Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Origin of Santa Claus and the Customs of Christmas: Part Three

Yesterday we looked at some of the other characters who may have led to our modern Santa Claus.  Today we will be examining some of the festivals which may have helped to inspire Christmas and our modern traditions.


Nativity Scene by dashinvaine
 Yule was once celebrated for a month of every year.  It was called Thor's month and began on the longest night of the year, which was given the name 'Mother Night'.   Here we can find a scene much like that of the Christian Nativity.  A 'Norse Yule tradition has a manger scene depicting a birth of a Sacred Child from a Sacred Mother.'  The similarities between the Norse manger scene and the Christian manger scene make it plain how 'Christian beliefs were superimposed upon the pre-Christian beliefs.'

While 'Mother Day' took place between December 24th and 25th, Yule, or the Winter Solstice, took place around December 21st or 22nd, which was the shortest day and the longest night for those living in the Northern Hemisphere.  The festival was to mark the death and rebirth of the Sun god, Freyr, who was believed to become 'weak and sick' in the winter.  The Yule festival was a celebration which helped him to recover.

Yule was considered by the Northern races to be the greatest feast of the year.   It was a time for feasting and joy, for it heralded the return of the sun.  This festival was called Yule, meaning 'wheel', because, to the Norse, the sun resembled a wheel which rapidly revolves across the sky.  This belief inspired a custom in England and Germany, where the people assembled on a mountain and set fire to a huge wooden wheel, twined with straw.  Once it was on fire, the wheel was rolled down the hill into water at the base of the hill.

Wheel of fire by Monkeygrip
 'Some others get a rotten Wheele, all worn and cast aside,
Which, covered round with strawe and tow, they closely bide;
And carved to some mountaines top, being all with fire light,
They hurle it down with violence, when darke appears at night;
Resembling much to the sunne, that from the Heavens down should fal,
A strange and monstrous sight it seems, and fearful to them all;
But they suppose their mischiefs are all likewise throwne to hell,
And that, from harmes and dangers now, in saftie here they dwell.'

Traditionals Scandinavian Tree
Modern Christmas traditions find us decorating trees and hanging  holly and mistletoe to decorate our houses.  All of these traditions find their roots in the celebrations of Yule from long ago.  Evergreen trees were a reminder of summer, when the sun god was strong and healthy. 

Under the mistletoe by Nakiloe
Holly is the plant of the winter goddess, Frau Holle, and her lover is the winter god, 'green man', who is often linked with Odin.  It is a plant of good luck and it was believed that by placing holly in your  house you would bring luck into the home.  As well as linking the Frau Holle, this plant was also believed to embody the goddess Freia, who is sometimes referred to as 'the Great Mother.

Mistletoe was held in high esteem, apparently because 'it grew upon the Oak, and derived its nourishment from this king of the Forest, which is dedicated to their God Thor.'  It was considered to be a sign of 'human dependence upon Deity' and it was custom to place the mistletoe upon Thor's altar.  It was also custom that 'anyone with a grievance against another could offer the offending party a sprig of Mistletoe.'  If the offender was forgiven they went to they took it to the offender's house and nailed the Mistletoe to the doorjamb.  The offender would then come out of their house and embrace the offended.  This is the origin of kissing beneath the Mistletoe.

Bringing in the Yule Log
The Yule Log is another Norse custom which survived Christianity.  It was a 'celebration of the triumph of light over darkness and the rebirth of the sun.'  Months before Christmas, an oak tree was chosen and cut down.  After being dried, horses and oxen would haul the huge logs back.  The whole family took part in the hauling as it was believed to protect them from witchcraft.  Sometimes the family decorated their Yule Log with evergreen, ribbon, and paper flowers.  The family would sing Yuletide songs as they hauled the logs home.  Sometimes, once the Yule Log was put in the fireplace, wine would be poured over it.  Prayers were siad and each person was given the opportunity to make a wish.  After this the Yule Log would be lit.  Its purpose was to chase away evil spirits and it was to be kept burning for the entire Christmas season, roughly twelve days.  If the Yule Log stopped burning at any point the family would have bad luck for the entire year to come.  The Norse believed that every spark from the Yule Log fire represented a new pig or calf which would be born in the following year.  The ash from the Yule Log was kept and sprinkled on the land to 'ensure the fertility of crops and livestock.'

Boar's Head
 During the Norse celebrations the father of the family would lay his hand on 'the boar of atonement,' which was a sacred dish, and he would swear that to be faithful to his family as well as promising to fulfill all of his obligations.  This was followed by everyone present.  It was believed that the dish could only be carved by a man with an impeccable reputation and courage.  The boar's head was considered a sacred symbol intended to inspire fear, which is why many Northern kings and warrior heroes of unquestionable bravery used them as ornaments for their helmets.  Unlike today, boar was the meat of choice for the feast.  Boar symbolized Freya, the Norse goddess of fertility, the rebirth of life, and the sun.

Mosaic depicting Mithras, 1st Century Roman

In the second century another festival spread to Rome.  This was Mithraism, a celebration of the Persian sun god, Mithra.  The Persians called Mithraism 'the feast of lights', or 'the night of light, and the birth-day of Mithras'.  Mithra was believed to have been born of December 25th and was said to reign 'in the middle zone between heaven and hell.'  He was the god of light and defender of truth, said to help 'the faithful fight [against] the powers of darkness'.  Unlike Yule and Saturnalia, only the king feasted, while the people sacrificed horses 'to assuage their invincible god.' 

The Triumph of Saturn

While the Norse played a huge role in the traditions of Yule, the Romans also helped to inspire our modern Christmas customs.  They called this holiday Saturnalia.  Saturnalia was one of the great Roman festivals which took place in December and celebrated, amongst a number of things, the triumph of Saturn over Jupiter.  According to this belief, the reign of Saturn 'heralded the Golden Age in Rome.'  While Saturn did lose to Jupiter, Saturnalia was believed to bring his return and Rome was able, for the duration of Saturnalia, to relive the Golden Age if only for a brief time.  Saturn was associated with the sun, so, much like Norse traditions, this celebration siginified the return of the sun.

The Roman Empire first officially adopted the festival of Saturnalia and the birth of the sun on December 25th in the 3rd century.  Generally the celebrations started on December 17th and lasted through to December 24th.  The Romans decorated their homes with greenery,fruit, and nuts, lit their fires and candles, gave gifts to one another, and played games which imitated a role reversal of the established order.  The Romans also decorated trees to honour their gods.  Evergreen trees were associated with everlasting life and were thought to connect people with nature and life.  Saturnalia was followed by the New Year festival of Kalendae, where the Romans would continue their celebrations during the first few days of January.  This festival took place 12 days after the winter solstice and may be the origin of the twelve days of Christmas.

Romans of the Decadence by Thomas Coutures
Throughout the celebration, no one worked except those that provided food, drink, or entertainment.  It was a time in which masters and slaves became equals and all took part in feasting, dancing and gambling.  Candles were used to chase away the darkness, ward off evil, to celebrate light, and to convince the sun to shine again. 

The Roman Goddess Strenia
Gifts were given in honour of Strenia, the goddess of vegetation.  The people believed that it was of the upmost importance to honour one of the gods who brought about the harvest during winter.  To begin with, gifts consisted of produce and baked goods.  Holly was believed to be a magical plant due to its shiny leaves and its ability to bear fruit even in the darkest winter.  Some believed that it contained a syrup which could cure a cough, while others believed that hanging it above the bed would bring about good dreams.  It was a popular gift among the Romans, who later brought the plant to England.  Other gifts included twigs from a sacred grove, statues of gods, bread, and alcohol.  Over time, inedible gifts became more popular and elaborate.

It is believed by some that a combination of the Roman Saturnalia and the Persian Mithraism were the main inspirations for our modern Christmas.  'The fool's dance, the disguising, the general spirit of feasting, were all adopted from the Romans and Persians.  All our Christmas sports and even the Christmas pantomine is thus connected with the Roman Saturnalia.  The feast and merriment survived the belief in the Saturnian system... Had not the Romans observed this Saturnalia, it may be reasonably doubted if any Christmas festival would have been known among the modern nations.'

So, as you can see, many of our modern Christmas traditions are rooted in ancient characters and old festivals.  Saint Nicholas and Zwarte Piet, Odin, and
Thor all give us the characteristics of Santa Claus.  Santa's sleigh and flying reindeer probably find their origin in Norse traditions: Odin's flying horse, Slepnir, and Thor's chariot pulled by Cracker and Gnasher.  The elves too find their origin with the Norse, as Thor's helpers and the maker's of his hammer.  Stockings hung above the fireplace come from Odin, who would replace the food left by the children with gifts, and Santa going up and down the chimney come from Thor, whose element was fire.  Thor is probably also responsible for Santa's home at the North Pole.  And then we have Old Man Winter, a personification of Odin, as our English Father Christmas.

Waiting for Santa by LindArtz
 The Romans and the Norse are responsible for many of our traditions: decorating with evergreen plants, kissing under the Mistletoe, the Yule log, and the twelve days of Christmas.  And Persian's celebrations of their sun god, Mithra give us the date of one of the most popular festivals in the world.

That's all for today.  Next time I will give you some of my favourite stories and poems of Christmas.

Useful Resources
Hammer of Thor - Norse Mythology and Legends by H. A. Guerber
An enquiry into the origin of Christmas-Day by Israel Worsley
Santa's Book of Knowledge by Santa Al Horton
Odin as Santa and the Norse influence Christmas by Samatha Luccese
Jesus Is Not the Reason for the Season by Cheryl Sanchez
The Fires of Yule: A Keltelven Guide for Celebrating the Winter Solstice by Montague Whitsel
The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump
The Everything Family Christmas Book by Yvonne Jeffrey
Holidays and Holy Nights: Celebrating Twelve Seasonal Festivals of the Christian Year by Christopher Hill
Teach Us to Number Our Days: A Liturgical Advent Calendar by Barbara Dee Baumgarten
The Christmas Book: Christmas in the Olden Time, Its Customs and Their Origin published by James Pattie

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