Why We Decorate Evergreen Trees and Other Questions About Christmas by Tamim Ansary Christmas is a time of wonder. And not just the sitting-by-the-fire-staring-into-the-Christmas-lights-as-the-Yule-log-flickers-cheerfully-on-the-TV type of wonder. No, I'm talking about the kind of wonder that hits when you walk into the mall and see a 50-foot Christmas tree and a mile-long line of children eagerly waiting to sit on a costumed stranger's lap. As in: I wonder where all these traditions came from? Why do we decorate evergreen trees at Xmas? What's the X about? Who says Santa is fat and jolly? After all, we have only scattered eyewitness accounts of his Yuletide visits. So I put together a list of Christmas questions and then went looking for the answers, and here's what I found. Have Americans always celebrated Christmas? Yes and no. The religious founders of the American nation, the Puritans, did not celebrate Christmas. Of course, the Puritans didn't "celebrate" much of anything, but they were particularly firm about Christmas. The Puritans once fined anyone caught observing Christmas in Massachusetts. In Connecticut, even baking a mincemeat pie was forbidden! Did you know that the United States Congress did not declare Christmas a federal holiday until June 26, 1870? Is December 25th really Jesus Christ's birthday? No, December 25th is not Jesus' actual birthday. No one actually knows what day Jesus was born. The first mention of December 25th as his birthday appeared on a Roman calendar in the year 336. Why is Christmas celebrated in late December? Jesus' birthday appeared on Roman calendars after the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. But despite Constantine's conversion to Christianity the church was still embattled: There were plenty of pagans around. The December date wasn't the result of careful historical research; it was chosen because there was a pagan tradition of feasting and celebration around this time. The church fathers wanted to offer an alternative to it. (Not everyone agreed to celebrate the birthday. Many members of the Eastern Orthodox Church delay celebrations until Epiphany, their commemoration of Jesus' baptism.) The pagan celebration in question was Saturnalia, an ancient Roman holiday honoring Saturn, god of agriculture. You might wonder who would celebrate agriculture in the dead of winter when nothing is growing. The answer is--lots of people. Late December is the winter solstice, the time of year in the Northern Hemisphere when the night is longest and the day is shortest. It is therefore one of the year's pivotal points. From this moment, darkness and death begin to ebb; light and life begin to rise. No wonder most cultures celebrate the solstice in some way. To paraphrase Bette Midler, they are celebrating the seed that in the spring becomes the rose. Saturnalia began on December 17 and ran for one week. During that festival, Romans decorated trees with bits of bright metal and then gave each other gifts for the new year. As Rome grew more corrupt, Saturnalia grew more debauched. Today, the word saturnalia means rowdy, out-of-control partying. That's probably a pretty good indication of what Saturnalia had come to in the 4th century. Perhaps there were anguished calls to "put the Saturn back in Saturnalia," but it was too late. Quiet Christmas with its spiritual glow offered deeper satisfactions than getting blind drunk for Saturnalia. Who put the "X" in Xmas? That's an easy one. In Greek, X is the first letter of Christ's name, so the letter X was frequently used as a holy symbol and an abbreviation of Christ. Substitute "X" for "Christ" in Christmas, and you get Xmas. Where did we get the tradition of the Christmas tree? The Christmas tree tradition has many roots. The Romans contributed and the pagan Germans also had solstice celebrations honoring trees. They, however, left the trees in the woods. According to legend, the Protestant reformer Martin Luther was the first to decorate a tree indoors. One night, walking in the woods, he saw stars twinkling through evergreen branches. He brought a tree home and decorated it with candles to show his children the dazzling sight. Incidentally, the Advent wreath has a similar story. The ancient Romans bestowed a "victory wreath" on athletes and warriors, and the Lutherans later absorbed this symbol into Christmas as a symbol of Christ's victory. What started the legend of Santa Claus? Santa Claus started out in Turkey as a 4th-century bishop named Nicholas. Early legends said Nicholas helped poor noblemen provide dowries for their daughters by throwing gold coins down their chimneys. The coins landed magically in stockings hung by the fire to dry. Nicholas was later canonized as the patron saint of children, among others. How did Saint Nicholas become Santa Claus? Saint Nicholas's name changed as his fame spread through different language groups. The Dutch, who brought the legend to America, called him Sinter Klaas. From there, it was a short step to Santa Claus. Even so, the European legends differ somewhat from the character Americans have come to know. In Germany and Holland Saint Nicholas is sometimes said to ride through the sky on a horse, is depicted wearing a bishop's robes, and is said to be accompanied at times by Black Peter, an elf whose job is to whip naughty children. How did Santa get so fat? When the legend of Santa Claus first arrived in the United States people envisioned him as thin and gangly. It wasn't until Clement Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit From Saint Nicholas" ("Twas the night before Christmas ...") that Santa came to be seen as fat--like "a bowl full of jelly." (How rude!) Moore's image of Santa was "fleshed out" by a political cartoonist named Thomas Nast, the same man who invented the donkey and the elephant as symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties. It was Nast who created the image of Santa we know today--the fat, jolly fellow with the white beard, red suit, and silly cap. It is true, however, that Madison Avenue advertising executives played a role in shaping our image of Santa. In 1931 advertisements for Coca-Cola depicted Santa as a human-sized figure instead of an elf, and in 1939 an advertising writer for Montgomery Ward created Santa's red-nosed sidekick Rudolph.