When you open your presents and marvel at the Queen’s Speech on your brand new plasma TV do you ever wonder where the ‘real’ traditions of Christmas come from? Is it a time of goodwill or the celebration of all things material rather than spiritual?
As you sit eating your Christmas dinner most of you won’t realise that you are in fact enjoying two festivals at the same time and a lot of the festivities are based around the Pagan, pre-Christian ideas more associated with the Winter Solstice and the time of rebirth which falls on Sunday (December 21).
When Christianity first landed on our shores they found the population at the time were worshipping the Old Gods of Nature. Rather than try to stamp out the Pagan dates and deities they amalgamated their own into the British calendar, therefore making December 25 the birth of the Son of God rather than the existing celebration on the Winter Solstice of the rebirth of the Sun God. The Winter Solstice can move between December 20 and 23 but most often falls on December 21 as it does this year.
The Christmas tree is one of the main symbols of the Christian celebrations. Even this though was added to replace the Pagan worship of tree deities and where the oak was primarily seen as the focus of Pagan worship.
Candles and fires were originally lit in the Pagan culture to give the sun strength to return to glory and ward off evil spirits so the Solstice tradition in the UK was in fact a celebration of death and rebirth, whereas what it really is is when the sun is at its lower most point of the year to the south and starts to climb again towards summer. This tradition was replaced with fires and candles and, of course, modern electric tree lights as a celebration of Jesus’s birth.
The dressing of the tree with balls, tinsel and small presents also dates back to Pagan times where small offerings were given, again to appease the nature Gods in the coldest and most barren months of the year. Presents of nuts and berries were left under the tree to again appease the animal spirits and their incarnation in the form of real animals. A fairy on top of the tree comes too from worship of the Nature Goddess and is seen as symbolic of love and light watching over the family. In the Christian tradition it is believed the fairy gives power to the birth of Christ and the regular celebration yearly of his birth.
The idea of a Christmas Day meal comes from the fact that it is the coldest time of year, hence harder to feed live stock, so they were slaughtered to keep necessity of feeding to a minimum, hence the big celebration and feast at this time of year.
One of the established parts of Christmas is Santa Claus, which some elements of the church see as evil as it is an anagram of Satan. The original idea for Santa, also known as St Nicholas, comes from the pre-Christian celebrations of a midwinter festival in Germany called Yule and this was formed around the belief in a deity known as the Old God Odin, the leader of the wild hunt who travelled the sky with his supernatural creatures. Originally Odin, which means ‘Yule figure’ and also known by the name Longbardr meaning ‘long beard’ travelled by a horse with eight legs, leaving presents for his worshippers by their trees.
He was adorned in a blue robe. All of these traditions were Christianised and the celebration of Odin moved to Christmas Day and the arrival of Father Christmas, the latter now having reindeer pulling his sleigh, introduced in North America, while his robe was changed to red but retaining the long white beard. So Odin, who rode the midwinter sky on his steed Sleipnir, visiting people with gifts became Santa Claus, with the robe changing from blue to red in Dutch folklore and in these traditions he was known as ‘The Good Saint’. Worship, then sacrifice of a horned Yule goat and the worship of the Iron Age culture of Britain of, the God Cernunnos, are thought to have aided the idea of a horned creature being very important around the Christmas period and this was later turned into the characteristics of Satan with the hooves and horns, whereas the horned animal became reindeer to pull Santa’s sleigh.
Even the very core traditions of the birth of Christ are said to be Pagan in origin. Where a star was seen in the east it was in fact symbolic of the rebirth of the sun on the Solstice as it, as already mentioned, transformed into the birth of the Son of God and a baby born in a stable where gifts were taken in a land that was already seeking a new leader.
The star of Bethlehem has also been compared with a planet or in fact a comet. One interesting fact is that in the Middle Ages the monarch at the time tried to balance the calendar by taking 12 days off of it. Many believed that they were having 12 days of their life removed. To solve the uproar the 12 days were reinstated and this is where the holiday period comes from.
Finally when you kiss that person of your desire under the mistletoe you are in fact carrying out a Pagan tradition of offering your heart and soul to the person whom you kiss for a year, until the next Solstice and then you either repeat the ritual or trade the person in for a new one, death of one, rebirth of another.
Whatever your belief or religion – enjoy!
In this modern age, however you celebrate this time of year, remember that there is as much joy in giving as in receiving. If you have any spooky encounters over the holiday period do let me know on 07738 682815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.