Five Things You Didn’t Know About Christmas

Odin may have been the first Santa Claus

Mythologists believe the white-bearded Old Norse god Odin originated the legend of Santa Claus. How did the terrifying specter of a warrior god soaring through the skies on his flying eight-legged white horse transform to the chuckling man who radiates eternal kindness, riding on a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer?  

As centuries passed, paganism was replaced by Christianity.  The Church rescheduled winter solstice traditions and incorporated them into Christian celebrations.  Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek bishop, replaced Odin.  Always depicted wearing a red cloak, Saint Nicholas became known as the patron saint of giving. One of the most talked-about incidents from his life was to have rescued three girls from being forced into prostitution by dropping a sack of gold coins through the window of their house each night for three nights so their father could pay a dowry for each of them.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, on December 6, a New York newspaper that groups of Dutch families had gathered to honor the saint. A renown poem, A Visit From Saint Nicholas, also known as The Night Before Christmas, describes the anticipation of a visit from Saint Nicholas. 

In 1804, John Pintard, a New York Historical Society member, distributed woodcuts of St. Nicholas at the society’s annual meeting. The engraved background contains now-familiar Santa images, including stockings filled with toys and fruit hung over a fireplace.

Washington Irving mingled historical facts with his own imagination, and wrote that an image of St. Nicholas had not only been carved into the masthead of the ship that brought Dutch colonists to new Netherlands, but that St. Nicholas had appeared in a dream to those colonists and helped them decide where to set up the colony of New Amsterdam. 

In 1809, he helped to popularize the Sinter Klaas stories when he referred to St. Nicholas as the patron saint of New York in his book, The History of New York.  As his prominence grew, Sinter Klaas was described as everything from a “rascal” with a blue three-cornered hat, red waistcoat, and yellow stockings to a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat and a “huge pair of Flemish trunk hose.” Santa’s red and white colors owe more to ecclesiastical vestments than a brainstorm on Madison Avenue. Santa Claus’ name evolved from the bishop’s Dutch nickname, Sinter Klaas, a shortened Sint Nikolaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas).

Scholars of mythology believe the Vikings gave us Christmas

Pagan Vikings and other ancient Germanic peoples would celebrate the winter solstice each December with friends and relatives in a festival known as Yule or Jul, Julblot, or jólablót. The celebration included drinking, feasting, songs, games, banquets, and sacrifices for the gods for twelve days.  As Christianity swept across Germanic Europe centuries ago, many Yuletide traditions were adopted and absorbed into the Christian faith to create the modern Christmas we celebrate today.  

The Abbot of Unreason was a Christmas party planner 

The Abbot of Unreason, also known as The Lord of Mis-rule, was appointed the “king” of Christmas party planning by a bean.  The cook baked a bean into a cake. Whoever ate the slice with the bean in it would be the Christmas “king” – a tradition that crossed the channel and spread to England. The Lord was solemnly ‘crowned’ and given temporary leave to rule Christmas festivities over the wishes of the real lords and nobles. From palaces to pubs, country houses to London’s Inns of Court, this Yuletide master of ceremonies got people drunk, put on shows, and incited rowdy behavior. Scholars believe the role of the party planner goes as far back as Roman times. By the time Victorian Christmases took hold, the tradition of the Lord of Misrule was long gone. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the bean in the cake evolved to the Mardi Gras King Cake. 

When the King Cake is sliced and served at a party, each person looks to see if their piece contains the “baby.” If so, that person is named “King” for a day and bound by custom to host the next party and provide the King Cake.

The British invented the Smoking Bishop 

The Smoking Bishop is a drink loaded with English history, politics, and class identity. The ‘Smoking’ refers to the steam rising from the cup.

Dickens mentioned the beverage in The Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge and his long-abused employee, Bob Cratchit, enjoy a mug of Smoking Bishop. The warm drink, made with port, red wine, lemons or Seville oranges, sugar, and sweet spices, was combined with caramelized citrus fruit. It was tradition to serve it in a Bishop’s-miter-shaped bowl.

The Middle East influenced addictions to Mince Pies and Cuccidati

Historians traced the strange addiction to mincemeat in Christmas desserts to the Middle Ages. European crusaders returned with Middle Eastern recipes containing meats, fruits, and spices; they believed the pies symbolized the gifts delivered to Jesus by the Biblical Magi. Later, the recipes were modified to Christmas puddings using the same essential ingredients. It was not until the late Victorian period and early 20th Century that mince pies dropped the meat and only used fillings such as dried figs and dates.

Cuccidati, also known as Sicilian fig cookies, are Middle Eastern-influenced recipes. Culinary historians discovered an older version of the cookie from as far back as the Roman occupation of Sicily. The base ingredients of the cookie filling are a concoction of some of the island’s remarkable ingredients,  dried figs, dates, orange marmalade, almonds, pistachio, and pine nuts. The ingredients are as varied as the cookie’s names.

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