The Origins of Christmas

December 8, 2017 by Tessa Bousfield

Have you ever wondered how Christmas came to be the holiday it is today?

Spoiler Alert: Santa isn’t real (he was created by poets and artists), and Christmas isn’t even Jesus’s birthday.


It all started with the Pagans’ celebration of the winter solstice (before Christ). They brought boughs of holly and trees inside as a sign of life and the intent of protecting it, and wood logs were burned to encourage good spirits in the new year. Sound familiar?

Christianity came along in the third century and wanted to be separate from Paganism. Instead of a winter solstice celebration on Dec 21st, they put on a Nativity Feast on Dec 25th and started getting everyone on board with THEIR dinner party… This was then considered Jesus’ birthday, even though the Bible doesn’t actually state so. In fact, many believe his birthday to be in April based on where the constellations were positioned in the sky.

Also worth noting is “Yuletide,” a festival observed by the historical Germanic peoples. Scholars have connected the celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht. It later underwent Christianized reformulation resulting in the term “Christmastide”.


So, Christians continued with some of the Pagan traditions like bringing a tree into the home. What was different was they added apples to the tree to symbolize Adam and Eve… those apples eventually took the shape of our modern ornaments.

The traditional Christmas we see today really didn’t start until the 1840s when Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their children were painted around a traditional Christmas tree. All of a sudden, everyone had to be a part of it.


“My Hat’s Off to The Pause That Refreshes” — 1931. The magical transformation of the Coca-Cola Santa happened in 1931.

Santa was depicted as everything from a tall gaunt man to a spooky-looking elf. He has donned a bishop’s robe and a Norse huntsman’s animal skin. In fact, when Civil War cartoonist Thomas Nast drew Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly in 1862, Santa was a small elf-like figure who supported the Union. Nast continued to draw Santa for 30 years, changing the colour of his coat from tan to the red he’s known for today. Much of Santa’s original colourful image also stemmed from the Dutch “Sinterklaas”.

“Santa” by Thomas Nast

The Coca-Cola Company began its Christmas advertising in the 1920s with shopping-related ads in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. The first Santa ads used a strict-looking Claus, in the vein of Thomas Nast.

In 1930, artist Fred Mizen painted a department-store Santa in a crowd drinking a bottle of Coke. The ad featured the world’s largest soda fountain, which was located in the department store Famous Barr Co. in St. Louis, Mo. Mizen’s painting was used in print ads that Christmas season, appearing in The Saturday Evening Post in December 1930.

In 1931 the company began placing Coca-Cola ads in popular magazines. Archie Lee, the D’Arcy Advertising Agency executive working with The Coca-Cola Company, wanted the campaign to show a wholesome Santa who was both realistic and symbolic. So Coca-Cola commissioned Michigan-born illustrator Haddon Sundblom to develop advertising images using Santa Claus — showing Santa himself, not a man dressed as Santa.

For inspiration, Sundblom turned to Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (commonly called “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”). Moore’s description of St. Nick led to an image of a warm, friendly, pleasantly plump and human Santa. (And even though it’s often said that Santa wears a red coat because red is the color of Coca-Cola, Santa appeared in a red coat before Sundblom painted him.)

Sundblom’s Santa debuted in 1931 in Coke ads in The Saturday Evening Post and appeared regularly in that magazine, as well as in Ladies Home JournalNational GeographicThe New Yorker and others.

In the end, it’s definitely OK to question where our traditions come from, because more often than not, they’re a blend of many varieties, with a very long, interesting history!

~Merry Christmas~

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