From Hannibal to Coca-Cola: The Story of Christmas

by Steve Crow

For most of the Western world the origin of Christmas is found in the biblical Book of Luke. Chapter 2:1-11 tells us the Christmas story; the birth of Jesus in a manger, accompanied by angels, shepherds and wise men from afar. For today’s Christian the origin of Christmas is the birth of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Bible. Nothing more, nothing less: “Jesus is the reason for the Season!” However, most of what we witness on December 25th each year has absolutely nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. In fact, many of the customs and traditions of Christmas actually pre-date Christ.

Probably the most significant tradition began in the year 217 BC. This was during the 2nd Punic War. Hannibal, along with his famous elephants, had managed to cross the Alps from Spain and was on a sightseeing tour of Italy with his entire army. As Hannibal approached Rome, an Army under Gaius Flaminius was sent out to meet him. He was Rome’s last hope! I won’t bore you with the details, but at the Battle of Lake Trasimene, which is considered the largest, most successful ambush in military history, Flaminius was badly beaten.

Hannibal was on the outskirts of Rome, and the people were in panic. So what did the politicians do? They threw a huge party! It was called the Feast of Saturnalia in honor of the god Saturn. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” Fortunately for Rome the Carthaginian politicians hated Hannibal more than they hated Romans and refused to send him reinforcements, money, or supplies. So Rome survived and so did the Feast of Saturnalia.

Eventually Saturnalia became the most popular of all Roman feasts. Originally a one day event celebrated on December 17th, it grew into a weeklong extravaganza ending on the 23rd. Efforts by the Emperor Augustus to reduce it to three days, and later Caligula, to reduce it to 5 days ended in uproar and massive revolts. During Saturnalia priest carried evergreen wreaths; there was a Feast of Juvenalia which was thrown in honor of children and involved the giving of gifts; the traditional toga was abandoned for colorful informal dinner attire and everyone from master to slave wore the pileus, which was the “freedman’s hat”, and master’s served their slaves a banquet. Saturnalia became a time for reversal of social order, within careful boundaries of course, that avoided actually subverting the social structure.

The traditional Latin Saturnalia greeting was “Io, Saturnalia!” which translates in English to “Ho, praise to Saturn!” and survives today in Santa Claus’ “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

Eventually the cult of Mithras arose throughout the Roman Empire. The god Mithra had his origins in the Persian Empire about 4,000 years ago. The faith of Mithraism spread eastward through India to China and westward throughout the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire habitually adopted religions from the lands they conquered. Eventually the cult of Mithras spread from Scotland to the Sahara and from Spain to the Black Sea.

According to Persian mythology Mithra was born of a virgin who was given the title “Mother of God”, he remained celibate throughout his life and valued self-control, renunciation and resistance to sensuality. Starting about the year 1 BC the Cult of Mithras became extremely popular within the Roman Legions. The faith spread throughout the Roman military, and for the next three hundred years, Mithraism was the faith of the Roman Emperors. According to the traditions of the religion, Mithra’s birthday was December 25th and it was celebrated with a feast, coming on the heels of Saturnalia.

But the Roman Cult of Mithras had a fatal flaw. It was only open to men. The men of Rome became initiated into the rites of Mithras, while their wives, being barred from membership became Christians. And since mothers have a habit of raising children to believe as they do Christians grew in number, and the Cult of Mithras dwindled into extinction. However, Saturnalia and the Feast of Mithra were too popular and ingrained in Roman culture to be done away with, and so Jesus was given Mithra’s birthday. This was a small thing since the church placed little emphasis on the birth of Jesus. In the early church it was Easter that was the main religious celebration.

From the late Roman Empire, through the Middle Ages and until the early Nineteenth Century, Christmas was an underground holiday. It was a riotous time of debauchery; sort of a blending of Halloween and Oktoberfest. It wasn’t until Charles Dickens published his series of Christmas Novels that the holiday became the widely popular more dignified celebration we know today.

But what about all the other fun stuff associated with Christmas? Where did these things come form? The Christmas tree for instance had its origin in both Roman Saturnalia and Scandinavian celebration of the winter solstice. The Romans decked the halls with garlands of laurel and placed candles on live trees as part of Saturnalia; while the Scandinavians hung apples from evergreen trees to remind them that Spring and Summer would come again.

The exchanging of gifts also began during Roman Saturnalia. These gifts were called “Stenae” which translates “lucky fruits”.

Mistletoe comes to us from the Druids. It was considered a divine plant symbolizing love and peace. During the winter solstice maidens would stand under a wreath of mistletoe. A boy would come along, pick a berry and give her a kiss. No more berries – no more kisses!

By the early Middle Ages the Scandinavians had developed their own winter solstice traditions. These tended to merge with Celtic traditions and practices and became Yuletide in the British Isles.

So where does Santa Claus come in? He’s my favorite! St. Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra, a small city in what is present day Turkey. He died in the year 340 A.D. According to tradition he was a generous man, who was particularly devoted to children. St. Nicholas eventually became the patron Saint of Russia, and in Orthodox iconography he is identified by a red cape and flowing white beard. The feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated on Dec. 6th and was marked by gift giving and charity. After the Reformation the popularity of St. Nicholas dwindled, except in Holland. The Dutch Sint Nikolaas eventually transformed into Sinterklaas. Dutch children would leave their wooden shoes by the fireplace and Sinterklaas would reward good children by leaving treats in their shoes. Dutch colonists brought these traditions to America in the 17th century and the anglicanized Santa Claus emerged.

In 1809 author Washinton Irving, famous for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” wrote a satire of Dutch culture in America titled “Knickerbocker History”. Several times he refers to the white-bearded, flying horse riding St. Nicholas by the name Santa Claus.

In 1822 Clement C. Moore, a professor at Union Seminary, after reading “Knickerbocker History” wrote the poem “The Night Before Christmas” based on the character Santa Claus. Moore invented eight flying reindeer instead of flying horses and Santa sliding down the chimney.

From 1862 through 1886 Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast drew a series of over 2,000 cartoons for “Harper’s Weekly” based on Moore’s poem. Before Nast, St. Nicholas had been portrayed as everything from a stern looking bishop to a gnome-like figure in a black frock. Nast also gave Santa a home at the North Pole, a workshop full of elves, and a list of good and bad children of the world. All that was missing was Santa’s red suit.

That was provided for us in 1931 by Coca Cola. Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom was commissioned to produce a Coca Cola drinking Santa Claus. Sundblom modeled Santa on his friend Lou Prentice because of his cheerful, chubby face. The Coca Cola Corporation insisted that Santa’s fur trimmed outfit be bright Coca Cola red. And so the modern Santa Claus was born—a blend of Christian saint, pagan god, and commercial icon.

So why has this celebration endured for millennia? Why has it transcended a diversity of contradictory religions through a multitude of cultures? What is it that lies at the heart of Christmas? I believe that it is the collective joy of being human. The dark dead days of winter are coming to an end. The days are getting longer and Spring is just around the corner. In spite of everything we see there is hope for brighter, sunnier days ahead. No matter how many Scrooges, Grinches, and other naysayers we encounter along the way the sun will always return and we can once more bask in its warmth.

It doesn’t matter what we call it, or how we celebrate it; as long as mankind joins hands together, and through our collective joy chases away the gloom found in the human heart, there will be Christmas. So in the words of Auntie Mame: “Haul out the holly; put up the tree before my spirits fall again. Fill up the stocking, I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again. For we need a little Christmas right this very minute, candles in the window, carols at the spinet. Yes, we need a little Christmas now!”

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