christmasTwas the Night Before Christmas and I was waiting for Santa Claus with my face pressed close to the unheated, upstairs, bedroom window on our dead-end country lane. I scanned the tree line along the north side of the barren field where a few dead corn stalks defied their deep, white shroud. He was sure to come from that direction. Not a creature was stirring, not even the mice that on occasion scampered across the room from under my bed. As I waited and watched, exquisitely symmetrical little works of God on the panes melted beneath my breath.

For primordial man, this was a night of magic and wonder, when in the darkest pit of imagination and fear, a seed of hope is fired by a divine spark, and new life stirs. The Earth, frozen and wasted, has checked the Sun’s journey south. It was a night for miracles, when dreams are born and reborn, when by some omnipotent hand the world is turned around at the edge of the void. “When out on the lawn, there arose such a clatter…”

christmas treeEvery year Christmas rolls around, and we think, “What, another year already down the tubes?” And, every year, it rolls around a little faster with its joys, hopes, promises, and regrets. What’s it all about? It’s about the baby Jesus of course (although most people don’t tarry long on that). Christmas becomes for those folks, long lists of things to do, gifts to buy, cards to write, and parties to attend. Christians take special pleasures in the Christmas story of the Star of Bethlehem, Wise Men bearing gifts, shepherds, and angels, that only add to the time honored activities of caroling, making merry with family and friends, and adorning house and tree in tinsel, glittering ornaments, and colorful lights. But to truly understand this “Holy Day”, and how it has transformed itself into its modern version, we must travel back in time – long before Madison Avenue.

There is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th, and the fact that many Christmas traditions are thoroughly pagan need not detract from the pageantry and celebration. Shepherds would probably not have had their flocks out in the midwinter fields, and the Romans would probably not have ordered a census at this time of year, when travel was most difficult. The first mention of a birthday for Jesus is the year 354 AD. It wasn’t until 375 AD that the Church officially fixed the date. Gradually most Christian churches accepted the date of December 25th., However, many around the world celebrate their gift giving on January 6 (Epiphany). In fact, the day, month, and year of Christ’s birth are known only to God.

dionysusThe ancient Greeks celebrated the death and rebirth of Dionysus, the god of wine and wild revelry, for 12 days at the winter solstice. “His eyes how they twinkle, his dimples how merry, his cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry.”

The Roman Saturnalia was a festival of 7 days at the same astronomical event. In astrology, Saturn (from which we name many people’s favorite day of the week Saturday) is the “ruler” of the zodiac sign Capricorn, the constellation where we find the sun at this point in our yearly orbit. The earth is dead and cold, and early man believed that the sun too might be dying. Due to the calendar change, the winter solstice is around December 21, but it was originally December 25th when the “Saturnalia” and its “end of the world” orgies were offered to Jupiter‘s bloody father, the god of harvests. History has always identified Saturn with “time” – the scythe becoming a symbol of its cruel and merciless flow, which, in the end, cuts down all things.

The Shrine to Saturn, the oldest temple recorded by Roman historians, was dedicated on the Saturnalia. The ivory statue within had its feet trussed with woolen cords that were loosed on that day to free the fearsome god to do whatever it was that he did to make the corn grow the next year. This was the most popular holiday of the Roman year, and an occasion to visit friends, present gifts (particularly candles), and celebrate.

Restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, less formal dinner clothes were permitted, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters’ clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god.

A time of merriment, the season also became an occasion for murder and mayhem. Catiline and his conspirators planned to set fire to Rome and kill the senate on the Saturnalia, when many were drunk and celebrating. Caracalla plotted his brother’s murder at this holiday, and the Emperor Commodus was strangled on New Year’s eve in his bath.

gingerbread manThe popularity of the Nativity scene, one of the most beloved and enduring symbols of the holiday season, originated in Italy. St. Francis of Assisi asked a man named Giovanni Vellita of the village of Greccio to create a manger scene. St. Francis performed mass in front of this early Nativity scene, which inspired awe and devotion in all who saw it. The creation of the figures or pastori became an entire genre of folk art. However, in the time of Jesus there were no stables. Valuable livestock, whose body heat also helped keep everyone a bit warmer, were kept in the house with the family. Matthew 2:11 in all translations says, “house”. Stables and mangers came along many centuries later.

A Scandinavian tradition, the “Yule log” was a long burning oak tended for the 12 days of the winter solstice celebration. A piece of the wood was saved to light the next year’s log. “Yule” is named after Ullr, the Norse god of winter. Originally an entire tree, the Yule log was carefully chosen, and brought into the house with great ceremony. The butt end would be placed into the hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. The tree would be slowly fed into the fire and the process was timed to last the entire Yule season.

mistletoe“Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open my jammies, and threw up the sash!” Mistletoe which has no Christian significance is an ancient Druid fertility symbol, and people used it to do a lot more than kissing. The hanging of greens, such as holly and ivy, is a British winter tradition with origins long before the Christian era. Greenery was probably used to lift sagging winter spirits and remind the people that spring was not far away. Evergreen trees were a potent symbol of life in the dark winter days. Decorating them was a way of making offerings to the tree’s spirit. The decorating of Christmas trees, widely popular in England since 1841, was initially a German tradition. Queen Victoria’s husband, the German Prince Albert is credited with establishing the custom in England when he set up a tree in Windsor Castle for his wife, and their children.

christmas stockingFrom England comes the story of why we hang stockings from the mantelpiece. It seems that Father Christmas once dropped some gold coins while coming down the chimney. The coins would have fallen through the ash grate and been lost if they hadn’t landed in a stocking that had been hung out to dry. Since that time children have continued to hang out stockings in hopes of finding them filled with something besides a lump of coal.

It is from Scandinavia that most of our Christmas traditions come. The cold, dark winters inspired the growth of notions concerned with light and warmth. Yuletide, a time of extreme importance in Scandinavia, referred to the return of the sun after the winter solstice. It was a time when fortunes were determined for the coming year, and when the dead were believed to walk the earth. Ancient tradition considered it dangerous to sleep alone on Christmas Eve. Pity the poor fool who never used soap. The roasted boar’s head, long an English tradition associated with holiday feasting, is a custom that probably goes back to the Norse habit of sacrificing a boar at the winter solstice in honor of their god Freyr.

“Wassail” is from an Anglo-Saxon phrase which means “Was the ale you mean I’m drunk.” Originally a hot, alcoholic drink with berries, fruit, etc. served at the solstice celebration, it has over the centuries developed into a ceremony and custom of drinking in general and eggnog in particular. The bowl is carried into a room with great fanfare and a rousing drinking song or two. Coca Cola cashed in, along with Seagrams, Jack Daniels, and many others, with the popular holiday cheer, “Wixski and coke, please.”

christmas santaSanta Claus first appeared as a fat, bearded fellow in a fur coat in a drawing by Thomas Nast in 1860 when he illustrated Clement Moore’s 1822 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas”. In 1931, artist Haddon Sunblum was commissioned by the Coca Cola company to design a Christmas image that might represent their drink around the world. Choosing the corporate colors of red and white Haddon came up with a very fat and jolly Santa to push the secret, fizzy formula. The rest is solid gold Christmas lore.

Saint Nicholas or “Saint Nick” is the patron saint of children, pawnbrokers and merchants (easy enough to imagine). So how did Saint Nick, who lived in Turkey and was prominent at the First Council of Nicaea 325 AD, end up at the North Pole, driving a sleigh with reindeer? Well, perhaps it was Kris Kringle, or the Norse god of harvests Freyr who, with a sleigh full of Budweiser and a couple ounces of bud, spent twelve days during the winter solstice delivering presents to the good folk and whoopass for the rest. It’s for sure, whichever of the customs you choose to celebrate at this holiday season, most are missing from the “Christmas Story”. And, I heard him exclaim as he drove out of site, “Life’s a $#!% sandwich, and each day’s one more bite!” Hmmm

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