Where did Santa come from? Was pudding really served with meat? Everything you wanted to know about Christmas

Behind the tinsel, there’s a cornucopia of customs and layers of legend in the festive season. What are some of them?

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The Christmas trees for sale never looked as lush as the ones in the northern hemisphere. So every year, the Dohnt family dusted off a fake. On holidays, their kids went to Nippers and swam in the surf as Let It Snow! chimed in the shops. Christmas in Australia felt like a mismatch. They wanted to get closer to a “perfect white Christmas”.

So the Dohnts flew to the other side of the world, to a town called Rovaniemi in Finland. Once a farming and trading hub, Rovaniemi was burned to the ground in World War II by the German army as it retreated. Then it was rebuilt to a street plan based on reindeer antlers by the architect Alvar Aalto. Today it is home to 63,000 residents and more than 12,000 reindeer – and to Santa Claus, his wife and their team of elves.

Yes, Rovaniemi, the Official Hometown of Santa Claus© since 2010, hosts a Santa Village that is, literally, on the Arctic Circle (there’s a line painted on the ground), with a post office where many of the world’s Santa letters are sorted. The town even has a soccer team called FC Santa Claus whose motto is Don’t Stop Believing. All of which is big business, with half a million visitors each year. Among them are Chinese tourists (Xi Jinping has been snapped there, beaming beside a cuddly Mr Claus) and Australians, who are expected to have spent 6000 nights in the town this year, says its tourist bureau.

Deborah, Milly and Lex Dohnt in Lapland for Christmas. Credit:

The Dohnt family rode in husky sleds and in sleighs pulled by reindeer, baked cookies, drove snowmobiles, learned about the indigenous Sami people (who, traditionally, herd reindeer), and dropped in on the man in red himself. Deborah admits she “can take or leave Santa”, but she found what she was looking for in the sub-zero wonderland. “I certainly experienced something completely different,” she says. “It was the perfect Christmas.”

Of course, there is no definitive Christmas place, nor one version of the festival. There’s a “Santaworld” in Sweden; a Turkish village has links to Santa’s origins; and Indiana in the United States has a town named Santa Claus (population 2586). In fact, if you look inside its wrapping, every tinselly inch of modern Christmas includes a cornucopia of customs and layers of legend. It is, in some respects, “an invented tradition”, harking from the Victorian era and swept along by capitalism, even if its customs seem old, says Carole Cusack, professor of religious studies at the University of Sydney. “But it doesn’t really matter because once the tradition has been invented, people like it and it becomes self-propelling.”

So how did we come to celebrate Christmas? Where did Santa come from? Why the trees? And what medieval treats do we still eat on the day?

Credit: Artwork by Matt Davidson

First, why December 25?

“You have to begin at the beginning with: Christmas is a Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ,” says Cusack. “The bottom line is, that’s why we have it. But then the question is how the Christians came to choose midwinter as when they would celebrate Christian Christmas in Europe.”

In countries where Christmas is a public holiday, most places have settled on December 25. The bible gives no date for when Jesus was born. As Timothy Larsen, a professor of Christian thought and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Christmas puts it, December 25 “has a one in 365 chance” of being the date of Jesus’ birth.

The earliest indisputable reference to Christmas festivities being held on December 25 is on a Roman calendar from the year 354, referring to events in 336. A copy survives in the Vatican. ”That’s really as early as we can be confident that Christmas was celebrated,” says Gerry Bowler, a historian of Christmas for three decades.

The birth of Jesus and three wise men who visited him are shown in The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1525 by Ioannis Permeniatis.Credit: Getty Images

There are several theories on the date. “None of these things can be proved”, says Larsen, before suggesting that lighter days following the northern-hemisphere winter solstice (on December 21 or 22) might have appealed to the church for symbolic reasons. “Jesus is the light of the world and therefore the winter solstice is the point at which it gets lighter,” he says.

Cusack concurs, and suggests the date dovetailed with that of other ancient religious festivals. December 25 is the birthday of the deity Mithras, for example, who became popular with Roman soldiers. And the festival of Saturnalia – honouring Saturn, god of agriculture – ran for several days from December 17, with Romans switching their togas for colourful clothes, the poor joining the rich in drinking games, and gifts exchanged (think, little clay statues, gold hairpins, live pigs) while revellers kissed under mistletoe.

Even then, early Christians might have turned up their noses at such pagan rituals. “They would die rather than sacrifice to the gods or to the emperor,” Bowler says. Instead, he suggests the date might have come from arcane calculations that account for a belief that saints and great figures of history shared a birthday with the day they died. The Roman church believed Jesus died on March 25. “But wiser minds said, ‘No, no, that wouldn’t be the birth, that would be the conception’,” Bowler says. “Nine months later is December 25.”

A re-enactment of the Roman festival of Saturnalia in Chester, England, in 2012.Credit: Getty Images

By the fourth century, churches in the east were marking Christ’s birth on January 6; possibly, Bowler suggests, because they disagreed on the date of his death. The Armenian church still goes with January 6. On that date other churches mark the Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the Wise Men, the three Magi.

Medieval church councils covered both possibilities, in effect, when they introduced 12 days of celebrations (those of French hen and turtledove fame). Yet in the church, each day honours a saint or encourages reflection. “Christmas was expanding,” Bowler says. “It’s a bunch of ups and downs; some days you’re happy, some days you’re generous, some days you’re sad.”

Further complicating things, many Orthodox churches today celebrate Christmas on January 7 because they follow the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar in 45BC, which Pope Gregory XIII replaced in 1582 to fix inaccuracies in leap years. January 7 on the Julian calendar aligns with December 25 on the Gregorian calendar.

Centuries on, governments enshrined Christmas Day as a holiday. Britain’s Factory Act of 1833 legislated a day off for workers on December 25 and Good Friday; Boxing Day, too, from 1871. In colonial Australia, says culinary historian Barbara Santich, people sought to expand on it, as English journalist Nat Gould noted in 1896: “They are wonderful people for holidays in the colonies … [they] require the day before to get ready for the holidays, then the holiday itself, then the remainder of the week to gradually get over it.”

What’s not been to like about Christmas?

Shenanigans such as those that had evolved from the heady days of Saturnalia were bound to cause friction with the Catholic Church. In 380, the Archbishop of Constantinople, Gregory Nazianzen, warned his congregation that putting wreaths on doors, dancing and decorating the streets were “ready paths to evil”. These parties certainly have a sprinkling of today’s “silly season”, especially the excessive eating and drinking. “Christmas, almost from the beginning, has been about consumption,” says historian Judith Flanders, author of Christmas: A Biography.

In medieval times, the church instituted three Christmas masses but left open the opportunity for people to let off steam in other ways, says Larsen. One ritual, first recorded in the year 911, involved a youth dressing as a bishop and parading through town to receive gifts. But a boy bishop was killed in a street brawl in Paris in 1367 and a vicar knocked out a villager during the parade in England in 1443. Henry VIII banned the custom in England in 1541. By then, France’s King Charles VII had already put his foot down, condemning a Christmas season “feast of fools” in 1445 for its “mockery disguisings, farces, rhyming and other follies”. Others got nostalgic. “The first reference I have to someone writing, ‘Christmas was better in the old days’ was 1600,” Flanders says. “It was always more ‘something’ in the past.”

Meanwhile, landowners still gave free food and drink to peasants and servants at Christmas, whether out of charity or excess harvest, Flanders says. Begging, or wassailing took hold, echoes of which can be heard in carols today: “Bring us some figgy pudding … we won’t go until we get some.”

Protestant reformers took a dim view of Christmas, along with any Roman Catholic tradition – after all, the bible doesn’t actually tell believers to celebrate Christmas, notes Larsen. In the 1640s, a Protestant-led government banned Christmas, triggering riots; the ban was reversed with the return of the monarchy in 1660. In Scotland, where invading Vikings had imported Yuletide – Yule was a 12-day pagan festival of feasting – Christmas was also banned as a “superstitious observation”. “Hardline Scottish Presbyterians never celebrated Christmas,” says Cusack. “All that stuff was just pagan.” Public festive impulses were redirected to Hogmanay, on New Year’s Eve; Christmas Day wasn’t an official holiday in Scotland until 1958.

The naysayers might have had a point. By the late 1700s, amid deepening class divides in industrialised cities, including New York, Christmas became “a time for drunken mobs”, says Bowler. “They’ll go through the streets at night pounding on drums and garbage-can lids.” The London press was full of accounts of festive debauchery. In 1831, a drunk and disorderly defendant asked a magistrate to forgive him because it was Christmastime, recounts Flanders. Every defendant seemed to think it their right, thundered the magistrate, “to commit all manner of excesses with impunity at this festive season”. The verdict? Guilty as charged.

A fresco in the Saint Nicholas Church, built in 540, in the ancient city of Myra, now Demre, Turkey. Credit: Getty Images

Where did Santa Claus come from?

In 2017, archaeologists unearthed a section of tiled floor under the Church of St Nicholas, in southern Turkey. The stone church was built in 520 in the ancient city of Myra, after rising sea levels had swamped an earlier iteration. The floor, with its geometric pattern, would have been the very one Bishop Nicholas of Myra trod around the year 300 as he garnered a reputation for good works, whether finding food for villagers during famine or rescuing them from penury and even execution. He was known for secret gift-giving too, including slipping coins into shoes left by worshippers on the church’s front steps.

Santa is the Italian word for saint, and Claus is a northern European contraction of Nicolaus. As the patron saint of merchants, children, travellers and sailors, Nicholas had broad appeal. “That makes him a lot more transportable than other saints,” says University of Queensland’s Amelia Brown, a historian and archaeologist. In fact, at times, adds Bowler, “St Nicholas was the most powerful saint of all next to the Virgin Mary.”

His association with Christmas is helped by the date of his death too, December 6. “In some traditions people give gifts on Christmas, and in some they give them on St Nicholas Day,” Brown says. In the Netherlands, gift-giving is often on the eve of December 5; a bearded Sinterklaas rides a horse around the streets. (Some Dutch people have traditionally dressed up as his helper, Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, which has led to controversy in recent times.) Secrecy is part of Sinterklaas’s jam too; gifts are left in sacks on doorsteps or in shoes left by fireplaces.

In southern Germany, Saint Nicholas and a scary Krampus step out to meet villagers, accompanied by a local creature in straw called Buttnmandl or Shaking Man, who drives away evil spirits and wakes up nature.Credit: Getty Images

Mythical gift-givers emerged all over Europe; the witch Befana, for example, brought gifts to Italian children on January 6. “Sometimes they’re saints, sometimes they’re local woodsmen or charcoal burners, sometimes they’re scary animals, goats in particular,” says Bowler. In parts of Germany and Austria, an evil half-goat called Krampus accompanies Saint Nicholas in search of naughty children (the figure has spawned a modern horror movie franchise).

But the jolly bearded Santa we’re familiar with was shaped by various 19th-century writers and illustrators, right around the time Christmas was getting out of hand in some places. Some historians argue the middle class “tamed” Christmas, shifting it from class dynamics to family relationships. “They want to bring it indoors, they want to diminish the class conflict, and they want to focus on children,” Bowler says.

In New York, historian Washington Irving picked up on Dutch immigrants’ stories of Sinterklaas, telling Manhattanites how children would hang stockings on chimneys on St Nicholas Eve that were “always found in the morning miraculously filled”. The gift-bringer appeared for the first time in a sleigh pulled by reindeer in a pamphlet intended as an 1821 New Year’s gift for youngsters. Two years later, the reindeers had names such as Vixen and Blitzen in the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (more famously known by its opening line, “’Twas the night before Christmas”), which scholar Clement Clarke Moore later claimed he wrote for his children. Santa smokes a pipe and laughs contagiously as he fills sacks with gifts.

“Over the course of the century, he’ll become more and more standardised,” Bowler says. Santa’s origins are often misattributed to Coca-Cola, which used him in advertising from 1930. But sugary drinks were far from all he sold. “There isn’t anything that Santa has not advertised.”

A Coca-Cola advertisement featuring Santa. Credit: Getty Images

Why the trees?

In Australia, the land of kangaroo paws and flowering grevillea, we love to decorate our homes with northern European spruce at Christmas. Why?

One answer might lie with Adam and Eve.

In the Middle Ages, says Flanders, autumnal “paradise plays” were staged in the streets. As apple trees weren’t in bloom, the fruits were tied to the branches of fir trees to symbolise the Garden of Eden. “The plays eventually went out of fashion, but people liked the trees – they were pretty – so the trees stuck around,” she says.

And there’s a reason we sing the carol O Tannenbaum: it was German merchants who started bringing the trees inside their homes – some were hung upside down, similar to mistletoe or holly and ivy. By the 1600s, the trees were decorated with candles, sweets and paper roses. Perhaps they staved off homesickness for German royals marrying into British nobility too, such as Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of King George III and nanna of Queen Victoria. “We know, absolutely, in 1800 Queen Charlotte did put a Christmas tree up,” Flanders says.

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their children surround a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, England.Credit: Getty Images

Despite this, much of the credit for the trees’ popularity in Britain went to Victoria’s German husband, Albert, after the couple were featured under an elaborately decked out tree with gifts in an engraving in the Illustrated London News in 1848. “This became so well known that people began to say, ‘Oh, well, it was Prince Albert who brought the Christmas tree to Britain’,” Flanders says, “which was not true.” Still, the romance lingers: visitors to Windsor Castle this December can view its seven-metre tree, cut from the nearby royal park, decorated with hundreds of twinkling lights.

Such images of fancy trees were able to “go viral” after the invention of the penny post, a uniform method for sending letters, from 1840 in England (the US set up its own shortly after), and then, some years later, cheap colour printing. Eventually, images of Australian wildflowers and beach scenes were added to the repertoire of robin redbreasts, snowy country churches and children on sleds. By the end of the 19th century, Christmas cards were being sent in huge numbers. “Most of what we do got invented many, many, many centuries after the events of the New Testament,” says Cusack. “It’s the juggernauts of the 19th century – the penny post and consumer capitalism in its nascent forms – that make it a present-exchanging festival.” She adds: “I mean, everybody probably did give gifts, and were nice to each other.“

Christmas in Australia by Nicholas Chevalier, 1865.Credit: State Library of Victoria

Is it true plum pudding was once served with the roast?

A table loaded with candles, some bottles of good red, salad and a turkey stuffed with sausage meat and olives. Cakes, cheese, nougat, and fresh and dried fruits. The kids eat so much they get tummy aches. The dogs and cats fight over the leftovers … It sounds like a suburban Christmas, but it’s actually a description of a middle-class Christmas lunch in Avignon in the 1700s. Barbara Santich, the author of Eating in Eighteenth-century Provence, notes the punchline: as they leave, each man uses a walking stick in case they miss their step, “all of them being in our Lord’s vineyard”. “Isn’t it lovely?” she says. “You can imagine it. And what’s different?”

Treats from earlier, medieval times still make their way onto our Christmas tables too, says Santich, an emeritus professor at the University of Adelaide. She points to nougat, a Mediterranean sweet originally more like almond brittle. “The turkey tradition was pretty well across France,” she says. “But Provence had this custom that is now called the 13 desserts: nuts, dried fruits, nougat, marzipan … The wealthier you were, the greater the variety, but everyone had something, even if it was just nougat.” And dried fruit was imported to Europe in the colder months, expensive and luxurious, so used for religious feasts, she says.

In Britain, by Georgian times, plum pudding was served as an accompaniment to roast beef, says curator Jacqui Newling at Museums of History NSW, over time becoming a quintessential Christmas treat. Occasionally, a pig’s head would cap off the feast. Queen Victoria was a fan of both roast beef and boars’ heads but, then again, her family ate up to 20 courses for Christmas lunch, including exotic birds such as snipe or capercaillie, the curator of a Christmas show at Windsor Castle told the BBC. “They had swan on one menu.” In his novella from 1843, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens describes an employee of Ebeneezer Scrooge tucking into a festive goose. “What he’s actually saying,” says Newling, “is the [family] weren’t terribly well-to-do and they were kind of daggy by having a goose, whereas proper middle-class people had started having turkeys.“

“It was time for us to stop slaving over a hot stove and maybe have a barbecue or cook some seafood.”

In the colonies, a turtle from Lord Howe Island was served at the governor’s table for Christmas 1789 (convicts, if they were lucky, might have received a tot of rum). “What surprised me,” says Santich, “was how early were the calls to not reproduce the customs of the northern hemisphere; to have a distinctly Australian Christmas that was suitable for the climate.” She cites the serving of cold ham as an early shift, and picnics, from Brighton to Brisbane, as a popular option. “Christmas … as it is known and observed at home, cannot be transferred to the tropics, and it is no use trying to do it,” declared the Brisbane Courier in 1867.

Preparing Christmas dinner at the Pier Hotel in Coffs Harbour, date unknown.Credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Far from being slim pickings, the variety of foods in the Antipodes might have given Queen Victoria a run for her money. In 1843, says Newling, lists at the Sydney Market for Christmas birds included fouls, Muscovy ducks, wild ducks, teal ducks, geese, turkey and pigeons. “It’s interesting that turkey has crystallised as a classic Christmas dish,” she notes. Pudding is a constant too, she says. One well-to-do family at Vaucluse in 1844 ordered 30 kilograms of dried fruit for Christmas cakes and puddings (they bought in their mince pies which, incidentally, in those days usually also contained meat).

And while Dickens describes a flaming pudding in A Christmas Carol “like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy”, the origins of putting a sixpence in the pudding, a custom that continues in some households, aren’t definitively known. Certainly, pudding “trinkets” were being sold in Australia from the 1890s, says Newling.

A dried fruit dessert bonanza in 1965.Credit: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

And post-war tables were not short on dramatic flourishes, with everything from suckling pig to creme de menthe sorbet. “In the ’50s and ’60s, it was very much focused on having a gigantic feast,” says Lauren Samuelsson, a food historian from the University of Wollongong. “It was traditional British food that was seen as quite classy; having the table set out with silverware.” As refrigerators replaced iceboxes, puddings with jelly and ice-cream came into their own and there was a renaissance in aspic, an old method of preserving jelly made with meat stock, turned to colourful effect on all manner of meat, fruit and vegetables. “Quite disgusting,” says Samuelsson, “but apparently great for Boxing Day if you’re going on a picnic.” By the ’70s, she says, “It was time for us to stop slaving over a hot stove and maybe have a barbecue or cook some seafood.”

In countries such as Japan, where Buddhism and Shintoism are the main religions, the secular aspects of Christmas have taken off, including postwar food customs: families might gather to eat party buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken or strawberry-topped sponge cakes called kurisumasu keki (try saying that out loud); while Christmas Eve is all about romance and candlelit dinners.

“Christmas has grown to be a global phenomenon rather than just a Christian phenomenon,” says Bowler, “because it offers so many different meanings to people and all of those meanings are positive; they’re very pro-social, encouraging generosity and imagination and hospitality and grace, and forgiveness. Things that we need in our everyday lives and that we carve out a time of the year to make room for.“

Before Gregory Dohnt took his family in search of the perfect white Christmas, the holiday in Australia meant many things to him: hot-chicken lunches during childhood, lavish dinners, barbecues by the beach. “For me, it’s those bigger memories that are there with Christmas,” he says. His family has since returned to Lapland, and their Christmas trips “will live in the memory of my three teenagers for a long, long time”. “I love the fact we’ve gone overseas and done that,” he says. “But we didn’t have to, we have plenty of amazing memories of things in Australia.”

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