Christmas is usually considered a Christian festival, but it’s probably the most syncretized holiday on the calendar. So syncretized is it, in fact, that the Puritans banned it in England during Cromwell’s dictatorship, from 1647 to 1660. Puritans also outlawed the holiday in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The Puritans recognized (albeit sourly) that Christmas was about as Christian as a pentacle.
This is one major reason why the Christmas season is so long–it incorporates traditions that go back centuries before Christ. In fact, Christmas wasn’t even incorporated into Christianity until nearly four centuries after Christ’s death. Before that, it was pagan.
The current season that we call “Christmas” or “Yuletide” includes ongoing holidays from at least two major religions (Christianity and Judaism) and pagan traditions from Africa (Kwanzaa) and Europe (winter solstice celebrations). Advent, the forty days before Christmas, was called “the forty Days of St. Martin” during the early Middle Ages and the Epiphany (January 6) was actually a more important feast than Christmas itself until later in the medieval period. Thus, the Christmas season is nearly two months long.
Needless to say, a very large number of legends surrounds Christmas. If you look at the television schedule (or literary classics), this surfeit of legend and myth is reflected in the huge amount of Christmas fiction that is fantastic. Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, a ghost story that swings uneasily between fantasy and horror, is the most obvious example, but Arthur C. Clarke’s SF short story The Star and fantasy film It’s a Wonderful Life also come to mind. Christmas stories are as rife with life-affirming miracles and Santa-or-angel-sightings as Halloween stories are with deadly ghosts and monsters.
The Christian holiday of “Christ’s Mass” is currently the biggest celebration of the season. The actual day of Christmas is supposed to be Christ’s birthday and the entire season is laid out according to stories from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, early Christians didn’t celebrate this holiday in December. The Christian feast on the 25th didn’t even appear in historical records until the fourth century and was not officially incorporated into the calendar until the eighth century. Before the fourth century, Christ’s birth was celebrated anywhere from January to May.
When it was first incorporated, Christmas appears to have been intended to supplant a pagan Roman festival celebrating the birthday of Sol Invictus, a collective god consisting of at least three sun deities, one of them the Roman soldier-god Mithras. Considering that Christ was considered the “Light of the World” by Christians, this was actually a pretty logical substitution.
The Twelve Days of Christmas between December 25 and January 6 are also similar to the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a week-long festival between December 17 and 23 dedicated to Saturn, where people feasted and society turned upside down, with masters serving slaves. A possible precursor to Saturnalia was the Babylonian Zagmuk Festival, which lasted 12 days. It celebrated the sun god Marduk and turned society on end in a similar way to Saturnalia.
It’s difficult to say at this point how deliberately the Christian holiday was overlaid on the older pagan festivals, which supplanted each other, as well. But as Christianity spread, the festival definitely borrowed and syncretized other winter festivals from December and January. For example, the Yule log and mistletoe come from Scandinavia, the Christmas tree from Germany, holly and ivy from Celtic druidic traditions.
St. Nicholas is a very early Eastern saint who may be apocryphal, but his modern incarnation as Santa Claus is essentially Dutch in origin and he may incorporate some traditions from the Norse god Odin. In his 2001 fantasy novel, American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s hero, Shadow, spends Christmas in a Midwestern diner with an American version of Odin, though some readers may scratch their heads at how the All-Father became a grifter.
Television show Supernatural‘s episode, “A Very Supernatural Christmas” (2007), also touches on European traditions surrounding Santa Claus, this time involving the “Companions of St Nicholas”. These companions are demons who have been tamed by the Saint and forced to do his bidding (his bidding usually involving scaring the Hell out of bad kids).
If you want an eye-opener on how medieval Europe literally demonized perceived external enemies, check out Zarte Piet/Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) from the Netherlands. This figure is a caricature of a Moor (a medieval Spanish or North African Muslim), including dark skin. There’s nothing really non-human about him, but his exotic appearance was enough to mark him as a demon to medieval Europeans. This is especially ironic considering that many Muslims don’t have the problems with Christmas that they do with Easter. Though they don’t celebrate a winter festival (the Islamic calendar, being lunar-based, has no roots in a solar calendar), they do revere Jesus as the penultimate Prophet, conceived of a virgin birth.
Realizing that pursuing the “Santa’s evil brother” angle could rapidly become politically incorrect, the Supernatural writers quickly switched to the true villains of the episode–pagan gods (cue sighs of frustration from half of the neopagans out there). In their trip down the dark side of Christmas (yes, Christmas actually has a dark side), they touched on the Swedish pagan tradition of Midvinterblot (midwinter-sacrifice). Midvinterblot, which was phased out around 1200, involved human and animal sacrifice intended to reduce the grip of winter. It may also have been connected to Yule traditions.
And lest we believe that all Christmas demons were male–the “Lucia” of St. Lucia’s Day (December 13) was originally a demon called a “Lussi” or “Lucia die dunkle” who targeted lazy kids who didn’t do their chores. She’d have a field day in the new millennium.