Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas – A Winter Solstice History

The events that led to modern day Christmas began over 4000 years ago, with most credible scholars pointing first to the Akitu Festival, the Mesopotamian New Year, which featured a 12 day feast called Zagmuk honoring their god, Marduk. The tradition included the notion that the current king should die at the end of the year, join Marduk in the afterlife, and do battle with the monsters of chaos.

To spare their king, instead they selected a known criminal and made him king for a day. The criminal enjoyed royal status and privileges for a day. Then he was ceremonially executed.

Many Winter Solstice Festivals occurred. The Persians and Babylonians celebrated a festival called Sacaea, a day where slaves and masters would trade places. Meanwhile, early Europe associated the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year, with evil spirits and monsters, and held rituals and celebrations to welcome the return of the sun. In northern most Europe (in particular, Scandinavia), the sun would literally disappear for a period of weeks. Scouts would climb the mountains to seek the sun. When it returned, a great festival was held. This festival was called the Yule or Yuletide. People tied apples to the branches of trees to remind them that spring would return.

To the south in ancient Greece, like the Mesopotamians, the New Year festival was associated with a god (Kronos) doing battle with other gods, namely Zeus. In Rome, the god was Saturn and the festival known as Saturnalia. The Romans had fun, with parade like celebrations in the streets, feasts, visiting friends, and the exchange of good luck gifts called Strenae (lucky fruits). The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and green trees lit with candles and also did the master/slave swap for a day. Saturnalia was huge.

During the first century C.E. a small set of Jews started working on a document that would become the New Testament. Modern day Christians have a tendency to forget that the first Christians were Jews as was Christ himself. The earliest writings, written by the apostle Paul, consisted of a series of letters addressed to various entities like Galatians, Thessalonians, etc. Writings considered to be written by James (brother of Christ) also occurred this early. Different groups maintained their own oral traditions. Mark came later, and then Matthew, Luke, and John later still (as well as many that were not included). Christians aligned behind the four gospel version with the pronouncement of Bishop Irenæus (185 C.E.)

We do not have ANY of these documents.  We've got nothing in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ and the disciples, and we don't have Paul's writings in the Hellenistic Greek that he used. The oldest fragments found (2nd century) and the oldest complete text, Codex Sinaiticus, (4th century), are Greek translations. We don't have what they wrote. We have what others wrote while translating and interpreting with an intent that may have been scholastically and linguistically rigorous - or not.

The Jews were deeply devoted to their Torah and the Old Testament. The early Christians, being Jews, were those most committed to the Messiah prophesies, in particular the writings of Isaiah, and especially Isaiah 53:5:

But he was wounded because of our crimes, Crushed because of our sins; the disciplining that makes us whole fell on him, and by his bruises we are healed.

Paul and Mark say nothing about the birth of Christ let alone a virgin birth, and Mark actually calls Jesus the "son of Joseph." (Hmm.) The later writings of Matthew and Luke present detailed accounts of a virgin birth of Christ. The two gospels are so similar that biblical scholars have theorized the Q Source, a lost document on which Matthew and Luke are based.

The material was consistent with many stories at the time with many common elements: a virgin birth of a savior/god, a manger (in some versions a barn or a cave) with animals, visiting kings with gifts, and the guiding star overhead. Marduk was a virgin birth as were numerous Hindu gods as was the Buddha. Roman Mithraism was the most popular religion at the time, featuring the tale of Romulus and Remus, which told that great men must be conceived by gods rather than regular mortals.


As Christianity started to grow in earnest throughout Rome, the Christians had no fondness for the "Jo, Saturnalia!" celebrations honoring a pagan god. The early Christians wanted a solemn, religious holiday honoring the birth of Christ, which they believed to be December 25. Responding to the continuing celebration of pagan customs, the Church forbid its followers from participating. Right. When the participation continued, the Church did its best to tame the more wild aspects of the party and convert it into a joyous celebration of the birth of Christ, accepting the merriment, the lights, the giving of gifts, and the feasts from Saturnalia.

The New Testament provided a great story to celebrate at this time as well as the imagery for the nativity scene, and by the 12th century, people were displaying such scenes as part of the Christmas decorations, and The Twelve Days of Christmas (note - not a twelve day feast) were implemented in liturgical calendars, 12/25 - 1/5. People had the festival with dinners, pageants, gift giving, and games.

Most scholars agree that December 25 is not the actual date for the birth of Christ. Quoting Luke 2:8 (And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.), some argue he must have been born in the fall since no flock would be out in the fields at night after September.

We do know that in 350 C.E. Julius I, a powerful Bishop of Rome, declared December 25th as the observance of Christmas. Roman Emperor Constantine, who had converted to Christianity, sought to have pagans and Christians celebrate together by incorporating the rituals together. With church support and the Emperor’s power, the winter celebrations became almost entirely associated with the birth of Christ.

Around this same time lived Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna in what is now Turkey. Nicholas was very wealthy and generous and adored children. At Christmas time he would throw gifts into the houses of poor children. The Bishop became a patron Saint of children and seafarers and was granted the title "Saint Nicholas."

In addition to the St. Nicholas legend, the pagan roots of the Germanic holiday Yule referred to the indigenous Norse God Odin, who rode a great horse named Sleipnir that could leap great distances in the air. Odin had long white hair with a long white beard. Children would fill their boots with carrots or straw and place them near the chimney for Sleipnir to eat. As a reward, Odin would replace the food in the boots with gifts. As the Christian version developed in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, the boots became stockings hung by the chimney, Odin morphed into St. Nicholas, and the eight legs of the great horse became eight reindeer. Rudolph did not arrive until much later.

Saint Nicholas. Sint Nikolaas. Sinter klaas.

Santa Claus.

The Reformation occurred and produced these people called Protestants (protest-ant - one who protests), and did these people ever love to get angry and upset about behavior they regarding as immoral. The Christmas celebration was one of these behaviors.

Many Protestants, in particular the Puritans, blasted the celebration of Christmas as a "Catholic invention," the "rags of the Beast" (Beast=Satan), "a festival with no biblical justification." Christmas was a time of "wasteful and immoral behavior."

When the very Protestant Puritans prevailed over Charles I in England, they banned Christmas in 1647. Fighting ensued including riots, and the open celebration of Christmas became dangerous. In 1660, Charles II was restored to power. He ended the official ban, but many years would pass before the holiday's popularity would return.

Like those in England, the Puritans in America despised Christmas. In Boston, Christmas was outlawed from 1659 to 1681. Unmoved by their sentiments, the ruling English Governor (we are 100 years before the revolution) Sir Edmund Andros ended the ban, but uneasy folks refrained from outward celebrations for decades. To the south in New York, Maryland, and Virginia, as well as the German settlers of Pennsylvania, people happily celebrated Christmas openly and without reservation.


The American Revolution caused many Americans to lose their taste for Christmas, now considered an English custom, and George Washington, knowing that Christmas was far more popular in Germany, attacked German mercenaries as they were sleeping off a Christmas feast in 1777. While an intriguing tale, whether the Germans were full of food or liquor remains in dispute. In either case, the Christmas timing certainly didn't hurt. Washington's victory inspired a weak American army on the verge of collapse.

Puritan hostility combined with anti-English sentiments following the revolution led to the decline of Christmas in the United States, and by 1820 the holiday was on the brink of extinction. It would be saved by the power of the pen. Author Washington Irving supported the recognition of Christmas with short stories, but more significantly, Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem that would become famous throughout the globe, A Visit from St. Nicholas, which began, "Twas the night before Christmas."

But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!


The poem firmly cemented the tying of Christmas to the exchange of gifts and a jolly gift bearing St. Nick with presents for the children. Ironically, it was a British novelist who became perhaps the one individual most responsible for saving the holiday in the United States. In 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, a tale about an old miser named Ebeneezer Scrooge who is visited by three Christmas ghosts. Dickens re-contextualized Christmas to be about generosity and family, goodwill towards others, and introduced the expression, "Merry Christmas!"

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
C. D.
December, 1843.


Perhaps as powerful as the story, it's title and the notion of the Christmas carol became fully distinguished. Just ten years earlier William B. Sandys had published Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833), which printed for everyone for the first time the songs, The First Noel, I Saw Three Ships, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, which Dickens featured in his book.

The heart rendering story and songs took the American psyche by storm. The generosity of the spirit, the celebration of life, family and friends, the transformation of Scrooge, all tapped into forces dating back to Mesopotamia. These energies overwhelmed the somber, dull puritan Christian version, and the shift from an emphasis on the birth of Christ to these other factors was unstoppable. Christian churches found themselves in a position where there was going to be a Christmas celebration and a popular one, Christ or no Christ. They chose the former.

While the practice of placing candles in evergreen trees occurred earlier in northern Europe, symbolizing the return of spring, British royalty started using a Christmas Tree in the early 1800s. By 1840, all of Britain decorated a tree for Christmas. A picture of a royal decorated tree was published in 1848 in England, and one appeared in the United States in 1850. By the start of the Civil War, fourteen states had adopted Christmas as a legal holiday. Ten years later, in 1870, Christmas became a United States Federal holiday, and Christmas trees were ubiquitous during the holiday season.

Rekindled by Clement Clarke Moore's poem about the night before Christmas, the legend of St. Nicholas gained energy, and his image was modified, both in the poem, but also significantly by the cartoon illustrations of Thomas Nast, who based an image of St. Nicholas not on a 4th century bishop in robes, but on the Norse god Odin with the white hair and beard, and made him fat. The January 3, 1863 publication of Harper's Weekly contained an illustration that embedded image into the imagination of the country.

In 1897, after her friends told her that Santa Claus did not exist, eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon confronted her father on the matter. He suggested she write to The Sun, a prominent New York City newspaper at the time. One of the paper's editors, Francis Pharcellus Church, who witnessed unspeakable horrors as a war correspondent during the Civil War, chose to answer the question in a philosophical context, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

More than a century later, his response remains the most reprinted editorial ever to run in any newspaper in the English language.

(The original 1931 Coca-Cola ad in the Saturday Evening Post) By the early 1900's, numerous illustrations of St. Nicholas were appearing in magazines making the coat red, the boots and belt black, and an even fatter physique. Seeking to bolster its sales, the Coca-Cola company hired a talented commercial illustrator name Haddon Sundblom, who in the early 30's produced the image that remains with us today. That Coke created Santa Claus (the whole enchilada) is an urban legend actually believed by a surprising number of Americans, who, amazingly, are unaware that Moore's poem was written over a century before the ad campaign widely published Sundblom's Santa.

Only in 1939 did the story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer arrive. Copywriter Robert L. May wrote a poem about Santa's having a ninth, lead reindeer featuring a "nose so bright" that it could lead Santa through the dark night. The entirely commercial venture was launched to entice Christmas shoppers into the Montgomery Ward department store.

Most Christians enjoy the view that Christmas is indeed a holiday starting and ending about the celebration of the birth of Christ, and many complain about the commercialization of the holiday. The fact is that the holiday is profoundly pagan, and some Christians, aware of this reject the holiday outright.

Christmas Quotes:

Christmas Eve was a night of song that wrapped itself about you like a shawl. But it warmed more than your body. It warmed your heart...filled it, too, with melody that would last forever.
Bess Streeter Aldrich

Christmas gift suggestions: To your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.
Oren Arnold

I sometimes think we expect too much of Christmas Day. We try to crowd into it the long arrears of kindliness and humanity of the whole year. As for me, I like to take my Christmas a little at a time, all through the year. And thus I drift along into the holidays--let them overtake me unexpectedly--waking up some fine morning and suddenly saying to myself: 'Why this is Christmas Day!'
Ray Stannard Baker

The perfect Christmas tree? All Christmas trees are perfect!
Charles N. Barnard

There's nothing sadder in this world than to awake Christmas morning and not be a child.
Erma Bombeck

Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.
Peg Bracken

The earth has grown old with its burden of care But at Christmas it always is young, The heart of the jewel burns lustrous and fair And its soul full of music breaks the air, When the song of angels is sung.
Phillips Brooks

Christmas! The very word brings joy to our hearts. No matter how we may dread the rush, the long Christmas lists for gifts and cards to be bought and given--when Christmas Day comes there is still the same warm feeling we had as children, the same warmth that enfolds our hearts and our homes.
Joan Winmill Brown

This is the message of Christmas: We are never alone.
Taylor Caldwell

Remember, if Christmas isn't found in your heart, you won't find it under a tree.
Charlotte Carpenter

To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.
Calvin Coolidge

Christmas, in its final essence, is for grown people who have forgotten what children know. Christmas is for whoever is old enough to have denied the unquenchable spirit of man.
Margaret Cousins

Unless we make Christmas an occasion to share our blessings, all the snow in Alaska won't make it 'white'.
Bing Crosby

It is the personal thoughtfulness, the warm human awareness, the reaching out of the self to one's fellow man that makes giving worthy of the Christmas spirit.
Isabel Currier

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.
Charles Dickens

Something about an old-fashioned Christmas is hard to forget.
Hugh Downs

They err who thinks Santa Claus comes down through the chimney; he really enters through the heart.
Mrs. Paul M. Ell

It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air.
W. T. Ellis

Christmas, my child, is love in action.
Dale Evans

Do give books - religious or otherwise - for Christmas. They're never fattening, seldom sinful, and permanently personal.
Lenore Hershey

My first copies of Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn still have some blue-spruce needles scattered in the pages. They smell of Christmas still.
Charlton Heston

To the American People: Christmas is not a time or a season but a state of mind. To cherish peace and good will, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas. If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope to the world.Calvin Coolidge

I truly believe that if we keep telling the Christmas story, singing the Christmas songs, and living the Christmas spirit, we can bring joy and happiness and peace to this world.Norman Vincent Peale

Christmas is a necessity. There has to be at least one day of the year to remind us that we're here for something else besides ourselves.Eric Sevareid

Remember, if Christmas isn't found in your heart, you won't find it under a tree.
Charlotte Carpenter

Mankind is a great, an immense family. This is proved by what we feel in our hearts at Christmas.
Pope John XXIII

The only real blind person at Christmas-time is he who has no Christmas in his heart.Helen Keller

Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.
Washington Irving

Christmas renews our youth by stirring our wonder. The capacity for wonder has been called our most pregnant human faculty, for in it are born our art, our science, our religion.
Ralph Sockman

Gifts of time and love are surely the basic ingredients of a truly merry Christmas.
Peg Bracken

The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.
Burton Hillis

Many Christians believe that without the birth of Christ, the holiday wouldn't exist, and that Christmas is about the hope and rebirth that Christ represents.

The ideas of hope and rebirth date as far back as humanity and the dark of winter, but that's okay. In the spirit of Christmas, I say we refrain from argument when Christians tell us the holidays grew out of their religion and the birth of its savior. Christmas is meant to be shared.

Merry Christmas, Everyone.

3 Comments:

Blogger Sirocco said...

Excellent post. One minor quibble - I suspect you meant to refer to the Hessians at Trenton as mercenaries rather than missionaries.

Although you don't explicitly mention it, I recall Dec. 25 was associated with being the birth day of Mithra centuries before the birth of Jesus. As Mithraism was one of the other major religions in the region through the first centuries of the common era, it probably made "competitive" sense to the leaders of the early Christian church to appropriate that same date for Jesus' birth as well.

12/21/2010 9:10 AM  
Blogger x4mr said...

Sirocco,
Regarding Trenton, of course. The link makes it obvious. Corrected.

Not only Mithra, but other stories featured December 25 as the birth date of the savior involved.

12/21/2010 9:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very informative and touching post. My grasp of pagan ideas grew significantly thanks to what you wrote here. There are things about this world/earth etc., that are quite fundamental, powerful, and completely legitimate, that have nothing to do with the religions of the day.

The tremendous energy behind Christmas and all of its lore clearly has little to do with the birth of Christ.

Only today, after reading your post, did I realize Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was nothing but a Montgomery Ward stint to draw shoppers into their store. Wow.

12/21/2010 11:51 PM  

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