Mel's Musings: Christmas history and traditions

Mel Olson
Mel Olson

Decades ago, my family and I were walking in the Sioux Empire Mall and behold there appeared the mall Santa, looking very credible sporting his natural white beard and big belly with gold wire rim glasses perched on his nose. I was holding my two-year-old daughter’s hand as she pulled up short gasping, “There’s Santa!” My son, age four, exclaimed angrily “He shouldn’t be here! He should be at the North Pole making toys for good kids!” Alexis was afraid to go visit Santa while Spenser was too disgusted to go. We continued on our merry way without visiting St. Nick.

St. Nicholas was a real person, a Catholic Bishop of the fourth century, renowned for his piety and generosity. According to legend, when Nicholas heard that peasant girls had no money for their wedding dowries and were in danger of being sold into slavery or descending into prostitution he anonymously threw bags of gold through their windows, with some of the bags landing in their stockings hung by the hearth to dry. That is the origin of hanging stockings by the fireplace and receiving presents therein. Many cultures celebrated St. Nicholas day (Dec. 6) with gifts, foreshadowing our current traditions of Christmas.

Dutch settlers to New York brought with them Sinter Klaus, who slowly morphed into our Santa Claus. In 1822 Clement Moore wrote “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” which described Santa’s personal appearance as well as gave us the names of the reindeer and practices like coming down the chimney to deliver presents. Thomas Nast drew Santa, he also added details such as Santa residing at the North Pole and knowing who’s naughty and nice. In 1890 James Edgar became the first department store Santa appearing in Brockton, Massachusetts. In 1939 Robert May, a copywriter for Montgomery Ward, wrote a promotional children’s book and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was born.

Christmas trees originated in Germany where apples were often hung as decorations. Those apples became the inspiration for the colored bulbs that replaced fruit and candles as tree adornments. Evergreens were often brought indoors by ancient people, predating actual Christmas trees, as it was believed that this greenery repelled evil spirits and illness. In the 1830s, the first Christmas trees could be found in the homes of Pennsylvanian settlers from Germany. Americans started exchanging Christmas cards in 1843. Holly became a staple of the season representing Christ’s Crown of Thorns.

Jesus of Nazareth is a real person corroborated by historical records. Using clues from the Bible, we can determine his actual birthday. It is definitely not December 25. The early Church chose that date for commemoration because it was originally a time of pagan festivals and Christianity was in competition with paganism therefore the celebration of the Sun was co-opted by the Church for the celebration of the Son.


Shepherds only watch their flocks by night when sheep are lambing and that is in the spring. Herod died in 4 B.C.E. and since he ordered the Slaughter of the Innocents, Jesus must have been born before that date. Astronomers believe there really was a phenomenon we call the “Star of Bethlehem.” Michael Molnar of the Physics and Astronomy Department of Rutgers University identified a promising celestial event.

An ancient coin exists commemorating this cosmic manifestation, it has Zeus on the front and Aries looking at a star on the back. Zeus is a god but also represents the planet Jupiter. Zodiac signs had corresponding kingdoms associated with them and Aries’ was Judea. Using those facts and associations, combined with the astrological occurrence of Jupiter rising in the East in conjunction with other planets and the moon would make Jesus’ birthday April 17, 6 B.C.E.

The wise men brought gifts: gold indicative of a king, frankincense signifying a priest and myrrh representative of a prophet.

Christmas has meaning, strive to embody the spirit of Christmas throughout the year.

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