What exactly are we celebrating on December 25th?
December has finally arrived, and with that comes the annual “Happy What-shall-I-call-it” drama, or as some would like to call it: The War On Christmas.
Before I offer my personal opinion on the matter, let’s dig a little deeper into the origins of our annual December celebrations.
The Christmas Origin Stories You May Not Know
The public belief today is that Christmas is the celebration of the birthday of Jesus Christ, but if you look at the opinions of a wide variety of Biblical scholars, they all seem to agree on one thing, namely that Jesus Christ was NOT born on December 25th.
These scholars (ancient and current ones) can’t agree on the actual date he was born, but they are all able to disprove that he was born on the day we celebrate his birth. The Bible even seems to contradict itself if you look at the various parts dealing with the time of conception and the time of birth.
Remember that The New Testament wasn’t written and compiled until the late 1st and the early 2nd century, so there is no “first hand” recording of the actual date.
Marketing a New Religion is Hard
In the early days of Christianity, the leaders of the church had difficulties getting the masses to follow their brand new religion. Most peoples were very happy with their old gods and ways of worship and celebration, and had no interest at all in this foreign religion, especially since it would prevent them from worshipping in the way they always had.
The days of winter solstice were a great cause for celebration among many pagans, especially in the Roman Empire with its legions of citizens, and the leaders of the church realized that they would have to do something if they were to secure the conversion of this great empire to Christianity.
Saturnalia, or, the Birth of the Christmas Carol
The Saturnalia festival took place towards the end of December, celebrating the (re)birth of the sun god on winter solstice. The celebration was a week of lawlessness and included widespread intoxication, human sacrifice, sexual indulgence (and rape), walking naked from house to house singing songs (Christmas caroling in its infant days), drinking and consuming human-shaped cookies (gingerbread man, anyone?) among other things.
The emperor would, during the week of celebration, make his most despised citizens give him gifts (yay, Christmas presents!).
Squatting on Old Customs Made it Easier
Now, there was nothing in The New Testament that justified a celebration during this period. So, in the 4th century, the leaders of the church assigned the birthday of Jesus Christ to December 25th. They adopted a number of the pagan ways of celebrating winter solstice so that the “heathens” wouldn’t feel so alienated by Christianity. In fact, they could pretty much continue to celebrate as they used to, but instead of calling out to Mithras, Sol Invictus, Odin, The Great Mother, etc., they should now call out to the Christian god.
In fact, some of the earliest celebrations of Christmas included drinking, sexual indulgence and naked house to house singing.
Christianity was now not such an alien religion, and while it spread it continued to adopt pagan customs in order to appeal to the masses. The Norse “Jul” (Yule), a pagan Scandinavian holiday at midwinter, merged with Christmas around the year 1000, and today in Scandinavia it’s still called “Jul.”
All the trimmings
Decorations such as holly, mistletoe, and ivy were adopted too. Mistletoe had always been a mythical and revered plant in Northern Europe especially. In Norse mythology the god Høder is tricked into firing a mistletoe arrow at his best friend Balder, thus killing him, and the Druids in Great Britain used mistletoe to poison their human sacrifices.
The Christmas Tree has nothing at all to do with Christianity. It is believed to stem from the pagan worshipping of trees. The custom of bringing a tree inside the house and decorating it came from Germany. Tree decorating wasn’t associated with Christmas in other countries until a German princess introduced the custom to her husband, the British King.
The Christmas Tree was in fact not very popular in the United States until an image of the Royal British Family and their Christmas Tree made it across the Atlantic around 1850, and not until the 1870’s was this a widespread custom in the United States.
Jolly Old Saint Nick and the Mother Goddess
And now we get to Santa Claus; Nicholas was from Turkey and was born in 270. He became bishop of Myra and died in 345. All in all, he led a fairly uninteresting life.
In 1087 a group of sailors removed his bones from Turkey and took them to Mira, Italy, where they replaced the bones of a local female deity – The Grandmother of Pasqua Epiphania – who was known for filling children’s stockings with gifts (!).
The “cult” of Nicholas spread North, and his appearance changed from being distinctively Turkish to being an older white man with a long white beard – most likely inspired by the Norse god Odin, who rode across the skies on his horse, Sleipner.
Rebranding a Saint
Nicholas actually didn’t become “Saint Nicholas” until the 19th century, and for a long time, he was always portrayed in his bishop attire. His current appearance was standardized by US advertisers in the 1920’s.
That was today’s lesson, kids. Tune in tomorrow to read about why the Puritans hated Christmas.
Part One: How Pagan Winter Celebrations Became Christian
Featured image via freepik.com