BIZARRE ORIGINS OF CHRISTMAS TIME
The Bizarre Origins of Christmas Time
Christmas was not, as it turns out, miraculously handed down as a fully formed holiday, complete with wrapped gifts and blinking lights. Rather, it is a rich tapestry woven from countless inexplicable and pointless customs ... over thousands of years by multiple civilizations and belief systems.
Why December 25th?
The Bible doesn't give a lot of clues as to what time of the year the birth of Jesus happened ... but one likely explanation is that early church leaders needed a holiday to distract Christians from the many pagan revelries occurring in late December. One of the revelries was The Saturnalia, a week-long festival celebrating the Romans' favorite agricultural god, Saturn. From December 17 until December 23, tomfoolery and pagan hijinks ensued, and by hijinks we mean gluttonous feasting, drunkenness, gambling and public nudity. Definitely NOT child friendly ... at lease by today's standards.
The Romans would also switch roles between masters and slaves for the occasion, so not only did the slaves get to pathetically lower their own sense of self-worth by participating in the charade of freedom, they also got to wear a Pileus (roughly translated, "Freedom Hat"). Not surprisingly, the hat was red and is like Santa's (Saturn's) hat.
One other pagan celebration that might have given Christmas its date was Natalis Solis Invincti, which roughly translates to "Birthday of the Invincible Sun God," giving it officially the most awesome holiday name ever. By the 12th century, the Christian Church had incorporated many of the less-sinful pagan traditions into the 12 days of Christmas. This was more of a draw to Christianity from the Pagan world.
Our favorite big guy in red, comes to us via the Dutch "Sinterklaas," which was actually a twisted version of Saint Nikolas, the holier-than-thou Turkish bishop for whom the icon was named.
The actual saint was not, in fact, famous for making dispirited public appearances at shopping malls. Rather, he was known for throwing purses of gold into a man's home in the cover of night so that the man wouldn't have to sell his daughters into prostitution.
So, back then Christmas wasn't "get a new Xbox day." It was, "you don't have to become a whore day." While it could be argued that this basically makes Nicholas a sort of anti-pimp.
Later, Martin Luther invented his own Christmas symbol, "Kristkindl," as part of his rejection of all things Catholic. What he came up with is by far the most flamboyant of all Christmas symbols, as Kristkindl is portrayed as a "blond, radiant veiled child figure with golden wings, wearing a flowing white robe and a sparkling jeweled crown, and carrying a small Christmas tree or wand." This is why you sometimes hear Santa referred to as "Kris Kringle."
Not surprisingly, most of the world has rejected his bizarre version and over the years we've cobbled together our own Santa Claus: part Saint Nikolas, part Sinterklaas and part Norse god Odin (for which Wednesday was named after). By the 19th century American writers were describing Santa as wearing a red sash with a skin-tight red suit with white spotted fur at the fringes. He was basically all those other figures with a little Freddie Mercury thrown in.
Writers at the time were still calling Santa an "elf," including Clement Clark Moore in his famous poem The Night Before Christmas. Perhaps the image of a dwarf-sized intruder seemed less threatening than the larger sized version, however, the dwarf sized deliverer of gifts would fit down the chimney a lot easier. Remember also that Coca-Cola was instrumental through it's advertising about presenting the current image of Santa to the world.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
This signature character in Christmas folklore, with his own song and movies and a mountain of yearly merchandise, was slapped together by the Montgomery Ward marketing team for a coloring book they were giving out. Prior to inventing Rudolph, they used to just buy the books and hand them out each Christmas, but in 1939 they figured it'd be cheaper to have one of their guys draw one up in his spare time. It's not like toddlers are great at detecting quality in these things.
So copywriter Robert L. May wrote it up, and created what turned out to be a marketing bonanza ... of which he didn't get paid a penny. A few years later the company actually let May have the rights to Rudolph, which was either an act of amazing corporate generosity or else they just assumed the Rudolph fad was over. After that, May's brother-in-law wrote up the song that you've no doubt heard every Christmas since you were born. It became a huge hit and the Rudolph marketing empire was born, along with a permanent addition to the Santa legend. That's right; Europe brought their real-life saints, Norse gods and rich cultural traditions to the table, and America slapped on a promotion from a department store.
Making Out Under The Mistletoe
Does anybody put up mistletoe anymore? Everybody knows about it, but does anybody actually do it? We only see it in sitcoms and the occasional Christmas music video or movies, but I'm pretty sure not too many people actually uses it in the 21st century.
Nevertheless, people who have enough Christmas spirit to purchase the plant, then find a nail, then grab a chair, then remember they forgot to get the hammer, go get the hammer from the garage, and then hang the mistletoe, might be less likely to do so if they knew the origins of the plant. The word "mistletoe" may be derived from the old German "mist," for dung, and "tang," for branch. That's right, the shit stick. As in, "let's go kiss under the shit stick my love."
So how did people ever make the connection between the shit stick plant and romance? It goes back to the pagan belief that the white, sticky goo from the berries was the semen of the gods. Yes, I said that. Because they believed it. One day people will look back at us with the same shock and awe.
There was also a Norse tradition that if two warriors should meet under some mistletoe in the forest (because it's actually parasite that grows on tree branches) that they would lay down their arms and declare peace for the day.
Both the Celts and the Druids used the plant as in ceremonial rituals, and as antidotes to poison, which was unfortunate, since mistletoe is, in fact, poisonous. So much for that. The statistics, if they were available, would probably not win any medicinal awards for innovation and treatment. But, it was the English who finally made mistletoe part of the holiday tradition. They used to cut a sprig of it from the previous year's holiday greens, then hang it in the house in some sort of voodoo type attempt to ward off lightning and evil spirits. Somehow all of that superstitious nonsense combined to create the "girl has to kiss you" tradition as it exists today (again, mostly on TV).
Decorating a Tree
First, a QUESTION: What customary Christmas holiday decoration bases its origins in ritualistic human sacrifice? That's right ... HUMAN sacrifice. As in killing people for some superstitious ignorance.
Now, the ANSWER: Yes ... It's the Christmas tree. That thing millions of people put up and decorate in their living rooms.
Back in the Pagan days, all inanimate objects were fair game for worship. Trees, rocks, mountains, funny shaped sticks that look like phalluses (an important object to them). So supposedly some of the Norsemen got it in their heads to worship a thunder god named Thor, by ritualistically sacrificing humans and animals at the tree they designated "Thor's Oak." What a blood thirsty species us humans are.
Little did they know that Thor was too busy hanging out with his Superhero buddies to notice the messy sacrifices. But ... you know who did notice? Christian missionaries. They notice everything. So, one missionary of the Christian persuasion, Winfred (aka Saint Boniface), came upon an imminent sacrifice and sternly disapproved.
He took an ax and chopped down Thor's oak tree, which in itself should make him some sort of god by default. Of course, because of his boring monotheistic beliefs, instead of declaring himself the god of thunder, Winfred focussed on a tiny little fir tree that grew from the hacked trunk. And as many folks likely know by now, the fir trees' triangular shape represents the Trinity, and voila, a Christian tradition was born. The Norse had their Oak, the Druids had their Holly.
However the tree did not, according to legend, spring out of the ground with little blinking lights, candy canes, and tin foil on it's branches. The thing with decorating the tree goes as far back as the 16th century, when people in Germany used to decorate their trees with apples. Other decorations included nuts and cheeses. Apparently, it was anything goes that could be hung on the tree as decorations.
A single man brought the tradition to America in the 1800s, and when we say "a man" we literally know who it was - a German immigrant named August Imgard. He was the first to stick little candy canes on it, and to put a star at the top. Whatever strand of bizarre thought caused him to do that, this guy's spur-of-the-moment decoration idea - now utterly pervades the imagery of this holiday.
I can go on and on about how different Christmas would be without him, but of course his contribution pales in comparison to St. Boniface and his condemnation of human sacrifice. Without him, when little Bobby runs down the stairs this Christmas the only present he would find would be ... well ... messy and disturbing.
There are so many Pagan traditions that led up to the Winter Solstice / Saturnalia / Christmas celebration at this time of year, I could go on for many more pages. The Roman Church chose December 25th as the Birthday of the Christian Saviour Jesus. It also happens to be the birthday of tons of other Godmen and Saviours long before the Jesus story was completed in Rome. There, it became "Christ Mass" in honour of the Nazarene from Galilee.
Merry Christmas everyone!
Just a thought ...
~Justin Taylor, ORDM., OCP., DM.
My thanks to Kristi Harrison for her research.