Tag Archives: christianity

Rare 500-year-old manuscript mentioning legendary artifact analyzed by researchers

Henry VIII of England famously broke the Church of England away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, setting a chain of events that would mark Britain (and parts of Europe) for centuries to come. Now, an analysis of an ancient manuscript shows how people prayed at the time, and how pilgrimage around a wooden artifact in England took place.

The Bromholm prayer roll, Ink, silver, and gold on parchment, 1370x130mm. Image credits: Gail Turner / Journal of the British Archaeological Association.

A medieval soap opera — with major consequences

In 1527, Henry VIII really wanted a divorce — or rather, an annulment. His wife at the time, Catherine of Aragon, had not given birth to a living son, which Henry saw as a threat to his dynasty. Henry claimed that this lack of a male heir was because his marriage was “blighted in the eyes of God” and went to Pope Clement VII to ask him to annul his marriage.

The Pope refused. In part, this was because according to canon law at the time, he couldn’t grant an annulment like that. But it also didn’t help Henry’s cause that earlier the same year, the Pope had been taken hostage by Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose troops had sacked Rome.

It was a political dispute more than a religious one, but it quickly escalated. Bit by bit, Henry tore Britain from under the influence of the Pope and cemented his own power, until, in 1532, he demanded that the church renounce all authority to make laws. The process was called “Reformation”. Soon after that, Henry also dissolved all monasteries and priories and confiscated all their wealth to fill his own coffers.

Among these was also Bromholm Priory. The priory was an important pilgrimage site in Britain because it was said to hold a wooden piece of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified. This artifact was called ‘Rood of Bromholm’, and it’s featured prominently on the manuscript.

The ruins of Bromholm Priory today. Image credits: Michael John Button.

“In particular,” art historian and study author Gail Turner states, “the study demonstrates Christian devotion in medieval England.

“It gives insight into the devotional rituals connected to a large crucifix (‘Rood’) at Bromholm Priory, in Norfolk, and uncovers a direct link between this 16th-century artifact and a famous religious relic once associated among Christians with miracles.”

Faith, five centuries ago

The manuscript is now in private ownership and has never before been analyzed extensively or published in full. A reference to a local bishop helped Turner date it to between 1505 and 1535, and Turner believes the manuscript (which was made from two pieces of vellum stitched together) was originally owned by a prosperous pilgrim. Few artifacts of this type survive to this day. This one is 13 cm wide, by a meter long.

Image credits: Gail Turner

In addition to being so rare, the manuscript is valuable for another reason: it shows us how people at the time viewed the Christian faith.

“The roll reflects a time when the laity (non-clergy) had a real belief in both visible and invisible enemies,” says Turner, who has worked at Tate Britain, the Arts Council, and as a consultant for Christie’s and at the Courtauld.

“For their owners, prayer rolls…were prized as very personal inspirations to prayer, although during the Reformation and after they were commonly undervalued and dismissed. The survival of such a magnificent roll for over 500 years is therefore remarkable.”

It also shows how worshippers conducted pilgrimages at the time. Worshippers apparently touched or kissed images of Jesus on the cross ”to experience Christ’s Passion more directly and powerfully”, says Turner. This type of mark is also visible on the manuscript, presumably as the owner prayed to it. Similar marks were also identified on other rolls.

After the Bromholm Priory was abandoned, the trail of the Rood of Bromholm was lost. A 1537 letter says that it went to London, but after that, there are no more clues. Turner assumes it was ‘destroyed in London with many other relics, although its fate remains uncertain’.

The study was published in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association.

When was Jesus born?

Every last one of us leaves our mark on history. Most only make a tiny shallow line for our family and friends to notice. A few leave deep grooves that countless other marks align with. Whether you’re a believer or not, the historical figure of Jesus Christ is inarguably one of the latter. Much of the western world as we know it was shaped by his life and the stories people tell about him, his life philosophy (as we know it, of course), and a religion others built around him.

Image credits Greg Montani.

One of the widest-used calendars in the world today — the Gregorian Calendar — is timed from the birth of this person. It separates history into two large parts: B.C., “before Christ”, and A.D., “anno Domini”, loosely meaning “year of the Lord”. The birth of Jesus is obviously when we shift between the two.

At least, that’s the theory. To the best of our knowledge, Jesus wasn’t born on what we consider to be the 1st anno Domini. With that in mind, though, “the best of our knowledge” on this topic is quite muddy. So roll up your sleeves and let’s dive right into it.

Tweak for glory

For starters, although Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas (25th December), we’re pretty sure that’s not actually when it happened. But we can’t say when it happened for sure, either. Part of the problem is that Jesus wasn’t born famous, so nobody actually bothered to record the exact date. There’s also the issue that our current dating system was not even invented yet when it happened, and equating dates between systems is imperfect at best. Factor in the huge spans of time involved here, and accuracy is out of the question.

However, what we do know is that at some point Christianity was an underdog of religions. It had quite an uphill battle gathering new followers in several communities, especially those who were polytheistic. This new, one-god religion was simply very strange to them and the customs they held. People who were better-off were also wary of it, as adopting a new religion would often come with a social cost. Not to mention that following teachings which decried slavery and looked down on riches wasn’t high on the priority list of people who enjoyed owning slaves and being rich.

In the Roman Empire, the largest single community that Christianity was trying to get into at that time, both of these issues were at work at the same time.

So what Christianity did was a little bit of PR. Christmas today is celebrated very close to the winter solstice. Many ancient peoples aligned their celebrations with significant natural events, such as the solstice. Whether this was intentional or not on their part is a very interesting question, but it’s not particularly relevant right now. What is relevant, however, is that by changing dates around a bit, Christian customs would better reflect the pagan ones they were competing against. In other words, it would be more familiar to those it tried to convert. It felt less like a completely new celebration, and more of an updated, reskinned celebration — and, so, easier to accept.

In the case of Rome, the end of December marked the start of Saturnalia. This was a celebration in honor of their god of the harvest (Saturn) and lasted between the 17th and 23rd, roughly. Symbolically speaking, this was a good celebration to try and associate yourself with, as it was customary for everyone to enjoy freedom during this time, so social norms would be laxer, even discarded altogether. Well, to be more specific, Saturnalia saw an inversion of one’s fate.

Slaveowners, for example, would dress, feed, and entertain their slaves like they would a friend. The slaves, in turn, could tell their masters their grievances during this time without fear of reprisal. It was a celebration meant to ‘reset your karma‘, so to speak. Gambling was also allowed on Saturnalia, and carnivals were common. In the grand scheme of things, someone celebrating Christmas would probably stand out far less during Saturnalia than any other time of the year.

This is also probably where we get the custom of gifts during Christmas. Romans exchanged gifts with their friends for Saturnalia, although they were either small figures or gag items, and there most definitely weren’t any trees involved.

Of course, none of this actually proves that Christmas was shifted around the calendar to make it more palatable to pagans. But it’s very likely that it was, because we’re seeing too many coincidences. Further proof that the 25th of December date isn’t true to the historical date of Jesus’ birth is that the Orthodox Church in the Byzantine half of the Roman Empire set the date of Christmas at January 6th. If one church can change the date, why couldn’t another?

The Christmas date origin topic is way broader than I have a taste to get into here, but the Washington Post has a nice breakdown of it here.

Not exactly on time

“Saturnalia” sculpture by Ernesto Biondi, in Buenos Aires. Looks like a fun celebration.

So we already know the birth date is probably off, although we don’t know by how much. The thing to keep in mind here is that the texts which make up books such as the gospel weren’t written while Jesus was around, by people who were around him. They were written some time after — often, a very long time after — by people working mostly off hearsay. It’s not a criticism on their part, it’s just the product of a day when writing was still a rare skill, and par for the course of the time.

This material was also heavily curated, edited, tweaked, and cleaned-up by (probably) well-meaning but (in my opinion) extremely biased and damaging individuals as Christianity evolved into a mainstream religion. A mainstream religion, after all, needs to have some mainstream-able texts, and working in media, I can assure you that the first copy is never that. Large parts of the initial bible were taken out, and what was left was re-ordered and re-worded to better suit individual agendas. It was an ongoing process, not a single event, as most people who sought power through religion wanted a bible that would fit their narrative better than those of others.

But we’ll turn the other cheek to that. I’m not telling you all this to invalidate anyone’s faith. If you believe, you believe. Personally, I don’t. But I think we can all agree, no matter what side of that fence we’re on, that understanding the actual historical facts in the story is a worthwhile pursuit. We are, after all, talking about one of the most influential people in the West, and maybe globally.

I’m also telling you all that so you’ll understand why I don’t particularly rely on the texts themselves for answers. They were maintained by people, and people are both fallible and biased. We’re also talking about thousands of years here, so there was probably a lot of failing and biased behavior involved. In other words, the texts themselves are not a reliable source if what you’re after is to understand what happened and when with accuracy. Not only that, but these are religious texts; they were never intended to preserve chronology, but theology. The dates are not as important as the message, as far as they are concerned.

Back to the year

While religious texts aren’t reliable as direct sources, they do offer useful context. Context which we can then bash against what we know from historical records and archeological digs to hopefully arrive at the truth.

One of the first attempts in this regard was to date the birth of Jesus using the figure of Herod. In the bible, soon after Herod dies, the new ruler of Judea orders all male infants under two years old in the Bethlehem region (where Jesus was born) to be killed. The good news here is that we have a rough timeline for when Herod died: around 4 B.C. The bad news is that that’s not a reliable date by any stretch and that the rest of the story seems to be made-up as well. Still, if we take these at face value, Jesus was likely born between the years 6 and 4 B.C.

The story also holds that Jesus’ birth was heralded by a star — the Star of Bethlehem. It has been proposed that this star was actually a slow-moving comet, one that Chinese observers recorded around 5 B.C. This fits well with our previous estimation, which is a plus, but it also basically boils down to “hey these two events fit so they could be the same”. This isn’t necessarily a wrong conclusion, but it definitely isn’t proof.

Reasonable Theology makes a valiant effort of estimating the birth date of Jesus drawing mostly from scripture here (it’s a pretty interesting read). I’m not that familiar with everything going on in the bible, so I’ll have to take their word for it, but the conclusion they draw from several passages is that Jesus was born sometime between 6 and 5 B.C. This, again, fits with the previous estimation and is a little more reliable as it ties events going on in the story to historical figures such as Emperor Caesar Augustus and Governor Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, which are somewhat well-anchored in history.

It also loosely fits with the Aemilius Secundus inscription, a tablet discovered 300 years ago in Beirut, Lebanon, which tells of a census ordered by Quirinius, the governor of Syria, in 12 B.C., according to biblical scholar Jim Fleming. This census is mentioned in the texts, although different gospels disagree on whether Jesus was born before or after it.

However, there are some grounds to believe that Herod actually died around the year 1 B.C., which would put Jesus’s birth around the year 3 B.C.

All things considered, we can estimate with some certainty that Jesus was born between 6 and 4 B.C., and with less certainty that it happened a few years later. But everybody is pretty confident that he — ironically — was not born in ‘the first year of the lord’.

Since we can’t yet know for sure exactly when it happened, this tiny incongruency will have to stick around for a bit longer. With that being said, our calendars are made so practical issues like historical events or yearly tax records can be kept in an organized fashion that future generations will still be able to use, should they need it. Although we think of years as either before or after Christ, they are primarily a chronological tool, not a theological one.


Religious material promoting humanity as stewards make Christians care more about the environment

Christians show greater concern for climate change and environmental issues in general when presented with religious material (from credible sources) that advocate humanity’s role as stewards of nature, new research reports.


Image via Pixabay.

A big factor shaping how Christians view environmental issues is whether they view humanity as having stewardship or dominion over the Earth, report psychologists from the University of Illinois (UoI) and the University of Warwick (UoW). Reading material advocating for either of these two views can shift those attitudes, they add, with religious material promoting a stewardship interpretation increasing concern for the environment and climate change.

Cleanliness is next to godliness

“Stewardship and dominion ideas are common among Christians. We were interested in whether these ideas, as well as having them advocated by credible or trusted sources among Christians such as the Bible or Pope Francis, had an effect on Christians’ attitudes toward the environment,” said lead author Faith Shin, a psychology graduate at the UoI.

“Religion has a powerful influence on moral concerns. Climate change is arguably the biggest challenge facing the world, and most of the world’s population identify with a religion or belief in God. It makes sense that religious beliefs should also have powerful influence on moral attitudes toward the environment,” adds Jesse Preston, a professor of psychology at UoW and paper co-author.

The team surveyed 292 (Christian) participants on their stewardship and dominion beliefs as well as their attitude towards environmental issues such as climate change. Overall, they report, viewing humanity as stewards — i.e. that God commands us to take care of the Earth and all life on it — was associated with greater concern for environmental issues. Protecting nature was perceived as a moral imperative by those who believe humans are designated stewards. Dominion beliefs, meanwhile — that God gave humanity free rein to do as they please with the Earth — were associated with lesser concern for climate change, the team adds.

They then tested to see how trusted religious sources influence participants’ interpretation of humanity’s role on Earth. In the first experiment, 588 participants were given one of three articles to read: two using the Bible to support either a stewardship or dominion belief and a control article on an unrelated topic.

“We took real Bible passages that could be interpreted as supporting one view or the other, then wrote up mock articles for the participants to read. Right after they read the passages, they answered some measures about their moral concern for climate change and their belief in climate change,” Shin said.

In the second experiment, 498 participants read articles that cited Pope Francis as a source. One group received an article quoting from the pope’s 2015 encyclical on environmental stewardship and climate change measures, the second group read an article about his stance on birth control, and the third read an unrelated control article.

People who read material promoting stewardship in both experiments showed greater moral concern for the environment and climate change compared to the control group, the team reports. Reading material supporting dominion views did not reduce these concerns in the same way.

“There appears to be more power for religious messages to enhance moral concerns for climate change than decrease these concerns, which we think is a very hopeful result,” Preston said. “When trusted religious sources endorse stewardship messages consistent with religious values, it encourages concern for climate change as a moral and religious issue.”

Next, the team hopes to study how other religious beliefs or faith systems affect their adherents’ attitudes toward climate change and the environment.

The paper “Green as the gospel: The power of stewardship messages to improve climate change attitudes” has been published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

Archaeologists uncover Roman baths in Syria

It was one of the rarest and fanciest baths of its time.

Cleaning of mosaic fragments in the area of the bathing facility. Image credits: Peter Jülich.

The Roman Empire spread far and wide, from Western Europe to Northern Africa and the Middle East. Syria was an early Roman province, annexed in 64 BC. Several Roman settlements still remain in the area, although not all are in modern Syria.

The city of Doliche, for instance, is part of historical Syria but is in modern-day Turkey. Archaeologists have been working in Doliche for quite a while, and have recently unveiled signs of a prosperous and flourishing city.

“Our excavations in the ancient town of Doliche clearly show how a town flourished across epochs and religions in what was then northern Syria – from the Hellenistic period through Christian late antiquity to the early Islamic epoch”, says classical scholar and excavation director Engelbert Winter from the Cluster of Excellence, who was speaking at the end of the excavation season.

Remains of underfloor heating in the area of the bath. The supports made of tiles held up the floor, with warm air circulating in the space between. Image credits: Peter Jülich.

The pinnacle of Doliche, archaeologists say, was a rather unusual (and very fancy bath). Unfortunately, despite its impressive design, the bath was only used for about a century or two.

“The bath, decorated with splendid mosaics, was built in the 2nd or 3rd century AD, when public baths in Syria, unlike in the Latin West, were exceedingly rare. However, the bath was no longer in operation from as early as the 4th century AD”.

Aerial view of the excavation area in the east of the town with a Roman bathing facility. Image credits: Forschungsstelle Asia Minor.

People left the town as a result of wars and economic crises, as well as changing cultural trends — as Christianity’s impact increased in the area, the architectural landscape started to change, and more emphasis was placed on what was then an innovative faith. The sanctuaries of the old gods were abandoned in favor of the new, all-powerful one, and not everyone embraced this change.

“A new heyday began under Christian auspices: the basilica was built, and the town, which had originally gained attention and become rich on account of the sanctuary of the Roman god Jupiter Dolichenus, became a bishopric”.

Archaeological digs have also uncovered a church, which is quite a rare finding in the area. Not much is known about the impact of Christianity in northern Syria at the time, and how it changed people’s lives. Further finds from the area around the church indicate that it was probably destroyed by an earthquake in the 7th century.

Ultimately, the town itself was abandoned in the 12th century.

View of the excavated parts of the early Christian basilica, including a beautiful floor mosaic. Image credits: Forschungsstelle Asia Minor.

As it so often happens, uncovering these archaeological structures is only the first step. Modern archaeology is less about finding cool buildings, and more about understanding how they affected people’s lives, and how these people lived.

“We are faced here with a monumental task that we are tackling systematically with the help of state-of-the-art methods and research questions. It is not so much about exposing magnificent buildings as it is about generating the most precise information possible on how people lived their lives through the ages”, adds assistant professor Michael Blömer from the University of Aarhus. “What did the inhabitants consume, what did their everyday lives look like, how did the economy function? And how did the town react to crises like wars, natural disasters, but also political and religious changes?”

Today, Turkish Dülük, the village that follows the ancient Doliche, is still a Latin Catholic titular see, which is quite unusual — so the ancient changes still have a lasting impact to this day.

Science Santa History: The Pagan Origins of Christmas

Every year, billions of people all around the world celebrate Christmas — but most of them don’t really know how it started. Most people think it’s a Christian celebration but that’s not exactly the truth.

The history of Christmas is a bit more complicated — and very interesting.

Christmas, Christ, and Christianity – when was Jesus born?

Via Wiki Commons.

For most people, Christmas is a holiday deeply rooted in Christianity – but is that really the case? It’s been celebrated for more than two millennia, so it’s pretty safe to assume that the holiday we celebrate today is a mixture of different cultures and religions.

The earliest history of Christmas is composed of “pagan” (non-Christian) fertility rites and practices which predate Jesus by centuries. Most of the traditions we associate with Christmas are actually not Christian at all, including decorating Christmas trees, singing Christmas carols, and giving Christmas gifts.

So then, is Christmas not when Jesus was born? The answer is probably ‘yes’. The New Testament gives no date or year for the birth of Jesus, and the first year was determined by Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk, “abbot of a Roman monastery”. In the Roman, pre-Christian era, years were counted from ab urbe condita (“the founding of the City”). Thus 1 AUC signifies the year Rome was founded, 10 AUC signifies the 10th year after Rome was founded and so on. Rome was founded in 753 BC, so what we consider today as year 0 would be year 753 AUC. But Dionysius Exiguus, basing his calculations on Roman history, estimates that Jesus was born in 754 AUC. However, Luke 1:5 places Jesus’ birth in the days of Herod, and Herod died in 750 AUC – four years before the year in which Dionysius places Jesus birth. Pretty much anyway you take it, it seems very unlikely that Jesus was born in what we consider year 0.

Joseph A. Fitzmyer – Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America, member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission supports this idea:

“Though the year [of Jesus birth is not reckoned with certainty, the birth did not occur in AD 1. The Christian era, supposed to have its starting point in the year of Jesus birth, is based on a miscalculation introduced ca. 533 by Dionysius Exiguus.”

So what about the date? Irenaeus (c. 130–202) viewed Christ’s conception as March 25 in association with the Passion, with the nativity nine months after on December 25. The Bible doesn’t speak about the date, but the references in the Bible show it most likely did not take place in winter. Rather it is because this was the date that the Romans historically celebrated the winter solstice.

Romans and Christmas

The Saturnalia. Image Source.

Romans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, which was basically a week long lawless celebration, taking place between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The things that happened during the Saturnalia were almost unspeakable – we won’t go into that here, but they often included violence, rape, and even human sacrifice.

Another interesting tradition was the pagan custom called wassailing, or singing from door to door. While the wealthy feasted and … did their thing, the poorer people gathered and sang from door to door, with people often giving them food and (albeit more rarely) drink. This is almost certainly the origin of caroling, and there are occasional mentions of this tradition all throughout the middle ages. It was also a common habit for people to gather in groups and sing naked in the streets – really, these are the precursors of caroling.

As the first few centuries of the “AD” era passed, Christians wanted to attract more pagans into their religions, so they somehow attempted to incorporate Saturnalia into Christianity; the only problem was that it had absolutely nothing Christian in it, so they simply adopted its ending date (25th of December). Because the Saturnalia was the central holiday in ancient Rome, they had to make the date important as well, so they made it the birth of Jesus. It was a rather clever political trick, which lured some into the new religion, while leaving the rest do the same things undisturbed.

Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, writes:

“In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.”

So there you have it, it’s very likely that both the date and the year aren’t actually representative for the birth of Jesus.

Romans and Christians

The early Christians learned a lot from the Romans. Despite what most people today think, the Romans didn’t really invent much – they just learned, adapted and incorporated. Early Christians tried to do the same, and they did it pretty smartly. They wanted to attract as many people as possible, but at the same time, they realized that the people weren’t giving up on the things they’ve been doing for generations and generations. So instead, they tried to incorporate all these pagan traditions and make them a part of Christianity.

The best example for this is the one with the Saturnalia – but that’s nowhere near the only case. Just as early Christians recruited Roman pagans by associating Christmas with the Saturnalia, so too worshippers of the Asheira cult and its offshoots were recruited by the Church sanctioning “Christmas Trees” – but that’s a matter for a different article.

Stunning church discovered in underground city in Turkey

A surprising finding could change the history of early orthodoxy. In the biggest underground city in the work, archaeologists have found a church with frescoes hidden from sight for centuries. They show Jesus rising into the sky and defeating evil.

The site itself is spectacular. Just imagine – it’s an underground city which has been inhabited since 5000 years ago. The city could have easily accommodated 20,000 people and had all the usual amenities found in other underground complexes, including wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, and, of course, chapels and churches. This 1,500 year old church is a great example.

The rock-carved underground church is located within a castle in the center of the Turkish city Nevşehir, an area known for subterranean structure. The archaeologists have studied only the top part of the church, because that’s how far they got with the excavations.

“Only a few of the paintings have been revealed,” said researcher Ali Aydin, who told the Hurriyet Daily News: “There are important paintings in the front part of the church showing the crucifixion of Jesus and his ascension to heaven. There are also frescoes showing the apostles, the saints and other prophets Moses and Elyesa.”

Ironically, the archaeological work was only being done because of a housing plan in the city – and now this could reveal a forgotten chapter in the history of Orthodoxy.

The frescoes they have uncovered already seem to be unique, depicting uncommon scenes, most notably that of Jesus the Christ rising into the sky and punishing bad souls. However, uncovering the paintings is no easy feat. The church was filled with soil and rubble, and it will take a lot of digging, cleaning and restoration before the paintings can be admired and studied properly. Ali Aydın, an archaeologist working at the site, emphasized that only the church roof is visible – so we don’t even know how tall it is.

“We have stopped work in order to protect the wall paintings and the church. When the weather gets warmer in the spring, we will wait for humidity to evaporate and then we will start removing the earth,” he said.

He expects even more spectacular paintings to be unearthed.

“Only a few of the paintings have been revealed. Others will emerge when the earth is removed. There are important paintings in the front part of the church showing the crucifixion of Jesus and his ascension to heaven. There are also frescoes showing the apostles, the saints and other prophets Moses and Elyesa,” he said, adding that they had also found the real entrance of the church used in the past but had yet to expose it.

The Byzantine Empire, sometimes referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire extended over much of today’s Turkey, including the area where the underground city is.

Science Santa History: The origins of Christmas Customs

This is a series of articles about Christmas we here at ZME Science will be doing all December. Our goal is to present interesting, little known facts about the origins and history of Christmas.

Christmas – not the birth of Jesus, but a Roman celebration

Artistic representation of the Saturnalia.

Artistic representation of the Saturnalia.

There is still a lot of debate around this issue and it’s pretty much impossible to accurately pinpoint a date, but it’s highly unlikely that Jesus was born on the 25th of December, year 1 AD, as we’ve previously explained in this article. Scientifically and historically speaking, Christmas is probably based on a Roman celebration – Saturnalia.

Romans celebrated the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period during which Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. Celebrations included feasting and singing (often naked in the streets), but also violence, rape, and sometimes, even human sacrifices. The Saturnalia took place between December 17-25.

The Christians wanted to attract as many people as possible into their religion, but they also realized that the Romans aren’t going to give up on their favorite holiday so instead, they tried to incorporate it into Christianity; however, there was nothing about the celebration that was Christian, so they just chose the end date – 25th of December. To add more significance, they ‘labeled’ it as the birth date of Jesus.

The origins of the Christmas Tree

photo credit: Gueоrgui

photo credit: Gueоrgui

There’s really a lot of talk around the origins of the Christmas Tree. Some people claim it’s a German thing, some people claim it was introduced by Martin Luther, but the truth is, the first customs related to Christmas trees are clearly non-Christian.

Pagans had long worshipped trees in the forest, or brought them into their homes and decorated them. In Poland and nearby areas, there was an ancient pagan custom of suspending at the ceiling a branch of fir, spruce or pine. The branches were decorated with apples, nuts, cookies, colored paper, stars, ribbons, etc. People believed in the tree magical powers linked with harvesting and success in the next year.

Furthermore, as Enciclopedia Britannica explains:

“The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”

Celtic Druids tied fruit to the branches of live trees, and baked cakes in the shape of fish, birds and other animals, to offer to their god, Woden. However, the Christians once again adapted, and the Church incorporated traditions into the religion, unifying the similar, but slightly different traditions into the Christmas Tree we have today.

Mistletoe and Christmas

The mistletoe is entirely Norse in origin. Baldur is a god in Norse mythology, and a son of the god Odin and the goddess Frigg. He has numerous brothers, including Thor and Váli. At one point, his mother feared that something bad would come to him ,so he made every object in every realm vow never to hurt Baldr. All objects made this vow except mistletoe. Frigg had thought it too unimportant and nonthreatening to bother asking it to make the vow. Baldur was later killed with an arrow made from mistletoe. Druid rituals use mistletoe to poison their human sacrificial victim. Somehow, in Christianity… kissing under the mistletoe became a thing.

The origins of Christmas presents

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 custom expanded to gift giving to the general population. The Catholic Church gave this custom a Christian flavor by re-rooting it in the supposed gift-giving of Saint Nicholas – which we’ll discuss in another, separate article.

The origins of caroling

During the Saturnalia, the rich feasted, consuming incredibly large quantities of food and alcoholic drinks. The not so fortunate would sometimes gather and sing at these feasts, in the hope of receiving something. This custom was probably perpetuated throughout the ages, as there are some mentions of the custom in various times, in various places in Europe.

There is another plausible explanation: the intoxicated people would often get naked and sing in the streets – I guess it depends what kind of caroling you want to do.

Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas


Our idea of Santa Claus has been constantly evolving, for many centuries. photo credit: Hello, I am Bruce

Santa Claus has changed so incredibly much during the years it’s almost incredibly to think where he started from. Almost certainly, the ‘original’ Santa Claus was Saint Nicholas of Myra was a 4th-century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia, now in Turkey. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. We will, however talk more about Santa Claus in another, separate article.

Science Santa History: The Origins of Santa Claus

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere! We’ve discussed the date of Christmas and how it is (or rather isn’t) connected to the birth of Jesus, and when we talked about the origins of some of the most popular traditions connected to Christmas. But Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Santa Claus, this bearded jolly dwarf usually represented in green, blue or purple clothing. Nope, I’m not crazy – Santa Claus became the big red man we know and love today thanks to a company called Coca-Cola – but we’ll get on that just a little bit later.

Santa Claus, also known as Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle and simply “Santa”, is a figure with legendary, mythical, historical and folkloric origins who, in many western cultures, is said to bring gifts to the homes of the good children on the night before Christmas, December 24. However, way before he was Santa Claus, he was Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas and Christmas

A 13th-century Egyptian depiction of St. Nicholas from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai. Via Wikipedia.

Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 CE and later became Bishop of Myra. He played a crucial role in early Christianity and was, by virtually all accounts, a very kindhearted man. Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes.

Things took a strange turn in 1087, when a group of sailors who idolized Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. Not long after that, the cult spread further North, until it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans. These groups worshiped a pantheon led by Woden (Odin) –their chief god and the father of Thor, Baldur, and Tiw. Odin was usually wearing blue clothing.

Prior to Christianity, the Germanic people celebrated midwinter event called Yule. During this period, supernatural and ghostly occurrences were said to increase in frequency, such as the Wild Hunt, a ghostly procession through the sky thought to be led by Odin himself. However, something that had happened many times before happened once again: Christianity absorbed this tradition and made it its own. When this happened, the date of 25 December came in and took the traditional 6 December. Saint Nicholas left gifts in the socks or shoes, but Santa Claus would ultimately just leave them under the Christmas Tree – which wouldn’t become a custom for many centuries later though.

The appearance also changed from very strong and warrior like (Odin) to more jolly, bearded, and pleasant looking (Odin had just one eye, trading the other for a drink from the Well of Wisdom).

Santa Claus throughout Europe

In the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, Saint Nicholas (“Sinterklaas”, often called “De Goede Sint”—”The Good Saint”) was an elderly, serious man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape or chasuble over a traditional white bishop’s alb and red clothes. This was however, the only area in which he was red.

Sinterklaas in 2007. Via Wikipedia.

Meanwhile, in England, they were celebrating Father Christmas since the 16th century – the spirit of good cheer at Christmas, bringing peace, joy, good food and wine and revelry. In Scandinavia, a being in Nordic folklore called “Tomte” or “Nisse” started to deliver the Christmas presents. He was wearing grey clothes. In Eastern Europe, they mostly celebrated Saint Nicholas bringing gifts on the 6th of December (something still celebrated today in many countries, often in addition to Christmas). Other related figures in folklore include Mikulás (Hungary), the Yule Goat (Scandinavia), Olentzero (a Basque character), Befana (Italy), and many ore.

Folk tale depiction of Father Christmas riding on a goat. Via Wikpiedia.

In the beginning of the 19th century, the world still hadn’t developed a unified idea of Santa Claus. In the mid 1800s, literature started playing a huge role in promoting ideas about Santa Claus. The book A New-year’s present, to the little ones from five to twelve was published in New York. It contained Old Santeclaus, an anonymous poem describing an old man on a reindeer sleigh, bringing presents to children. The book was immensely popular for the time, and the ideas presented in it spread like wildfire. But most ideas about the modern Santa Claus came from an anonymous publication of the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) in the Troy, New YorkSentinel on December 23, 1823.

The poem was later attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. The main ideas that were presented in the poem are: He (Saint Nick) rides a sleigh that lands on the roof, entering through the chimney, and has a bag full of toys. St. Nick is described as being “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf” with “a little round belly”, that “shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly”, in spite of which the “miniature sleigh” and “tiny reindeer” still indicate that he is physically diminutive. The reindeer were also given names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder and Blixem (Dunder and Blixem came from the old Dutch words for thunder and lightning, which were later changed to the more German sounding Donner and Blitzen).

The Modern Santa Claus and Coca-Cola

Haddon Hubbard “Sunny” Sundblom was an American Artist, most known for changing the face of Santa Claus, but also for making a cover illustration on the Playboy magazine, advertising Coca-Cola next to an almost naked, drawn, female character.

Images of Santa Claus were further popularized through Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him for The Coca-Cola Company’s Christmas advertising in the 1930s. The campaign was so incredibly successful that many people actually thought that Coca-Cola had invented Santa Claus – which, in a way, was not that far from the truth. He stripped him of his small stature and green/blue/purple clothes and instead, made him a big, lovable, bearded man, dressing him in the company’s red and white colors. This is the Santa Claus almost all of us know today.

By the end of the 20th century, the merger of Saint Nicholas, Odin, and numerous cults and traditions from the entire Europe, developed by 19th century literature and ultimately shaped by an advertising campaign resulted in the jolly man we see today.

Santa Claus waves to children from an annual holiday train in Chicago. Via Wikipedia.