How many of us have wondered about the festival that’s in the air now, ie. Christmas, and what it’s got to do with the Nativity, the Christmas Tree, Carolling, Santa Claus….???
My favourite horoscope site today (21 Dec 2015) began its salutations with: “Solstice Greetings.”
Solstice? I was surprised.
It went on to say that the Sun will rise for three days in a row from the same place. As this happens only twice a year, it is considered a magical time.
“For thousands of years,” the astrology site continued, “the Solstice marked the onset of various festivals with names like Yule or Saturnalia. The dates of Christmas were deliberately chosen to merge the celebration with the traditional feast which is why, to this day, it still involves ‘pagan’ associations with mistletoe, holly and ivy.”
I was intrigued. Pagan associations?
What’s Christmas really all about then?
Here are my findings.
1. Is it to celebrate Jesus’ birthday?
Nope. According to many sites such as (www.simpletoremember.com), The New Testament gives no date or year for Jesus’ birth. The earliest gospel – St. Mark’s, written about 65 CE – begins with the baptism of an adult Jesus. The DePascha Computus, an anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around 243 CE, places Jesus birth on March 28. Clement, a bishop of Alexandria (d. ca. 215 CE), thought Jesus was born on November 18. Based on historical records, Fitzmyer guesses that Jesus birth occurred on September 11, 3 BCE.
In other words, we don’t know when Jesus was born but we do know for sure that he was not born on December 25th.
2.What is Saturnalia and what has it got to do with celebrating Christmas on December 25th?
Winter solstice celebrations predate Christmas, and trace back into antiquity. Saturnalia was one of these ancient traditions, and it was very different from the celebration we recognize as Christmas today. (www.missedinhistory.com)
Now here is an uglier picture from the unvarnished truth of www.simpletoremember.com.
period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.
The ancient Greek writer poet and historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes the festival’s observance in his time. In addition to human sacrifice, he mentions these customs: widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked; rape and other sexual license; and consuming human-shaped biscuits.
Human shaped biscuits? Like this?
3. So the solstice and Christmas is tied together and rooted in Pagan cultures?
Yes, it would seem so. Many pagan cultures, says www.randomhistory.com observed the dependence of humanity’s survival to the waxing and waning of the sun and, consequently, many of our important celebrations are often still fixed at cardinal points of the year. Indeed, modern Christmas has its roots in ancient winter festivals that were held during the winter solstice (Horsely and Tracy 2001). When the sun was at its darkest, ancient cultures would burn fires and hang evergreens as symbols of the continuity of life and as encouragement for the sun to return (Gulevich 2000). Two mainstreams of pagan traditions are key in understanding the symbols and practices of modern Christmas: ancient Rome and the Teutonic North (Golby 1986).
Burn fires and hang evergreens…Like the yule log and Christmas tree decorations?
4. But first, the question that begs ─ What is Yule?
According to www.blog.dictonary.com, Yule is the ancient name in the Germanic lunar calendar for a winter festival corresponding to December and January. Later, yule referred to the twelve-day holiday associated with the Feast of the Nativity after the widespread adoption of Christianity through Northern Europe. (..On the 12th day of Christmas my true love said to me….Aha!)
The word Yule or Yuletide has Gothic origins, but English speakers are most familiar with yule through associations dating to its original use. For example, the Yule Log was originally a real tree limb or trunk but now makes an appearance at Christmas time as a cake shaped like a log.
Yule also carries associations with a farm animal. The Yule Goat carried Father Christmas on his
back and is a symbol of Christmas throughout Scandinavian countries. The Yule Goat may have associations tracing back to Norse mythology. The now-famous comic book god, Thor, rode in a chariot pulled by two goats that could also be eaten and magically regenerate into living creatures again.
5. OK, but we still haven’t answered the question as to why Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
In the 4th century CE, answers www. simpletoremember.com, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians. The problem was that there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy this, these Christian leaders named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus’ birthday.
Christians had little success, however, refining the practices of Saturnalia. As Stephen Nissenbaum, professor history at the University of Massachussetts, Amherst, writes, “In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Saviour’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been.” The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc.
Just as early Christians recruited Roman pagans by associating Christmas with the Saturnalia, so too worshippers of the Asheira cult and its offshoots were recruited by the Church sanctioning “Christmas Trees”. Pagans had long worshipped trees in the forest, or brought them into their homes and decorated them, and this observance was adopted and painted with a Christian veneer by the Church.
7. Kissing under the Mistletoe? What’s the significance?
Norse mythology, explains www. simpletoremember.com, recounts how the god Balder was killed using a mistletoe arrow by his rival god Hoder while fighting for the female Nanna. Druid rituals use mistletoe to poison their human sacrificial victim. The Christian custom of “kissing under the mistletoe” is a later synthesis of the sexual license of Saturnalia with the Druidic sacrificial cult.
Here’s more from www.radomhistory from The Holly Bears The Crown consolidating the connection between Saturnalia, Christmas and particularly Ye Olde Christmas celebrated in Victorian times.
The site says: While yule logs were too big for the Victorian fireplaces, wassail bowls too strong for Victorian sensibilities, and boar heads not readily available, Victorians still made Christmas dinner a central part of Christmas. In addition, the English introduced the modern Christmas card, many of which hold high aesthetic merit and are part of the history of art and design (Watts 1993).
But only a small number of early cards depicted nativity scenes and instead offered symbols of Old Christmas such as mistletoe, plum pudding, robins, and holly. Some cards had bizarre and vulgar humour featuring the likes of devils, insects, rats…and a sub-genre depicted scantily clad young females (Golby 1986). In addition to cards, Victorians highlighted the Saturnalia mistletoe; perhaps the Victorian consciousness could not resist the stolen kiss and embrace out of wedlock and deeply needed a glimpse of the Lord of Misrule. Victorians in England and America also imported the Christmas tree and lights from Germany, which became an instant tradition (Gulevich 2000).
(Click on link below for more Victorian consciousness from the bbc: )
8. The Holly Bears The Crown? What’s the meaning?
The Holly, Ivy and other greenery such as Mistletoe were originally used in pre-Christian times to help celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival and ward off evil spirits and to celebrate growth, confirms www.whychristmas.com
The prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified. The berries are the drops of blood that were shed by Jesus because of the thorns.
In Scandinavia it is known as the Christ Thorn.
In pagan times, Holly was thought to be a male plant and Ivy a female plant. An old tradition from the Midlands of England says that whatever one was brought into the house first over winter, tells you whether the man or woman of
the house would rule that year! But it was unlucky to bring either into a house before Christmas Eve.
The Ivy has to cling to something to support itself as it grows. This reminds us that we need to cling to the divine for support in our lives. In Germany, it is traditional that Ivy is only used outside and a piece tied to the outside of a Church was supposed to protect it from lightning.
9. OK, enough about greens. Who was that red-garbed guy called Santa Claus?
www.simpletoremember.com has the long and well-researched answer:
Nicholas was born in Parara, Turkey in 270 CE and later became Bishop of Myra. He died in 345 CE on December 6th. He was only named a saint in the 19th century.
Nicholas was among the most senior bishops who convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE and created the New Testament.
In 1087, a group of sailors who idolized Nicholas moved his bones from Turkey to a sanctuary in Bari, Italy. There Nicholas supplanted a female boon-giving deity called The Grandmother, or Pasqua Epiphania, who used to fill the children’s stockings with her gifts. The Grandmother was ousted from her shrine at Bari, which became the center of the Nicholas cult. Members of this group gave each other gifts during a pageant they conducted annually on the anniversary of Nicholas’ death, December 6.
The Nicholas cult spread north until it was adopted by German and Celtic pagans. These groups worshipped a pantheon led by Woden –their chief god and the father of Thor, Balder, and Tiw. Woden had a long, white beard and rode a horse through the heavens one evening each Autumn. When Nicholas merged with Woden, he shed his Mediterranean appearance, grew a beard, mounted a flying horse, rescheduled his flight for December, and donned heavy winter clothing.
In a bid for pagan adherents in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church adopted the Nicholas cult and taught that he did (and they should) distribute gifts on December 25th instead of December 6th.
In 1809, the novelist Washington Irving (most famous his The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle) wrote a satire of Dutch culture entitled Knickerbocker History. The satire refers several times to the white bearded, flying-horse riding Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name, Sinta Klaas.
Dr Clement Moore, a professor at Union Seminary, read Knickerbocker History, and in 1822 he published a poem based on the character Santa Claus: “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in the hope that Saint Nicholas soon would be there…” Moore innovated by portraying a Santa with eight reindeer who descended through chimneys.
The Bavarian illustrator Thomas Nast almost completed the modern picture of Santa Claus. From 1862 through 1886, based on Moore’s poem, Nast drew more than 2,200 cartoon images of Santa for Harper’s Weekly. Before Nast, Saint Nicholas had been pictured as everything from a stern looking bishop to a gnome-like figure in a frock. Nast also gave Santa a home at the North Pole, his workshop filled with elves, and his list of the good and bad children of the world. All Santa was missing was his red outfit.
In 1931, the Coca Cola Corporation contracted the Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sundblom to create a coke-drinking Santa. Sundblom modeled his Santa on his friend Lou Prentice, chosen for his cheerful, chubby face. The corporation insisted that Santa’s fur-trimmed suit be bright, Coca Cola red. And Santa was born – a blend of Christian crusader, pagan god, and commercial idol.
And there you have it. The full story of Christmas.
Oh, and while you’re at it, have a look at this nightmare from the BBC: