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(continued from "Christmas Past")

The Holly and the Ivy, Et Al

When winter rules the day, and all is cold and dying, what's green and grows with health and vigor is revered. To the same Scandinavians that hung golden apples on the ash tree, the holly and the ivy were a symbol of strength*. Growing out of the snow, green-leaved and red-berried, they defied the winter.

For the Christians, the holly's red berries came to symbolize the blood of Christ.

As for mistletoe, it was a parasite that grew on ash and oak trees, and it came to symbolize friendship. Priests would take a gold sickle and cut it, and enemies were supposed to cease killing each other as a gesture of temporary friendship.

Today, we decorate our homes for the season with holly and ivy, and we hang mistletoe where we hope to catch those we love unaware in order to get a kiss from them.

Seasonal Days

December 25th was an important day. It was called Natalis Sol Innicti, or the birth of the unconquerable sun, who was Mithras, Persian god -- from ancient Persia to Sarathrusta.

Around 4th century A.D., the Christian church abandoned Christ's birthday, which was supposed to have been in September and May, and chose December 25th, the birthday of a pagan god. They borrowed the 12 days during which Frey stood still and used it for the Epiphany (through January 6th), the days of the Magi, the three wise men.

November 30th was St. Andrew's Day. From then until Christmas was the advent.

Santa Claus

Born in 270 A.D. in a small town on the coast of South Anatolia, St. Nicholas was orphaned young and fostered. As a young boy, he was very caring, anonymously helping the needy in town.

There was a nobleman, who was the pillar of the town, with three daughters of marriageable age. One day, the nobleman lost everything; the servants had to be dismissed, and the daughters had to cook and keep house. When the teenage Nicholas found out, he worked hard to lighten their load. He put everything he made into a ball of gold and tossed it into their transom so that the first daughter could get married.

The ball landed in a stocking that was hung up to dry.

When Nicholas became a young man, he sailed to Myra. A bishop died there, and because there was supposedly a prophecy with Nicholas in it, he became the next bishop of Myra. Then he became the archbishop, and as archbishop, he was known to be gentle and kind to children. There's a story of three young boys who don't return from a long trip; they're murdered at an inn, chopped up, and pickled. In the story, Nicholas reunites the children's bodies.

So, on December 6th, 343 A.D., Nicholas became a patron saint of children. In 1000 A.D., Nicholas also became the patron saint of Russia. 100 years later, he became the patron saint of Normandy. By 1400 A.D., 500 hymns were written to him. He was so popular, convents were built in his name, and on his day, the nuns would help the poor.

On December 5th, parades would be held in his honor, and at the front, a man wearing a red bishop's robe would ride a white horse. The image was soon confused for Odin's* wild ride or hunt, so Nicholas was given Odin's large white beard.

The confusion and melding of more than one entity didn't stop there. There was the dark and forbidding creature named Krampas who gave coal and a bundle of switches to those who were bad. There was Father Christmas, who was a tall slim man with a long white beard, a robe, and a hood. The Dutch had Sinter Klaus, who was a small elf, about three feet tall, who climbed down chimneys while dressed in fur; in Washington Irving's stories, he left gifts. And the Germans, they had Krist Kindle, the Christ Child.

In the early 19th century, Clement Clark Moore wrote a poem about a visit from Saint Nicholas, in which a sleigh and flying reindeer were introduced for the first time. Harper's Weekly sent magazines featuring pictures of Santa on the cover to soldiers at the front. Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist, drew dozens of pictures of Santa, who was still at this point a little fur-wearing elf.

And Santa wore red because red ink was cheap.

Then, a Swedish artist named Haddon Sundblom was hired by Coca-Cola to paint Santa Claus. However, the model died, so Sundblom used his own face, the face with which we are all now familiar. Santa also became 6 feet tall and very robust.

These days, Santa Claus keeps a list and checks it twice. And just to be sure that he's giving children what they truly want for Christmas, he hangs out in malls for photo opps and a marketing survey of the hottest toys. He has an entourage of reindeer and elves, and his wife, Mrs. Claus, welcomes him home when he's completed his gift-giving task.

And I could make a joke now about the poor Claus couple and the fact that Christmas comes only once a year, but then, who knows what new tradition would grow out of that sentiment.

But there it all is: our Christmas past. If you'd like to read a few more tidbits based on my leftover notes, click here.