Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Origins of Christmas Celebrations

As Christmas approaches, it's sometimes interesting to contemplate the role of ancient traditions in our modern celebrations. Looking around today, I noticed a number of bloggers were writing to protest either Solstice or Christmas depending on their religious/philisophical persuasions. For my part, I see nothing contradictoray at all in celebrating both at once.

Most of us are aware that Christmas falls very close to midwinter solstice (Kwanzaa and Hannukah aren't that far off either). The date for Christmas was set by Rome in the third century AD in order to coincide with (and hopefully to supersede) the pagan festivals devoted to Saturn (King, 134).

Many of our modern celebrations of the holiday are clearly derived from Roman customs surrounding the Saturnalia fire festival. At this time of the year, homes were bedecked with "evergreens, candles, and specially constructed lanterns"(King, 134). Gifts were given and were even giftwrapped in coloured cloth!(134) Special foods such as exotic fruits, nuts, sweet bread and "pastries pressed in the shape of stars" were eaten along with cider and mulled wine (134).

The midwinter celebrations of the Celts had more to do with sun-god. Yule log superstitions have existed for many years in Celtic society. Despite numerous claims, it is not known whether the Christmas tree phenomenon originated with the Druids. I'm always suspicious of claims regarding "the first Christmas tree"--whether Martin Luther or the druids are credited, and it seems safer to me to stick with Queen Victoria since she's the first person we can be sure about having an actual Christmas tree.

The burning of the Yule Log was connected to the sun-gods purifying abilities and bringing the wood inside was a metaphor for inviting the sun-gods blessing into the home (135). Interestingly, the word Yule is derived from the Middle English "yole" and is perhaps related to our modern English words "yolk" and "yellow"(King, 135), which would make sense, since the sun appears yellow to our eyes.

Holly and Ivy are still probably the plants we most associate with Christmas. In ancient times, they were connected to the worship of Saturnalia, whose "club was of holly wood" and whose "sacred bird, the gold-crested wren, nested in ivy" both plants were also associated with the druids(King, 136).

There are many theories as to why the Roman empire chose to celebrate Christmas at this time of year. Some staunch traditionalists argue that Christmas falls at the same time of the year as Christ's actual birth. Others believe the holiday was set to occur at yuletide as a means of distracting pagans from their former rituals and giving them something else to celebrate. There are even christians who argue that Christ's birth should NOT be celebrated at this time of the year, since it comes dangerously close to glorifying the pagan past...

Regardless of which party is correct, I think it is perfectly fitting that Christmas comes at this time of year. In the Northern Hemisphere, Solstice marks the point in the calendar when days grow longer and the nights become shorter. What more fitting point in the calendar to welcome the birth of the "Son of God" or "Light of Lights"? Alternately, if one is of the pagan persuasion, I should think Christmas must seem far more innocuous than, let's say, Easter, since it's a celebration of life and new birth (which fits quite well with many neopagan religions). I guess I'm just a little sad everyone can't just get along. It seems to me that everyone--Christians, Atheists, Pagans and people from all religions--could benefit greatly from a little celebration at this time of the year, no matter what they're celebrating.

Reference: King, John. The Celtic Druids' Year. Blandford: London, 1994.


Bonne Maman said...

I am pleased that you love Christmas so much!

It was the most wonderful time of year for our family, and we worked hard to Christianize all pagan traditions with a zeal with which St. Boniface (of Christmas tree druidic origins) would heartily approve.

It is the Christian way--to straighten up pagans and sit them in church pews around the flickering lights of our dimly lit churches on high holy days. We even made churches comfortable for folk who had worshipped in dark groves at midnight, situating them atop pagan burial mounds, and worshipping by candlelight!

No greater sign of the force and strength of Christianity exists than our glorious sacral/secular, secular/sacred Chrismastide. Because humanity is not wholly any aspect of light and dark, but forever a mixture, and because no church or human being can be wholly holy outside of Paradise, it was the wisdom of the Christian fathers to include popular, yes--and even properly Christianized (sometimes, barely) pagan--practices in their celebrations. The earth's cycles and its natural beauty, ferocity, and mysteries are part of our lives on earth. Religion would ignore such forces at its peril.

In attempting to stave off pagan influences, we damage our humanity and our religion. I think it was wise to permit, encourage, and co-opt pagan practices in church celebrations. Theologians must work at interpreting scripture. A few anomalies in our celebrations may pose hermeneutical challenges, but not everything people in the church do can be excused or sanctioned by scripture, anyway.

So grab someone to kiss under the mistletoe, burn a yule log--even light a bonfire! Light those candles and do a bit of mother worship--oops, that would be reverence--sing carols around the Christmas tree, and think of Martin Luther, who believed that it was right and good that music should serve God even better than it served the Devil! Give thanks for St. Boniface and the legend of him destroying an old oak where human sacrifices took place in the dark Germanic forests, and the little evergreen giving new life in that evil place.

True or not--it matters not a whit! Christ the Savior is born! Hallelujia!

Tracy said...

Very interesting post! I too think we should all get on, respect and support whatever anyone chooses to believe. I am a Buddhist, so I do not celebrate the religious festival of Christmas personally, many in my family do and I respect the beauty of their choice. The secular aspect of Christmas is everywhere and my family and most I do dabble in that this time of year. I feel drawn more to the more pagan roots of this time--more juletime spirit than Christmas spirit. So it's a bit mish-mash at our house--LOL! But still philosophy, religion and the secular can live comfortably side by side. It's all a matter of us welcoming each other lovingly with open arms and open minds. Happy Day :o)