The Mythology of Christmas

As I sit to write this blog while visiting my family in Luxembourg, I remember the History’s Channels series on the “Origins of Christmas”.

How did thousands of years of human development grow into today's traditions and the architectural lightshows found around the world? Some may believe that Santa Claus is universal – there is no evidence of it here in Luxembourg, yet universal is the tradition of family gatherings, giving gifts, communal celebrations, home decorations and illuminating urban environments. 

Ancient Origins

Winter Solstice: Throughout my search, there is ONE constant: the Winter Solstice on December 21st. The pagans celebrated the darkest moment of the year. The harvest work was done and there was nothing left to be done in the fields. The earth was covered in snow, the nights seemed endless, hence a natural time for a feast. Worldwide interpretation varies across cultures, with many celebrating rebirth involving holidays, festivals, gatherings and rituals.


Druids built Stonehenge as a celebration of the Winter Solstice. Pillars were collected and transported for hundreds of miles,  assembled as a stunning structure in perfect alignment with the sun's trajectory.

Greek & Roman Origins: The Greeks celebrated Cronus (God of Fertility), the Roman equivalent was Saturn (God of Capitol, Wealth, Agriculture, Liberation and Time). An oracle destined him to be overcome by his own sons, just as he had overthrown his father. As a result, he devoured them all as soon as they were born to prevent the prophecy.  'Time' and his devouring of children symbolize the passing of the generation, also the origin of baking/eating Ginger-man cookies. In commemoration, the Romans celebrated 'Saturnalia', a time of feasting, role reversals, free speech, gift giving and revelry from December 17th to December 25th - today's Christmas. Their singing in the street also originated today's concept of ‘chorus signing’.

Early Christian Times: Despite the spread of Christianity particularly in urban areas, midwinter festivals did not become Christmas until the fourth century when Christianity became the primary religion of the Roman Empire under Constantin I. Pagans (Latin for "field") were celebrating the Midwinter festivals and their tradition persisted in rustic / agricultural areas. Christians wanted to convert pagans, but they were also fascinated by their mid-winter traditions and adopted it. The festival had a pleasing philosophical fit with the lengthening days, rebirth of nature's cycles and the end of 'Saturnalia', December 25. 

On Decorating Trees:  The Christmas tree is a 17th-century German tradition derived from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter.  "If you happen to live in a region in which midwinter brings striking darkness, cold and hunger, then the urge to have a celebration at the very heart of it to avoid going mad or falling into deep depression is very, very strong," said Stephen Nissenbaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist "The Battle for Christmas" (Vintage, 1997).  Early decorations were apples and then ornaments made of wood, metal or glass that artisans strived to design ever more elaborately.

The tradition expanded to England via Queen Victoria and get German husband Prince Albert, then to English colonies. The first public NYC Christmas trees was lit in 1912 (Boston’s was lit only 30 minutes earlier) in Madison Square Park, and the Italian masons mounted the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in 1931 in the misty of the rubble of the then construction site. 

Tradition of Gift Giving (cult of giving): Father Christmas and his other European variations are modern incarnations of old pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the northern skies in midwinter. The modern Santa Claus is a direct descendent of England's old Father Christmas, however not originally a gift-giver till the Victorian Area in England.

Depending on the region, this imaginary gift-giver has morphed other imaginary figures, depending on cultural heritage, region or religion. December 6th - St Nicolas: was a 4th century Saint born in Turkey and buried in Bari, protector of the children. The story goes that a butcher cut up three little boys to sell their meat. St Nicholas, looking very much like Santa Claus with a Mithra on his head, brought them back to life. On his December 6th birthday, he places candies and presents into children shoes. As punishment, the butcher dressed in black ‘Krampus’, travels alongside of him and gives sticks to undeserving children. 

There is no imagery of Jesus in this gift-giving endeavor but gifts just appear by the Nativity Scene under the Christmas tree.

Santa Claus: Early American traditions go back to Washington Irving in NY. Upset that there were few unifying holidays in early America; Irving decided to give his compatriots a push from English and Dutch traditions. In his 1809 “A History of New York” (a comic recounting of the Dutch era), he declared the European gift-giver St. Nicholas to be the state’s patron saint, claiming that his image appeared on the masthead of the first Dutch ship to arrive in New York. Clement Clarke Moore, whose family owned the neighborhood of Chelsea, wrote a poem for his daughters, “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” in which he described the saint as “a right jolly old elf,” based on “a portly rubicund Dutchman,” in the neighborhood, with some other elements borrowed from Irving’s St. Nicholas. With his “eight tiny reindeer,” he bore little resemblance to the original Saint Nicholas. Moore’s poem set his visit on Christmas Eve, informally tying St. Nicholas to the holiday. The first drawings of Santa Claus were published in the19th century Gimbels Christmas catalogue. Finally, the 1931 Coca Cola advertising campaign sealed the deal, dressing Santa Claus in a red suit - their very own corporate color red. 



Bafana: In Italy, Epiphany is associated with the figure of the Bafana (the name being a corruption of the word Epiphany), an broomstick-riding old woman who, in the night between January 5th and 6th, brings gifts to children, and/or a lump of "coal" (really black candy) for the times they have not been good during the year. The legend states that she missed her opportunity to bring a gift to baby Jesus, so she now brings gifts to other children on that night.

Hanukkah or Chanukah: this eight-day Jewish celebration commemorates the rededication during the second century B.C. of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. According to legend, Jews rose up against their Greek-Syrian oppressors in the Maccabean Revolt. Hanukkah, which means “dedication” in Hebrew, is the 25th of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar and usually falls in November or December. Often called the Festival of Lights, the holiday is celebrated with the lighting of the Menorah, traditional foods, games and gifts.

Urban Traditions in Europe: Many European cities put up an urban shows, allowing their citizens to celebrate together. Large artisanal markets cover entire city squares offer shopping opportunities for people gathering around open fires and drinking hot wine. 

American traditions: Home owners decorate their houses to express their individualities and creative geniuses - see Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. 

I hope that my research has clarified these lingering questions about the origins of the year-end holidays. Whichever way you have decided to celebrate, the time is always right to catch up with your family and friends, and to plan the new season ahead of us. Best Wishes to all and a Happy New Year!

Michel Franck, Partner

Great Links for: Gifts for Architects and Christmas Cards by Famous Architects...enjoy!