With its rich history, the celebration of Christmas didn’t just happen (or happen in Boston in the mid-1600s) overnight. It has slowly evolved over the years. Whether you view Christmas as a day of religious observance, a consumer-driven secular federal holiday or a customized hybrid of the two, there are a few things that should be set straight before we reach Dec. 25 — not the day Jesus was actually born, by the way.
Below, we examine four popular myths regarding the history and appearance of Santa Claus (and Coca-Cola’s supposed involvement in his development), the religious significance of Christmas trees and purportedly deadly holiday décor.
1. Will the real Santa Claus please stand up?
Santa Claus — aka Father Christmas aka Kris Kringle — is generally perceived to be a convivial and obese elderly gentleman perpetually clad in a red, fur-lined suit that eschews conventional airline travel for a team of magical reindeer. However, the real Santa Claus is a far cry from the fantastical pop culture icon that slowly emerged in North America in the 19th century and has stuck around ever since.
The jocund and loveable Santa Claus that sits around in North American shopping malls soliciting photo-ops is derived from the legend of Sinterklaas, an also hirsute and charitable (but at times sinister, depending on the folklore of what country you’re in) figure from The Netherlands whose ensemble consists of a red cape, flowing bishop’s robes, mitre and crosier. Sinterklaas gets around on a grey horse, not a sleigh, and is assisted by candy-tossing, politically incorrect Zwarte Pieten (Black Pete) and not industrious elves. And when not making seasonal appearances in The Netherlands, Sinterklaas is said to reside in Spain, not the North Pole or the Finnish Lapland.
Sinterklaas himself is based on Saint Nicholas, or Nikolaos of Myra, the patron saint of Amsterdam, sailors and children. Saint Nicholas, whose life is celebrated on Dec. 6 and who is an actual historical figure revered in Christianity, is depicted to look even less like the Americanized Santa than the Dutch Sinterklaas. That is, he isn’t heavyset and he doesn’t have a predilection for red-and-white outerwear. He’s Greek, thin and looks pretty much like most other saints. And not to confuse things more, but Odin, the Norse god who rode a flying horse, also plays a major part in Santa mythology.
2. Diet Santa Claus?
Now that we know that Santa Claus emerged in the 19th century as an Americanized take on a Dutch folklore legend that’s based on a gift-giving Greek saint and a Norse god (phew), you might wonder who “invented” the modern-day Santa Claus that we know and love. The answer: it wasn’t Coca-Cola.
According to urban legend, Santa Claus first emerged wearing red and white, which just happen to be Coke’s corporate colors, during seasonal Coca-Cola ad campaigns in the 1930s. Sure, these illustrations helped to cement Santa’s sartorial preferences, but Santa had been depicted wearing similar clothing for several decades prior. Illustrator Thomas Nast is frequently credited as having helped shape the modern “fat and jolly” image of Santa in the late 1800s while Norman Rockwell had been churning out iconic Santa imagery for The Saturday Evening Post since 1923.
3. Gathering around the pagan pine
It’s convenient to think that Christmas trees have forever been a Christian tradition. The truth is, tree decorating — but not the cutting down of live trees — is a thoroughly pagan pastime that ruffled more than a few feathers when it was adopted by the church. In fact, the first decorated Christmas tree didn’t emerge until the 19th century.
Long before Christmas trees became associated with the birth of Jesus, evergreens were believed to hold supernatural powers and were worshipped by pagans during winter solstice rituals. Because of this, many fundamentalists throughout history have rejected the concept of pagan “tree worship” including the pilgrims. Even today, many groups oppose Christmas trees — and Christmas itself — because of pagan associations. Other popular Christmas fixtures such as Yule logs, mistletoe, holly and mincemeat pies can also be traced back to pagan rituals.
4. Poinsettia panic
Like Christmas trees, holly, mistletoe and other “pagan plants,” poinsettias have long been used to inject festive, flora-based flair into homes during the holidays. It has also long been believed that the leaves of these beautiful red plants from Mexico are poisonous when ingested by humans. This is simply not true as poinsettias are nontoxic to humans and animals.
Still, eating a poinsettia isn’t the wisest idea as doing so may result in the same effects as drinking two too many glasses of spiked eggnog: an upset stomach and possible vomiting. The poinsettias-will-kill-you myth is believed to have started in 1918 when a child in Hawaii was falsely believed to have died from poinsettia poisoning.
Not only are poinsettias not deadly but they’re also believed to be one of numerous houseplants that are effective in absorbing pollutants for improved indoor air quality.
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