Is There a War on Christmas, and Does Santa Know? Part 1
By Kat Kent, December 8, 2016
We hear a great deal about this “War on Christmas” every year. I’ve never witnessed it for myself, only hear about it, usually from Christians. They seem to feel it to their core. But the truth is, I have never witnessed a single act of aggression by anyone offended by Christmas. For the most part, everyone at least recognizes the season as one of peace and joy for all, no matter their chosen celebration. As an atheist, I celebrate “Christmas” without the religion. It’s known as Yule and has been known as Yule for centuries before Christianity was created, much less it’s Christmas story and celebrations. Winter Solstice celebrations have been seen for a least the last 23,000 years, if not longer. I don’t mind that we don’t call it Yule. Our modern year end celebrations have that common thread of mimicking the Yule Season celebrations, with the incorporation of many different religious beliefs. All are celebrating the same ideals.
Archaeologists have found winter solstice celebrations recorded in art in caves dating to 12,000 + years ago. As common as that, is the story of a nativity, a myth of a hero born to virgins, near the winter solstice, part man and part god. All born in caves and mangers, there were actually 32 throughout history, 16 of whom also shared the crucifixion story. Even many of the details of the events are very similar.
In Scandinavia , ancient Norsemen celebrated the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, or the shortest day of the year, when the earth’s axis tilts the furthest away from the sun, giving all locations north of equator less than 12 hrs of daylight. This became known as the Yule Season, derived from the Anglo-Saxon “Yula,” or “Wheel of the Year”, and it was the most celebrated holiday of the year. The celebration of Yule continues to this day. It is still a festival that honors the cycle of nature and the Wheel of the Year. It is not just about the rebirth of the God figure in pagan lore. Yule is a 12 day holiday, that now begins on “Mothers Night” (December 21st) and ends 12 days later on “Yule Night” (January 1st).
A Yule tree is decorated each year. For celebrants, it represents the World Tree that connects all of the Seven Worlds. Yule cookies, drinks, and Yule songs are all still a part of the celebrations. The colors for Yule decorations have always been red, green and white, originally found in the colors of nature’s decor used when the celebrations of Yule began. A yule log is still burned and is still thought to bring good
fortune to the household. It is unlucky to buy one, and it must be obtained from your own or neighbor’s woods. A small piece is saved to light the next year’s yule log.
Feasting is still a large part of the holiday. It’s original purpose was to acknowledge the return of the season of growth by eating heartily during a season of scarcity as a way to give hope for an abundant harvest in the coming year. During the middle ages, the nobility had gradually developed rites into status-conscious events where they competed with each other to outdo their generosity to the extended community and the poor, which included elaborate meals and new clothing and shoes. Today’s feasts serve only the purpose of sharing yourself with others in the spirit of the holiday.
The Celtic festival of Alban Arthuan, is held during the Winter Solstice on December 21. Translated, it means “The Light of Arthur,” in reference to the Arthurian legend that states King Arthur was born on the Winter Solstice. During Iron Age, Celts believed earth stood still for 12 days during Yule. (12 days of Christmas) Families lit a Yule Log to conquer the never ending darkness. Animal sacrifices were made, and there was much feasting and celebrating. Mistletoe was a sacred plant called “All Heal”. It was believed to cure illness, be an antidote for poisons, ensure fertility and protect it’s users from witchcraft. Hanging it from the doorway blessed all visitors who passed under it. Alban celebrators used candles and ancient ritual objects to decorate as an honor to the deities of light, and the gods of grain and vegetation. Drinking the fruit of the vine was always a part of the celebrations, as was elaborate feasting. Evergreens were used to decorate the home, including holly, ivy and mistletoe and flowers where available. Also rosemary, gorse, bay, cypress and yew.
Santa Claus can also be traced back to Celtic roots. His “elves” are the modernization of the “Nature folk” of the Pagan religions, and his reindeer are associated with the “Horned God”, a Pagan deity. In Germany, they honored god Odin who was believed to fly through the night sky and determine who would be blessed or cursed in coming year. Fruit and candles were attached to evergreen tree branches, in honor of their god Odin. Trees were viewed as symbolizing eternal life. The trees joined holly, mistletoe, the wassail bowl and the Yule log as symbols of the season.
The Greek’s festival is called Lenaea. It represents the birthday of Hercules and Dionysus on December 25, according to the ancient authority Macrobius (c. 400 AD/CE) . Celebrated in Athens, the death and rebirth of the harvest infant Dionysus was dramatized. The first decorating of an evergreen tree began with the heathen Greeks and their worship of the god Adonia, who allegedly was brought back to life by the serpent Aessulapius after having been slain.
In England and Wales, there was a tradition of performing a play of the story of the Oak King and the Holly King, and the passing of the reign. It was performed twice per year on solstices. The kings battle for dominance, in a symbolic reenactment of the sacrifice of a young male of the tribe to appease the gods who ruled the seasons.
The Indian solstice celebration is considered the greatest religious holiday of the year. As in the West, the Indians decorate their houses with garlands, and exchange gifts with friends and relatives. One way the Brahman priests of Orissa have celebrated the solstice is by carrying images of a youthful Krishna to the houses of their followers, to whom they present red powder and tar of roses, and receive presents of money and cloth in return.
Saturnalia is another year end festival, honoring the Roman god, Saturn, the God of Sowing. Established long before the Romans invaded Britain, the holiday was celebrated between December 12 and the 23, depending on the emperor’s wishes. During the holiday, the Feast of the Dolls, or Sigillaria, was held usually on the 22. This was a fair held for children where they would receive dolls and other toys. On December 25, Brumalia was celebrated. This was the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”, Deus Sol Invictus, when the days began to lengthen after the solstice. This holiday was instituted by emperor Aurelian, around 274CE, in honor of the Persian sun-god, Mithras, who the emperor declared the protector of Rome. During the reign of emperor Constantine, in the 4th century CE, the cult of Deus Sol Invictus was still at its height. It was during this time that the birthday of Jesus, which had been celebrated in the East on January 6, was then placed on Dec 25th, the date of the birthday of Deus Sol Invictus, or Mithra .
During the holiday, masters served their servants meals, and gave them gifts, usually candles for the upcoming solstice. Instead of the toga, colorful dinner clothes were permitted in public. Romans used holly wreaths and greenery to decorate their homes because it was thought to have magic powers to survive winter. The ancient Pagan Romans decorated their outdoor trees with bits of metal and replicas of their god, Bacchus [a fertility god]. They also placed 12 candles on the tree in honor of their sun god.
Wassailing became a favorite pastime during the festival. Wassailing is the custom of honoring one’s livestock and crops during the Christmas season in hope that this salute will increase yield in the coming year. Toasts are drunk to corn, cows, and fruit trees. Old English for “your health”, this 14th century ritual consisted of a bowl or cup of mulled wine being raised as toast and crying out “wassail”! The cup was then passed to the next person, until all in attendance had taken a drink. By about the 1600s, the practice of taking a wassail from house to house offering a warm drink became popular. Singing during the event eventually caught on. Many Christian traditions mimic these ancient rituals. The Christmas Candle, for instance, is lit on Christmas Eve, just at dusk. It is kept burning as long as the household’s hosts are up, usually all night in the first Christmas celebrations. The candle should not be purchased, it had to be a gift. In the 1930s, grocers would hand them out to their customers. A small bit of the burnt candle was held as a lucky charm for household, and to be used to light the next years candles. This is very much like the Yule log and its traditions. In our modern times, we have electric candles that burn all through the night, serving much the same purposes as the yule log did thousands of years ago. Some traditions replicate the log itself as part of their celebrations. The Buche de Noel is an edible version of the Yule log. Made from sponge cake, rolled and frosted in chocolate to look like Yule Log, it has become part of the French Christmas Eve Meal, the Reveillon, or dinner after the midnight mass.
Christianity came into this game later than most, not incorporating a year end celebration into their myths until the mid 4th century. Saturnalia did continue to be celebrated as Brumalia into the Christian era, when, by the middle of the fourth century CE, its festivities were being adopted into the celebration of Christmas. The first reference of the nativity of Jesus on December 25 occurs in the Calendar of Philocalus, the Chronology of CE 354. Pope Julius chose the date of December 25th, to coincide and eventually replace Saturnalia, as a way to encourage heathens to convert. In 375 CE, the archbishop of Constantinople stated that the fixing of a date for the Nativity was necessary because “while the heathens were busied with their profane rites, the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance”.
Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911, states that the first celebration on December 25 honoring a new born king was in Egypt. It states that early Christians considered Christmas a holiday for sinners, as there was no record of a feast or banquet and rejoicing over one’s own birth. In fact, early Christians did not celebrate Jesus birth at all, only his death and resurrection. It also states “The well-known solar feast…of Natalis Invicti, celebrated on 25 December, has a strong claim on the responsibility for our December date….”.
Advent, a month long celebration before Christmas reflects on the times that many had to survive the winter by eating very little. It’s fasting meant no eggs, cheese, milk could be consumed among wealthy. The poor gave up staples like cider. It became a custom to feast on the 25th and to mark the day with acts of hospitality and generosity. It was traditional to hire entertainment for the feasts like harpists, singers, storytellers,and minstrels. The wealthy were expected to open doors to all of those who “served” them throughout the year as well as their wealthy friends. Communities also held their own feasts, with churches pooling their resources to pay for it. Except for the name, this celebration is exactly as celebrated during Saturnalia.
Eventually, as Christianity grew, Christmas celebrations would surpass pagan rituals. But most mimicked or were at least based on pagan rites and celebrations. During the medieval period, Christmas became a rowdy holiday of unequaled drunken revelry. This remains the holiday’s worst moments in history. In 1851, Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland OH was the person responsible for decorating the first Christmas tree in an American church. His parishioners condemned the act as a Pagan practice and some threatened the pastor with violence. Eventually their objections ended.
However, this brings to point that the Christians themselves have always waged an internal “war” about who or what Jesus was, and in how his life, death and birth should be acknowledged. This conflict was primary to the early formation of the Christian religion. Christmas was considered by most early Christians to be a tradition of man made origin. God’s command to “Follow not the way of the heathen” was primary to the early religion, and considered a ban on pagan rites.
The English Puritans, in fact, were not the first Christians to condemn a number of customs associated with Christmas, such as the use of the Yule log, holly, mistletoe, a decorated tree, and other customs taken from the original Yule celebrations. Oliver Cromwell preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees and any joyful expression that desecrated “that sacred event.” In the United States territories, the Pilgrim’s second governor, William Bradford, a Calvinist, wanted to end all “pagan mockery” at Christmas time. William Prynne, a devout church leader, during the time of king Charles I, wrote: “Our Christmas lords of Misrule, together with dancing, masques, mummeries, stage-players, and such other Christmas disorders, now in use with Christians, were derived from these Roman Saturnalia and Bacchanalian festivals; which should cause all pious Christians eternally to abominate them”.
Many of these groups still exist today, now quietly following their own traditions, if any, among a veritable sea of Christmas commercialism. Many of these same groups also denounce the myths of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, claiming he is a rewrite of the pagan “fire gods” who they claimed would come down chimneys and cook and eat children. Teaching children about Santa Claus is considered equivalent to teaching them to worship the devil, they say. Often cited are bible verses like Jeremiah 10: 2-5 to support their beliefs.
While these groups still refute and refuse to celebrate the Christmas holidays, they are not overtly campaigning against it as a group. “Chosen people” that they are, they realize they still live in a pagan dominated world. Today’s Christians for the most part celebrate the holiday as it has always been celebrated, tens of thousands of years prior to the formation of Christianity, with one exception: the insertion of a baby Jesus in a manger, and the insistence that everyone, regardless of belief, bow and pray to it. For thousands of years, they were successful……or you died. But today, all are free to practice their religions equally under the law.