1. Santa Claus Is Turkish: Saint Nicholas was born around 280 AD near Myra in modern-day Turkey. He is said to have given away all of his wealth and devoted his life to helping the poor often by anonymously leaving small gifts for those in need. Admired for his kindness and piety, he became known as the patron saint of children and sailors (among many others). The legend of St. Nicholas spread, and by the Renaissance, he was the most popular saint in Europe. In Holland, where he was called "Sint Nikolaas" or "Sinter Klaas," he developed into a Christmas gift-giver. Dutch immigrants brought the tradition to America, where his name eventually became the familiar "Santa Claus." 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." 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.
2. Rudolph Is A Marketing Ploy: The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created as a holiday promotion for a department store. In 1939, the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward department store asked one of its copywriters to create a children's Christmas story that could be used as a promotional give-away during the holiday shopping season. Inspired by The Ugly Duckling, he came up with the story of Rudolph, a reindeer who was teased for his glowing red nose, but ends up saving Christmas. The story evolved over the years into a song recorded by Gene Autry in 1949 and a 1964 TV special that has since become the longest-running holiday special in television history.
3. Christmas Isn't Christian: The date of Jesus' birth is not mentioned in the Bible. In fact, the context of the story of the birth of Jesus indicates that it occurred in the springtime. Dec. 25th as Jesus's 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 honouring 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. 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.