Santa Claus is a black man and other fun facts they never tell you about Christmas

There are three undisputed facts about Christmas: one, the exact birth date of the Christian savior, Jesus, is unknown; two, the region of his birth is the MiddleEast (which used to be North Africa); and lastly, if he we saw him today he would probably look like Idris Elba or a very tanned, Bruno Mars.

Everything else about Christmas is a syncretic, mélange of pop culture, ancient culture and paganism.

1: December 25th

Photo credit: Chad Madden

Although December 25th is a popular default day for Christmas, the date celebrating the divine birth of the Christian savior, Jesus of Nazareth, is unknown.

With the exception of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (January 7), Coptic Christians and the Armenian Church (January 6), Christmas day actually closely aligns  with winter solstice.

For 2 billion Christians and ancillary groups who appropriate various aspects of the holiday, winter solstice might be an afterthought, if even known. However, winter solstice openly and very generously, intertwined with Christmas for at least 1,700 years.

Around 340 A.D., Roman authority implemented Christmas to occur during the festival of Sol Invictus, the winter solstice celebration. Up until then, three centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, his birth was not a holy day (holiday). In fact, Christians did not celebrate birthdays.

To intersect the new religious beliefs of Christianity with the old tradition of Sol Invictus, Roman authorities chose, the date of December 25th,. Not only was it a calculated act, but one seen as a seamless merge that spoke more of an evolution of a social order.

2: Winter Solstice

Winter solstice is the most important moment in the year. The event marks the shortest day in the Western Hemisphere. Might sound mundane, but it is a celebrated day throughout cultures of the world.

For the Northern hemisphere, winter solstice means that the sun shine’s in the most southernly part, making the event, the shortest day of the year.

Stonehenge, Ireland. Photo credit: Fernando Montes Vicaria

Much of winter solstice in pop culture references the Celtic tradition in the British Isles to celebrate the day. A massive, several-day fest at Stonehenge in Ireland occurs. While the sun sets, attendees enjoy an array of food, drink, song, dance and rituals celebrating the last harvest before winter. This is symbolic of enjoying life and honoring the life-force.

Celtic peoples were ancient tribes that once dominated the British and Irish Islands before the conquest of Rome. Their ancestry is traced back to the of the MiddleEast (Persia), Mediterranean and North Africa. In fact, DNA testing of Scottish people revealed that their lineage traces to Berber and Tuareg tribesmen of north Africa.

At Stonehenge, stands ancient massive rocks that are in alignment with the sunset during winter solstice. The position of the rocks are believed to be a site where energy is extremely high, thus creating a vortex or shift in the normal spatial makeup of the world.

Celebrating winter solstice in the United States. Photo credit: Hernan Sanchez

Traditionally, to prepare for winter, animals are slaughtered and the meat preserved. Plus, the ale that has been ripening all year is ready to consume. For those who take on the Celtic holiday, this food and drink are important, as they represent heartening the bodies before winter hibernation.

However, winter solstice celebrations are not exclusive to prehistoric Europe. In indigenous cultures around the world, the sun was acknowledged as a critical part of life; thus winter solstice was key event. For winter solstice in the Southern hemisphere, the winter solstice is during June and is the time in which the area is farthest from the sun.

In places like Machu, Pichu, the holiday is the Inti Raymi, a tradition spanning thousands of years from the Inca Empire. The celebration honors the Incan god, Inti, which in the traditional language of Quechua, translates to, sun. During the height of the rituals, priests gather on a pyramid in veneration of Inti where the sun aligns with the structure. Similarly, Egyptian and Mayan pyramids and mounds also perfectly align with the solar system during the winter and summer solstice, and the spring and fall equinox.

3: The Divine Birth

Iran. Photo credit: Mohammad Metri

Originally, Christians did not celebrate birthdays. So, the Jehovah Witness religion is on point with that. So, if Christians did not celebrate birthdays, and definitely not a divine birth, than who did? Well, that is actually a tradition from ancient Egypt in acknowledging the birthday of Pharaohs.

Even cake, but not just any cake, fruit cake comes from Egypt. What has come to be considered the dreaded Christmas delicacy that is so dense and heavy that you can bash someone over the head and knock them unconscious, was found in burials of royalty.

In ancient times, Sol Invictus was a festival that migrated from ancient Syria, which at the time included present-day Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. Click here for map of ancient Syria. This location references fruit cake, which is filled with foods of the region: dates, almonds and raisins. The fertile area grows fruits and nuts to produce a cake for this time of the year.

Next to Syria were remnants of the Persian empire. Today, that would be Iraq and Iran, which still holds an important winter solstice festival called, Yalda or Sheb-e-Yalda. One of the most significant traditional celebrations of the year, Yalda commemorates the sun-god Mithra who was born to overthrow the darkness; hence, Yalda means “night birth.”

Egyptian Origins

A stone’s throw below Syria is Egypt, the site of the oldest winter solstice celebration. Most notably, occurring at the Temple of Amun-Ra in Karnak, a city full of ancient temples in what was known by ancient folk as Kemet, it is the largest complex of temples in the world. In Karnak, the way in which the temples were built are in alignment with celestial events throughout the year.

At the Temple of Amun-Ra, when the sun rises, once the temple doors are opened, the rays pierce through the temple in perfect mathematics then into a lake dedicated to the Goddess Mut, that represents the womb. The perfectly timed event symbolizes the creation of the divine birth of a son — hint hint — smells a little like Jesus.

4: Yuletide

Aesthetically, what we know as Christmas is rooted in the Yuletide, a Scandinavia, midwinter fest that lasts for 12 days. Hint, hint, “One the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me …”

Today’s Christmas, a snow-filled landscape with fire logs and chestnuts roasting, are part of Nordic culture. By the way, roasted chestnuts are delicious. In Spain and Italy, vendors cook them on the street and give you a hot paper bag full like the vendors in New York that hawk roasted peanuts, cashews and almonds. Harvested in October then stored, chestnuts are a viable source of protein over the winter, and become an important food in holiday recipes.

Also, in Nordic culture, there is a tradition of the Yule Lads, 13 small little mischievous beings that came down from the mountains once a year to cause mischievous amongst the children. Similarly, Santa’s elves in contemporary times, make the gifts for good children; while preparing coal for the naughty ones.

Centered in Germanic tradition, Yule celebrates with the Wild Hunt and the Norse god: Óðinn or Odin, an important mythological in traditional religion. Originally, Odin represented magic, healing wisdom, wit, and learning; but was re-appropriated by the warrior Vikings as the god of war and battle.

In Nordic tradition, Odin is a wizened old, white man with a full long beard who wears a floppy hat. In Vikings-times, Odin transformed to a royal warrior, old white man with a metal hat with two horns sticking out of it; plus the long white beard. In the updated and older version, Odin has one eye, which is said to blaze like the sun. All the while, pointing back to the tradition of winter solstice.

5: Mistletoe

At one time, kissing under the mistletoe meant life or death. The evergreen that grows in the harshest winter traditions, and under Norse mythology was the plant that killed the son of goddess Frigga.

In the antiquities, mistletoe was believed to be an aphrodisiac and stimulant for fertility. Over the years, it  has been used for multiple medicinal purposes—from treating uncomfortable menstrual cycles to ward off sicknesses.

Over the years, games with mistletoe were recorded, such as passing its berries from mouth to mouth. Kissing under the mistletoe was a tradition arriving later in Europe where an unmarried woman stood under it, in hopes of kiss. If she received a smooch than she would be married that year.

6: Ol’ St. Nick

The nickname for Santa Claus, or so we thought, is St. Nick, full name Saint Nicolaus of Myra or Bari. Really, this Santa Claus is a syncretic culture of Catholicism’s Saint Nicolaus and Germanic tradition of Krampas.

Saint Nicolaus

Called, “the Father of Christmas,” Saint Nicolaus received sainthood by the Catholic church for his charitable works. From a wealthy family, Nicolaus who lived in modern-day Turkey, shared his fortune with impoverished people and those in need of help. Often, he would pass around gifts in the form of food and money that were placed in stockings.

Several times, he left bags full of gold. At one point, Nicolaus served as a bishop for the Catholic church during Christian persecution and was said to have slapped an elected official for disrespectful ways. Gangster.

So popular, upon his death, children in the area were given small presents and the tradition carried on. A picture of Saint Nicolaus on a Spanish fresco reveals that he kind of looks like Somali rapper, K’naan.

As Catholicism spread to the Netherlands, a kind-hearted Saint Nicolaus was turned into a celebrated caricature called, Black Pieter. Annually, the country, a festival of satire and black-face for Black Pieter is a savagely high-time as locals make fun of dark skin and Africans.

Although, the Netherlands honors Nicolaus in a disturbingly racist ways, in other European cultures, Saint Nicolaus fused with Germanic traditions as a binary. While Saint Nicolaus ruled the day celebrations of Christmas and winter solstice, his dark-sided other, Krampus, the horned, half-beast and half-man, ruled the night.

On one hand, Saint Nicolaus gave out candy to kids, while Krampus dolled out twigs to the naughty ones. Even though, Christian authorities saw Krampus as a symbol of evil, or the devil, Krampus was still heralded as a hero. Today, the two fused together make up, Santa Claus.

Many people around the world debate the purity of major holidays like Christmas, but will learn that they have been remixed over time.

Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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