‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 3 (Santa and Contemporary Christmas!) – The End of It

‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 3 (Santa and Contemporary Christmas!) – The End of It

Hello again readers and students of Areteem Institute, I saved the best for last in this holiday Christmas history blog: Santa!

St Nicholas of Myra

Santa Claus is believed to have been inspired by the real St. Nicholas who came from Myra, Lycia (now part of modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century CE. St. Nicholas came from a wealthy family and was a very religious man even at a young age, known for giving charitable gifts to the poor. He pursued the life of a clergyman and eventually became a bishop.

There are many legends that surround this historic figure. One claims that he helped three young girls without dowries one night by tossing gold in their stockings drying by the fire while the family was asleep, thus helping them to increase their chances of getting married. This is said to be the origin of hanging stockings near a chimney and why oranges were once put in stockings as symbols of the gold given by St. Nicholas. When he was finally canonized as a saint he became one of the most revered figures of his time and became a patron to children and sailors among many others.

 The veneration towards St. Nicholas spread throughout Europe where many countries such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands still celebrate his feast day on December 6th when men dressed like him in red bishop robes (like the large picture above) go around their neighboring towns distributing gifts. He is sometimes accompanied by a demonic figure known by many names such as Black Peter, Belsnickel or Krampus who scares bad children with his chains, birch rods and utterly frightening appearance (please refer to the picture below of St. Nicholas and Krampus with the overly excited naughty child stuffed in the basket!).

With the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic St. Nicholas gave way to the figure of the Christ Child or Christkind, an angelic being who also distributed gifts to good children whose name is given to the famous “Christkindl” markets selling food, ornaments and wonderful seasonal fare all December long throughout Germany and even in parts of the United States. Later on when the Christkind traditions made it to the New World, his German name became Americanized into Kris Kringle which has now become synonymous with Santa Claus. Santa Claus/St. Nicholas also has many gift-giving cousins around the world at Christmas time from the Italian witch La Befana to the Three Wise Men who come on January 6th in Spain. (Check out the list of books at the end of the blog to read more about these elusive figures!)

St Nick and his buddy Krampus!

Long story short, Santa Claus has also amalgamated elements from the Norse god Odin who was known to fly at night on his eight-legged horse in the “Wild Hunt” with fellow spirits and gods to retrieve souls of the living. The “Wild Hunt” was most visible around wintertime throughout northern European countries with other colorful characters leading the way such as among others, King Arthur and Herne the Hunter in England and goddess figures like Mother or Frau Holle in Germany. The concept of Santa pulling a sleigh with eight reindeer may have come from this widespread belief in the “Wild Hunt”.

Santa Claus’ name derives from his Dutch incarnation as Sinterklaas, which is in fact a Dutch interpretation of the name “Saint Nicholas” and his jovial appearance has been equated with the British Father Christmas who makes an appearance as the green-robed Ghost of Christmas Present in “A Christmas Carol”. In England, Father Christmas was known under the guises of “Sir Christmas” or “Lord Christmas” before the 18th century as personifications of the Christmas season. Both the British and Dutch variations of Santa Claus eventually were brought to America where his appearance slowly took on the image we recognize today.

Odin riding his steed Sleipnir on a Norse artifact

Thomas Nast’s Santa

In 1823 the American author Clement C. Moore anonymously published his poem entitled “A Visit From St. Nicholas” which we lovingly know today as “The Night Before Christmas”. The short poem described St. Nicholas as a jolly elf-like figure associating him with the distribution of gifts and a flying sleigh pulled by eight reindeer, whose names have also become famous as a result (Rudolph came much later in 1939 as a promotional story for Montgomery Ward!).

For visuals, we have political cartoonist Thomas Nast with his series of 19th century drawings of Santa Claus as well as the proliferation of his image on 20th century Christmas Coca Cola advertisements. Over the past century he acquired his North Pole home and workshop, his company of elf workers (descendants of Yuletide Scandinavian household and nature spirits known as nisse and tomte, gift givers of Norway and Sweden in their own right), his wife Mrs. Claus and his annual magical journey on Christmas Eve through children’s literature, pictures, comic strips, songs, TV shows and films.

From the 20th century to our time now, the celebration of Christmas has expanded beyond America,  England and Europe to many countries and continents around the world. The past hundred years have seen a plethora of songs and movies that have honored the religious side of Jesus’ birth and overall winter festivities, showing the powerful impact that Christmas has had on us. Every year we can listen to radio stations playing songs like “A Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”. Children (and grown-ups too!) can also enjoy watching the Peanuts gang in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as well as the famous Rankin/Bass cartoons and stop-motion films such as “Frosty the Snowman”, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (all based on the lyrics of Christmas songs!). And families will take comfort in watching what we consider Christmas movie “classics” such as “White Christmas” from 1954, “It’s a Wonderful Life” from 1946 and “A Miracle on 34th Street” from 1947. And did you know that even some Christmas songs were created by Hollywood such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sung by Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis” from 1944!

And so on a happy note, we have arrived at journey’s end in our own time! As you share a meal together this holiday season like our ancient ancestors did, think about the Winter Solstice on December 21st and trim the house with evergreens to welcome winter spirits. You can  wait for Santa Claus (aka St. Nicholas) or maybe you might see the Wild Hunt fly on by (if you are lucky). See Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” ballet for the umpteenth time, go Christmas “caroling” with your friends like the British waits long ago, watch a choir of singers, go to a church service or enjoy seeing “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (the cartoon or the live-action movie) as well as one of many film versions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at home.

A Merry Christmas, a Happy Yule, Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice and more to all, and to all a good night!


 Historical and Folklore Reading:

“Ceremonies of the Seasons” by Jennifer Cole

 “Medieval Holidays and Festivals: A Calendar of Celebrations” by Madeleine Pelner Cosman

 “The Christmas Almanac” by Natasha Tabori Fried

 “The Medieval Christmas” by Sophie Jackson

 “Christmas Past” by Barbara Kissinger

 “The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas” by John Matthews

 “A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition” by Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez

 “Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth” by Dorothy Morrison

 “Pagan Book of Days” by Nigel Pennick 

 “The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year” by Linda Raedisch

 “Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide” by Christian Ratsch

 “Holidays and Celebrations in Colonial America” by Russell Roberts



 “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” by L. Frank Baum

 “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

 “The Autobiography of Santa Claus” by Jeff Guinn

 “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by E.T.A. Hoffman (The original story behind the ballet)

 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and other Stories from the Sketch Book” by Washington Irving and Wayne Franklin (look for the five Old Christmas stories contained within)

More Websites to Check Out Beyond the Ones Linked in the Blog! 







Find out how you can be involved with Areteem Institute at our website, www.areteem.org!  

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Areteem Fall 2014 and Upcoming Winter 2015 Events!

Areteem Fall 2014 and Upcoming Winter 2015 Events!

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Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

Areteem Institute has been busy with events this past fall and planning more this coming year!

Since starting the 2014-2015 school year, our new students and their families have been involved in a few activities in order for them to learn more about our programs and what we do. This month we are putting on a couple of our annual events that are sure to excite our more math-minded students through our Math Zoom program. Take a look to see what we have done and will be doing in 2014!


October 2014

-Areteem’s outreach team attended our second event with the OCPSA (Orange County Private School Association), an organization that connects K-12 private schools across Orange County, CA. On October 5th we set up “shop” at OCPSA’s “2nd Annual High School Fair” held on the campus of UC Irvine and talked with many local families about our programs and what we do. One of the eye-catching features of our booth was a robot created by one of our technology instructors that certainly brought more people our way to chat with us!


-On October 14th we hosted a “College Fair & Open House” webinar that brought together five admissions officers from some well-known public and private universities including UC Davis, Oberlin College, Emory University, Davidson College and Rice University. Several families were in attendance to learn more about college life at these campuses, student population numbers, popular “major” concentrations as well as admissions requirements, including some helpful advice on how to write personal statement essays. We look forward to more college information webinars next year as well!



December 2014

-This weekend on December 13th and 14th, we are holding our second Online ZIML Math Competition for all middle school and high school students interested in participating in upcoming math competitions next year. The format of the test is similar to the onsite ZIML competition hosted during our Summer Camp Programs for our math students. Students will be given problems that they will have to compete in 1 hour and the top 16 students will be awarded prizes!


-Over the winter holidays from December 26th-30th Areteem Institute’s Math Zoom program will be hosting its annual “Winter Math Boot Camp” at our onsite Irvine location which packs in many students from later elementary through high school! Over five days, students will be involved in many fun activities with their peers, helping them learn new material and improve their critical thinking skills.  Students come to either work on their math problem solving or specifically to prepare for a certain math competition like the AMC 10 and 12 as well as MathCounts which all take place in February 2015. We usually see students from all across the country coming to California for this event which features only just a bit of what students can experience during our Summer Camp Programs! We are still enrolling until December 19th


For the new year, we are participating in a few new activities to get students involved in math, science and humanities including our Summer Camp Programs! See what is coming up in 2015!


January 2015

Once again at the beginning of the year, we open up Early Registration for our Summer Camp Programs! This year our camps have grown to encompass all subjects in math, science, humanities and 2 new career-based tracks. They are open to all middle school and high school students anywhere from around California, the US and even internationally! EVERYONE is WELCOME whether they are students of Areteem or not! Our camps will be held on the university campuses of UCLA, the University of Chicago and Boston College for two to three weeks from June to August where students will be involved in a variety of activities from classes and “funshops” to fields trips around LA, Chicago and Boston! Call or email us to find out more come January!


For our math and science-focused students, we are offering three FREE “preseason” events before the heat of the competition season is on! On January 10th we will be hosting a “MathCounts Training” webinar with Dr. Kevin Wang for students who want to excel from chapter to state to national MathCounts and a “Physics Olympiad F=ma exam Training” webinar with Dr. Darin Ragozzine for the upcoming Physics Olympiad! Dr. Wang will be back on January 17th to host a webinar on “AMC 10/12 Training”. Check back on the Areteem website to see what times the webinars will take place.


Then on January 31st in Irvine, CA we are sponsoring a larger onsite event called OC Math Magic” open to all K-12 students with the non-profit ZEFR group (Go to their website to find out more and save a spot for the OC Math Magic event). This event will bring together math coaches and people knowledgeable about the various math competitions from all around Orange County, we look forward to seeing many people there!



March 2015

We are then topping off all of these events with our massive OC Math & Science Festival, the first of its kind, that we are sponsoring again with the ZEFR group. This free event is for all K-12 students and their families who love and want to further grow a passion for STEM subjects. Parents will be able to talk with professionals from various organizations while students can anticipate a day full of great events and activities such as hands-on tech sessions making their own robots, fun mini math contests and more! We are also looking forward to having a few guest speakers present on the importance of STEM in education today. You can go to the ZEFR website to learn more about the festival and reserve a space for you and your family!


Tune in for more updates and events by checking out our Areteem and Math Zoom websites. Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Instagram!


2014-2015 Areteem Institute Class Line-Up!

2014-2015 Areteem Institute Class Line-Up!

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Areteem Institute

(Transforming Education for a Global Community)





Hello Prospective Middle School and High School Students and Families,


Are you tired of the usual, mundane classes in school that aren’t helping you with your education? The same routine day in and day out? Are you looking for something more academically challenging, engaging or better yet-  in tune with the 21st century way of living?!


Look no further, as we can be the right choice for you!


We here at Areteem Institute – Home of Math Zoom strive to give you what you want-


1.  A more well-rounded education with all subjects you want to take (Math, Science, Humanities)

2. Taught by an esteemed faculty all with advanced college-level degrees

3. That can be taken anywhere that you are!


Beyond the onsite classes we teach at our Irvine, CA location and to local school districts in Math, Science and Technology, all you need for the majority of our classes including the Humanities is an Internet connection and you are set! Who says that there is no communication in a virtual or online school?  Our classes are highly interactive, where students are able to communicate with both their peers and their professors in real-time in a group and one-on-one as if you were sitting right beside them.


Students will be able to use a chat box option to keep up to date with each other, have access to a fully functioning virtual whiteboard where they and their professors can write out problems and come to solutions together as well as be able to see, hear and talk with each other through the use of a web camera and their personal headphones and a microphone. Plus you can go anywhere to take these classes, a luxury that cannot be afforded in a brick-and-mortar school. Here is a full class list of what we are offering this Winter 2014-2015!


New to the online setting? Check out a brief overview of our online class setup by clicking here. If you wish to see what a virtual class looks like click here to be directed to our video gallery to view a section of one our Humanities courses. Just scroll to the very bottom of the page to find Ms. Carly Hunter teaching one of our Social Science classes to see what an online class actually looks like.


This school year 2014-2015 don’t miss out on a chance to enroll in one of our many exciting courses*! Since the school was founded back in 2004 we have focused on providing students who love Mathematics and Science with a more thorough curriculum and have now expanded within the past couple of years to include  the Humanities (including English Literature and History) and more subjects as well!


Our flagship Math Zoom curriculum including the Math Challenge and Physics Challenge series is what we are known for. These courses will leave you with the satisfaction that you have learned and retained new knowledge in a way that is easily accessible, exploring new horizons in subjects ranging from Algebra, Geometry, Combinatorics and Number Theory for our Math courses and Electricity, Magnetism, Mechanics, Thermodynamics and Molecular Physics in our Physics classes.*


Not only have these  classes helped students to excel in these chosen subjects but they have also helped students to compete in various math and science competitions such as MathCounts, AMC 8,10,12, AIME, ARML and the Math and Physics Olympiads to name a few, even a visit with the President Obama! This is greatly in part due to our faculty of college professors including our academic director Dr. Kevin Wang as well as Dr. Darin Ragozzine, both of which have helped to design our Math Challenge and Physics Challenge curriculum over the past several years. Click here to view more of our faculty page.*


We also offer Self-Paced classes as well for students who are focused and want to take some initiative in their education. These classes are intended for a whole school year.*


*If  you are interested please take a look at our course description page by clicking HERE to get a better idea of what kinds of classes (onsite, online and Self-Paced) that we teach here at Areteem Institute.


For more information about our programs, including our summer and winter camps, Teacher Training Institute and academic competitions you can check out our main Areteem website (www.areteem.org).

To speak with one of our student service specialists please call us at: 949-679-8989 or our toll free number: 866-688-6284.


If you wish to leave us a brief message you can email us at at Areteem Institute (info@areteem.org) or through the Math Zoom program (staff@mathzoom.org) as well as follow us on Facebook , Twitter , LinkedIn, Instagram or YouTube for updates on future events and happenings!


Thank you and we hope you choose Areteem Institute – Home of Math Zoom for this school year!


The Staff Here at Areteem Institute and the Math Zoom program!

‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 2 (A Colonial Christmas, Scrooge, Carols and the Tree!)

‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 2 (A Colonial Christmas, Scrooge, Carols and the Tree!)

Hi all you lovely students of Areteem Institute and fellow readers! We are still in the realms of Christmas Past and slowly working our way up to Christmas Present so don’t leave the jolly sleigh ride yet!

(As a side note: Today is the eve of St. Lucia’s Day observed on December 13th and is a holiday celebrated outside Lucia’s native Italy in areas as far away as Scandinavia. The saint’s feast day, an integral part of Christmastime in countries such as Sweden, Norway and Finland has ties with older pagan Winter Solstice traditions with its predominance of light. For instance, crowns of candles are worn by girls dressed in white chosen to play St. Lucia in homes and neighborhood pageants. To read more about St. Lucia day celebrations, click here).

And now back to Christmas in America…

Historical Jamestown Settlement Colonial Christmas event with a “Lord of Misrule”

As mentioned before Christmas eventually made its way into America but it was not recognized everywhere in the 13 colonies. In the Puritan-dominated New England colonies of the 17th century, Christmas was literally non-existent. Boston specifically outlawed the Christmas festival from 1659 to 1681 and even afterward it was still not widely celebrated until a couple of centuries later.

There were, however, other colonies that fully enjoyed the Christmas season with their own unique sets of folk practices and beliefs. Captain John Smith himself reported grand Christmas festivities in the Jamestown settlement in Virginia and there is even mention of drinking the first egg nog concoction! New York had its traditional Dutch ways, especially with St. Nicholas giving presents to children (more on him later!) while Pennsylvania Dutch/German settlers had quite enthusiastic Christmas celebrations. The Moravians, a religious group from the Germanic countries who settled in, for instance, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania are known to have grown the first American Christmas trees as well as creating the first American Nativity scenes which they call “putzes”. Bethlehem, PA as a result is now “Christmas City, USA”!  But despite all of the efforts at keeping Christmas, it eventually fell out of favor with Americans after the Revolutionary War as the holiday was seen as a British custom they should leave behind. So how did it arguably become the biggest holiday of the year? Why, through good literature of course!

Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, PA at Christmas

Yes it’s true! We have two great authors from America and merry old England to thank for actually “reinventing” Christmas. Up to this point Christmas had amalgamated older pagan Winter Solstice customs, been both a religious feast day as well as a wild Mardi Gras-like party before it was suppressed, shipped over to America and then eventually let go of again. To start off in America, early 19th century writer Washington Irving was interested in the Dutch lifestyles and folkways of his native New York. In 1819 he penned “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon” where among his many stories, such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, he wrote a series of Christmas tales relating a fictionalized visit by the author of the “Sketch Book” to an old English manor house in the countryside and partaking in the “alleged” British customs of Christmas. He had actually never experienced any of the traditions he wrote about and so scholars give him credit for “recreating” some Christmas traditions.

An Original 1843 Edition Title Page to “A Christmas Carol”

Across the pond it was the equally as celebrated author Charles Dickens who on December 19, 1843 published “A Christmas Carol”. The customs that he wrote about along with the feelings of charity, kindness, forgiveness, redemption and a sense of sharing the holidays with one’s family had a profound impact in England and the United States. The book has been a bestseller since and led Dickens to greatly profit from it, especially when he started presenting live readings of his story that his great-great grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens, continues today. So please thank Washington Irving and Charles Dickens for ushering in a revival of Christmas, Ichabod Crane and Scrooge will be much obliged!  

A Picture of the First Published Christmas Card!

Now that Christmas was becoming a prominent holiday again in the 19th century, some new traditions surfaced among the American and British populace. For instance, in 1843, the same year that Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was published, a British man by the name of Sir Henry Cole published the first set of commercial Christmas cards that Louis Prang later introduced in America in 1875. This happened after President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas to be an official US federal holiday on June 26, 1870, finally! 

By the Victorian period (later 19th and early 20th centuries), Christmas had become a staple holiday tradition. In the middle and upper classes, people enjoyed hosting lavish Christmas parties in their home parlours where people enjoyed eating large dinners, playing frivolous games and singing Christmas carols much like today! The working classes enjoyed their own Christmas traditions and, just as in the medieval period, went around their towns and villages singing Christmas carols hoping for a bite to eat or some ale to drink. The tradition of waits, singing groups belonging to different towns, had been partially renewed with the Christmas revival, and with that a whole slew of Christmas songs were “discovered” or composed.

Back in 1833, the antiquarian William Sandys published his “Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern” which collected several old Christmas songs, whether genuine or contrived, as well as some new ones. Such famous songs like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”, “The First Noel” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing!” were first seen in print thanks to Sandys’ music book. Another famous song such as the tranquil “Silent Night” was first sung in its original German and played at a small Austrian church on Christmas Eve in 1818 by its composer Franz Gruber and its lyricist Joseph Mohr. Since the 19th century more songs have been added to the ever-growing list! (I distinguish Christmas carols as those that were created during and before the 19th century and Christmas songs as those composed during the 20th century up to the present-day). Soon magazines were publishing recipes and party ideas to hopeful hosts wanting to celebrate the holiday season in a very merry way. With all of the songs, food recipes and the prominence of winter, Christmas was coming along quite nicely! So what about the Christmas tree?

It should be no surprise among the many traditions of Christmas, and of other holidays in the year like Halloween and Easter, that the Christmas tree was originally a pagan symbol relating to ancient tree worship associated with the gods. Some scholars have posited that the Norse conception of Yggdrasil, the World Tree that connects the different realms of the living, the dead and the gods, in their cosmology, could be the mythic origin of the Christmas tree. Some other historical and legendary events have contributed to the creation of the Christmas tree during the conversion of Europe to Christianity.

St. Boniface, a Christian German missionary during the 600s and 700s CE, is believed to have come across a group of Norsemen praying to a tree dedicated to their god Thor. He then took an ax and cut down the tree, telling them that the fir tree should now be revered as a metaphor for the Christian God for its triangular shape was symbolic of the Holy Trinity. A tree was allegedly part of medieval Christmas traditions in England, decorated with apples to represent the “tree of paradise” found in the Garden of Eden and is a possible explanation for why red bauble ornaments appear on trees today. The Christian reformer Martin Luther during the 16th century is then credited for starting the modern Christmas tree custom when, upon walking in a forest one evening, he saw how beautiful the trees looked with the stars shining through them and decided to take one home to decorate, putting candles in the branches to represent the stars. Manufacturing ornaments have been a big part of German Christmas traditions since. Another theory posits that the tradition actually beganmuch later in Germany during the 18th century.

As can be seen, the Christmas tree has predominately German origins. The major influence behind this beloved Christmas tradition occurred in the 19th century when German-born Prince Albert brought this custom to England and set up a tree at Windsor Castle for his wife Queen Victoria and their family to enjoy. From then on, the Christmas tree became a staple holiday decoration. After all, if the Queen herself had a tree so should every other British family as she was quite the trend-setter when it came to British lifestyles! Soon after, everyone had a Christmas tree in their homes with candles giving way to light bulbs with the discovery of electricity and at last Christmas found its major symbol! You can see one of the largest American Christmas trees in Rockefeller Center in New York City. But where does Santa fit in all of this?

To be continued in Part 3: Santa Claus, his various names and how he came to be THE gift giver of the holiday season! Do you have any traditions or history you would like to add? Feel free to leave comments or subscribe to our blog site as want to hear what you have to say! Season’s Greetings!

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City

Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York City

  Come read more about Areteem Institute and what we have to offer at www.areteem.org

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‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 1 (Yule, Saturnalia and the Origins of Christmas)

‘Tis the Season: A Flurry of Winter Festivals and Traditions – Stave 1 (Yule, Saturnalia and the Origins of Christmas)

Hello my fellow students and readers! With the year 2014 slowly coming to a close and the holiday season finally here, there is so much to think about, even here at Areteem Institute!  It’s a time to reflect on the events of this past year as well as making merry with family and friends as we enjoy a myriad of holidays that come at this time of year. Then there’s some of you who may ask why some of our holidays have come to be? I mean really, what is the history behind celebrating one of the biggest holidays of the year like Christmas?

We know Christmas is both a religious holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ as well as a secular phenomenon full of lights, greenery, wintry dreams and joy in the air. But what is the misty past behind Christmas? And what of the ancient holidays that have influenced this cultural phenomenon?

So with this in mind, and some help form the Ghost of Christmas Past and St. Nicholas, I your Whisperer present to you a sleigh ride full of  Christmas history (condensed)!

To be brief, before Jesus was even born,  many people around the world celebrated the return of the sun in the midst of darkest winter which we now refer to as the Winter Solstice (solstice being Latin for “sun standing still” with its counterpart being the Summer Solstice in June). This celestial event occurs every year between December 20th-22nd. Many ancient cultures from the Chinese, the Egyptians, the Celts, the Norse and Germanic peoples and more had their own unique festivals to welcome the sun back in the hopes of summer light and warmth returning to their lands. (Festivals like Christmas and Hanukkah can be interpreted as contemporary examples although each celebrates a different historic event in ancient Israel- the former the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem and the latter the lamp oil lasting for eight days in the Temple in Jerusalem).

Many historians, scholars and folklorists agree that a few ancient celebrations highly contributed to the customs and superstitions that are part of our modern-day Christmas festival  revolving around the time of the Winter Solstice.

Walhall by Emil Doepler

To start off, have you ever wondered what the words “Yule” or “Yuletide” mean as they float through the lyrics of Deck the Halls? Yule, or Mid-Winter, in fact was a Winter Solstice festival celebrated by many races in northern Europe, in particular the  ancient Germanic and Norse people. This festival included much of the imagery we associate with Halloween as we know it today, as it was believed that any number of spirits, witches and gods were abroad during this time that could do good or ill well to mere mortals. These spirits were in essence representations of winter as well as the surrounding natural landscape they lived in, often cold, barren and unforgiving during the harsh winter months. People who lived such agrarian lifestyles were fearful for their lives for no one knew who would survive until the spring came. In an effort to both placate and honor these beings, grand feasts and sacrifices were enacted so as to encourage the sun to rise again, bring about good health among the people and to ensure a good harvest in the coming year.

Yule also contained many of the elements we see today such as the yule log (originally a large log cut down and brought into public halls to burn throughout the festival, similar to the tradition of bringing in the Christmas tree into our homes. Today it is popular as a holiday dessert called a “Buche de Noel” from the French).

The Yule festival was supposed to have lasted anywhere from two months from November to January, or more specifically for twelve days and is the origin of the so-called “Twelve Days of Christmas”. Over time when Christianity came to Scandinavian and other Germanic regions the customs of Yule became synthesized with the customs of Christmas and eventually “Yule” and “Christmas” became synonymous with each other. Even today people who live in  Scandinavian countries such as Sweden will wish each other “God Yul” as their way of saying “Merry Christmas”. In addition, modern Neo-pagan religions celebrate their own versions of Yule around the Winter Solstice on December 21st with reconstructed rituals that are believed to be close to how our ancestors celebrated this holiday long ago.


In the Mediterranean region, ancient Romans marked their own celebration of midwinter with a raucous time known as Saturnalia, in honor of the deity Saturn (the Roman equivalent of the Greek Kronos) who was the father of agriculture and culture. The Roman people celebrated for a week on their Julian calendar around our modern December 17th-23rd and during this time people were off from work, students did not attend any educational institution and role reversals were dominant with masters catering to their slaves for instance. These festivities later were turned into the Advent season that leads up to Christmas Day.

During Saturnalia, greenery was adorned in homesteads to remind everyone of their agricultural roots. It is the Romans and also the ancient Germanic, Norse (these latter two races celebrating Yule) and Celtic peoples we have to thank for introducing the holly, ivy and mistletoe decorations to Christmas traditions as all were sacred to these various people, either associated with gods or had magical properties of their own, and eventually were adopted by early Christians in their own unique celebration of Christ’s birth. (Holly and Ivy were considered male and female symbols, respectively, with the Holly taking on the image of Jesus’ “crown of thorns”. Mistletoe is in fact a fertility symbol relating to a Norse myth that eventually became a symbol for love as anyone standing under its branches was allowed one kiss after plucking one of its white berries).

Roman artifact with Sol Invictus (top middle with sun crown) and Mithra (to his right) atop a bull

Roman artifact with Sol Invictus (top middle with sun crown) and Mithra (to his right) atop a bull

Around the time of Saturnalia, Roman culture allowed for people to pick and choose religions as they pleased beyond the state-sanctioned Roman pantheon that derived from the older Greek pantheon. Among many of the Roman deities was Sol Invictus (“the Unconquerable Son”), mainly worshiped by the male Roman elite. His birthday was celebrated on December 25th, supposedly the date of the Roman Winter Solstice and he was often confused with Mithra, a god of Persian origins, whose religions, the Mithraic Mysteries, were practiced by an initiated group of worshipers.

Medieval Woodcut depicting the Visitation and the Nativity

Medieval Woodcut depicting the Visitation and the Nativity

As the early Christians spread throughout Europe, they realized that with so many different religions and practices they were outnumbered when it came to introducing people to their new belief system. Early Christians also were concerned with the fact that there was no exact date for Christ’s birth other than accounts written in the Gospels of the New Testament. When Emperor Constantine took up the cross in the 300s CE, he became the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity as the established religion. Under his reign, he helped to establish a more official date for the birth of Jesus Christ.  So as a direct act of “suppressing” older pagan beliefs,  Christ’s birth was proclaimed to be on December 25th overlapping the idea of the birth of the “sun” with the “Son of God” and the date of Christmas, known then as the Feast of the Nativity was established. The actual name of  “Christmas” came much later in medieval England from Old English literally meaning “Christ’s Mass”.

Depiction of a Medieval Christmas banquet

With the Medieval Period came many festivities establishing in essence the first Christmas holiday season (the twelve days of Christmas from December 25th to January 6th) as people attended lavish banquets and celebrations in the halls of manor homes and castles, landlords and their tenants paid their end of the year dues and everyone was very merry! This time in history also brought about the musical tradition of  Christmas that evolved from Latin hymns chanted by the clergy in churches into songs sung in the vernacular by lay people. St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals who established his Order of Franciscan monks, is credited for inventing Christmas “carols”. (The word “carol” originally comes from the French to mean a song that was accompanied by dancing; this could be why so many are quite spirited today!). He is further credited to creating a live Nativity scene in a church one Christmas Eve in 1223, starting the practice of the “crèche” with the baby Jesus and the Holy Family now adorned in homes and churches around the world today. This also helped to start the tradition of Nativity plays that have been performed since the medieval period up to the present-day.

Beyond the solemn religious rites, the Christmas season acquired a carnivalesque atmosphere that continued through the later medieval period and into parts of the early modern period (1400s and 1500s). This raucous celebration then came to a halt under the Protestant Reformation that condemned Christmas as either too Catholic of a holiday or too pagan of a holiday because of its ancient roots. In England from 1642-1660, the Puritans in power abolished Christmas completely. This influence was also strongly felt among the Pilgrims and Puritans living in North America around this time as they could have been fined if they were caught celebrating the Christmas holiday! With the eventual Restoration of King Charles II to the English throne in 1660, Christmas became a recognized holiday once more  (although Scotland took until 1958 to adopt Christmas as a national public holiday). Soon the Christmas holiday was celebrated again and it did not take too long for it to come to the New World with a bevy of traditions still to be invented…

Next time for Part 2: Learn about some colonial American traditions,  how Christmas was “created” in the 19th century and how it has thrived in the 20th and 21st centuries!


Some books to read:

-“Christmas Past”  by Barbara Kissinger

-“The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas” by John Matthews

-“Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth” by Dorothy Morrison

-“The Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the  Year” by Linda Raedisch

-“Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide” by Christian Ratsch


Some Internet Websites to Check Out:










Come check at our programs here at Areteem Institute at www.areteem.org!

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