Merry Christmas: Your Santa Claus is Here

The word “Christmas” derives from the Latin phrase “Mass of Christ,” which was later abbreviated to “Christ-Mass.” The even shorter form “Xmas” – first used in Europe in the 1500s – is derived from the Greek alphabet, in which X is the first letter of Christ’s name: Xristos, thus “X-Mass.”

We now know that Christ was not born on December 25th. The date was chosen to coincide with pagan Roman celebrations honouring Saturnus (the harvest god) and Mithras (the ancient god of light), both of which are forms of sun worship. These celebrations occurred on or shortly after the winter solstice, the northern hemisphere’s shortest day of the year, to announce that winter is not forever, that life continues, and an invitation to remain in good spirits.


Christmas has its roots in both pagan and Roman cultures. In the month of December, the Romans observed two holidays. The first was Saturnalia, a two-week festival honouring their agricultural god Saturn. They celebrated the birth of Mithra, their sun god, on December 25th. Both celebrations were wild, drunken bashes.

Also in December, on the darkest day of the year, pagan cultures lit bonfires and candles to ward off the darkness. The Romans adopted this custom for their own celebrations.

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, Christian clergy were unable to put a stop to pagan customs and celebrations. Because no one knew when Jesus was born, they adapted a pagan ritual into a celebration of His birthday.


Pagan cultures decorated their homes with greens in anticipation of spring as part of the solstice celebrations. Evergreen trees were thought to have special powers because they remained green even on the coldest and darkest days. During Saturnalia, the Romans also decorated their temples with fir trees and metal bits. There is even evidence that the Greeks decorated trees in honour of their gods. Surprisingly, the first trees brought into pagan homes were hung upside down from the ceiling.

The modern tree tradition originated in Northern Europe, where Germanic pagan tribes decorated evergreen trees with candles and dried fruit in honour of the god Woden. During the 1500s, the tradition was incorporated into the Christian faith in Germany. They adorned their Christmas trees with candy, lights, and toys.


Inspired by St. Nicholas, this Christmas tradition has Christian roots, rather than pagan ones. Born in southern Turkey around 280, he was a bishop in the early Christian church and suffered persecution and imprisonment for his faith. Coming from a wealthy family, he was renowned for his generosity towards the poor and disenfranchised. The legends surrounding him abound, but the most famous is how he saved three daughters from being sold into slavery. There was no dowry to entice a man to marry them, so it was their father’s last resort. St. Nicholas is said to have tossed gold through an open window into the home, thus saving them from their fate. Legend has it that the gold landed in a sock drying by the fire, so children started hanging stockings by their fires in hopes St. Nicholas would toss gifts into them.

St. Nicholas Day was established in his honour on December 6th. As time passed, each European culture adopted its own version of St. Nicholas. Christkind or Kris Kringle (Christ child) accompanied St. Nicholas to deliver gifts to well-behaved children in Swiss and German cultures. Jultomten was a cheerful elf who delivered gifts in Sweden on a sleigh drawn by goats. In England, there was Father Christmas, and in France, there was Pere Noel. He was known as Sinter Klaas in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Lorraine, France, and parts of Germany. (For the record, Klaas is a shortened version of the name Nicholas). This is the origin of the Americanized Santa Claus.

What after Christmas? Boxing Day

St. Stephen’s Day, named after the first Christian martyr, was celebrated on December 26. It is now more commonly referred to as Boxing Day. This expression arose as a result of money being collected in alms-boxes placed in churches during the holiday season. Following Christmas, this money was distributed to the poor and needy.

Boxing Day is thought to have originated in the Middle Ages. It gained popularity again in the nineteenth century, when the lords and ladies of England presented gifts in boxes to their servants on December 26 in appreciation for the work they had done during the Christmas celebrations.

If December 26 falls on a Saturday or Sunday, Boxing Day is observed on the following Monday.

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