Jawhar Sircar : M.P (Rajya Sabha), 25th. December 2021. Did you know that our fat and jolly red-robed Santa Claus was introduced as an advertising gimmick by Coca Cola?
Though no one really knows when Jesus was born, the early Church fixed the 25th of December which was the date when an ancient pagan festival was celebrated for centuries in honour of the ‘Invincible Sun’.
This was, however, more than three hundred after the death of the historic Jesus. Eastern Churches finally accepted 25th December in 375 AD, though some insist on 6th of January. These Churches had to contend with popular pagan sun-festivals like that of the Greek god Helia.
In their very well-researched book, History of the World Christian Movement, Irvin and Sunquist have explained how, by early Christians “integrated elements of the solar monotheism of Winter Solstice with the Roman festival of Saturnalia”. Europeans freezing in the December cold welcomed Solstice because the sun started moving “north”.
Though Jesus and the apostles who lived in hot Judea hardly ever saw a pine tree, in pre-Christian Europe pine groves at the temples of the Great Mother were considered sacred. The pine was admitted into Christmas by Martin Luther in 16th century Germany and it was Queen Victoria’s German husband, Albert, who took it to England in 1830s. From Britain it spread to its colonies and ex-colony of America and it was there that everything is always overdone.
Other motifs and rituals from pre-Christian worship in Europe were soon grafted into the new religion, to make it more popular among the masses. The green wreaths of holly with the sharp mistletoe leaves and red cherries, which were part of the gaiety of the major Roman festival of Saturnalia were adopted as trademarks of Christmas in the early Middle Age.
The multi-thousand crore greeting-cards and gifts industries should thank the ancient Romans for introducing customs like wishing all and giving presents. Christmas rituals like burning yule logs, lighting lamps and singing carols were also drawn from age-old customs.
Purists often denounced these so-called heathen elements in Christmas celebrations as “unholy pomp and jollity”. Virgil declared that “dancing, masques, stage plays, and other such Christmas disorders should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them”. In the 17th century, American Puritans of Massachusetts tried to ban Christmas altogether because of its overt heathenism, but this obviously failed. In 1664, the self indulgent King George I reintroduced Christmas cakes and puddings that Puritans had banned and they became even more sinfully sweet.
Getting back to Santa Claus, it is believed that tht it relates to an extremely generous bishop of 4th century Christian Turkey called Nicholas, who used to give gifts secretly to needy people. There is an interesting tale about how this ‘Saint Nicholas’ went up the chimney of a very poor man’s house who had no money to marry off his daughters, and dropped a few gold coins down, which fell into the stockings that were hung up by the fireplace to dry. Stockings are still hung up by children who write endearing letters to Santa and parents fill them up with toys and goodies when their kids sleep — just to see their innocent bursts of joy on Christmas morning.
Later, legends evolved of this generous saint flew in his sleigh drawn by his reindeer all the way from the North Pole — to deliver Christmas gifts. Sailors carried his stories to different parts of the world and Dutch settlers imported this legend into America, calling Saint Nicholas as ‘Sinter-klaas’ — who evolved into the Anglo-Saxon ‘Santa Claus’.
Colourful advertisements placed by the gigantic toy industry only strengthened this interesting tale and in 1881, Harper’s Weekly published the now famous image of Santa. He was visualised as a large old man with a big white beard, dressed in a bright red gown, with his arms full of toys. Commerce and religion made a more deadly strike in 1931, when Coca Cola came up with its gigantic, bright red ‘Coke Santa’, that was even more chubby and cheerful. It is this model that adorns shopping plazas even today.
The song of ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ became a hit in 1949 as did songs like “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells”. This is how Christmas moved from Bethlehem to Rome and to the whole world, while Santa Claus travelled from Turkey to the North Pole, and roams around freely, spreading happiness and cheer.