The Colour of Christmas
and the Father Christmas Image
Richard Giles, astrologer and feng shui consultant, has been busy researching the origins of that grand icon of Christmas, Santa Claus (Father Christmas) and his reindeer-powered sleigh. The origins of Father Christmas have a mixed and interesting history, dating back to ancient pagan times, but especially in his transformation to the ruddy red Coca Cola symbol that first began in the 1920's, thanks to artist Haddon Sundblom!
'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house......."
Immortal lines that have saturated our consciousness for almost two centuries and helped established the modern image of Santa Claus or St Nick (Father Christmas) that we all know from a million cards, posters, jingle bells and songs – "the merrie eyes, cheeks like roses and nose like a cherry".
Dr. Clement Moore, a nineteenth century professor at Union Seminary in the USA in 1822 first published this poem based on the character Santa Claus:
"Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.…"
Moore had altered previous images by portraying a Santa with eight reindeer who descended through chimneys.
In 1809, the US novelist Washington Irving (most famous his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) had written a satire on Dutch culture entitled Knickerbocker History. The satire refers several times to the white-bearded, flying-horse riding Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name, Santa Claus (or more correctly Sinter Klaas).
Is this the true image of the man who has trundled across rooftops, leaping off his sleigh and down the chimneys of the world (of those who have them), dropping parcels of gifts for children who have been "good, not bad", rewarding us for our children's best behaviour? Where did Santa come from?
Saint Nicholas of Myra
The origins of Santa Claus go back much further than we think: back to the 2nd century CE, to Saint Nicholas born in Parara, Turkey in 270 CE later to become Bishop of Myra. He died in 345 on December 6th. He was only named a saint in the 19th century. Nicholas was among the most senior bishops who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 and created the New Testament. He helped people by handing out food to the hungry, and is the patron saint of children.
In 1087, a group of sailors who idolised Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. Thus Nicholas replaced a female gift-giving deity called 'The Grandmother', or Pasqua Epiphania, who used to fill children's stockings with presents. The Grandmother lost her shrine at Bari, which then became the centre of the Nicholas cult. Members gave each other gifts during a pageant they conducted annually on the anniversary of Nicholas' death, December 6th. The cult spread north and was adopted by German and Celtic peoples. They worshipped a bunch of gods led by Woden (god of the wild hunt, also Father Winter). He was the Norse god Odin. Woden had a long white beard and rode a horse through the heavens in the Autumn evenings. When Nicholas merged with Woden, he grew a beard, and mounted a flying horse with heavy winter clothing. The older Nicholas also wore green.
Woden had a companion called the Dark Helper, who had a sinister appearance being horned and wearing furs. The Christian church adapted the images and the Dark Helper punished the bad children while St Nicholas/Woden rewarded the good ones.
The Arctic Shaman
Other parts of the Santa story go back further, to the Arctic circle and the shaman of the Siberian region. A shaman travels the sacred path connecting the known and unknown worlds, assisted by his animal spirit helpers in his quest. He drank amanita muscaria, the hallucinogenic mushroom, by feeding it to reindeer then collecting their urine where it was concentrated, and consuming it to go into trance state. Thus he began the reindeer ride into the sky to bring back the gift of knowledge to his people. The drum used to keep tempo in ceremony was covered with reindeer hide. The parallels with a modern Santa Claus are not hard to spot.
When Dr Moore wrote the Night Before Christmas piece, his Santa was dressed in furs from head to toe. Moore added the image of the "broad face and little round belly, that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly". The sinister bits were now all gone from the old image.
The most modern version we now share took another hundred years to appear. In the 1920s an extremely successful graphic arts illustrator, Haddon Sundblom (born in Sweden), worked for several big American firms including Goodyear, Maxwell House, Ford, Budweiser and Palmolive. In 1924 he began work for Coca Cola and was very successful. In 1931 when Coca Cola was looking to expand its winter sales of Coke he designed a new-look Santa with large belly and red coloured fur clothes (Coke's trademark colour). The Coke company needed to appeal directly to children, and since it was then still illegal to depict children drinking Coke (due to the fact that Coke was originally a cocaine based tonic), this was their tactic.
Coca Cola Santa Claus
A Jolly Good Chap
Sundblom's new Santa was a such a jolly good-natured chap that any previous associations with furred figures, Norse goods and evil paganism was gone. The green Sinter Klaas of middle Europe was gone, cleaned up to sell a drink once containing cocaine that has now risen to control most of the world's soft drink market. Coca Cola has taken over the image of Christmas and turned it to a marking ploy, and that's what we know and recognise as Santa today
And how did Christmas Day come to be celebrated on December 25?
The Romans in ancient times first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week of lawlessness celebrated from December 17 to 25th. The date of December 25th was a celebration of the Roman god, Saturn, who had a goat-like appearance. It was also the rebirth of the Sun God. This was long before the birth of Jesus. As the daylight began to increase after December 22nd, they assumed that the Sun God died and then rose from the dead three days later as the new-born and venerable Sun.
During this holiday period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose "an enemy of the Roman people" to represent the "Lord of Misrule." Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week then killed at the end of the week. As the festival finished on December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by murdering this innocent man or woman.
The ancient Greek historian Lucian describes the festival's observance in his time. In addition to human sacrifice, he mentions these customs—widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; rape and other sexual license; and consuming human body shaped biscuits (still produced in some English and most German bakeries during the Christmas season).
In the 4th century CE, Christianity adopted the Saturnalia festival, hoping to convert pagans with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting large numbers of pagans to Christianity by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians, but it was tough. To fix this, Church leaders named Saturnalia's concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus' birthday. Early Christmas holidays were often celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor to modern carolling), and similar events.
And Jesus's birthday—well, various authors put it on March 28th, 1 CE (1 AD in the old system); November 18th, 1 CE; September 11th, 3 CE and astrologers such as John Addey (in Selected Writings, AFA, 1974) gave the Jupiter/Saturn conjunction in Pisces of 7 BCE as the year and date as 20th August. Muslim astrologer Masha'allah (740-815 CE) gave the birth as 12th March, 12 BCE. No ancient author suggests 25th December as the date.
When you celebrate Christmas this year remember where it originates—from the horned green, furry one from the Arctic wastes on a flying horse/reindeer combined with the generous christian Saint Nicholas and the Roman god of the sun Saturn. Gives you a new and more humble perspective doesn't it?
[This is the end of the article.]
- 'The Truth About Santa Claus', Mark Edwards, Sunday Times, Dec 1995
- "When Was Jesus Born?'', Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen
- "Santa Claus and Other Bringers of Gifts", Wikipedia
- Christ, Santa, Shaman, Greg Lahood, Rainbow Network, NZ, Dec 1995
- Book of World Horoscopes, N. Campion, Aquarian Press, 1988.