Every December we see them: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, wreaths and stockings. Mostly everyone knows that these things are related to Christmas but not everyone is aware of their origins. Hence, in honor of the upcoming holidays, this article and accompanying slideshow present a brief history of six of the most beloved Christmas symbols.
Santa Claus is based on the Christian saint Bishop Nicholas. In 1809 writer Washington Irving published a satire titled “Knickerbocker’s History of New York.” In that work, he made reference to a jolly character known as St. Nicholas that was more akin to a Dutch elfin than to the Bishop. This deviation of the character led to the legend that Saint Nicholas comes down chimney’s to bring gifts. The public loved this version of Saint Nicholas and soon tailored it to be aimed at children. The 1821 lithographed book “Children’s Friend” featured a “Sante Claus” character who rode in a flying sleigh driven by reindeer and delivered toys to good children. From there, the image of “Sante Claus” was popularized as a jolly bearded man wearing a red suit, usually by marketing campaigns. Over time the term “Sante” was changed to “Santa” and the figure has become a media mega star. Visit stnicholascenter.org for a full history.
Reindeer have been associated with Santa roughly since the 1821 lithograph. The animals were popularly associated with Santa because Santa is supposed to live in the North Pole which is freezing cold and reindeer, native to Arctic and Subarctic regions, are adept at handling freezing conditions. However, Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer did not explode into pop-culture until 1949 when Johnny Marks penned the famous song of the same name. Altogetherchristmas.com has a more complete history of Santa’s association with reindeer.
Christmas trees are actually rooted in pagan symbolism. Pine trees stay green all year long despite changing weather conditions and such “evergreen” plants had special meaning in the pre-Christian days. Before Christ, people followed the phases of the moon and thereby decorated during festive seasons with pine, spruce and fir. It was common for ancient people to hang evergreen boughs over their windows and doors since it was believed that evergreens would keep ghosts, witches, and illness away. Even after the birth of Christ, some of these old “good luck” traditions remained and over time decorated trees became “Christmas Trees” and thereby synonymous with December 25th. History.com has full information.
Christmas stockings have a less reliable history. According to legend a nobleman, in grief over the death of his wife, squandered his fortune and left his three daughters without dowries. Saint Nicholas (aka Santa) heard about the girl’s plight and threw three pouches or gold coins down their chimney where they were captured by the stockings that the young women had hung to dry but the fireplace.
Christmas presents actually date back to pre-Christian Rome where citizens presented offerings to emperors during the Roman holidays in December and January. This ritual expanded into gift-giving among the general population. In Christianity, the custom was survived via the story of the three wise men bringing gifts to baby Jesus. Simpletoremember.com has detailed information about Christmas present origins.
Finally, the Christmas wreath is another pagan-inspired tradition that was popular amongst the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. During the cold month of December in Eastern Europe people gathered wreaths of evergreens and started fires as signs of hope for the coming warmth of Spring. Even after Christianity was adopted throughout these regions, the tradition was kept alive by Catholics and Protestants who used the wreath symbol to celebrate their hope in Christ, the everlasting Light. See thehistoryofchristmas.com for more.
And so, from ancient traditions, we continue our displays of life, love and hope every holiday season.