Winter is almost here, and even though retail stores have had Christmas decorations out since mid-October, those who celebrate Christmas are now starting proper preparations for this jolly holiday. Families are cutting down and decorating their own Christmas trees, hanging spruce garlands, mistletoe and wreaths of holly. Christmas music can be heard in every department store, and Santas, holding crying babies, can be found at your local mall.
Christmastime is truly upon us, but have you ever wondered why we celebrate Christmas the way we do? Why we use evergreen trees, or why we hang garland covered with holly? Have you ever wondered where the idea of a large man flying a sleigh pulled by magical reindeer and delivering presents to children came from? Well, it may or may not surprise you that many of our Christmas traditions actually have pre-Christian origins. For this special Christmas blog I’ll be exploring the Pagan holidays Saturnalia and Yule, and how traces of these traditions can still be found in our modern-day Christmas celebrations.
Depending on when and where you lived in the ancient world celebrations at this time of year were very different then they are today. During the Classical Antiquity era, the height of the Roman Empire, the annual winter celebration was known as Saturnalia. There are ancient Greek origins of Saturnalia, but the Romans began celebrating it around 300 BC. Saturnalia was a week-long celebration that honored the Harvest god Saturn, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Titan, Cronus. Celebrations began on December 17th and ended on December 23rd. Throughout the week Roman citizens and slaves were all allowed to freely participate in the festivities as equals, making it a very popular holiday.
Saturnalia festivities were so highly anticipated that the city of Rome would begin preparations for the holiday a week in advance. Hired citizens would clean the streets, set up decorations and building temporary structures used during celebrations. No business was to be conducted during this week, so citizens needed to make sure they had everything they needed.
Celebrations started in the early morning on December 17th. People across Rome, dressed in bright colors and freedmen's caps, flocked to the forum and lined up along the streets in hopes of catching a glimpse of the large procession of sacrificial bulls making their way towards the Temple of Saturn. Once the Harvest god had received his gift from the people, festivities officially began.
For Saturnalia, Rome shifted into a temporary social order where slaves were treated as citizens, and the master of the household could serve his slaves. During this week Roman slaves were free from punishment and were free to do as they pleased. They could even belittle and insult their masters, within reason. Lower class citizens could be crowned a King of Saturnalia-- while they ruled citizens had to obey them. The catch was that the only edicts the "king" was allowed to make were frivolous and without lasting implications, and they were symbolically "dethroned" at the end of the festival.
Saturnalia was a nonstop party. Music was always playing, while people ate,
drank and danced themselves silly. Performers of all kinds entertained at the forum, while others set up gambling tables around the city. It was also common for personal gifts to be given to family members, while close friends received a special wax candle. These candles, when lit, signaled the advent of a golden age coming for the new year. Some theorize links between this tradition and the lighting of candles during the season of Advent, to mark the beginning of the Christian liturgical new year.
Saturnalia celebrations spread far and wide all across the Roman Empire and were held for many centuries. Even once Christianity started to gain popularity in the 4th century A.D, instead of eliminating the popular pagan holiday, they instead co-opted many of the existing traditions, relabeling many of their names and meanings. Many Saturnalia traditions have stood the test of time, and are still present in our modern celebrations. Things like lighting candles and gift giving stem from Saturnalia. Even wearing Santa hats or paper crowns can be linked to the wearing of the freedmen’s cap, and the crowning of the King of Saturnalia.
If you were Germanic during the Middle Ages, and lived in Northern Europe, you would have celebrated the winter festival Yule, also known as Yuletide or Yulefest. Life in the north was hard, especially in the winter months, and people needed something to look forward to during the unforgiving winters. The festival of Yule was a time to celebrate life to its fullest. Feasting, singing, dancing and overall merrymaking went on for twelve days and nights, starting on December 21st (the solstice), and ending on January 1st.
Preparations for the celebration involved bringing large logs of Ash inside the home and placing them in the hearth. The logs were lit on one side and left to slowly burn every night during Yule. Any spark that came from the log was thought to represent the life of a new calf, set to be born during the upcoming year. Yule logs were also said to symbolize the darkness (death) of winter being driven out by the light (life) of the fire.
Other preparations consisted of setting up and decorating of the Yule Tree in the center of the village, hanging mistletoe and decorating the house with holly and ivy, symbols later adopted by Christians as symbols of Christ and Mary, respectively. However, everything done for and during this festival had a different meaning to the Germanic pagans. For instance, holly was used to decorate the household because it was believed that its prickly leaves were able to ward off or capture any evil spirts before they were able to enter the home. Mistletoe was also used to protect the home. It was hung over the entryway in order to repel any thunder, lighting and other evils. The Germanic people also believed that mistletoe helped with a woman’s fertility, so young couples hung the plant above their headboards in hopes of adding a new member to their family in the coming year.
The Yule Tree was also an important symbol in pagan tradition, representing the Tree of Life, also known as Yggdrasil in Norse mythology. For Yule celebrations a tree was brought into the center of the village. Young and old assisted in decorating the tree with gifts, pinecones, berries, and other fruits. Symbols that were considered sacred to the Norse gods and goddesses were also placed on the tree.
Yule has many traditions that are still prevalent in our Christmas celebrations today. Traditions such as hanging wreaths, ringing bells and even elves can be tied to Yule. Of course the meanings behind these traditions has evolved over time. Take for example the hanging of wreaths. Germanic pagans hung them because they symbolized the infinity of goodwill, friendship and joyfulness. It was also a symbol of the Wheel of the Year, which is the pagan calendar for the eight Sabbats. In Christianity, meanwhile, it has come to symbolize everlasting life and Christ's triumph over death.
A popular character we all know, Santa Claus, also has some pre-Christian roots. Though he represents St. Nicholas, the 3rd century Turkish Bishop who famously left gifts in people's shoes, other parts of the lore surrounding Santa come from more ancient traditions. When one looks at traditional imagery of Santa, and not the modern Coca-Cola version, similarities to the Norse God Odin can be found. For instance in many Norse myths Odin takes the form of an old, white-bearded traveler clad in a hooded cloak, and riding on horseback. Odin was also known to ride a eight-legged horse through the sky, named Sleipnir. The original Santa rode a horse before he was given his eight tiny reindeer in the 1823 poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas.
During Yule it was also said that Odin and the other gods participated in the Wild Hunt. On these hunts Odin was said to race across the sky in search of ice giants and other forces of evil. These hunts were linked to winter storms, and it was believed that those who disrespected the gods caught bad luck, while those whom Odin favored received good fortune and gifts. One can also find reference of elves, all whom were skilled crafters, being referred to as "Odin’s Men" in the Eddic poem, Thorsdrapa. The original Santa wasn’t mentioned having elves until 1855 in the short story “Christmas Elves” by Louisa May Alcott. How much Odin actually influenced the imagery of Santa can’t be said for sure, but one can surely see similarities between the two.
It’s fascinating to think just how many of our Christmas traditions stem from these ancient celebrations. Many of these pagan traditions have become more Christianized over the years, but we still use some of them to celebrate Christmas. It may not be the same debauched celebration that it used to be, but many of those original ancient traditions are still around today in syncretized forms.
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