Some of these pre-date their Christianisation, but Christmas was originally a Catholic celebration of Jesus’ birth, the Christ Mass, hundreds of years after Jesus actually lived.
No-one knows exactly when Jesus was born. December 25th had already marked the end of a week of drunken revelry celebrating the Roman festival of Saturnalia and the earlier worship of the sun-God in Persian times.
In reaction to these, in the fourth century, it was a fairly easy choice to make the ‘birth’ of the sun after the winter solstice become a day to commemorate the birth of the Son. (After all, it was probably a bit cold for the shepherds to have been watching their sheep by night!). The English church only celebrated Christmas (the Christ Mass) in the 11th century.
The gift giving ‘Saint’ Nicholas, a fourth century Turkish bishop, was a forerunner of Santa, whose modern caricature was based upon his image, but given to us through a 1930s Coca Cola advertisement! ‘Santa Claus’ actually derives from the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas who became the patron saint of New York via its Dutch origins.
More on these origins of Christmas tomorrow!