Early Christians recruited Roman pagans by associating Christmas with the Saturnalia, which may have led to worshippers of the Asheira cult and its offshoots, being recruited by the same Church who sanctioned “Christmas Trees”.
Pagans worshipped trees of the forest, or brought them into their homes and decorated them, and this observance was claimed and adopted by the Church.
Norse mythology tells how the god Balder was killed using a mistletoe arrow by his rival god Hoder while fighting for the female Nanna.
Druid rituals also use mistletoe to poison their human sacrificial victim.
The Christian custom of “kissing under the mistletoe” is a later synthesis of the sexual license of Saturnalia with the Druidic sacrificial cult.
In pre-Christian Rome, the emperors compelled their most despised citizens to bring offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (in December) and Kalends (in January).
Later, this ritual appears to have expanded to include gift-giving among the wider population.
The Catholic Church then gave this custom a Christian flavor by re-packaging it in the supposed gift-giving activities of Saint Nicholas.
Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 CE and later became Bishop of Myra.
He died in 345 CE on December 6th.
He was only named a saint in the 19th century.
Nicholas was among the most senior bishops who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and created the New Testament.
The text they produced portrayed Jews as “the children of the devil” who sentenced Jesus to death.
In 1087, a group of sailors who idolised Nicholas, moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy.
It was there that Nicholas replaced a female gift-giving deity called The Grandmother, or ‘Pasqua Epiphania’, who used to fill the children’s stockings with presents.
The Grandmother was later removed from her shrine at Bari, which then became the center of the new Nicholas cult.
Members of this group gave each other gifts during a pageant they conducted annually on the anniversary of Nicholas’ death, which was December 6th.
The Nicholas cult spread north until it was eventually adopted by German and Celtic pagans.
These groups worshipped a pantheon led by Woden, their chief god and the father of Thor, Balder, and Tiw.
Woden had a long, white beard and rode a horse through the heavens one evening each Autumn.
When Nicholas became merged with Woden, he also lost his Mediterranean appearance, grew facial hair, mounted a flying horse, rescheduled his flight for December, and started wearing heavy winter clothing.
In a bid to convert pagan stalwarts in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church adopted the Nicholas cult and taught that he, so therefore all Catholics should, distribute gifts on December 25th instead of December 6th.
In 1809, the novelist Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) wrote a satire of Dutch culture entitled Knickerbocker History.
The satire refers several times to the white bearded, flying-horse riding Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name, ‘Santa Claus.’
Dr. Clement Moore, a professor at Union Seminary, read Knickerbocker History, and in 1822 he published a poem based on the character Santa Claus:
“Twas the night before Christmas,
when all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring,
not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
in the hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there…”
Moore added to the story by portraying his Santa with eight reindeer who descended through chimneys.
The Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast almost completed the modern picture of Santa Claus.
From 1862 through 1886, based on Moore’s poem, Nast drew more than 2,200 cartoon images of Santa for Harper’s Weekly.
Before Nast, Saint Nicholas had been pictured as everything from a stern looking bishop to a gnome-like figure in a frock.
Nast also gave Santa a home at the North Pole, his workshop filled with elves, and his list of the good and bad children of the world.
All Santa was missing was his red outfit.
That came about in 1931, when the Coca Cola Corporation contracted the Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create a coke-drinking Santa.
Sundblom modeled his Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerful, chubby face.
The corporation insisted that Santa’s fur-trimmed suit be bright, Coca Cola red.
Thus Santa Claus was born, a heady mixture of Christian crusader, pagan god, and a commercial goldmine.