Thomas Nast Santa Claus cartoon.

Anthropology: The Yuletide Evolution of Christmas and Santa Claus

The holiday of Christmas is celebrated on December 25th every year. Not only is it a sacred religious holiday, but it is also a worldwide cultural and commercial phenomenon. People all around the world have been observing the holiday with both religious and secular traditions for many years. Those who practice Christianity celebrate Christmas as the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth was a spiritual leader who was also believed to be the son of God by Christians. Jesus’s teachings formed the basis of the Christian religion. Today, Christmas is more than just a Christian holiday. Popular Christmas traditions include exchanging gifts with loved ones, decorating Christmas trees, sharing meals with family, baking tons of Christmas cookies, watching Christmas movies, and, of course, waiting for the arrival of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Christmas is such an important part of the culture in the United States that it has been a federal holiday since 1870.

Yule and the Winter Solstice

Centuries before the celebration of the birth of man named Jesus, Europeans celebrated light and birth during the darkest days of winter or the winter solstice. The winter solstice was a time for rejoicing for people because the worst of winter was behind them and they now could look forward to the longer days with more sunlight. In Scandinavia, the Norse people celebrated Yule from December 21st, the winter solstice, all the way through January. The Yule celebration is in recognition of the return of the sun. Fathers and sons would bring home large logs that they would set on fire. The people would feast and celebrate until the log burned out, but that could take up to as many as twelve days. They thought that every spark that came off of the fire of the burning log represented a new pig or calf that was going to be born during the next year.

The end of December was a good time to have celebrations for most areas of Europe, actually. During that time of year, most of the cattle would be slaughtered so the owners would not have to feed them during the winter months. This meant for many people that it was the only time of year they had access to fresh meat. In addition to the fresh meat, most wine and beer that was made during the year was fermented and finally ready for drinking. Fresh meat, wine, and beer were the perfect combination for a good celebration.

A Yule log today.

Saturnalia and Juvenalia

In Rome, the winters were not as harsh and unforgiving as those in the north. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, which was a holiday honoring the god of agriculture, Saturn. The celebration began during the week leading up to the winter solstice and continued for a whole month. Saturnalia was an indulgent time when food and drink were plentiful. Even the Roman social order was turned upside down. For a whole month, enslaved people were given freedom and were treated as equals. Businesses and schools even closed during this time so everyone could participate in the celebration. Around the time of the winter solstice, the Romans celebrated another holiday, Juvenalia. Juvenalia was a feast that honored the children of Rome. Members of the upper middle class in Rome also celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25th. Some Romans even considered Mithra’s birthday to be the most sacred day of the year.

Depiction of Saturnalia.

December 25th

In the early years of Christianity, the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to make the birth of Jesus a holiday. The Bible does not give a date for his birth and many speculate that he was actually born in the spring, hence shepherds being there. Pope Julius I chose the date December 25th and it is believed that the church chose this date in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of the pagan holiday of Saturnalia. At first, the holiday of Jesus’s birth was called the Feast of the Nativity. It eventually made its way to England by the end of the sixth century. By having Christmas around the same time as the traditional winter solstice festivals helped the church leaders increase the chance that Christmas would be accepted by the masses. The only issue was they were not able to control or dictate how the holiday was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had almost completely replaced pagan religion. During this time, believers attended church on Christmas and then celebrated in a drunken festival-type vibe. Every year, a student or beggar would be crowned “lord of misrule” by the people and people would play along as this person’s loyal subjects. Another tradition was that the poorer people would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink from them. If the rich did not comply, the visitors would most likely terrorize the homeowners with mischief. Christmas time was a time where the rich repay their debt due to the rest of society, whether it is real or imagined.

Depiction of Christmas in the Middle Ages.

Reinvention of Christmas

In the early 17th century, a surge of religious reform changed the way Europeans celebrated Christmas. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence. Their efforts in this task led to the cancelation of Christmas. Eventually, Charles II was restored to the throne and with his return he brought back the Christmas celebration. The pilgrims that came to America in 1620 had an even stronger orthodox view of their Puritan beliefs than Oliver Cromwell. This resulted in early America not considering Christmas a holiday. In the years 1659 to 1681 in the town of Boston, celebrating Christmas was outlawed and anyone caught celebrating was fined five shillings. Eventually, after the American Revolution, English customs were no longer practiced. This included the celebration of Christmas.

Americans did not begin to embrace Christmas until the 19th century. The holiday transformed into a family-centered day of peace instead of a wild carnival-type holiday. During the early 19th century, there was a lot of conflict and turmoil between the different classes. At the same time as the Christmas season, there was a lot of gang rioting and unemployment was high. In response to a Christmas riot, the first police force was instituted in response by the New York City council in 1828. This started a need for reformation for the way Christmas was being celebrated in America among certain members of the upper classes. In 1819, Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., which is a series of stories about a Christmas celebration inside an English manor house. The story featured a squire who lets peasants into his house for the holiday. It showed the two groups coexisting in peace, unlike the problems America was currently facing. According to Irving, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday. His message was that Christmas should bring people together, even if they are of different wealth and social status. Irving’s book was not based on any real holiday celebration he attended. Around the same time as Washington Irving’s work was created, English author Charles Dickens wrote the classic tale, A Christmas Carol. The message of A Christmas Carol is the importance of charity and good will. The message was powerful for those in England and the United States. The story also showed members of Victorian society celebrating Christmas and the benefits they received from doing so. The early 1800s also saw the change from families being extremely cold and disciplined to being sensitive towards the emotional needs of children. Celebrating Christmas gives families an opportunity to give their children gifts and attention. When Americans began to embrace the celebration of Christmas, old customs were unearthed. People then began looking towards immigrants and the Catholic church to see how the holiday should be celebrated. In the coming one-hundred years, Americans created Christmas traditions that were their own that included pieces of multiple other customs. It included things like decorating Christmas trees, exchanging gifts, and sending holiday cards out. Americans truly re-invented the holiday to meet the cultural needs of the new and growing nation.

Depiction of Christmas in the 19th century.

Santa Claus

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas or Kris Kringle, has a long history tied to the tradition of Christmas. Today, the image of Santa Claus is of a jolly man who wears red and brings toys to good children on Christmas Eve. His story goes back to the 3rd century when the person Saint Nicholas walked the earth. The legend of Santa Claus traces back to when the monk Saint Nicolas walked the earth hundreds of years ago. Saint Nicolas was well-known for his kindness and piety, and eventually became the center of many legends. Some legends that surround him include the tale that he gave away everything he had and traveled the countryside helping the poor or sick. His most widely known story is how he saved three sisters from being sold into slavery by paying for all of their dowries so they could be married. Eventually, his popularity grew, and Saint Nicolas became known as the protector of children and sailors. Saint Nicolas’s feast day is celebrated on December 6th. By the Renaissance, Saint Nicolas was the most popular saint in Europe.

Saint Nicolas made his first appearance in American popular culture during the end of the 18th century. A New York newspaper reported about groups of Dutch families honoring the death of the saint in December 1773 and 1774. The name Santa Claus evolved from the nickname the Dutch gave the saint, Sinter Klaas. In 1804, a member of the New York Historical Society distributed a woodcut of Saint Nicolas at the society’s annual meeting. In the background of the piece there were things we associate with Santa Claus now, like stockings filled with toys. Washington Irving helped popularize Sinter Klaas stories by referring to Saint Nicolas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York, released in 1809.

Gift-giving to children has been a large part of Christmas celebrations ever since the rejuvenation of the holiday in the early 19thcentury. Advertising for Christmas shopping by stores started in 1820. By the 1840s, newspapers had a whole separate section dedicated to holiday advertisements and they often featured images of Santa Claus. There was a life-size Santa Claus model in a shop in Philadelphia in 1841 that children would flock to come see. After that, it was only a matter of time until stores wanted to have their own live Santa Claus to attract children and their parents. To get money for free Christmas meals, in the early 1890s, the Salvation Army began dressing their workers up in Santa Claus suits and sending them onto the streets of New York City to collect donations. Since the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1924, a Macy’s Santa has appeared almost every year. Ever since, children have been lining up to sit on Santa’s lap to take a photo and tell him what they want for Christmas.

The poem “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” or better known as “’Twas The Night Before Christmas”, written by Clement Clarke Moore, is largely responsible for how our society pictures Santa Claus today. The poem describes things from his stout body figure to his supernatural ability to fit into chimneys. His poem significantly helped popularize the classic image of Santa Claus. “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas” is responsible for creating an American icon. The first image created that resembles Santa Claus today was created by political cartoonist Thomas Nast in 1881 and was inspired by Moore’s poem. Nast’s cartoon that appeared in Harper’s Weekly depicted Santa Claus as a rotund man with a fun white beard who is extremely cheerful. Thomas Nast is the one who first depicted Santa in his bright red suit with white fur trim. Nast also gave us Santa’s North Pole workshop, Mrs. Claus, and Santa’s elves.

Thomas Nast Santa Claus cartoon.


The holiday of Christmas has evolved greatly from its origin. From the pagans celebrating the winter solstice and feasting as a celebration of surviving the harshest time of the year to the Christians making it the birthday celebration for Jesus of Nazareth, Christmas has been shifted to better suit the culture and lifestyle of modern people. Instead of being a party-based holiday, Christmas turned into a family-oriented holiday that eventually evolved into a consumerist-based occasion. The mainstream version of the holiday today is very much based on the society that surrounds it. Each family tweaks the holiday in their own way to fit their own desires, whether it is having a big meal together, getting extravagant gifts, going to church, or just getting to spend quality time with family.

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