Similar to Easter, Christmas causes me much confusion. It seems to be a mishmash of several unrelated traditions all jammed into one that mostly revolves around buying things, eating chocolate, and lying to children. I’ve always been confused about how Jesus, Santa Claus, and yule logs have anything to do with each other, so I did a little research. I found out so much interesting information that this will be a two part series, to be finished next week. And you can guarantee I’ll be doing the same research when Easter comes around.
I started by writing a list of questions I have about Christmas, which was a hilarious process since it became quite clear that I don’t understand this holiday at all. Who is this Santa Claus and why does he have so many aliases (St. Nick, Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, Sinterklaas)? What does he have to do with Jesus? Is it wrong that there is a globally sanctified lie we tell our children? When did the flying reindeer and elfin sweatshops come into play? Why is Santa the only person besides certain pimps that can say “ho ho ho”? Is Santa immortal? What is a “yule”?????
I feel I should disclose that I am no Scrooge. My husband laughs at the magnitude of my Christmas joy. I am literally listening to Christmas carols as I write this. My ringtone is “Carol of Bells” this month. Oh yes, I love Christmas. Christmas to me is magical, intimate, and feels sacred and heavy with emotion. It reminds me of the quiet found only in winter that seems ancient and aware. There is something about this time of year that makes my cells ache for the line of humanity that made me, for the light that is bigger than me. I love Christmas. A lot. Yet our traditions make no sense to me.
From my research, I learned that my Christmas confusion was warranted. Christmas is essentially the merging of (at least) three separate celebrations with very different meanings:
- Yuletide/Winter Solstice
- Jesus’ birth
- Santa Claus
If you step back and delve deep into the traditions, they don’t seem to make sense combined together. At first. But when you look deeper, they have the same basic root: a celebration of life and light.
The Yule. The What? The Yule.
Let’s begin with the yuletide. This is a pagan festival originating in Germany and Scandinavia that celebrated midwinter and winter solstice. Heathens celebrated this, you guys, heathens! The yuletide honored the sun and the lengthening of days that starts on winter solstice; it was a celebration of birth and the end of darkness.
The yuletide was celebrated for varying amounts of time between November and January, centered around the winter solstice, December 21. There was a lot of ale drinking, sacrificing of animals, smearing of blood on walls/people, and supernatural activity. There was also a focus on, uh how do I say this, female fertility, so…
During the yuletide, people brought evergreen trees indoors and hung evergreen boughs to remind them of the life that would grow when winter ended — the origin of our Christmas trees and wreaths.
Candles, fires, and yule logs were lit to push back the winter darkness — the origin of our Christmas lights and, obviously, yule logs.
The Norse god Odin was honored, who author Margaret Baker, described as: “the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts.” — remind you of anyone else?
This is also where we get mistletoe, caroling, and eating ham. These are all pagan traditions that have been assimilated into Christmas and I was surprised to learn how many yule traditions we celebrate without realizing their origin. The yuletide/winter solstice was a hugely important celebration across many cultures long before little baby Jesus. Grocery stores and radiant floor heating didn’t exist. Fireplaces weren’t just fun, crackle ‘n pop, winter accessories; winters were hard. Celebrating the return of the sun was a significant moment and something that was revered globally by our non-equatorial ancestors.
And Then Little Baby Jesus Was Added
Right off I was surprised to learn that (1) Christians didn’t always celebrate Christmas, and (2) there is no mention of December 25th anywhere in the Bible. No one actually knows the date of Jesus’ birth, although some religious historians believe there is evidence for him being born at other times of the year.
In the 3rd century, Pope Julius I chose December 25th as Jesus’ birthday, most likely since pagan and winter solstice festivals were already celebrated at that time. By choosing the same time, church officials made it easier for people to embrace Christmas and they also assimilated many pagan traditions into Christmas to ease the transition. For instance, they adopted the pagan tradition of evergreen trees but added a new Christian twist: they put apples in the trees to symbolize the Garden of Eden, and these apples became the ornaments we use today.
Christmas was not always as solemn, biblical, and family-oriented as it is today. For a long time it was wildly pagan; it was still the yuletide and it was more like a drunken Mardi Gras celebrated in public, not celebrated privately as families.
There were so many pagan roots in Christmas traditions that it was opposed by many Christians (and still opposed by some today). The Puritans in colonial New England banned Christmas and in 1644 the Massachusetts legislature fined anyone who celebrated Christmas 5 shillings (I tried to convert this into today’s dollars using my iPhone app but oddly it didn’t know the valuation). The “war against Christmas” has been going on since like 1644, you guys.
To Be Continued in Part II…
I will end the post here and save the rest for Part II where we’ll discuss when Santa came into the picture, how Coca-Cola contributed to who he is, when the pagans finally lost, and how Christmas turned into a massive assembly line of gifts and harmless, little lies for our children.
(Sources: I spent way too much time on Wikipedia, the History Channel website, and multitudes of religious websites for this information. If you want backing, ask and ye shall receive.)
Things They Forgot to Mention:
Christmas is our creation. A wonderful creation of ancient traditions all mashed into one weird but beautiful celebration of life and light and the stuff bigger than us. Also heathen stuff, lots of heathen stuff.