I wrote the following piece in the mid-1980s. The audio talk (14 mins) is based on the original paper.

The Man Who Came in from the Cold

I remember the night. It was chilly, especially for Florida, and Dad had a fire burning in the hearth. Even as a seven-year-old, I realized that this spelled certain doom for the jolly man who later that night would squeeze down the chimney. I mustered the courage to ask Dad, 'Is there really a Santa?' I was disheartened. Doubts soon began to flood my mind as to the existence of 'the Stork,' the Easter Bunny, even of God himself. In later years I learned that Santa Claus (alias Father Christmas, Saint Martin, der Weihnachtsmann, Père Noël) was merely a corruption of Saint Nicholas, a bishop of the 3rd-4th centuries. (Learn more about this fascinating and real person here.) His attributes (red suit, reindeer, residence at the North Pole) derive from a blend of pagan legends with traditions about the saints. Good heavens!

25 December?
When was Jesus born? Does anyone really know? Early Christians were unsure. Cyprian thought 28 March, Clement of Alexandria guessed 20 May, Hippolytus supposed 2 June. If these early Christian writers (3rd century), who lived close to the time of Christ, had to guess the date of his birth, how is it that we know better? Yet a fairly strong case can be made for 25 December, although not all will agree. Hippolytus of Rome (early 200s AD) calculated the dates of various Easters and Christmases. In his Chronicon, Hippolytus calculates Christ's birth as taking place exactly 9 months after 25 March, the vernal equinox. Another ancient writer, Julius Africanus, also favors 25 December as the birthdate of Christ.

The Shepherds
According to Luke 2:8, the shepherds were 'living out in the fields' keeping watch over their flocks at night.' But what is Israel like in late December, the time traditionally assigned to 'Christmas'? It is cold. It is the rainy season (Ezra 10:9, 13; Song 2:11). However, during my many visits to Israel, a number of which have taken place in winter, it is not uncommon to see flocks of sheep in the fields.

Roman History
In 274 AD the Emperor Aurelian, likely influenced by the Persian cult of Mithras, designated 25 December as the 'birthday' of the sun god, 'Sol Invictus' the invincible sun. In Mithraic tradition, the deity was born 25 December, and celebrated for twelve days.  In some circles worship of the sun became identified with worship of the Son (see Malachi 4:2). Then in 354 Liberius of Rome ordered Christmas celebrated. This was popular among the Romans, who had already been celebrating the Saturnalia (12-24 December) as well as the Brumalia (25 December) — times of merrymaking and exchanging presents. Houses were decorated with greenery and festal lights. Gifts were given to children and the poor. Yes, Christmas has pagan origins. And yet it is quite likely that the pagans followed the Christians. Once again, it seems the church was already observing Christmas in December, and the Romans coopted the celebration.

Teutonic History
As with the Romans, the Teutonic peoples too had their celebrations of the winter solstice. The idea was that the sun god was dying or dead, and there were certain things one should do to assist it on its way, thus speeding the recovery of the world from its winter torpor. As the days lengthened after around 22 December, there was great rejoicing and partying. Thousands of years of Teutonic history make their contribution to the customs of Christmas, and these customs spread with the people into Central Europe, Gaul, and Britain. At the Yuletide, special cakes were consumed, Yule logs were burnt as an incentive to the waxing sun, fir trees were adorned with lights in honor of the tree spirits, special greetings and gifts were exchanged, many went a-wassailing, and of course there was the mistletoe, under which one stood and began (only a kiss, mind you) the headlong rush into a night of pagan revelry (1 Peter 4:3)! Remember that all of this was going on long before Christ was born.

Shopping Sprees
What would Christmas be without the frenzied shopping that characterizes our society? Listen to Libanius, a 4th century Roman writer, as he describes the scene in pre-Christian Rome:

Everywhere may be seen well-laden tables. The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who through the whole year has taken pleasure in saving becomes suddenly extravagant; a stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.

Yes, Christmas 'spirit,' often sustained by big business to move merchandise, is nothing new, but rather an ancient and time-honored tradition.

Nordic Mythology
The Norse thunder god was Thor, who flew through the skies in a chariot drawn by two magical goats. Their names: Gnasher and Cracker. Sound familiar? Perhaps this piece of mythology moved Robert May to pen Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1939), which became a popular song ten years later.

The modern word Christmas comes from the Old English Cristes mæsse, or Christ's mass. In medieval Catholicism, the Mass evolves. The word mass itself appears to come from the Latin missa, from the end of the Old Latin liturgy, where the priest dismissed the congregation, "Ite, missa est." ("Go, it is [the] dismissal.")  Anyway, these words of dismissal in time became applied to the entire church service. (One wonders, were people that eager to get out?) Christmas is simply the liturgical celebration of Christ (really, of his birth), in a church service.

"Santa Claus
There was a Anatolian bishop of the 3rd / 4th centuries, Nicholas, well known for deeds of charity and kindness to the poor. (For more on this remarkable man, see Adam C. English, The Saint Who Would be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra.) In accord with the Catholic custom of "promoting" various Christians to sainthood, in time he became Saint Nicholas. By way of the Dutch name of this man, Sinter Klaas, the Americans corrupted the name to Santa Claus in English. For more on Nicholas, click HERE.

Closing considerations
We have seen that 'Christmas' is essentially 100% tradition— and mainly non-Christian at that! Yet traditions are condemned in the Bible only if they directly contradict the word of God (Mark 7:6-8). Jesus commanded us to remember his death, yet there's no harm in commemorating his entrance into the world. As one of the few who understands the origins of this holiday, you can hopefully now enjoy the season in a more enlightened manner. So be of good cheer!

Merry Christmas!

This article is copyrighted and is for private use and study only. © 2003. Reprints or public distribution is prohibited without the express consent of Douglas Jacoby.