B. K. Swartz, Jr.

In 1951 I took a course on American History from Professor Sooren Frankian at Los Angeles City College. When the Christmas holiday season came around he abandoned his regular presentation and gave a lecture on the origin of Christmas customs. Thirty years later, in the Christmas season of 1981, the idea of giving a special Christmas lecture to my introductory archaeology class at Ball State University intrigued me and I remembered Dr. Frankian's lecture. I had kept the notes of that lecture, added some material I had and gave my special Christmas lecture to the class. From that time forward I annually revised and expanded the material, especially during the holiday season. Almost nothing of Frankian's lecture now remains intact. Much of the material compiled is "popular" in nature and was then evaluated, revised and verified.

 The eminent anthropologist Ralph Linton wrote an article entitled "One Hundred Percent American" in the American Mercury, Vol. 40 (1937) highlighting the idea that almost all the customs and beliefs we hold dear have foreign origins. I used my Christmas lecture to illustrate this theme. Ironically the recent book The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum (1997) demonstrates that the composite of a non-ecclesiastical Santa Claus we all know and love who brings gifts on the day of Christ's nativity is probably a completely American construct and not of Dutch origin!



Fundamentally Christmas celebration is based on the intertwining of two ethnic patterns, Roman transition rites and Germano-Celtic Yule (jiuleis) rites-feasting and mortuary practice. First known use of the word Christes-Maess was in England, 1038. The English titled Feast Days with Mass Days. No Saint's day listed for December 25th. Abbreviation Xmas; X is Greek Chi, the first letters of Christmas--not X blank out.

 In colonial New England Thanksgiving, not Christmas, was the important seasonal holiday. Puritans passed an anti-Christmas law in 1659, repealed 1681. Christmas celebration was resisted by the Congregationalist Cotton Mather (1663-1728). First recorded post-repeal celebration was in 1686. Christmas was declared a holiday in Louisiana, 1837, and a national legal by the U. S. Congress in 1875. It was unimportant in the United States until 1880's when the church relented. In 1885 a law was enacted giving federal employees Christmas day off. Christmas declared a legal holiday in U.S. late (1894 or early 20th century).



Though generally assumed to be an approximate conventionalized date for the solstice, the original significance of the date December 25th (25 Kisleu Jewish calendar) is unknown. We know the day had important ceremonial and social significance, apparently unrelated to solstice activities, among the Seleucids by 167 B.C. (I Macabees 1:58-59, II Macabees 6:7). In pre-Christian Rome Mithra was seasonally reborn not on the day of the solstice, but on December 25th. The Romans had another deity for the solstice, the goddess Angerona. Her festival day is December 21st.

 A passage of Plutarch implies Mithraism was brought to the attention of the Romans from accounts given by Cilician pirates in 67 B.C. The Mithraic mystic cult developed in Armenia from a local late surviving version of Mazdaysnian. Mithra (originally a pre-Avestan Indo-Iranian god of contracts and broad pastures) was syncretized with the Semitic Babylonian gods of the sun--Shamash and seasonal regeneration--Tammuz (originally rendered as Dumuzi a Sumerian fertility god). After his introduction to Rome the composite Mithra, and perhaps his December 25 date of celebration, were again syncretized with Solis indigeni (a Roman sun god derived from the Pelasgean titan of light - Helios). This resulted in a composite being Solis invicta, the invincible sun. Mithra was the god of the regenerating sun and was annually reborn on December 25th. Aurelian eventually proclaimed Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in A.D. 274 and Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Invincible Sun) became an official holiday.

 Worship of Christianity was legally allowed in the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great, Edict of Nicomedia (Milan), A.D. 313. Now the two focal celebrations of both religions occur on December 25th, Mithra's sun regeneration and the Christian nativity (Sun of Righteousness). According to St. Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, the "Roman Church purposefully placed the keeping of Christmas between two popular folk festivals, Saturnalia and the Kalends of January, in order to give Christians something to celebrate [undisturbed] about while others were engaged in secular merrymaking." The December 25th date for the Roman Christian celebration was generally accepted in Western Roman Empire probably some time before A.D. 336 when parts of the Philoclian calendar were composed, but certainly before A.D. 354 when the text was completed and the act officially recognized by Bishop Liberius. The Christmas nativity gradually replaces Mithra's birthday ceremony. It is reasonable to suppose that the conjunction of Mithra's birthday with a holiday honoring Jesus Christ's nativity would eventually lead to the assumption that Jesus was born on December 25th. This transference, however, is not explicitly documented.

 The date of the birth of Jesus (Yehoshua-Ben-Yosef) is unknown. There was no concern of this event by Christians in the first century. In the bible there are no common narrative features and many contradictions on the birth of Jesus between Matthew and Luke. There are only two common points in the accounts, (1) Bethlehem location (which is necessary to fulfill prophecy of earlier time though there not one shred of historical evidence, i.e. the messiah is to be born in city of David's birth) and (2) the Virgin birth of Jesus by Mary (Miriam) (actually from Hebrew "almah" - a marriageable women of child-bearing age, not necessarily a virgin by contemporary meaning). A third nativity account is given in the Pseudepigraphal gospel of James. It is considered unreliable.

 To this day January 6 is the Eastern Church date to celebrate the Theopany of Christ. Before AD 381 it was a unified date celebrating both Christ's nativity and baptism. Originally it was a nativity date established by Egyptian Christians in the 1st century and was apparently calculated from the belief Jesus died April 6, A.D. 29 (year inferred from Luke 3.23, date from Passover of that year) and "existed" on earth exactly 30 years from his incarnation). December 25th was later accepted date of Christ's nativity by eastern Christian churches (Orthodox, Ukrainian, etc.; Armenians still do not). Chysostom states in AD 387 that the vacated January 6th had become the date of the Epiphany for the western church. This shift in dates was not due to Gregorian calendar correction.

 Representation of Epiphany in Western churches was based on the manifestation of Christ by Magi (who may have been Parthian astrologers). In the Eastern churches it was based on (1) Christ's baptism by John, and (2) his first miracle at Cana.

 The twelve holy Roman days (actually nights, there are 13 days) established in 47 B.C. between the end of the Saturnalia (December 19th) and the Kalends (January 1st) eventually became the twelve holy days of the Christian Christmas celebration. They were officially adapted to the Christmas-Epiphany interval at the Council of Tours, A.D. 567. The Romans transferred the Saturnalia to the beginning of the year in the 4th century.

 "Her [Holda] annual progress, which, like those of Herke and Berta, is made to fall between Christmas and twelfth-day, when the supernatural held sway" (Grimm, Jakob 1844 Deutshe Mythologie, translated by Steven Stallybrass, Teutonic Mythology, 1966 Dover: New York, 4 vols., p. 268). This passage indicates the Germans accepted the twelve days of Christmas. The Anglo-Saxons may have introduced this idea to England in post-Roman times.

"Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O'er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.....
Each Christmas eve he joys to come
Where love and peace have made their home"
William B. Gilley, A Children's Friend, 1821.

This is the first documented reference associating Santa Claus with Christmas on December. 25th, rather than St. Nicholas' gift giving Saint Day, December 6th.

(ecclesiastic bishop)

There is a shrine dedicated to a Bishop Nicholas in Myra, Lycia (Asia Minor), its origins dating back to at least the 6th century. A Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, attended the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 (Nicene Creed establishing the trinity). That is all the first hand evidence known about Nicholas.

 Before the ninth century tales of feats about Nicholas evolved. The best known states that before he was a Bishop he saved three dowerless maidens from being forced "to shameful means of earning a livelihood" by throwing in at their window on three successive nights purses of gold, thus providing each with a dowry. Hence the custom of distributing gifts and his protection of virgins becomes associated with him. In later time he becomes the saint of mariners, thieves, virgins and children.

 Accounts by Bishop Methodus of Constantinople, A.D. 842-46 remake Nicholas. He was born, perhaps, in A.D. 280 at Patara and died in December 6, A.D. 342, 343 or 345. This allows him to be of plausible age at Nicaea. The exact day of his death may be an adaptation of Poseidon's feast day to connect Nicholas with the ocean and mariners. Nicholas may have been promoted to saint status at this time and a Saint's Day is provided.

 Vladimir Duke of Russia (Kiev) visited and was baptized at Constantinople in 1003. Upon returning to Russia he made St. Nicholas his country's patron saint (this may have been a composite with St. Nicholas of Penora who died in the 7th century). He soon becomes associated with an arctic landscape and was popular with the Lapps and Samoyeds. This may be the result of the syncretization of St. Nicholas with the Russian winter folk spirit Father Frost. Father Frost has a long white beard, is dressed in furs and drives a sled drawn by reindeer. St. Nicholas becomes the dominant saint of the Eastern Church.

 Italian sailors transported his remains from Myra to Bari, Apulia in 1087. The contracted Muslim craftsmen wrote "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet," in disguised calligraphy on the wall of the church that housed his remains. When discovered it could not be effaced.

 About 80 years later a west European St. Nicholas cult was established with a center of commemoration at Metz, Lorraine, which then spreads up the Rhine and into the Low Countries and eventually England. In England, however, his identity was lost due to the Reformation and a Druid like Father Christmas was created.

 St. Nicholas was removed from the Universal Calendar of Saints by Pope Paul VI, 1969. He still maintains sainthood in the Orthodox Church.

 Some of his remains (including a piece of skull) and possessions were transported from Bari to the Greek Orthodox shrine,