Welcome to Christmas -- the pagan holiday.
Yes, Christmas, like most Christian holidays, is largely pagan in origin. In fact, Christmas has almost no roots in the Christian tradition until the 1500s. So, for all conservative Christians out there, the "Christian traditions" you are practicing at this time of year are really pagan traditions.
Why Is Christmas on Dec. 25?
Christmas isn't really as much a celebration of the birth of Jesus as it is a Christian attempt to co-opt popular pagan rites.
Human beings have held celebrations at the beginning of winter as far back as 2,000 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era).
In Babylon, the feast of Sin (god of the moon), who was the son of Ninlil (goddess of creation), was celebrated on or about December 25. Huge parties were held during which people ate and drank as much as they could, and small but very expensive gifts were given to loved ones.
In Rome, the winter solstice was observed with the Saturnalia, a festival honoring Saturn. Originally celebrated with a public feast on December 17, the festival expanded over the years so that it lasted a full week and ended on December 23. In Roman mythology, Saturn was the father of the gods. His son, Jupiter, overthrew him. The Saturnalia celebrated the dedication of the temple of Saturn in Rome. To honor Saturn, relationships were turned upside down. Masters played slave, and husbands played wife. The usual strict norms of morality were relaxed, permitting people to engage in sexual vice. Riddles were told and practical jokes played. Gifts of silver were exchanged. Saturnalia was followed by the festival of Sol Invictus -- "the Sun triumphant." This is because Dec. 21 is the shortest day of the year; after that, the days got longer. Clearly, the sun had "triumphed" over darkness. Slowly, the Saturnalia and Sol Invictus holidays merged until in 274 C.E. the emperor Aurelian declared that both should be celebrated on December 25.
A number of other Roman festivals occurred during late December as well.
On December 18, Romans celebrated Eponalia. Epona was the godess of fertility as well as horses, donkeys, and mules. She also accompanied the spirits of the dead into the afterlife. The Eponalia was largely celebrated only by the Roman cavalry and farmers, usually with fertility rites and by having sex with one's wife.
On December 19, Romans celebrated Opalia. Ops was the wife of Saturn, and the goddess of crops. Since the harvest was locked away in granaries on December 19, Opalia was a feast day.
On December 21, Romans celebrated Divalia. It was a festival in honor of the goddess Angerona, who protected people and flocks from pain. Her counterpart was Voluptia, the goddess of joy and pleasure. Priests would perform sacrifices in the temple of Voluptia, and sexual frenzy was the norm on the day.
On December 23, Romans celebrated Laurentalia. The "lares" were a sort of house-god. They resided in chimneys and corners and helped bring esteem and honor to the head of the household. The Laurentalia was celebrated inside the house, with tokens of esteem and affection given to the head of the house and a feast held in his honor.
Roman soldiers often worshipped the birth of the god Mithras on December 25 as well. Mithras was originally the Persian (Iranian) god Mithra. He was a human being born in a cave around 400 B.C.E., and was the son of the overarching god, Ahura Mazda. Ahura Mazda oversaw all demons and the flow of time and history. Ahura Mazda sent Mithras into the world to defend humanity against Ahriman (the "adversary"). Although Ahriman killed him, Mithras was reborn from a rock and ascended into heaven again. Little is known about the worship of Mithraism except that it involved a communal meal in a cave. Mithraic symbols involved a large central rock in the meeting-place, Mithras sacrificing a bull, the presence of a dog and a scorpion, and images of Mithras wearing a cloak (on the inside of which are the constellations). The ouroboros -- the snake eating its own tail -- was a Mithraic device symbolizing the birth and rebirth of Mithras. Mithraism was an all-male affair, leading some to speculate it involved homosexual acts. But Mithraism was also a very strict religion, denouncing drunkenness and feasting and advocating celibacy. Over time, Mithraism and the celebration of Saturnalia/Sol Invictus were merged. Mithraism largely died out after the emperor Theodosius in 394 C.E. banned all non-Christian worship in Rome.
In Scandinavia, Yule was the December holiday. One of the eight solar holidays, it, too, celebrated the winter solstice. Yule was a time for feasting, and one of the oldest Yule traditions was the killing of a pig as a sacrifice to the god Freyr. This has led to the tradition of the Christmas ham. Yule was also a time for dancing. Members of various craft guilds would swear to support one another at Yule. Yule was also a time of year when spirits and demons were said to walk the world, and people would have sex with them. The burning of a massive Yule log was said to help remind people of the return of the sun. The hanging of boughs of evergreen, holly, ivy, and mistletoe in the home reminded people of the coming of spring.
So what does this have to do with Christmas?
Jesus' birth was probably in late March or some time in April. The Bible has the shepherds in the fields, where they would not have been during the cold winter months. Additionally, the shepherds have lambs with them, and lambs would only have been born in late March or (more likely) April.
But Christianity (and Judaism) had a long history of "triumphalism" -- taking existing pagan holidays and laying Christian-themed festivals on top of them. But why did Christianity choose December 25 for "Christ's mass" (e.g., Christmas)?
Christmas is not included in the earliest known lists of Christian feasts compiled by the Church fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian. Early Christians simply did not celebrate Christmas. Instead, they celebrated the Epiphany, when Jesus was visited by the Magi.
The earliest evidence of a Christmas celebration comes from Alexandria, Egypt, about 200 C.E. Clement of Alexandria says that certain Egyptian theologians assigned the actual day of Jesus' birth as 25 Pachon (May 20). By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E., the Alexandrian church had formally adopted May 20 as Christmas.
But other early Christians sought to calculate the date of Jesus' birth based on the idea that Old Testament prophets died either on the anniversary of their birth or their conception. Most early Christians reasoned that Jesus died on the anniversary of his conception. Therefore, the date of his birth was nine months after Good Friday -- either December 25 or January 6.
St. Hippolytus agreed. Writing at the beginning of the third century in Rome, Hippolytus said that Jesus was born on December 25. So in 350 A.D., Pope Julius I formally declared that December 25 should be celebrated as the official date of Jesus's birth.
The December feast reached Egypt in the fifth century. In Jerusalem, most Christians celebrated Christmas on January 6. In Antioch, St. John Chrysostom noted in 386 C.E. that December 25 had been celebrated as Christmas for 10 years.
From the foregoing, it's clear that Christmas wasn't uniformly established as a religious holiday until about 300 C.E., and not firmly set in December until 400 C.E.
Even so, Christian celebration of Christmas was done solemnly. There was no feasting, no parties, no gifts, no trees, no decorations of any kind. Christians went to mass, and that was it. Christmas was a time for reflection and prayer, not joyous feasting and debauchery -- and certainly not mass consumerism!
By the 1600s, many English-speaking governments placed an official ban on solstice revels in an attempt to wipe out the last vestiges of pagan worship. In 1640, England enacted a law which declared that anyone found celebrating Christmas could be fined or imprisoned. Puritan colonies in America followed suit. A 1659 Massachusetts law threatened anyone celebrating Christmas with fines and penalties.
So Christmas went underground.
Elsewhere in Europe, Christmas got unruly. Vandalism, public brawling, drunkenness, rioting, and mob rule often occurred. Continentals adopted the practice of crowning a student, servant, or beggar the "Lord of Misrule" or "Abbott of Unreason" for three days and nights. The chosen individual would often exchange roles with his master. Huge crowds would roam the streets, singing songs and making merry. (These are the precursors to today's mummers.)
Christmas remained unpopular even in America. The holiday was so obscure, Washington Irving wrote a five short stories telling Americans how the British celebrated the holiday. These fictional stories were pure propaganda, and fully intended to get Americans celebrating a holiday they barely knew existed. Clement Clark Moore's 1823 poem, " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas", similarly attempted to single-handedly create the myth of Santa Claus (and realied heavily on Irving's stories). Moore sneakily moved Santa's arrival to Christmas Eve to avoid "popist" associations with Christmas. Christmas was slow to catch on. It would be until 1876 that Congress declared Christmas a federal holiday.
Yuletide, Yule and the Yule Log
The origin and meaning of the word Yule (or "jul") is not clear. The word is probably not part of the Indo-European lanauge system from which English and Old Norse are descendants. (Suggestions that Yule is dervied from the Old Norse word "hjol," or wheel, are nonsense. This is a neo-pagan, modern suggestion. The neo-pagan idea is based on an attempt to equate the "wheel" with the sun, and links the low point of the sun in the sky with the winter solstice. That's wishful thinking.)
In Northern Europe, Yule was the Feast of the Dead. Ceremonies calling up -- or seeking protection from -- spirits and devils were common. The Norse god, Odin, and his Night Riders were said to haunt the land. Since Odin was the god of drink and ecstasy as well as the god of death, Yule customs included the drinking of a "winter ale" or specially-prepared beer. (The first beer would be ready about the time Yule rolled around.) Food and drink were left on tables after feasts to feed roaming spirits. Bonfires were also lit to keep evil spirits and ghosts at bay.
The origins of the Yule Log can be traced back to the these bonfires. Over time, as the Norse and Northern Germanic tribes became settled, the bonfire transformed into a massive "Yule log" burning in the fireplace. Beliefs associated with the Yule log varied from place to place. In England, whole families would walk together into the forest to cut the Yule log and sing songs on their way home. The English Yule log was decorated with evergreens and sometimes sprinkled with grain or cider before lit. The French followed a similar custom of cutting the Yule log as a family, and singing songs as it was brought home. French Yule songs asked for the gods to bless a family's crops and flocks in the coming year. The French carried the Yule log around the house three times and christened it with wine before putting it on the hearth. In Yugoslavia, the Yule log was cut at dawn on Christmas Eve and carried into the house only at twilight -- to let the spirits of the wood depart. The Yule log was decorated with flowers, colored fabric, and flecks of gold, then doused with wine and an offering of grain before set afire. In Scandinavia, the Yule log was representative of fertility, and a different fertility offering had to be burned on the log every one of the 12 days the log burned.
But despite varying customs, almost all Yule traditions agreed that the Yule log brought beneficial magic.
Yule tradition almost universally held that the Yule log must be kept burning for at least 12 hours -- and sometimes as long as 12 days. As long as the Yule Log burned, the house was protected from evil. When the Yule log was done burning or the fire put out, a small fragment of unburnt wood had to be saved and used to light the next year's Yule log. Ashes from the Yule log were retained and scattered over the fields in the spring to bring fertility, or cast into wells to purify and sweeten the water. Ashes were also used to create various magical charms.
The Christmas Tree
Winter-time holiday trees have been a motif in pagan religions since antiquity.
The Romans believed that Dionysus -- the god of wine, sex, and fertility -- brought a coniferous evergreen tree back with him from India and sowed it throughout Europe.
Northern German tribes often sacrified male animals -- and sometimes male slaves -- to their gods on the solstice and then tied the corpses to the branches of an upright coniferous evergreen tree. Pagan Scandinavian kings would do the same to nine male slaves every nine years, tying their bodies to nine sacred evergreen trees.
Christianity tried to co-opt these brutal practices. In 720 C.E., the English evangelist Winifred was given the name Boniface by Pope Gregory II. Boniface attempted to teach the Germans about the Holy Trinity by referring to the triangular shape of the evergreen tree. According to legend, in 723 C.E. Boniface came upon some Germans sacrificing male slaves to an oak tree which had been dedicated to Thor. Boniface bold-facedly chopped down the tree in front of the horrified Germans. When Thor didn't immediately strike him dead, the Germans concluded that Boniface's god was more powerful and they converted to Christianity. Boniface allegedly constructed part of a chapel on the site from the tree. Boniface attempted to introduce the coniferous evergreen in the place of the "holy oaks" worshipped by the Germans.
Boniface's attempt to introduced the evergreen as a Christian symbol did not take hold, however, and Celtic, German, and Slavic peoples continued to utilize evergreen trees in their holiday festivals. Druids often encircled such trees and held ceremonies in front of them. Druidic priests would decorate the trees with apples, and light candles and place them on the branches in gratitude to the gods for bestowing good harvests on the people. Throughout Northern Europe and into eastern Russia, people often brought live evergreen trees into their homes at the winter solstice and decorated them with fruit and bread.
As Christianity spread, Christian missionaries tried to re-interpret the solstice tree as a Christmas tree. Where Druidism existed, Christians pointed to the apples on the trees as symbols of the Garden of Eden. Elswhere, Christians merely imported the solstice tree without trying to re-interpret it at all. In northern Germany in the mid-1500s, guilds and trades would decorate "Christmas trees" with fruits, nuts, pretzels, and paper flowers. Members' children would remove the treats on Christmas Day. In Russia, live trees were planted in the town square and decorated with sweets and colored paper.
But the Christmas tree was not a widespread or popular tradition. Most Catholic priests and missionaries believed it heretical, and that it distracted the people from the real meaning of Christmas. Although Protestants seem to have adopted it more quickly, the Christmas tree was usually only found in towns rather than rural areas, and it was more of a public observance than a family or private one.
In the 1600s, the Christmas tree began to spead from northern Germany and Alsace into southern Germany, France, the Low Countries, and England.
In the early 1700s, the practice of putting candles on Christmas trees was resurrected.
In the late 1700s, the Christmas tree was brought to America by Hessians -- German mercenaries brought by the British to fight in the American war for independence.
The Christmas tree's spread came quickly in the 1800s. It became a widespread custom in Austria in 1816 after an Austrian princess put one up in court. In 1840, the Duchess of Orleans put one up in France, ensuring the tree's popularity there. The Christmas tree was introduced to England in the early 1800s as well, but did not become a widespread practice until Prince Albert began distributing trees for free to various schools, homes, and towns in 1847.
The Christmas tree was similarly not widespread in the U.S. until the 1840s. But a strong Anglophile movement in the U.S. lead to the tree's adoption as the mass media published images of British royalty using the tree. The first Christmas trees were sold commercially in the U.S. in 1851 in New York City. However, these trees were often modest table-top affairs (and the most popular tree was the miniature Norfolk Island pine). In 1856, President Franklin Pierce decorated the first Christmas tree at the White House. In 1876, the first modern Christmas tree stand was manufactured and remains largely unchanged to this day.
The electrification of most of the United States and Europe in the early 1900s and the rise of mass-produced consumer electronics led to the further adoption of the Christmas tree. The first artificially-lit Christmas tree in the world was in New York City in 1882. It was lit by 80 small lights. The Edison Electric Co. began mass-producing Christmas lights in 1890, and by 1900 Christmas tree lights were in common use.
The first artificial Christmas trees -- made of feathers -- were manufactured in Germany in the late 1800s and introduced to the U.S. in 1913. In the 1930s, brush-makers introduced another artificial Christmas tree. Made of pig bristles or other animal hair dyed green, by 1940 the trees used plastic to imitate pine needles. The first aluminum Christmas tree was manufactured in 1950, with flat sheets of silver and white aluminum cut into short, narrow lengths and then wound around flexible wire "branches." The aluminum was flammable, so the first aluminum trees were lit from below by revolving colored lights.
Christmas ornaments were introduced by Czech glass-blowers in 1848. The first American-made glass ornaments were made in 1871, but by the 1930s most such glass ornaments were made in Germany. In the 1950s, however, Americans began to use plastic and metal ornaments as a reaction to German goods after World War II.
Tinsel was invented in Germany in 1860. It was originally shredded silver, and was only for the very wealthy. Aluminum tinsel was not invented until 1870 in the United States, and was used on Christmas trees almost immediately.
"Flocking" Christmas trees was popular as early as 1900. The first flocked tree can be dated to 1830, when people would dose their tree with water and then sprinkle flour on it. By 1930, many people mixed water and detergent soap and brushed it on the tree. In 1951, "Sno-Flock" was invented and sold for the first time.
Holly and Mistletoe
Use of holly and mistletoe is common at Christmas. It's said to represent Jesus' resurrection, or immortality, or whatnot. But that's another Christian lie.
In fact, these plants were used by pagans for magical purposes. Pagan people wore sprigs of holly and mistletoe as good luck charms. Throughout Europe, mistletoe was believed to be an aphrodisiac. Anyone wearing it, eating it, rubbing themselves with it, or kissing under it would become unalterably sexually attractive. Since virginity was not prized by pagans, mistletoe became associated with sexual virility and sexual power. Evergreen boughs were often brought into the home during the winter and decorated with holly and mistletoe. The bough was often hung over the doorway to create a "kissing bough." Anyone kissing under the bough would fall in love and marry, have sex, have children, and be sexually powerful.
Holly was also sacred to many pagans in Europe. The plant's evergreen leaves made it seem magical. People placed holly plants within their homes to ward off eveil spirits and bad weather. Farmers planted holly berries in the ground near their homes to ward off witches and evil spirits. A sprig of holly tied to one's bed, it was believed, would bring sweet dreams. Holly berries were also believed to be the food of the gods. Romans exchanged holly wreaths as gifts during Saturnalia, the circle of the wreath echoing eternal life.
In 575 C.E., Bishop Martin of Bracae in Germany forbade his parishoners from having any Christmas greenery in the house. He called the greens "dangerous and heathen". Holly and mistletoe would not make an appearance in Christian homes until the late 1600s. Christians co-opted holly by claiming that the plant symbolized the crown of thorns Jesus had to wear.
That Jolly Old Elf -- Odin!
Most people would say that Santa Claus is descended from St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop who helped people and distributed gifts to the poor. They'd be right, but only in part. In fact, most of our images of Santa Claus and what he does on Christmas Eve are taken from pagan legend.
Odin was the chief Norse god. He usually appeared as a bearded old man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and fur-trimmed cloak. Odin had only one eye, as he had sacrificed one eye to gain wisdom and knowledge. From his throne in the wintry far north, he could see everything that happened in the world. He also knew who was righteous and good, and guided their souls into Valhalla (heaven). Odin was a shape-shifter, and could enter homes at will.
The Scandinavians believed that at solstice, Odin would ride through the sky on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. Children would leave their boots by the chimney with some grain, sugar, or carrots in or next to them for Sleipnir to eat. Odin would carry a sack of sweet bread and coins, come down the chimney into the home, and leave money and food for those who had been good. Odin always carried his magical spear (which never missed its target) with him; he would beat any child who had been bad.
Now let's fast-forward to 270 C.E.
Nicholas of Patara was born in present-day Turkey, the son of wealthy Greek Christian merchants. Nicholas was ordained while still in his early teens, and for the next decade or so a number of Roman emperors persecuted the Christian church to various degrees (although there were also periods of toleration). Some time between 307 and 324 C.E., Nicholas was made bishop of Myra. He was a wildly popular bishop. He gave away his inheritance to the poor, fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, destroyed several pagan temples, and promoted the sailing and merchant classes. Nicholas was present at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. (where the Nicean Creed was created). Nicholas was determined to stamp out Arianism (the Christian heresy that God the Son was created by God the Father and co-eternal with Him). Nicholas died in his sleep on December 6 in 345 or 352 C.E. Around 1087 C.E., sailors from the town of Bari in Italy were in Myra. Fearing that nearby warring armies would destroy the saint's relics, the sailors spirited them away. St. Nicholas' bones still reside in Bari.
Almost immediately, Christians began to venerate "St. Nicholas" for his good works. Tall tales (e.g., lies) about his life began to spread as well. The most popular story about St. Nicholas regards a local peasant who had no dowry for of his three daughters. The man feared that he would have to sell his daughters into prostitution. Hearing of this, Nicholas dropped three bags of gold down the chimney of the house at night as a dowry for the girls. (The three gold balls traditionally hung in a pawnbroker's window are symbolic of this.) Another story tells about how Nicholas was making a trip to the Holy Land by sea. A storm came up, and a sailor was killed by a falling timber on the ship. Nicholas calmed the sea, and then brought the sailor back to life.
Because of these legends and events, St. Nicholas has become the patron saint of sailors, seamen, merchants, children, prostitutes, prisoners, lawyers and pharmacists. St. Nicholas eventually became the most popular saint of the Middle Ages. The Feast of St. Nicholas was celebrated on December the 5.
Over time, however, St. Nicholas became conflated with the pagan Odin.
In the Low Countries, children still leave straw-filled shoes by the chimney for St. Nicholas. The practice was imported to the U.S., where the boots became stockings and the straw became milk and cookies for Santa. St. Nicholas was accompanied by his Moorish slave, Black Peter, who would beat bad children with a birch rod.
In Finland, St. Nicholas lived up north where Odin did. Finnish stories about elves and imps living in the frozen north became conflated with the story of St. Nicholas. Over time, St. Nicholas himself became an elf, and his helpers were all elves too. In Sweden, Norway, and Finland, people still believed in the "tomte" -- the good little elf. The tomte needed to be pleased by leaving out cookies or a bowl of porridge for him to eat on winter's solstice eve.
In England, Odin transformed into "Old Man Winter." An elderly man from the community would dress in furs and visit each home. As "Old Winter," he would be given food and drink before moving on to the house. Children were told that he carried the spirit of the winter with him, and that the winter would be kind to anyone hospitable to "Old Winter." But he didn't bring gifts, he took them. When Christianity arrived in Britain, "Old Winter" became "Father Christmas." Through the early 1800s, Father Christmas actually advocated an alcoholic Christmas and cast aspersions on anyone who wanted a more sedate, quiet, religious holiday.
Much of the iconography of Santa Claus -- the red coat, fur boots and long white beard -- comes from Russian traditions of Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) and the German Vaterchen Frost (Father Frost).
In the Netherlands and Denmark, St. Nicholas became "Sinterklaas." He still wears a red bishop's mitre and carries a staff with a gold cross on it (similar to Odin's cloak, hat and spear). He rides on a white horse (Sleipnir), and his elves slither down chimneys to leave presents and treats behind. Presents are wrapped in paper with elaborate poems and art on them. The poems often refer to events that happened in the last year (similar to Odin's all-knowing powers).
The British, Scandinavian, Dutch, and German concepts of St. Nicholas were imported into the United States. Many of the elements of "Santa Claus" were lampooned in Washington Irving's "A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Dietrich Knickerbocker." Sinterklaas lost his bishop's apparel and was depicted as a fat Dutch sailor wearing a green winter coat and smoking a pipe. But this satire on "traditional" Dutch culture in America soon became canon. On December 23, 1823, Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (better known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas") was published anonymously in the newspaper The Sentinel. Moore's poem, which Moore himself felt was blatantly unchristian, helped popularize and stabilize the image of Santa Claus in the American imagination. In the January 3, 1863, issue of Harper's Weekly, cartoonist Thomas Nast finally created the image of Santa Claus that has become most widely recognized. Nast's Claus was still a rotund miniature man, but the beard, red nose, and garments had changed to become what most Americans recognize today. In 1902, L. Frank Baum helped widen and popularize Santa Claus' image with his novel, The Life and Times of Santa Claus. Then in 1931, graphic artist Haddon Sundblom created the modern image of Santa Claus as an adult human being for the Coca-Cola Co. (Sundblom also created the man on the Quaker Oats box.)
What's left of St. Nicholas? Nothing but the name and the gift-giving. Hardly very Christian!
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So let's get with the spirit of the season people.
Let's raise a glass of alcoholic cheer to Odin and put a little sex-inducing mistletoe over the doorway. Let's fuck a little, sacrifice some wine to Saturn, and raise up a proper "Holiday Tree" (that's the orignal meaning, folks) to the season.