In the fourth century (bear with me, it's a bit old) Christianity was spreading its influence inside the Roman Empire. To compete with the Roman saturnalias (I'll spare you the Latin language), held Dec. 17-24 as a traditional festival honoring the agricultural god Saturn, the Christian Church decided to place the birth of Jesus on December 25th.
In the same time frame, in Asia, Nicolas de Myre, a high priest of the Roman Empire in Lycie (actual Asian Turkey) became a saint, after performing a few miracles, the usual stuff, and evolved to this day as Saint Nicolas, who, after saving three little kids, became the protector of children.
Then we jump a bit to the period extending from the XII to the XIV century (12th to 16th if you don't read Roman numerals) where, during the Holy Crusades (another story), the remains of Saint Nicolas, presumably ashes by that time, were taken to Italy. From this event, the celebration of Saint Nicolas on Dec. 6th became a respected holiday.
He is always represented as wearing a long beard and the red and white hooded cloak of a bishop of his time. Do you see where I'm getting? During the festival, he travels from home to home to visit nice children and give them presents, while the naughty ones get the whip by a meany guy (where was child protection?).
In the XVII century (17th), Protestants end the celebration and adoration of all saints. Period. But dear Saint Nicolas survives the censorship in northern Europe, more specifically in the Netherlands. This is when the Christmas tree first appears in the Protestant countries, originally in the Alsace region of France, where vast forests of the specific pine tree are numerous. Meanwhile Catholics create the Crèche,, complete with figurines representing the people and animals present at the moment Christ was born in a humble barn.
From the XVII century on (17th), Dutch people started their migration to the New World and founded New Amsterdam in 1625 (to become New York in 1664). This is when Saint Nicolas became Santa Claus. At this point all Christians fuse together their separate customs and turn Dec. 25th into the fiesta we know today, celebrating the new child born, and at the same time honoring his protector.
In 1885, it was decided that Santa was living at the North Pole, maybe because the imagination of cartoonists always depicted him on a sleigh full of presents and pulled by reindeer. So of course, reindeer have to come from the cold (like spies), and besides the Scandinavian origin of the story makes it plausible that father Christmas lived in the freezing top of the World.
But in 1927, the Finnish decided that there was no way for reindeer to live at the North Pole, as there is no vegetation there to feed the beasts, a problem indeed. So they insisted that Finland is the true home of Santa Claus, while the Danish claim he's from Greenland, Norwegians say he's from Oslo, Russian state, nope, he's from Siberia, and the Americans kept the improbable but romantic North Pole origin.
An American urban legend has it that the red costume came from an ad man at Coca-Cola who drew the original famous colors from the drink's, and so dressed Santa forever, as a publicity gimmick. But I have seen old-fashioned Scandinavian postcards depicting the same colors and dating back from before the drink was even created. Who knows!
The Christmas menu also varies from country to country, but is always a feast, as the occasion to reunite around a decorated tree with family is the perfect way to splurge on delicatessens. In Sicily, 12 kinds of fish are served; in Poland, it's lamb; in Germany and France, the goose is queen (la dinde de Noël), and so is the chocolate rolled cake decorated with little people and deer. Christmas pudding, mince pie and fruit cakes originated in England.
Some northern countries keep Dec. 6th as the day to give presents. And of course nowadays, it's not only children who receive presents, adults too, whether they've been nice or not, get their share of surprises.
We know the frenzy that the American Christmas celebration has become, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the religious tradition, as people rush to the malls and shopping center like there is no tomorrow. Maybe the presents we buy today relate to the ones brought to the original barn by the visitors of the child.
My grandmother from Brittany, France, always told us the story of her only Christmas present each year as a child, which was a single orange placed in the plates at the beginning of the meal, and it was a treat, as the exotic fruit had to come from a warm country to be served in winter. She only had dolls on her birthday and new shoes at the beginning of the school year. No follies on Christmas you see!
The economic tsunami of Dec. 25th celebrations and its purchasing effort was created by lay people as much as by Christians, but it keeps its holy intent for most Catholics and Protestants, with masses and other respectful libations. The teaching of the real meaning of a holy man like Santa is often lost. And yet, the rotund, bearded man in red and white is a powerful image to the children of the World.
Santa, I've been good!
Merry Christmas to all!
Oh, and Peace on Earth.