The reason for the season? If you ask many a Christian this week about what the reason for all of these lights, decorated trees, Mistletoe, gift-giving and merriment is, they will inevitably say that Jesus is the reason for the season. After all, that is what this coming holiday is all about, right? Jesus’ birthday (did you remember to get him a gift?)
But the history of this holiday is much murkier than that. Today, I want to trace some of the influences on how we celebrate Christmas by taking a quick glance of the obvious pagan roots of the holiday while noticing how little it fits in with a conservative image of Christianity (more about that here). Heck, it may not even fit in well with most liberal ones.
Briefly, Christmas is the result of the Church, for hundreds of years, trying to incorporate pagan traditions into their own in order to more easily bring pagans into Christianity. By melding pagan traditions with stories about Jesus Christ, not only did it calm the pagans down by allowing them to keep their traditions, it subsequently created the Christmas we celebrate today, with little of it deriving from the Bible.
The New Testament is all about Jesus. Jesus did this, that, and some other things and some people wrote about them. One of those things was being born (supposedly). And in this being born some people came, bringing gifts, and then years of apparent nothing before he was much older and wiser (and, apparently, he was God)
But when did this happen? The bottom line is that we do not know. What we do know is that it did not happen on the date December 25th (or any corollary date of another calendar), not even likely that time of year. Scholars simply do not know, because the records that we have are not clear about when this event would have happened, if it ever did happen. Most guesses seem to think that the Spring was much more likely, and some dates such as March 28th, May 20th, and even September 11th exist as guesses.
Concerning what year Jesus was born, we are not clear either . The Catholic Church is even clear that the date probably did not happen in the year 1 AD (or the year 0, for that matter). The bottom line is that nobody is sure of what Jesus’ birthday is, let alone how old he is exactly. I guess it really doesn’t matter. The idea is that we set a day aside (sorry, a month aside) to celebrate this event. The important thing is that we have a time of year where we can celebrate good Christian things, right?
Back in Roman days, they had their own festivals. For a week at the end of the year, starting on December 17th, the Empire would start their Saturnalia festivities. During this week, and among other activities, Romans would choose an “enemy of the Roman people,” whom they would feed, pleasure, and generally fatten them up…for the kill. Literally! They would murder them at the end of the festivities as the representation of evil or the “Lord of Misrule.” It was sort of like the old scapegoat idea from the ancient Jews. Now we are starting to see how it connects to Jesus, right?
See, the problem is that when, in the 4th century, the Roman Empire officially accepted and then adopted Christianity as the religion of Rome, not everyone was happy about it. See, in addition to the fattening up and killing of some (probably) innocent person, there was also sexual license (sometimes meaning rape) and other merriment going on that week of Saturnalia which people seemed to like.
Thus, it was decided that in order to keep the (pagan) people happy, Christians were permitted to continue celebrating Saturnalia and to make the last day of the festival, December 25th, as the birthday of Jesus. Never mind that Mithra already had a birthday on that date, and that it looked like Jesus had already stolen a bunch of things from this older pagan god (such as being the mediator between god and man, being the way to obtain immortality, came to save humanity from evil, etc), because Jesus Christ was trendy while Mithra was sooo 6th century BC.
Get with the times, man!
Is the Sun invincible?
Speaking of Mithra….
See, those pagans, with their silly beliefs, had this idea that around the end of December the days suddenly started getting longer. Many stories likened this to the sun dying throughout the year, and for a few days it just seemed to be that the days stopped getting shorter and then, in turn, longer again. This was seen as a cause for celebration that the sun will not die and the next year will come after all. That’s a good thing, according to ancient pagans.
Mithra has many stories associated with him. His association with the sun is well-known, especially by the ancient pagans (who might be around still, since Mithra was supposed to provide immortality as well as save them from evil). So one of the important days for those that followed the Mithraic rituals was December 25th, the dies natalis solis invicti, or ‘the birthday of the invincible sun.’ Due to the existing pagan holiday and the Church’s desire to incorporate pagan people into the Christian world, Jesus’ birthday was associated with this date during the 4th century.
Santa knows if you have been naughty or Nicaea
The 4th century was a pivotal time for the development of Christianity. In 325 CE, after Constantine solidified his control of the Roman Empire at the battle of Milvian Bridge (313 CE), Constantine wanted to make sure that his Empire would have a central and official Church that could be a solidifying force for the people throughout. To do so, he would have to settle the various disputes between the churches. Thus he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325.
Besides voting on which books to include into the canonical Bible, the council created the Nicene Creed, which defined the orthodox teachings about who Jesus was, what happened to him, etc. Up for grabs was whether Jesus was a man, the son of God, or God himself. Athanasius’ view won out over others, such as Arius who was considered a heretic afterward. But we are straying from the point.
One of the senior Bishops who attended this council was the Bishop of Myra, who was born Nicholas of Parara, Turkey (270-346 CE). He was a popular and influential Bishop who had followers for many centuries after his death. In the 11th century his bones, considered holy relics, were moved to Bari, Italy. During this time the relics, as well as Nicholas’ image and persona, was associated with a pagan goddess called Pasqua Epiphania, who was known for leaving gifts in children’s stockings according to legend.
Eventually, people would start to give gifts to each other on January 6th, which was the date of Nicholas’ death. This tradition spread to the Germanic and Celtic people later, who further associated the image of Bishop Nicholas with their god Wodon (where we get the word ‘Wednesday’). Wodon had a long white beard and rode a horse through the heavens in autumn, according to the mythology.
Eventually the Catholic Church, in its continued attempts to integrate pagans into the Church, adopted the Nicholas cult into official Catholic tradition. They changed the date of the traditions of gift-giving and so forth to December 25th to coincide with the changed accepted date of Jesus’ birth.
During the 19th century Nicholas became Saint Nicholas. The imagery of the god Wodon with Saint Nick had already taken root throughout much of Europe. But in 1809, with Washington Irving’s Knicherbocker History, we see (satirically) a reference to this image of Saint Nicholas as the Wodon-like, flying-horse riding, white-bearded man who was referred to as Santa Claus, which was the Dutch name of this derived image.
In 1822, Dr. Clement Moore wrote a poem, partially based upon Irving’s book, called A visit from St. Nicholas which goes something like this:
‘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 hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
It was here that we see the image of Santa Clause appear, with his blending of images from Wodon, Pasqua Epiphania, and other images such as the replacement of Wodon’s horse with eight flying reindeer. This is a poem we still listen to this time of year, but very few of us know where the images come from.
Later, with the drawings of Thomas Nast, who invented the ideas of elves, the North Pole, and his list of naughty and nice children, the image comes closer to our own. It was not until 1931, when Coca Cola developed the red suit (to match their red labels), that the Santa we know today come to be.
The evolution from influential Bishop to red-suited jolly man with elves came over 1500 years. And it was the efforts of the secular marketing industry that sealed it for us. Thus, the images of Santa, the central image of Christmas today in many ways, is entirely based upon mixed pagan folklore and consumerist imagery.
Jews and Christmas
Jews did not start celebrating Hanukkah as a major holiday until relatively recently. This was probably due, at least in part, to the fact that they had no Christmas to celebrate and wanted a party of their own. And they beat out the Roman’s week long celebration of Saturnalia by upping the ante to eight days. Competitive and innovative, the Jewish people can be quite often.
But Christmas has not always been a time for Jews to have a nice day off to do whatever they do on December 25th now. In the past, Jews were often harassed, humiliated, their property destroyed, and in some cases they were even killed.
In 1466, Pope Paul II made the Jews run naked through the town. In the 18th and 19th centuries many forms of anti-Jewish sentiment prevailed. In 1881 in Warsaw, Poland 12 Jews were killed, many more maimed, and property destroyed. Christmas was a time for fear throughout much of Europe for Jews. Anti-Jewishness runs deep in Christian history, and a lot of it was expressed during Christmas time.
In a post-NAZI era, we often forget that the hate of Jews was rampant in the Christian world. We forget that ghettos, stereotypes, and false ideas about Jews killing and eating Christian babies were common. And with heightened emotions, pressures, and so forth that still exist around this time of year someone had to be blamed. It was often the Jews who felt the brunt of that.
So, what about the Trees and such?
Decorating trees was also a part of pagan tradition. The Ashiera cult was known for decorating, painting, and otherwise displaying trees as part of their worship. This was even known to that ancient prophet Jeremiah, who wrote thus about it:
10:1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:
10:2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
10:3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
10:4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.
10:5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.
But in a further attempt to placate the Germanic pagans, this tradition was largely adopted by Christians and has become part of our celebrations. Some Christians are aware of the verses from Jeremiah quoted above, but most either don’t care or claim that Jeremiah is not actually talking about Christmas trees. Well, technically he wasn’t, but he was talking about a similar pagan tradition that did ultimately inspire Christmas trees. A few Christians don’t put up Christmas trees for this reason.
Some Christians, due to the pagan influenced nature of the holiday, don’t celebrate Christmas at all. In Massachusetts, from 1659-1681 for example, Christmas was banned by the Puritans. So much for the traditional American holiday being part of what America is all about. I guess the Puritans didn’t know anything about traditional America. Of course many Christians celebrated anyway, despite Puritanical views. Thus, our traditional holiday is still strong.
So, the next time you are under some Mistletoe, (derived from the pagan story of Baldar, who was killed by Hoder with a Mistletoe arrow while fighting over some apparently hot chick named Nanna), remember that we kiss under it because of the sexual license of the old Roman Saturnalia. But, remember also that Mistletoe was a sacrificial poison used by Druids in order to perform human sacrifices. I know that makes me want to do some kissing!
It’s just a fun tradition!
I know. I get that it is no longer about these old pagan traditions, at least not for most people. I also know that for most people it is not about Jesus. This should make sense since it’s association with Jesus is shaky anyway.
I know people like pretty trees, lights (not to mention Yule logs), and good food with people they love. All of this is great, and I would not ask anyone to stop celebrating. I love to celebrate. My personal view is that there is little of meaning in the holiday itself that I want to be a part of. I am all about getting together, eating good food, etc., and so I like the parties and gatherings that happen this time of year.
But I don’t say “merry Christmas” because it is not the holiday I am celebrating but rather life in general. It is not the day that makes me want to do these things, it is just my nature that does.
Nor do I write “X-mas.” The reason is that the “X” is not supposed to take Christ out and make it secular. The “X” is one of the oldest symbols of Christ. The ancient Christians would write the “X”, which is how the Greeks wrote the letter “chi” which Christ starts with in Greek, to symbolize their Christianity. The common symbol of Jesus from early on, which is still used, is the Chi-Rho symbol, which is an expansion of the simple “X” first used.
Thus X-mas is not an atheist or generally secular creation to get Christ out of Christmas. It is a reference to an ancient Christian symbol, and is thus more likely to take the pagan Santa out of Christmas. But either way, Pagan or Christian, Christmas does not suit me. I prefer not to participate in the rituals and so forth. You do what you like, and enjoy however you do it.
I wish you all a good day, whatever day it is.
For more detail about the history of Christmas, check this out.