since the dawn of time.
Santa’s Origin Story Part 1: La Bafana — Italy’s Christmas Witch:
Although many other characters from folklore across the globe share similarities with Santa Claus, the inspiration for this iconic character can be seen most clearly in stories of La Befana, the Italian version of Santa Claus that long predates the man himself. “Befana” is said to be an Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word for “Epiphany” which was an ancient New Years’ tradition, originally celebrated on January 6th.
Befana is responsible for popularizing the idea of Santa coming down the chimney, putting coal in children’s stockings, and she’s also the reason people leave out milk and cookies (Originally fruit and wine). These attributes were taken directly from the stories of Befana, who would fly around on her broom giving gifts to children around Yuletide. She is often depicted as an old woman (representing the old year’s end) who wears a black shawl to keep the chimney soot from her clothes and hair. She uses her broom to clean up the mess she makes coming down the chimney, and to clear away the bad vibes and negative energy built up over the year if the homeowners were good.
Legend has it that when the 3 Wisemen, or Magi, were on their way to deliver gifts to the baby Messiah, Befana, being the overworked woman that she was, was too busy cleaning to follow the Magi when they passed through her town. After Christ was born, she realized her mistake, rushed out of the house- broom in hand, and tried to find him. However, she was unsuccessful. In order to make up for her mistake, Befana flies around and gives gifts to all children, believing that the spirit of Christ can be found in all children. For hundreds of years, children in Southern Italy have hung their stockings by the fire in hopes of receiving a gift from Befana. Naughty children would receive a lump of coal, onions or garlic.
“Here comes, here comes the Befana, She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up, In snow and frost and the north wind! Here comes, here comes the Befana!”
The legend of La Befana was combined with that of St. Nicholas, and the woman herself was removed from Christmas lore around the time of the Protestant Reformation. Wanting to further separate the holiday from its blatantly pagan roots, Christians rejected the idea of La Befana because of her ties with Strenia, (the pagan goddess of New Years) and the rowdy parties that went hand-in-hand with Yuletide.
Santa’s Origin Story: Part 2 — St. Nicholas
The trend of celebrating Christmas with Santa has a little something to do Saint Nicholas, and those who celebrate St. Nicholas’s Day. The feast of St. Nicholas was historically celebrated on the 6th of December (Western Europe) or on the 19th of December (Eastern Europe) depending on the use of the Gregorian or Jullian calendar and honored the Saint, who is said to have died on December 6th around 343.
“Saint Nicholas of Myra, also known as Nicholas of Bari, was an early Christian bishop of the ancient Greek maritime city of Myra in Asia Minor during the time of the Roman Empire.”
Historically, St. Nicholas Day has little to do with Christmas and many still celebrate it separately. However, St. Nicholas the man, was imprisoned for defending Christian beliefs and was also said to have been able to perform miracles. The most gruesome of which involved him raising 3 pickled boys from the dead. Yes, that’s right, if Easter can be known as Zombie Jesus day, Christmas should be known as Zombie Kid day.
For his charitable acts and supposed miracles, St. Nicholas became known as the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, prisoners, prostitutes, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students. Basically, he was the patron saint of all the people who needed the most financial help during the winter months. So, if you’re making more than 6 figures, you should not expect any gifts from St. Nicholas this year.
For several hundred years, St. Nicholas was celebrated as the bringer of gifts, around Christmas time. In some countries, Father Christmas also became popular around this time. This image of the gift-bringer ended with the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, when “Christ” was added to Christmas.
Santa’s Origin Story: Part 3 — Kriss Kringle
The popular workplace gift-giving game ‘Secret Santa,’ as it’s called in the US, is known as Kris (Kriss) Kringle in Canada. But the reason why St. Nicholas sometimes goes by the secret alias of Kris Kringle has long been forgotten by most people who still exchange Secret Santa or Kris Kringle gifts around Christmas. One might assume that the name Secret Santa comes from the rules of the game itself, where people receive gifts from an anonymous giver. However, the names Secret Santa and Kris Kringle do not actually come from the game but from a time when giving gifts in the name of St. Nicholas banned.
The name Kris Kringle also began around the time of the Protestant Reformation when Martian Luther condemned the practice of celebrating St. Nicholas (and La Bafana) because he believed that praying to a Saint went against scripture. However by this time, people were quite attached to the idea of celebrating Christmas, so Kris Kringle became St. Nicholas’s secret alias for exchanging gifts on St. Nicholas Day. The name did not become synonymous with Santa until it was popularized by the 1947 movie Miracle on 34th Street.
Anti-Fascist Krampus & Other Holiday Spooks:
If Befana is responsible for starting the chimney lore, Gryla and Krampus are responsible for Santa’s oversized sack. (Pun actually not intended for once.) Though in Nordic lore, it was used for a much more sinister purpose. Iceland also had its own version of a Christmas Witch, but she was far less sweet and much more chilling than the Italian version. Gryla was a personification of winter with all of its darkness and all of its dangerous weather.
Gryla was said to come down from the mountains with the ability to manipulate the weather, she would snatch up misbehaved children and place them in her sack, bringing them back for herself, and her husband Leppalúði, to eat. Gryla and her husband are rumored to be the parents of the 13 Yule lads, a bizarre group of Christmas goblins that we simply don’t have time to talk about today along with their fashion-conscious, human-consuming, giant Christmas Cat. Gryla is often depicted with 15 tails, horns, and hooved feet, making her sound like an estranged cousin to Krampus.
“(Terry) Gunnell explains that the Icelandic people understood themselves to be more like tenants of their harsh environment (where glaciers, volcanoes, and earthquakes dominate), and would view mythical creatures like the ones who were really running the show. Krampus only wishes he had such power.” — Alex Palmer — Smithsonian.com
Krampus, the Germanic foil to St. Nicholas, is also depicted as a furry, hooved-demon with giant horns and a sack for capturing naughty children. Krampus has grown in popularity in the past decade, after being suppressed by the Catholic Church and fascists around World War II. To the Catholic Church, celebrations involving Krampus were known to be too raucous and too close to their pagan origins. European Fascists somehow came to the belief that Krampus was a creation of Social Democrats, so they wrote the character out of their traditions. However, thanks to growing anti-Christmas sentiments combined with the modern desire to reconnect to one’s roots and the dark side of Christmas, Krampus parades can now be found in many cities across the globe.
Where exactly does modern Santa Claus fit into all this and why is Christmas celebrated on the 25th of December? As mentioned, Santa Claus is a North American construct, that was created as a way to unify the once diverse beliefs of European settlers in new America. Santa proves, that when you want to unify and control a population with diverse beliefs, branding matters. But call it that resilient Yuletide magic, waves of religious oppression aside, you can still celebrate the holiday however you want and chances are, according to some tradition somewhere, you are probably right! You can even get the day wrong because it turns out that the 25th of December has no real significance. All of the winter festivals in their many forms happened to fall between December 6th and January 6th. December 25th is just a happy middle ground, that happens to be suspiciously close to the Winter Solstice and during the times of Yule and Saturnalia.
“Christianity conquered paganism, but paganism infected Christianity;” -Domestic Life in Palestine, by Mary E. Rogers
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