I write this message to you from Helsinki, the capital of Finland. The Finnish equivalent of the major Christmas myth Santa Claus is joulupukki, who has his origin in the pre-Christian Nordic shaman tradition of dressing up in animal disguises.
When the longest winter night was over and the sun slowly returned marking longer and longer days, ancient sun-worshippers celebrated it. As Christianity absorbed many old traditions that are now called as paganism, the victory of sun over darkness became Christmas. In the Bible there is no mention about this date anywhere.
The first recorded Christmas celebration was on 25 December 336 CE, after the official establishment of the church by the Roman Emperor Constantine. A few years later, Pope Julius I declared that the birth of Jesus was on December 25. As we know now, that was the date sun-worshippers celebrated as the victory of the sun over darkness.
Santa Claus, the second major Christmas myth, or its Finnish form joulupukki, was a symbol of fertility. He travelled on a cart driven by reindeer, an animal of northern countries. The present day image of Santa Claus – the chubby old man with red robes and long white beard – is the creation of the Michigan-born American artist Haddon Sundblom (1899 – 1976). He created the image to be used in the advertisement of Coca-Cola company in 1930's.
Ever since the successful advertisement image appeared, all over the world the present popular image of Santa Claus spread. The old thick fur-lined coat turned inside out, the mask and the pair of horns on his head disappeared. Just like the Hebrew mythological character Jesus became a white man with flowing brown hair, Santa Claus became a new Coca Cola image.
This year I visited Rovaniemi and the Santa Claus village on the Arctic circle at Lapland in northern Finland. The highly commercialised tourist centre had a red clad Coca-Cola Santa Clause to welcome guests!
I wish you happy Winter Solstice! Or let me use the oldest known name of this clebration :
Happy Feast of Light!
Let us liberate all festivals to celebrate them in a secular way.
President, Rationalist International