Christmas was not, as it turns out, miraculously handed down as a fully formed holiday, complete with wrapped gifts and blinking lights. Rather, it is a rich tapestry woven from countless inexplicable and pointless customs.
Why December 25th?
The Bible doesn't give a lot of clues as to what time of the year the birth of Jesus happened (i.e., "... they met many travelers along the way, for it was just three days before the final game of the NFL Season...") So, why December 25th? No one knows for sure.
One likely explanation is that early church leaders needed a holiday to distract Christians from the many pagan revelries occurring in late December. One of the revelries was The Saturnalia, a week-long festival celebrating the Romans' favorite agricultural god, Saturn. From December 17 until December 23, tomfoolery and pagan hijinks ensued, and by hijinks we mean gluttonous feasting, drunkenness, gambling and public nudity.
The Romans would also switch roles between masters and slaves for the occasion, so not only did the slaves get to pathetically lower their own sense of self-worth by participating in the charade of freedom, they also got to wear a Pileus (roughly translated, "Freedom Hat").
Google Image Search result for "Freedom Hat"
Master: "Happy Saturnalia! Here's your freedom hat! We're equals!"
Slave: "Thank you, master!" (puts on hat and primps in the mirror)
Master: "Saturnalia is over! Give me back my hat! How dare you put a hat on your slave head! YOU SHALL TASTE THE WHIP TONIGHT, BOY.
One other pagan celebration that might have given Christmas its date was Natalis Solis Invincti, which roughly translates to "Birthday of the Invincible Sun God," giving it officially the most awesome holiday name ever.
By the 12th century, the Christian Church had incorporated a few of the less-sinful pagan traditions into the 12 days of Christmas. We only wish the public nudity could have been left in ... maybe on the 10th or 11th day. Along with the gambling. And the drinking. Then again, it appears everyday is Saturnalia in Vegas so maybe we'll just go there instead.
Our favorite morbidly obese, undiagnosed diabetic trespasser is actually a bastardization of the Dutch Sinterklaas, which was actually a bastardization of Saint Nikolas, the holier-than-thou Turkish bishop for whom the icon was named.
The actual saint was not, in fact, famous for making dispirited public appearances at shopping malls. Rather, he was known for throwing purses of gold into a man's home in the cover of night so that the man wouldn't have to sell his daughters into prostitution.
So, back then Christmas wasn't "get a new Xbox day." It was, "you don't have to become a filthy whore day." While it could be argued that this basically makes Nicholas the anti-pimp, we prefer to think of him as the Bible's answer to Travis Bickle.
Later, Martin Luther invented his own Christmas symbol, Kristkindl, as part of his rejection of all things Catholic. What he came up with is by far the gayest of all Christmas symbols, as Kristkindl is portrayed as a "blond, radiant veiled child figure with golden wings, wearing a flowing white robe and a sparkling jeweled crown, and carrying a small Christmas tree or wand."
This is why you sometimes hear Santa referred to as "Kris Kringle."
Not surprisingly, most of the world has rejected his weird-ass version and over the years we've cobbled together our own Santa Claus: part Saint Nikolas, part Sinterklaas and part Norse god Odin. By the 19th century American writers were describing Santa as wearing a red sash with a skin-tight red suit with white spotted fur at the fringes. He was basically all those other figures with a little Freddie Mercury thrown in.
Writers at the time were still calling Santa an "elf," including Clement Clark Moore in his famous poem The Night Before Christmas. Perhaps the image of a dwarf-sized intruder seemed less threatening than a Chris Farley-sized version, but we're pretty sure we'd be more likely to piss our pants if an overly jolly costumed dwarf magically appeared and started hopping around our living room floor. The little person might just end up with a bullet in the head. Not that there's anything wrong with frolicking little people with a propensity for wearing elf garb, of course. Except that there totally is.