With 2,000 years of history behind it, Christmas has a lot of historical myths and baggage attached, both good and bad. Now seems as good as time as ever to take a brief look at some of them.
1 Coca-Cola designed the modern Santa Claus as part of an advertising campaign
This is one you always hear at dinner parties. It makes the speaker sound rather clever and cynical. Great if only it were true. Coca-Cola did start using Santa in advertising in 1933. But Santa had been portrayed almost exclusively in red from the early 19th century and most of his modern image was put together by cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Even if you were to confine your search to Santa in American soft drinks adverts, you would find a thoroughly modern Santa Claus in the posters for White Rock that came out in 1923.
And that is purely on the American side, the British and related European figure of Father Christmas has a much older and less commercialised history. Always Coca-Cola maybe but not this time.
You can see more of the history of Father Christmas and Santa on my post from last year https://stephenliddell.co.uk/2015/12/06/the-history-of-father-christmas-santa-claus/
2 Jingle Bells is the very essence of a Christmas song
This one is another which isn’t true. Jingle Bells was written by James Pierpont in 1857. Pierpont was American and the song (originally called One Horse Open Sleigh) is about Thanksgiving, and about winter fun and frolics more generally. How un-Christmassy it is can be gleaned from the other verses, which never make it into a British carol concert. Verse two goes like this:
A day or two ago
I tho’t I’d take a ride
And soon Miss Fannie Bright
Was seated by my side.
The horse was lean and lank
Misfortune seemed his lot
He got into a drifted bank
And we – we got upsot.
No wonder we have the Jingle Bells, Batman smells version in school playgrounds.
3 The Bible tells us there were three wise men
Despite popular belief and a wealth of pseudo-popular Bible culture, there is no firm evidence for how many Wise Men or Kings that visited Jesus in Bethlehem. Matthew 2:1 tells us that “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem”.
They brought gifts with them: “they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh”; yet the Bible never says how many magi there were, only that they were plural. There could have been two or 200. Magi, by the way, were Zoroastrians. There were believed to be well-versed in mysterious arts, which is where we get the English word of “magic” from.
4 Christmas is just a Christian version of the Roman festival of Saturnalia
This one has got to be really popular in recent years and yet without a shed of evidence, in fact it doesn’t even make sense.
Saturnalia was originally held on 17 December. Later it was expanded until it lasted all the way up to 23 December. But it never shared a date with Christmas. There was a Roman festival on 25 December, the festival of Sol Invictus. But there were Roman festivals on most days of the year (more than 200 of them) and Sol Invictus is not recorded before Christmas and neither it nor Saturnalia have much in common with it.
If Christianity just wanted to take over Saturnalia then it could have just chosen December 17th.
5 Good King Wenceslas
That name is only three words long and there are two problems with it. Though Wenceslas existed, he wasn’t a king and he wasn’t called Wenceslas. His name was Vaclav and he was duke, not king, of Bohemia (in the modern-day Czech Republic) in the 10th century. He may have been good. However, it’s equally likely that people looked back on him with rose-tinted glasses after he was succeeded by his brother, Boleslaus the Cruel. Boleslaus really earned his name, not least by killing Vaclav to take the throne. Soon, legends of Vaclav’s goodness had grown so popular that he was posthumously declared king by Otto the Great.
6 Kissing under the mistletoe is a Viking tradition
7 Advent begins on 1st December
There are two types of people on this planet. Those who buy advent calendars who believe Advent starts on 1st December and the rest of us who know better.
Like Easter, Advent has a flexible starting period and cannot be defined as being 1st December. It begins on the nearest Sunday to St Andrew’s Day on the 30th November. So, this year, Advent began on 27 November. The idea that it starts on the same day every year was put about by the manufacturers of Advent calendars, so that they could use the same design each year and sell off old stock.
8 Prince Albert invented the Christmas tree (or at least brought it to Britain)
This one would have surprised Queen Victoria, who had a Christmas tree as a child. So did the sizeable German immigrant population in Manchester in the early 19th century. Victoria and Albert popularised the Christmas tree when they were pictured with one in the Illustrated London News in 1848.
Christmas trees have been recorded in England for centuries, even millenia but the precise paraphanalia around them may have changed over the years.
One thing that isn’t a myth though is that I wish you all a very Merry Christmas.