Feasting, decorating Christmas trees, giving presents, whispers of Santa Claus, telling ghost stories by the fire, slaughtering animals, making pudding, perhaps drinking beyond sanity – what’s your Christmas celebration of choice? Did you know that most of these traditions have pagan origins from well before Christ’s birth was set to 25th December? Long before Jesus was even born, in fact?
Originally, the winter festivities were less of a lighthearted celebration, and more of a necessity after months of cold, dark nights wondering if winter would ever end. It was a time of fear, before the winter solstice after which the days would become longer again. The festivities were hoped to protect communities and scare away evil lurking spirits with all the noise and revelry. There was always that underlying fear beneath the madness and wild celebration.
Saturnalia was an Ancient Roman festival held around the winter solstice from 17th-23rd December. It was one of several Bacchanalia festivals celebrated over the year in the name of Bacchus (A.K.A. Dionysus), the god of grapes, wine, pleasure, festivity, madness, theatre and religious ecstasy.
The Saturnalia festival was celebrated as far back as 217 B.C. to honour Saturn, god of wealth, agriculture and renewal – timely for the end of winter. This festival of debauchery and lawlessness turned all norms on their heads and abandoned any ideas of morality. It was a time of disorder, anarchy and everything-goes with no discipline or limitations to the revelry.
Wars were paused, gambling was allowed, and slaves were served by their masters. It was a time of excessive drinking and sexual indulgence beyond restraint. People would sing in the streets naked (precursor to caroling!). A ‘king’ was chosen from the slaves and given free reign to do anything he pleased for seven days, indulging in food and physical pleasures. At the end of the week of pleasure, in the name of destroying the evil forces of darkness, he was executed.
Yule (‘Juul’) is a 12-day midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic people of northern Europe. It celebrates Odin, god of war, death, healing, magic and poetry. Yuletide involves feasting, drinking and sacrificing animals. A lot of current Christian Christmas celebration traditions stem from this festival such as the Yule log (now crackling fireplace, and cakes shaped as logs), Yule goat (now mini goat decorations), Yule boar (now Christmas ham) and Yule singing (now caroling, or wassailing).
In fact, majority of the Christmas celebration traditions that we follow came well before Christianity:
Mistletoe – May I have a kiss?
It is said that mistletoe provided the wood of Jesus’ cross, after which it was cursed to become a parasitic vine. Long before this, however, the ancient English magicians and druids would cut mistletoe down from the oak trees that hosted it, and use it in medicine and rituals. The plant represented immortality because it could still grow and produce white berries even in the dead of winter. People believed hanging it over windows and doors would prevent evil spirits of disease from entering.
Given mistletoe’s link to fertility, people would carry out all kinds of rites to ensure longevity of crops and livestock. One such rite was to burn last year’s mistletoe and hawthorn bunches, while replacing them with fresh ones. Sometimes one would have to run across the first twelve ridges of the first-sown field before the burning bush died out. Most of these rites were carried out amidst drunken revelry.
Once Christianity took hold, mistletoe was originally banned from churches because of its pagan associations.
What of kissing under the mistletoe? Being associated with fertility, the plant has seen many superstitions and traditions of kissing under it develop over the years. The exact origins are unclear, but during the drunken revelry of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, enemies would reconcile under mistletoe. A more likely origin: the Nordic myth about Frigg, goddess of love. Frigg’s son Baldur was shot by a mistletoe arrow by Loki, god of mischief. Frigg managed to revive her son under the mistletoe and stated that anyone standing under the mistletoe tree deserved protection from death, love and a kiss! The English carried this on through their Christmas celebrations and created a tradition of standing under the mistletoe, and stealing one kiss per berry plucked!
Holly – “Deck the halls with boughs of holly, tralalalala lalalala”
Holly has long been associated with fertility (the berries) and masculinity (the crown-like spines) well before Christianity. These parts were easily incorporated into Christian belief to symbolise the blood of Christ and the crown of thorns. Holly was used as a magic charm against witches and goblins, so people would make sure to put some in every room of the house. Twelve days later when the holly is taken down, it must be discarded outside, not burned in the fireplace, as that would release the bad spirits into the house!
There exists a long-held superstition that if one cuts down a holly tree, a terrible illness or occurrence will happen (perhaps even years later) – so till date foresters still think twice about cutting them down. This would be caused by the witches and evil spirits who would come after the one who sawed down the tree.
Christmas celebration decorations
Everyone knows that they must be taken down by the Twelfth Night (6th Jan) or it’s bad luck. This roots in an Old English tradition that says that if you don’t, the spirits that live in the greenery (holly and ivy decorations) will not be released, meaning crops will not grow, causing food problems, or worse a death in the house. Better take down your Christmas decorations in time or you’re in trouble!
It’s said that you’re lucky if you get to be a part of the pudding making. The pudding must be stirred east-to-west. We are told that this is because that’s the direction the three wise men traveled to pay homage to Jesus, but really the reason lies in pre-Christian times. The “sun god,” whose birthday was 25th Dec, has his trajectory from east to west! But of course.
Crackling fire to warm you up in the midst of winter
The Yule log must be burned in accordance with the ancient traditions of tree worship. But keep an eye on the shadows cast by the fire – if any of them appear headless, this is a premonition of a death of the associated person in the coming year.
Restless spirits and ghosts
Ghosts love to roam during this period, especially on Christmas Eve. During the night, cattle kneel down and speak in human voices. If you leave Church before consecration is done, you will definitely encounter ghosts parading through the streets. Apparently if you dare to venture into a graveyard on Christmas Eve and dig into the soil, you will find gold. Well, so say the tales of old.
Who is Santa, really?
Santa Claus wasn’t always fat and jolly. Turns out he is also a different bearded winter-man to Father Christmas, who actually wears green, not red. Santa Claus is mostly based on St Nicholas, with some mix of other mythological characters like the German Kris Kringle (‘Christkindl’).
The original Saint Nicholas was born in Greece in the third century in around 280 A.D. He then became a bishop in a small Roman town in modern day Turkey. He was more of a lean than a plump build, and more a fiery defendant of the church than the laughing figure we are used to. He died on Dec 6th around 343 A.D., and to date his life is celebrated on this day.
St. Nicholas was a patron of children and used to protect orphans, prisoners and sailors. He is said to have given away his wealth and traveled the countryside helping the poor and sick. He also developed a reputation as a secret giver of gifts to children in need (starting to sound more like our Santa?). It is said that he would do this by secretly dropping coins down chimneys, where they would land in a stocking!
Over the next millennia or so after his death, the image of the saint also took on some characteristics of Saturn (Roman god) and Odin (Norse god) like the long white beard and ability to fly. He was a strict figure who made sure children said their prayers and behaved well, by rewarding good little boys and girls with gifts! As for the name “Santa Claus,” this originated from Saint Nicholas’s Dutch nickname Sinter Klaas, short for Sint Nikolaas.
Santa Claus and Coca Cola
Many believe that the Santa Claus we so love and cherish in his red and white robes with bursting buttons was unfortunately actually invented by the American Coca Cola corporation. Turns out that this is a myth (thank goodness!) as the red-robed, white-bearded Santa was already being portrayed in red attire (in accordance with St Nicholas’ priestly clothes) throughout the 19th century before Coke adopted him for their advertising campaigns in 1933.
As for Coke, Santa Claus was a perfect figure to latch onto for their marketing campaigns given his colours conveniently matching their brand. The commercialization of Christmas is a whole other conversation (let’s talk Black Friday next time). Till date, you are likely to spot advertisements near Christmas of Santa Claus holding a ‘refreshing’ Coca Cola bottle.
Father Christmas is not Santa Claus
The story of St Nicholas arrived into Britain when the Normans took over. But there was already a local “Father Christmas” figure who was part of the winter festivals. He represented hope, joy and the coming of spring after long winter months. This guy wore a long green cloak and a wreath of ivy, holly or mistletoe. During the 5th and 6th centuries he had names like King Winter, King Frost and Father Time. Someone would dress up as King Winter and people would welcome him into their homes with food and drink, believing this would be a good omen for a milder winter.
Why is Christmas in December?
The winter solstice occurs yearly on 21st or 22nd December and is the longest night of the year. It is a turning point from the dreary months of winter into the rebirth of spring. After the solstice, days start to get longer again and warmth starts to breathe life back into plants and animals alike. This is a period of hope, and a cause for celebration, hence the various winter festivals and feasts throughout pre-industrial Europe.
Crops would have been harvested months earlier before the cold, dark months set in. Many would slaughter livestock as they would not be able to feed them through all of winter – and then feast on them.
The actual date of Jesus’ birth is disputed as it was not specified in the Bible, nor is there a reliable historical record of it. Some believe it was closer to spring, whilst many claim it was in June. However, the December date was selected by Pope Julius I in 340 A.D. to aid with the conversion of pagans to Christians. It truly did conveniently help Saint Augustine with converting devotees as its celebration nicely fitted in with the existing pagan winter festivals. Specifically, transforming the end of the wild Saturnalia festival into a mild Christmas celebration of Christ’s birth.
Christmas Trees and those Baubles
The Germans have been adorning evergreen trees since the 16th century. It was Queen Victoria who brought this tradition to Britain when she decorated the trees of Windsor Castle in the 1840s. The trend caught on throughout the country and then spread to the Americas.
Christmas trees originate from pagan traditions that date even further back. From the Egyptians to the Celts, the Vikings to the Romans, ancient humans celebrating the winter solstice would decorate their homes and temples with evergreen branches. Quite often this was to give tree spirits a temporary place to dwell during winter. Sometimes families would attach candles to the branches, which foreshadow today’s decorations.
There is an ancient myth of the goddess Cybele who desired the human Attis. Attis, however, was in love with another human – the daughter of a king. Cybele was furious and jealous, so she cursed Attis to madness. Attis ran through the mountains in mad fury, and ended up castrating himself at the foot of a pine tree. Not sure how this makes me feel about hanging baubles on my Christmas tree now..
As for those of us in post-colonial countries
Notice how all of these traditions originated in Europe? For those of us in post-colonial countries like here in Kenya, these festivals were imported with the colonialists and missionaries, much like the religions we follow. Food for thought.
For any of my readers who are deeply Christian and perhaps feeling a little scandalized by this reveal, don’t be too horrified. Of course some pagan rituals were very debaucherous, beyond moral restraint, some unnervingly superstitious. Take them with a pinch of salt!
On the other hand, many pagan traditions were focused on revering aspects of nature that nurture our lives as human – be it the sun whose energy gives us life, the trees who enable us to breathe fresh air, or the earth in which we grow our nourishing food. There may be some interesting wisdom in previous beliefs that were more nature-centered that we may have neglected in our rapacious attitude toward nature today and would serve us well to reignite – a healthy respect for and desire to protect nature, perhaps? More of these in future articles.
Well, enjoy your holidays will you!
Regardless of the dominant religion today, the actual pagan origins, and what my personal beliefs are, I am relieved to have the opportunity this end-year to unwind, make merry and rejuvenate for the next. I hope though, that the stories I’ve shared will bring some more spice into your merrymaking, to know where some of these traditions really stem from. Wishing you a smooth transition from the winter solstice if you are in the northern hemisphere, and from the summer equinox if you are in the southern hemisphere. Have a joyful Yuletide and ecstatic Saturnalia, folks!