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Once again, Christmas is upon us. The season, full with gift giving and well wishes, is the annual favorite of millions and millions of people on planet Earth. Although the annual winter celebration has been with the world for a very, very long time, modern adherents to the celebration would probably be not so much at home with the holiday in its earlier forms. Many things have been added through the years to make it the celebration we know today.
The precursor to Christmas celebrations was in practice long before the birth of Jesus. In the Roman Empire, the celebration of Saturnalia took place each December, from the 17th until the 25th. That holiday was celebrated by the Romans with the closing of the courts and the suspension of property laws. A “Lord of Misrule” was chosen from the enemies of the Roman people and each community would choose a victim who was forced to feast and take part in other physical pleasures throughout the holiday until the last day, December 25th, when they were brutally murdered. The Romans thought that this final ritual of the celebration would destroy the forces of darkness and bring light back to the world.
As Christianity took hold in the Roman Empire, and finally became the official Roman religion, Christians, in an attempt to bring pagans into the church, converted many, by promising them that they could continue these ritual winter celebrations as Christians. The celebration would continue with widespread public intoxication and the tradition of wandering naked through the streets and to houses singing songs.
Christians would insure widespread adherence to the birth of Jesus celebration by tying his birth to the last day of the Saturnalia celebrations. Until that time, the was no agreement as to the date or even the year of Jesus ‘s birth. Christians celebrated the first Christ’s Mass on December 25th, in the year 336 A.D. after Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official Roman religion.
Norse mid-winter celebrations were brought into Christmas in much the same way as other pagan celebrations in southern Europe. Christmas trees would have their earliest roots in these Norse mid-winter celebrations. Evergreen trees or boughs would be brought into Norse homes during their winter solstice observances and decorated, while Yule logs would burn in the fireplaces to ward off the darkness. Norse Mistletoe traditions found their way into Christmas at this same time.
Saint Nicholas played a role separate from Christmas at first. St. Nicholas Day was celebrated with gift giving on the day of his death on December 6th of 343AD. As this Christian tradition made itself further and further north through Europe, his flowing robes would transform into robes of fur. As he reached the northern reaches, he took on the power of flight to continue his gift-giving as he melded with Norse traditions and the god Odin. In time, the gift giving celebration early in the month of December was moved into the Christmas tradition as well. This was especially true in England, where Saint Nicholas Day, in time, ceased to be observed and the image of Father Christmas emerged.
Christmas would be outright banned by law in England by 1645 as Puritans in Parliament abolished the holiday for 15 years. Puritan settlers in Boston went a step further, outlawing Christmas celebrations entirely in 1659, making any type of feasting, shirking of duties, or speaking the name of Saint Nicholas an offense with a five shilling fine.
Celebrations of Christmas occurred in other southern portions of the colonies however. But, with the coming of the revolution, Christmas would once again be treated with disdain. It wouldn’t be until the early decades of the 1800s that Christmas would slowly ebb back into favor in the United States. Then, in 1823, “Twas the Night before Christmas” was published in New York to enormous success. Clement Clark Moore transformed the Dutch version of Saint Nicholas from a cross between a gaunt saint and Odin who rode an eight legged horse into the jolly dimpled elf that would make way for the modern pipe-smoking Santa we know today in a sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer.
Christmas trees wouldn’t find much popularity beyond the borders of Germany and northern Europe until the 1840s, when Queen Victoria persuaded Prince Albert to observe his country’s tradition of decorating an Evergreen tree. Images of that tree were shown in the Illustrated London News, and decorated Christmas trees became the rage of England. The elite would compete for the most ornate tree complete with silver tinsel and delicate blown glass ornaments. The magazine was also seen in America with the same effect and Christmas trees were off and running in the United States.
It would be in New York again where Jolly old Saint Nick would become more recognizable as the Santa Claus of today when Thomas Nast would do more than 2,200 illustrations for the Harper’s Weekly from 1862 until 1886. It was during this time that Santa got his home at the North Pole, or later, if you are Alaskan, North Pole, Alaska. He also gained his list of naughty or nice, his workshop full of elves. and grew from an elf to the size we know him today. By 1870, Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed Christmas a federal holiday.
But Santa was still without the traditional outfit and facial features that are so recognizable today. In 1931, Coca-Cola commissioned commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to draw a Cola-drinking Santa. Sundblom used his friend Lou Prentice as his model because of his cheerful chubby face. Coca-Cola insisted that Santa be wearing the fur-lined bright Coca-Cola red outfit. It’s that outfit we traditionally see on Santa today.
Through the years, Americans made the centuries-long winter celebration our own. We have omitted items like “Hot Cockles” a game where a person is blind-folded and hit with a stick, then that person had to guess who hit them, and Frumenty, a pudding made with cracked wheat boiled in milk or water. But we have added candy canes that were first invented in Germany to keep choir boys quiet during the long Christ Masses, we added bright stripes and flavoring and made them an American holiday favorite. We have also made gingerbread houses, inspired by the Hansel and Gretel tale, a part of the Christmas celebration. We have also added electric tree lights invented in 1920 by Edward Johnson, an employee of Thomas Edison to our trees, that originated from tabletop size, to sizes reaching the ceiling and many times beyond.
Christmas traditions, both great and small are added all over America each season as millions gather to celebrate the Yuletide season with gifts and feasts at family get-togethers. Adding a little something makes the holiday more our own as we go about our holiday traditions each year.
Adaptations through time has made Christmas the biggest of celebrations in America and in many other places of the world as we celebrate generosity, gift giving, good cheer and the special moments that the gathering of families brings.
Once again, as the season is upon us, the Alaska Native News would like to wish all of our readers wherever they are, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.