Unexpected Origins of Christmas

I had a bit of an unusual upbringing, religion-wise. My parents were both lapsed Catholics by way of 70’s-era hippie-inspired Buddhism, with a generous helping of mid-90’s Wicca to further complicate the mix. I was raised in a household that celebrated God, the Goddess, saints, fairies, reincarnation, Greek mythology, the full moon, Hanukkah, transcendental meditation, Sufi dancing, and Christmas. We learned a lot about all religions, without ever really ascribing to any particular one ourselves.

It may sound confusing, but in all honesty it was freeing. Throughout my childhood, I was able to experience elements of all global religions without the pressure to worship anything at all. Religious belief was more of a scholarly pursuit to me, and I was able to hand-pick the elements of religion I felt personally drawn to, and reject the ones I didn’t.

What resulted is a lifelong fascination with religion. The winter holiday season is an especially compelling topic for me, partially because I love Christmas but also because holiday-wise, Christmas is one of the most complex in terms of its religious roots. Whenever a conservative pundit cries “War on Christmas” I have to laugh, because so much of what we consider to be “Christmas” is, in fact, not very Christian at all.

Midwinter Madness

The most ancient and perhaps most important precursor to Christmas is, of course, the winter Solstice–the longest night of the year, before the earth slowly tilts back toward the sun. Most human cultures have celebrated midwinter in some form or another–Shab-e Yalda, Toji, and Dong-Zhi are just a few of the non-Western traditions surrounding the Solstice.

For the ancient Romans, this midwinter festival was called Saturnalia, named for the god Saturn. Saturnalia was celebrated by feasts, the giving of gifts, and symbolic role-reversals. 700 years after Saturnalia was first celebrated, on December 25th, the Emperor Aurelian consecrated the temple of Sol Invictus, creating a holiday called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti – the Birthday of the Sun – officially elevating the Sun to the highest position among the gods.

It wasn’t til around 350 AD that Pope Julius I officially declared December 25th to mark the birth of Christ. There was no evidence that was the actual day of birth; to the contrary, the gospel of Luke, says: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Shepherds usually watch their flock by night during lambing season, which is the spring. Hmmmm….

O Tannenbaum

As early Christians moved into Northern Europe and introduced the story of Christ to the native Germanic and Celtic peoples, the practices of Christmas were influenced by the practices of those peoples for their winter solstice holidays. Traditions like the Yule log, mistletoe, tree decorating, and evergreen wreaths were soon absorbed or combined with existing Christian beliefs.

One anecdote tells of Germanic tribes who worshipped coniferous trees in winter, believing that their ever-green leaves spoke of a supernatural holiness. Saint Boniface supposedly came upon one such ritual, and wanting to evangelize to the locals, directed their attention to a spruce tree, whose triangular shape more closely resembled the Holy Trinity. Some say this is the origin of our modern-day Christmas tree!

Very Merry Gentleman (and Ladies)

Modern-day Christmas is very subdued compared to Medieval celebrations of the holiday (even if you enjoy your eggnog!). After a month-long period of fasting and penitence, the 12 Days of Christmas were a truly festive time of feasting and revelry, lasting from Christmas Eve until Epiphany. One tradition involved drunks (often dressed as the opposite gender) running down the streets and banging on doors, demanding to be fed lest they loot the house. This two-week bender was so despicable to some that the Puritans attempted to have Christmas banned altogether in 17th century England!

Thanks, Pop Culture

The Puritans thankfully couldn’t keep Christmas at bay forever. But Christmas was primed for a reinvention, and the Victorians happily obliged. So many of the things we associate with Christmas today were popularized by the Victorians: colorful toys, wrapping paper, Christmas cards, and caroling were all part of the new old holiday.

But two seminal works of literature really brought Christmas into the modern era. Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, helped transform Santa Claus from a minor 4th century saint (sometimes associated with Odin himself) into the chimney-spelunking, jolly old elf we all know today. Then, Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel A Christmas Carol (reportedly conceived for the author to make a quick buck) redefined the holiday as a sentimental time of family, food, and good-feeling.

And as a more secular version of Christmas gained in popularity the world over, the more prosaic forces of capitalism and pop culture took the reins. From Coca-Cola’s famous reinvention of Santa Claus as a red-suited jocular old man, to Bing Crosby’s war-nostalgia musical White Christmas, to the Hallmark Channel’s derivative holiday movie spam, Christmas in any era can start to feel too commercialized. But in reality, Christmas is a celebration that has its origins in humanity’s earliest cultures, gathering new meanings and rituals through time. And when you strip away all the cultural trappings, this winter festival celebrates what winter festivals have always celebrated: the triumph of light over darkness and the strength of the human spirit.

And that, my friends, is the meaning of Christmas.

Drum Up The Sun

night sky looking towards Orion
night sky looking towards Orion (Photo credit: kronerda)

This time of year is a dark, quiet one. The sun rises late and sets early — and in some places, it hides its face from night and day alike.

We try to fill the void of the sun with colored lights and candles, festive trees and bright decorations. It’s a time of year when the night rules the calendar. The symbolism in the many holidays that cluster around midwinter is rife with images of renewal, rebirth, of beginnings. The New Year, Christmas, Solstice, Kwanzaa, Hannukah — all these holidays are rooted in light, hope, and the start of something new even when they look toward the past.

Frankly, this winter has gotten off to an awful start for me. As of writing this, I have been sick for over three weeks. It started with a sore throat and stuffy nose and morphed into a racking cough, followed by earaches and a resurgence of symptoms. Pneumonia. Bronchitis. Sinusitis. Ear infections. I’ve had all of that since Thanksgiving.

It’s been a time where my husband and I had thought we were at financial rock bottom — only to find out that we had pickaxes in hand and were hacking away at the ground beneath our feet. I had to humble myself and ask for help. Publishing grinds to a halt, and my inbox has been a world of silence on my many queries.

And Sunday was the year anniversary of my cousin’s tragic death, the memory of which has fogged my emotions with the smoke of grief that still hasn’t faded. One of my closest childhood friends lost someone he loved on Sunday in an eerie parallel to what happened to my family one year ago.

Friday was a day none of us will easily forget. A day when we were reminded that no matter how much joy exists, there are people who cannot or will not drink from that cup and instead sow anguish and reap nothing but death.

The holidays will forever bear deep sorrow for Newtown, Connecticut and for the families who will spend these days crumpled by the agony of 26 small children and adults snuffed out from our world forever.

 

Bear with me. There’s a point buried under all these Job-like afflictions.

This is a dark time, both literally and figuratively.

But you know what they say about the darkest hour.

Three days from now will be the darkest day of the year. The sun will rise at 7:23 AM EST and set at 4:50 PM EST. It will be the longest night.

Five years ago, I had just returned from Poland. It was one of the darkest times in my memory. I had left a place I loved and come back to a city I didn’t want to call home. And on 22 December, I bundled up early in my warmest clothes and drove my sputtering, 15-year-old Nissan Sentra up to Red Rocks Amphitheater.

Winter at Red Rocks
Winter at Red Rocks (Photo credit: mattsantomarco)

I gathered there with about fifty other people. Most of them had drums. And as the sky began to pale with the shy blush of the returning sun, the drums began to thrum. They started slow and sleepy, dimmed to a muted hush.

As the sky grew brighter over the Denver skyline and the flatlands of eastern Colorado beyond, the beat turned to a pulse. The cloud-dotted expanse above turned from jewel blue to pastel to the crystal white of milky quartz. The first golden rays of the newborn sun reached shining fingers over the frozen foothills, and the pulse quickened in both drums and veins until hands beat drum-skin and knees alike, lit with the fire of the world of day given first breath.

English: Christmas Dawn The sun rises late in ...
English: Christmas Dawn The sun rises late in midwinter this far north. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A month ago when we discussed the topic for this round of posts, I knew I would write a solstice post. I didn’t know just how much life would emulate the darkening celestial events. For many people, this time of year means deep pain. Loneliness and sadness, loss and grief.

But beyond the bustle of holidays and buying gifts, beyond seasonal depression or tragedy, the sun will return.

Whether you believe in the birth of the Christ child to a virgin or the festival of lights or if you track the sun’s path as it falls through a cross-shaped constellation before rising anew — whoever you worship or not at all, the sun will return.

It will warm the planet and birth new life. It will brighten the skies and nourish our bodies. The sun will return.

The darkest hour…

Well. You know the rest.