From the day we are born we are immersed in the traditions of holidays. Christmas, of course, has the most impact on us with the anticipation of Santa and all the smells, colors and traditions that swirl around us as children at that time. These traditions get etched into our consciousness and the songs and sounds lift us into memories of the past and the remembering of those who are close and who are no longer with us. Although we have passed down holiday traditions with family, very rarely do we even know where these traditions came from. In this article I want to share the historical perspective of traditions that have become common place and the “real meaning” of why we celebrate the way we do.
So let’s start with one my most favorite Christmas characters, the Elf.
Elf: The folklore of the Elf comes from Northern Europe. In our current state, the Elf is a being that exists on another plane of existence. In the old days it was an ally to human beings and was treated with great respect. Elves were known to make footwear. With the coming of Christianity however, Elf’s disappeared from the possibility of our current consciousness since they were very linked to pagan beliefs. Their presence however was very pervasive throughout Germanic and Scandinavian mythology. There are many types of elves. Some live in the woods, some live in the mountains and others like to be near rivers. Others prefer a more domestic setting. They have been known to “transport” humans for a quick time warp, that may equate to several years, even though the time may equate to the blink of an eye. Elves can also swap out human children for elvish children and these particular infants are very magical. They are called changelings. Elves also have a dark side. In German the word for nightmares is Albtraum and elves are said to be the culprits for putting these stories into our mind at dreamtime. It is believed that taking magic mushrooms will induce the possibility of seeing an elf or other spirits of nature as they have the ability to dominate the consciousness of these plants. How the Elf got connected to Santa was because of the world renowned author Louisa May Alcott who wrote a book entitled Christmas Elves which she never published. Around the same time, the Godey’s Ladies Book a well known magazine, had a front cover illustration for its 1873 Christmas issue showing Santa surrounded by toys and elves with the caption, “Here we have an idea of the preparations that are made to supply the young folks with toys at Christmas time.” This was the birth of the image that led to the imagination of Santa working with elves.
Santa Claus: Santa Claus has several names, Old Saint Nick, St. Nicholas, Sinterlkaas, Kris Kringle, Papa Noel and probably many more. The concept describes a magical and generous man that comes bearing gifts at Christmas. Good kids will get gifts and bad kids will get nothing or coal. Perhaps this was devised for a chance at behavioral modification of children throughout the year? Santa must clearly be the master of quantum physics and time collapsing since he visits every house on the planet on one night with a sleigh pulled by a team of reindeer. His latest look became popularized by Coca Cola and a cartoon that appeared in the Harper’s Weekly in 1863. Prior to the commercialization, Santa was portrayed as old man winter who would go from door to door, where he would receive food and water wherever he went. Now, he gets cookies and milk and vegetables for the reindeer. His job was to spread the spirit of winter. In the old days, there was also the God Odin who would appear as an old man with a beard. In Old Norse texts, Odin is depicted as one-eyed and long-bearded, frequently wielding a spear and wearing a cloak and a broad hat. He is often accompanied by his animal companions who are wolves and two ravens who bring him information from all over the country. He rides a flying eight-legged horse named Sleipnir across the sky and into the underworld. Children would leave their shoes stuffed with food for Odin’s horse Sleipnir and the horse would then refill them with gifts. These customs seemed to have merged with Saturnalia, a festival that was held by Romans around Christmas time. It seems that the effort was to “un-paganize” this character and so he was converted into a saint and called St. Nicholas, a fourth century christian bishop that was born in Turkey and was well known for his generosity. Many images in Europe still portray St. Nick with a robe and a hat like a bishop. Santa’s choice of reindeer is especially appropriate since they are conductors of spirits between the dimensions. Reindeer love the red and white agaric mushrooms which are hallucinogenic and therefore can help them fly! The symbol of Santa has even been integrated into other religions, in fact in India, Santa is a genie dressed in red and white and rides a flying carpet.
Holly: Holly is a very common image at Christmas time. It symbolizes eternal life and immortality. Its red berries stand for life and vitality. The custom of bringing holly into the home came from the idea that its prickly leaves would protect the fairies, who would come inside during the cold months. Romans also brought holly into their homes to guard the house from negative influences. The name Holly came from a Goddess named Hole, who was considered the mother of all unborn children and was responsible for giving them their names. Holly was seen as very sacred and was given the name “Holy Tree”. Pagans had a Holly King who was a giant man made from holly that carried a holly club in his hand. He was the guardian of the midwinter solstice. In Norse mythology, holly was associated with Thor, god of thunder, and holly plants grown by the home were thought to prevent lightning strikes. In pagan times, holly was thought to be a male plant and ivy a female plant. It was considered unlucky to bring holly into the house before Christmas Eve. It is also a symbol of the mixture of paganism and christianity in meaning. The prickly leaves of holly were considered phallic symbols of fertility. For a period, ivy was banished as decor by Christians due to its ability to grow in shade, which led to its association with secrecy and debauchery. Nevertheless, the custom of decorating with holly and ivy during Christian holidays was eventually accepted and Christianity changed the meaning of the leaves to the crown of thorns worn by Jesus and the berries, represented his blood.
Frankincense and Myrrh: Myrrh is a very small tree that grows in the deserts of Africa. The resin was used by ancient Egyptians for embalming. It is one of the gifts along with gold and frankincense that the three wise men brought to Christ. At that time myrrh was worth more than gold and had five times the value of Frankincense. It is a symbol of purity and cleansing and much valued for it medicinal qualities and ability to disinfect wounds. Myrrh appears with more frequency than any other plant substance in the writings of the Greek physician Hippocrates, who revolutionized the field of medicine in the fourth and third centuries B.C., It is the dried sap of trees called boswellia. These trees grow in Oman, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, Somalia and Ethiopia. Frankincense and Myrrh were components of the holy incense ritually burned in Jerusalem’s sacred temples during ancient times. Although banned for awhile, Christianity picked up the tradition again and started to burn incense in their church services.
Pine Trees: They are the symbol of immortality and longevity. It is also a deterrent to corruption since it is unaffected by storms and bad weather. In the Taoist religions immortal souls would eat the cones, needles and resin of the pine which would convert them into light bodies, able to fly. The needles and sap are medicine that protects people from illnesses, witchcraft, and more. In many Southwest tribes, the pine tree is one of the tribal clans and is even regarded as a sacred tree by a few tribes. In Northern Europe, pine trees (or firs) were decorated a the end of the year to celebrate the birth of Frey, the Norse god of the sun and fertility. The tops of the trees were lit because in winter as the days were shorter, the people believed that doing so they would attract the sun. This is the origin of the Christmas tree. The first Christmas trees were used in Germany in the seventeenth century. These firs trees, or Tannenbaum were placed indoors and adorned with apples and candles. The apples symbolized the fruit of the tree of paradise and the light (birth) of Jesus Christ. This is the origin of today’s balls and Christmas lights! When Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria brought a tree into the castle, the custom really exploded. Of course purist Christians allowed it by turning the tree into a symbol of the cross or the “tree” that Christ died on.
December 25th: This was the day of the celebration of the sun god, Attis. He was revered everywhere and was said to have been from Turkey. Then, a new God was born to an impoverished virgin mother on the same birthday as Attis. He preached the ideas of eternal life and brotherhood and his teachings were very popular among roman soldiers. So was this God christ? No, it was Mithras.
Mithra has the following in common with the Jesus character:
- Mithra was born on December 25th of the virgin Anahita.
- The babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes, placed in a manger and attended by shepherds.
- He was later considered a great traveling teacher and master.
- He had 12 companions or “disciples.”
- He performed miracles.
- As the “great bull of the Sun,” Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace.
- He ascended to heaven.
- Mithra was viewed as the Good Shepherd, the “Way, the Truth and the Light,” the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah.
- Mithra is omniscient, as he “hears all, sees all, knows all: none can deceive him.”
- He was identified with both the Lion and the Lamb.
- His sacred day was Sunday, “the Lord’s Day,” hundreds of years before the appearance of Christ.
- His religion had a eucharist or “Lord’s Supper.”
- Mithra “sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers.”
- Mithraism emphasized baptism.
Mithra although now relatively unknown still has a temple named for him in England and In Mithraism, the 25th of December was celebrated as “The birthday of the unconquered sun” which is now “Christs” “Mass”. Although it seems to be a very Christian holiday, because of Mithra many aspects of the story are celebrated all over the world.
The only difference in the dates may be that the old calendars celebrated this day on January 6th, whereas the Gregorian calendar has a 14 day difference and ends up being the 25th of December. Prior to Christianity, it was called the festival Geol which became the name Yule. Many of the customs still remain from this festival such as the log shaped yule log cake which depicts the tradition of finding a huge tree from the ground that was dragged to a large fireplace and kept burning for the duration of the festivities as a reminder of the sun in the darkness of winter. Astronomers have calculated that Christmas should be in June, by charting the appearance of the ‘Christmas star’ which the Bible says led the three Wise Men to Jesus. They found that a bright star which appeared over Bethlehem 2,000 years ago pinpointed the date of Christ’s birth as June 17 rather than December 25
As time passed and during the period of reformation, Christmas was actually banned in 1647. A revival of the Christmas idea is credited to Charles Dickens, whose story a Christmas carol brought a message of goodwill and a time for families to be together. Pagan messages are subtlety interwoven into what is now the birthday of Jesus since it was the Christians that hijacked this celebration with Christian meanings.
Mistletoe: It is a pagan symbol of overt sexuality as the berries are seen to be semen and holds the tradition of kissing underneath it. Even to this day, mistletoe is banned in some churches.
Poinsettia: These bright red flowers were known in Latin countries as the ‘Flores de Noche Buena’, or ‘Flowers of the Holy Night’. The shape of the poinsettia flower and leaves are thought as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem which led the Wise Men to Jesus. The plant was cultivated and valued by the Aztecs and Mayans well before the arrival of Europeans. Aztec people used the plant to produce red dye and Aztecs called poinsettia cuetlaxochitl (brilliant flower) and the Mayans referred to it as k’alul wits (ember flower). Traditionally Poinsettia leaves are used to increase the flow of mother’s milk and to relieve swollen breasts. The number 9 is an auspicious number in Mayan communities and it’s said that if you braid 9 wild poinsettia plants in a necklace and wear for 3 days, the necklace will relieve body pain.
The twelve days of Christmas: In the Middle Ages, it was commonplace for workers to relax and celebrate Christ’s birth with masses stretched over almost two weeks. It was established later that the period between Christ’s nativity on December 25thand the Epiphany on January 6th should be the main celebratory days of the Christ Mass celebrations. Sp why was the period so long when Christ’s birth related to only one day? The reason was simple. From mid-December to early January the Roman calendar was jam-packed with midwinter festivals. Most famous of all was the Saturnalia, which started on December 17 and lasted for a week. Then there was the winter solstice on December 21stand celebrations carried on into January, with January 7th dedicated to Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. Many people continued to celebrate these pagan festivals as the Christian era began. So the Church felt it was necessary to Christianize the festivities by absorbing them into the Christmas celebrations and combining them into 12 days.
Christmas Feasting: During Advent and up until Christmas Eve, Christians would fast as they prepared for the nativity. However, once Christmas day arrived, they made up for frugality with indulgence and excess. By the Middle Ages, it was customary to enjoy a surplus of food and drink and riotous entertainment. Dancing was a favorite pastime as well as all-around rowdy behavior. Many justified this excess by claiming they were celebrating Christ’s birthday in high style. However, this behavior was no medieval degeneration, for it is clear that that partying and pleasure were a part of even the earliest Christmas. Early Christian leaders were warning against too much pleasure during Christmas as early as the fourth century AD. In 389AD, St Gregory Nazianzen, one of the four fathers of the Greek Church criticized customs of ‘feasting in excess” and “dancing” at Christmas. This criticism arose because these festive excesses were hangovers from the pagan midwinter festivals like Saturnalia when celebrants suspended normal life and pleasure ruled.
Christmas Carols: Today we think of carols as songs of spiritual joy celebrating Christ’s birth, sung by groups of carol singers or church choirs. However, the original carols had nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Indeed, Christmas hymns weren’t part of Christmas church services until the thirteenth century and many of the familiar carols sung today were written in the nineteenth century to revive the caroling tradition. In the middle ages groups of people sang carols while going from door to door, much as they do until recently, however these medieval songs were a country tradition and firmly pagan in origin. The origins of carols is because of agricultural superstition. Performed during the summer and at harvest time as well as midwinter, country people sang them as they went about the village, offering good wishes and blessings on individual households in return for food and drink. Often at midwinter, the carolers provided a bowl full of ale in addition to their songs and blessings. Alternatively, carolers sang as they passed through the fields. Whether they sang at households or two the crops, the intention was the same: to drive away evil spirits with their singing.
Decking the Halls with Greenery was a Sign of Life during the Dead of Winter.
Christmas decorations: Now day Christmas decorations take the form of tinsel, baubles or a variety of other artificial formats. However, the original Christmas decorations consisted of winter greenery and once again postdated the birth of Christ “Crowning the doors’, a reference to the practice of hanging evergreen vegetation around entrances was another pre-Christian custom. Across Europe, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean it was customary to ‘deck the halls’ with the boughs of any trees or plants with any semblance of life and color during midwinter. It was a custom that endured in northern Europe well into the early modern period and beyond. In ancient Rome, December was the time when people decked temples with new foliage- particularly at the time of the month’s festivals. At Saturnalia and Brumalia, they wreathed their homes and public buildings with vines in honor of Bacchus as well. For the ancient Egyptians, such greenery was not readily at hand, so they used palm leaves, a symbol of resurrection and rebirth as a midwinter decoration. The purpose of these evergreen decorations was to remind partygoers that even in the darkest months there was life- and to ward off evil.
So, although we embrace all of these traditions as “Christian”, most are not and we must thank the old pagan traditions for much of what we do at Christmas time.