It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Christmas lights being strewn and Christmas trees being decorated with holiday cheer. You can almost feel the palpable Christmas spirit in the air. But what does all of it mean? And a better question, how did Christmas as we now know come to be?
For millennia, people of both the US and Europe celebrated winter Solstice, a time to welcome lighter days to come and move away from the cold darker days of winter. People would come to together and hold raucous parties and drink heavily in celebration.
When Christianity began to overtake the pagan belief tradition, the church began to align itself with December 25th celebrating the birth of the messiah, Jesus Christ. Hence, the name of Christ - Mas - loosely translated as, more Christ.
In the early 19th century, Americans began to reinvent the Christmas holiday from a raucous holiday festival into a family centered day of peace and good will.
There was quite a lot of turmoil in the early 19th century between the upper and under class, and the creation of a holiday Christmas spirit seemed to help alleviate some strife and underpinnings of despair.
However, it wasn’t until two decades into the 19th century that Christmas began to really begin its rise to fame thanks to the help of the writer. Washington Irving. In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended—in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” the tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.
But Who Invented Santa Claus?
The legend of Santa Claus can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas who was born in Turkey around 280 A.D.. St. Nicholas gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick, becoming known as the protector of children and sailors.
St. Nicholas first entered American popular culture in the late 18th century in New York, when Dutch families gathered to honor the anniversary of the death of “Sint Nikolaas” (Dutch for Saint Nicholas), or “Sinter Klaas” for short. “Santa Claus” draws his name from this abbreviation.
In 1822, Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore wrote a Christmas poem called “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” more popularly known today by its first line: “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas.” The poem depicted Santa Claus as a jolly man who flies from home to home on a sled driven by reindeer to deliver toys.
The iconic version of Santa Claus as a jolly man in red with a white beard and a sack of toys was immortalized in 1881, when political cartoonist Thomas Nast drew on Moore's poem to create the image of Old Saint Nick we know today.