Debunking Christmas: The Truth Behind the Tales
Christmas is a holiday steeped in traditional and lore – but where did those customs come from, and are the legends true? A closer look reveals more than few quirky backstories.
Pining for Christmas Trees
O, Tannenbaum, O, Tannenbaum, how muddled is your history! The first recorded Christmas trees came from Latvia and Germany in the 1500s, but the tradition of felling pines for home decor didn’t become American tradition until the 1850s. Some records say the first guy to put up a tree in honor of Christmas was a German reverend living in Cleveland in 1851. Can you imagine how crazy he must’ve looked dragging a dead tree into church? His fellow churchgoers thought so, too, and he was uniformly scorned. Other anti-Christmas tree voices included the New York Times and President Teddy Roosevelt, though his fifth cousin, FDR, had a Christmas tree farm on his estate!
It’s In the Cards
A businessman looking to spread holiday cheer printed the first Christmas cards en masse in 1884, but his cards did just the opposite when the toast scene they depicted was condemned for encouraging inebriation. Now those are some Christmas cards we can get behind. L’chaim!
Sinterklaas is Comin’ to Town
Rumors run aplenty about the origins of the ebullient, red-clad Santa we know today, but he is certainly based in part on the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas (who is himself based on stories of the pious monk St. Nicholas). A far cry from the jovial fat man who tinkers away at the North Pole, Sinterklaas was a stately, somber guy in flowing robes, assisted by impish, black-faced helpers called Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes (whose characterization raises plenty of issues of racism). Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten rewarded good children with gifts, but rather than leaving lumps of coal for naught children, they kidnapped them. And you thought sliding down the chimney was creepy!
Happy Birthday, Jesus?
If we celebrated Christmas at the time biblical scholars believe the little baby Jesus was actually born, there’d likely be no such thing as white Christmases! Scholars doubt the Christian Messiah was really born in December, much less December 25th, in part because Luke 2:8 says shepherds were “keeping watch over their flock by night,” which smart shepherds didn’t do in the cold winter months for fear of frostbite. Though Jesus was likely born in September, Christians adopted December 25th as the official Christmas Day sometime in the fourth century to detract attention from Pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Uhhh, mission accomplished.
Xmas is for Xians
The abbreviation “Xmas” has rankled the ire of many a Christian convinced that the shortened form is a dastardly attempt to secularize the holiday by removing Christ’s name from it. In reality, X is the Roman letter “chi,” which is also the first letter in the Greek word for – you got it! – “Christ.” Today, Twitter users thank X for this abbreviation, which saves them a precious five characters per holiday tweet.