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At this time of the year, we should all be a little bit more relaxed since many of us are on vacations but, on the contrary, we are upset, running around, desperate to go quickly from one place to the next, urged by the necessity to buy gifts. Christmas arrives with the heat to this hemisphere in which there are many Catholics and many non-Catholics; the reason why the non-Catholics celebrate the birth of Jesus has always been a mystery to me.
However, being an adult (and a very inquisitive one), I started paying attention to the symbolism associated with Christmas: the pine tree with the red and white ornaments, the presents wrapped up in red and white paper under the pine tree, Santa Claus climbing through the chimney with a bag of gifts (indeed, red and white too) and the star at the top of the Christmas tree. Did Jesus say, in his first conscious birthdays, that he liked pine trees and gifts, and that is why it is celebrated this way? It seems he does not.
Actually, Jesus was not even born on December 25. In none of the verses of the Bible appears his date of birth. This date was chosen by Pope Julius I in the year 350 ad to replace and amalgamate the celebration of the “presumed” birth of Jesus with the pagan celebrations that took place in the Roman Empire at the time, for example the Saturnalias. In the Northern hemisphere, during the winter solstice, the Scandinavian and the Germanic peoples gave banquets and lit bonfires to pass on their energy to the Sun god, which was crucial for their daily lives. This celebration was called Yule and, as you will realise, is extremely associated with our current Christmas celebration.
Santa Claus’ evolution
The evolution of Santa Claus’s figure hides the clues to decipher the enigma of the birth of Christmas celebration. In the winter solstice (December 21), the northern European and Asian inhabitants celebrated Yule, a festivity in which the tribes (specially the Kamchadales and the Koryaks from Siberia) would gather a mushroom called amanita muscaria on a sleigh pulled by reindeer. This mushroom is red and white, and it grows only under pine trees. The shamans, dressed up in red and white, picked them up, dry them in socks and then offer them as gifts to the other tribesmen. Red and white gifts, pine trees, socks with gifts, bearded shamans dressed up in red and white, reindeer… How did they deliver the presents? Since snow covered the hut’s entrance, shamans had to climb through the chimney. Does it sound familiar?
According to James Arthur, author of Mushrooms and Mankind, this pagan tradition was used to achieve spiritual connection with nature and with oneself. When people eat these mushrooms, they experience an almighty force, euphoria, clarity of thought and a very deep connection with the spiritual kingdom. Reindeer also eat this mushroom and the effect is exactly the same: they jump with so much energy that it seems they would fly. It also sounds familiar, ain’t it?
In the Germanic tradition, this figure is called Odin and, even though some characteristics are different, others remain intact. Then, the druids carried these beliefs with them to England where they put down roots and expanded to other corners of the world.
If we move forward, we will find the figure of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas was a Greek-Orthodox bishop who lived in the current Turkish territory around the year 300 ad. This bishop was well-known for his solidarity and he became a legend when he gave a bag full of gold coins to a poor man who was about to give away his daughters as slaves because he did not have enough money to pay his debts.
However, the Santa Claus we know today began to take shape when his figure arrived to Holland. The celebration of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas in Dutch) travelled to the current territory of the United States when the Dutch migrated to New York (which at the time was called New Amsterdam). Many years later, Washington Irving named Santa Claus as the patron of New York.
But for the image of Santa Claus to be completed, some other steps where necessary. In 1823, Clement Clark Moore published his famous poem Twas The Night Before Christmas: A Visit From St. Nicholas. In this poem, seals in the popular imagination the image of the fat bearded man who brings gifts in Christmas with his flying reindeer. The red and white colours of the clothes would be added by Coca-Cola in its campaign of 1930 and then they would send him to travel around the world hand in hand with globalisation.
So, if we consider the cluster of characteristics and traditions associated with Christmas and with Santa Claus, we can clearly state that, during these dates, we not only celebrate the presumed birth of Jesus. This date is loaded with mysticism, with magical powers, with with ancient customs, with gifts, with solidarity and with respect for nature. Notwithstanding our belief (or disbelief) in the son of Mary and Joseph, the winter or summer solstice (depending on our position in the world) brings many reasons to celebrate. Very happy solstice for everyone!
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