I’d like to buy the world a coke

St. Nicholas, from whom the fictional American character of Santa Claus was derived, was a Christian from modern-day Turkey whose life and story have been obscured by time.  Santa’s attire is a nod to his cold northern European heritage — the current image is primarily associated with the 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (or as it is more commonly known — “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) which was popular in the 19th century in the US and Canada.


The story of the 4th-century Middle Eastern Nicholas and his travels throughout Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine has been lost to the modern iteration of Santa Claus, a marketing invention of the 1930’s in America relying on the red and white corporate colors of the Coca-Cola brand.  “Father Christmas” had traditionally been a character clad in dark green, though with falling sales of Coke’s cold beverage during the winter months, Coca-Cola decided to employ a commercial illustrator, Haddon Sundblom, who created an image of a red and white dressed Santa Claus holding bottles of Coke.  This spurred Coca-Cola sales throughout the winter, appealing strongly to children (a crucial segment of the soft-drink market).

As for Nicholas himself, legend has it that three poor sisters who could not marry because they had no money for a dowry were in danger of being sold by their father.  Nicholas came along and took pity on them; during the night, he left each of the three sisters gifts of gold coins — he couldn’t get in their house, so some he dropped down the chimney, then he noticed an open window with a pair of stockings left hanging by the fire to dry into which he placed more gold coins.

The winter solstice in late December was always celebrated throughout Europe.  The pagan tradition of marking the shortest day of the year remained after the continent’s wholesale adoption of Christianity — the existing festival to celebrate the sun for triumphing over the darkness of winter (which meant “new life” in the form of crops essential to their agrarian society) was adopted and linked to the birth of Jesus, believed by his followers to be “the Christ” or the “light of the world” (cf:  John 8:12, 9:5, 9:39), who would triumph over the darkness of evil.  As for this Jesus himself:

...there was a human being in the first century who was called “Divine,” “Son of God,” “God,” and “God from God,” whose titles were “Lord,” “Redeemer,” “Liberator,” and “Saviour of the World." … Most Christians probably think that those titles were originally created and uniquely applied to Christ. But before Jesus ever existed, all those terms belonged to Caesar Augustus.

(John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire)

At its core, the nativity story is a narrative set in the Middle East, with its earthly protagonists an indigenous family of Semitic stock — Jews.  Contrary to evangelicals and the Christian Right, there is not only one "definitive" set of traditions which represent a "real" Christmas.  Some people hang mistletoe, some don't; some drink eggnog, some don't; some have a creche or “manger scene" (invented by Francis of Assisi in the 13th century), some don't.  Everyone has traditions around this time of year which are meaningful to them and most create some of their own "traditions."  The result is that everyone picks and chooses certain culturally specific aspects of Christmas to celebrate while ignoring others, and one need not feel out of sorts because their Christmas does not resemble an idealized Norman Rockwell version of the holiday, circa 1955, with "White Christmas" playing on an endless loop in the background; such a scene would drive most people batshit-crazy, and it's not the sort of Christmas that anyone celebrates.  Moreover, it’s doubtful anyone ever really celebrated Christmas that way.

Here are a few suggestions this year to mark the season as “special” without necessarily relying on a simulacrum of what it “should” be; any, or none, of these may work for you thoughtful reader.

  1. Gatherings:  Since so many people have time off from work during this time of year, it's a good excuse to visit and spend time with friends and family.  There are probably more parties going on during the winter holiday season than at any other time of the year; there is nothing intrinsically Christian or religious about Christmas parties.  Bring on the eggnog!  According to reports by Captain John Smith, the first eggnog made in the United States was consumed in 1607 at the Jamestown settlement — nog comes from the word grog, which refers to any drink made with rum.
  2. Foods & Decorations:  Inherent in #1 above is holiday foods and decorations.  Little, if any, of it is “Christian” in nature, so getting together with others to make and enjoy food can be very satisfying socially, and psychologically.  Although there are lots of Christ-themed decorations out there, decorating evergreen trees had always been a part of the German winter solstice tradition; after Germany’s Prince Albert married Queen Victoria, he introduced the “Christmas tree” tradition to England — as Queen Victoria ruled over a quarter of the world’s population in the mid-19th century, many British traditions became commonplace around the anglo-colonized world.  Like the Christmas tree, we can trace mistletoe to Victorian Britain.  Celtic and Teutonic peoples had long considered mistletoe to have magic powers:  it was said to have the ability to heal wounds and increase fertility.  Celts hung mistletoe in their homes in order to bring themselves good luck and ward off evil spirits, but during holidays in England, the English would hang sprigs of mistletoe from ceilings and in doorways — if someone was found standing under the mistletoe, they would be kissed by someone else in the room, behavior which was quite uncommon in public in the overly-staid Victorian society of the times, but tolerated at this “special" time of year.
  3. Gift-giving:  The most popular Christmastime activity is “giving” — be it gifts, charitable donations, or time in the form of volunteerism.  This tradition is likely rooted in the legends surrounding St. Nicholas’ charity and that odd story in the Gospel of Matthew (and, curiously, only Matthew — Mark, Luke, and John fail to mention it) of the “magi.”  Matthew does not mention how many there were, though we traditionally count them as three corresponding to the gifts brought the child in Bethlehem:  gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Volunteering for a shift at a soup kitchen is a great way to combine all three of the above.  It involves donating your time as a gift to a social gathering centered around food, and has the added benefit of helping the less fortunate among us, providing them with much needed socialization at this time of year which can feel very lonely and isolating, and making sure no one goes hungry in the midst of our celebrations.

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