The winter solstice – December 21/22 in the Northern Hemisphere – has long been a time of celebration, welcoming the New Year. The Romans fixed on December 25 as the Sol Invictus ("unconquered Sun"), representative of their own unconquerability. It was also the time of their Saturnalia (see Revel), the festival of Saturn, a precursor of Santa Claus. The Nordic tribes celebrated this same period as a 12-day festival called Yule: from this came the concept of Twelfth Night, which marked the end of the celebrations. Twelfth Night was also the time in Italian tradition when the Fairy Befana rewarded good children with gifts, a practice later grafted onto the Santa Claus myth.
The various features of the Christmas story – the virgin birth (see Virginity), the Star of Bethlehem, the Angels heralding the birth, the Three Magi – all feature in the imagery of the fantastic, and have frequently been remoulded in fantasy fiction. In the Northern Hemisphere the solstice is the turning of the year: the landscape is frequently swept clear of all apparent life, before life is reborn. Christmas thus has connections to legends of the Green Man and the Resurrection. It is no accident that the Beheading Match in which Gawain partook with the Green Knight took place at Christmas.
The Santa Claus myth is one of the earliest examples of make-believe discovered by many children. This relation between Christmas and fantasy was underscored by the links between Christmas and Fairytales (adapted as Pantomimes from the start of the 19th century) and Ghost Stories. The latter connection was largely established by Charles Dickens, whose A Christmas Carol (1843) fixed the Christmas fantasy in Victorian England soon after Victoria's marriage (1840) to Albert, who brought with him to the UK the Germanic beliefs in the Christmas celebration. The first Christmas card was issued in 1843. Within a century the commercialization of Christmas had long suffocated the Christian message, so that the festival was once more largely pagan, a fact recognized in Stella Benson's biting Satire Christmas Formula (1932 chap).
Movie fantasy is big business at Christmas (see Cinema), with several movies and tv features – e.g., The Snowman (1982 tvm) (see Raymond Briggs), It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and various versions of A Christmas Carol – returning perennially. [MA]