Santa Claus is usually associated with the North Pole, with snow and reindeer. However, the original St. Nick, or Saint Nicholas, lived in Lycia in Asia Minor where you are more likely to find wild goats, ibex, sheep and poisonous vipers.
Few people know much about the original St. Nicholas. He lived during the fourth-century a.d. and was renowned for his acts of charity and generosity. The centuries-old tradition of giving gifts at Christmas time, which started with started in Europe, began December 6th, St. Nicholas’ feast day. Because of the proximity of St. Nicholas day to Christmas day, the saint eventually became associated with the yuletide period.
St. Stephen is another saint associated with Christmas. His feast day is celebrated December 26 and is one of the 12 days of Christmas. St. Stephen is the patron saint of horses and he was the first martyr of the Christian church. In the past, St. Stephen’s day was observed in Sweden where celebrations included horse races.
St. Lucy is another saint whose day was once popular in Sweden. The patron saint of the blind, St. Lucy is also considered a Christmas saint because her feast day is December 13. To celebrate this day, Swedish households selected a young girl to be Lucia Queen.
Dutch colonists are said to have brought the tradition of gift giving at Christmas to the New World, in fact, to New York where the Americans revised Sinterklaas to Santa Claus.
Apparently, there is no historical evidence that Christ was born on December 25. The first mention of a December 25 celebration of Christ’s birth appeared around 353 a.d.; however, it wasn’t until 440 a.d., more than four centuries after His actual birth, that the Church proclaimed that day as His birthday.
It may have been convenient to name December 25 as a holiday since it already was a celebration day. Pagan Europe used December 25 to mark the winter solstice, the beginning of lengthening days and the expectation of spring and rebirth. As the celebration of Christmas spread, people in various cultures retained many of the pagan solstice customs and incorporated them into Christmas rites. For example, mistletoe was used in midwinter Druid rites, while holly was used similarly used by Anglo Saxons. Pagan Scandinavian people regarded the evergreen tree as a symbol of survival.
The 12 days of Christmas originated with another pagan celebration. The ancient Celtic and Teutonic tribes once observed a 12-day Yule celebration. When converted to Christianity, they kept many of the Yule customs and used them at Christmas.
Gift giving, another popular Christmas custom, also had a pagan origin. Historians say the ancient Romans marked the feast of Saturnalia by exchanging gifts, a custom that was continued once Christianity and Christmas was established.