The Pagan Origins of Christmas, Santa and the Christmas Tree

Another podcast with Sven Longhshanks and the Patriat. This time discussing the origins of Christmas. You can find this article over at: https://www.radioalbion.com/2022/12/patriotic-history-christmas-traditions.html

When the Romans accepted Christianity, they tried to merge many Pagan traditions and festivals with Christianity. Therefore there are elements in Christmas today that go all the way back to Roman times. There were some good aspects such as gift giving and caring for those less well off in society.

The Christmas trees in their form today go back to the Protestants and Martin Luther. Honouring an individual tree may possibly initially go back to the tree of life, however I am more inclined to believe it is linked to Nimrod and Phallic worship. Jeremiah warns against this. Whilst groves are generally associated with goddess worship.

Yule is just the name for the tide or month and Father Christmas is a uniquely British tradition.

Saturnalia

Saturnalia was an ancient Roman festival and holiday in honour of the god Saturn, held on 17 December of the Julian calendar and later expanded with festivities through to 23 December. The holiday was celebrated with a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, in the Roman Forum, and a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, continual partying, and a carnival atmosphere that overturned Roman social norms: gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves as it was seen as a time of liberty for both slaves and freedmen alike. Saturnalian license also permitted slaves to disrespect their masters without the threat of a punishment. It was a time for free speech and the Augustan poet Horace calls it “December liberty”

A common custom was the election of a “King of the Saturnalia”, who would give orders to people, which were to be followed and preside over the merrymaking. The gifts exchanged were usually gag gifts or small figurines made of wax or pottery known as sigillaria. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days
In Roman mythology, Saturn was an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age, when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labour in a state of innocence. The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age.

The ancient Roman historian Justinus credits Saturn with being a historical king of the pre-Roman inhabitants of Italy:
The first inhabitants of Italy were the Aborigines, whose king, Saturnus, is said to have been a man of such extraordinary justice, that no one was a slave in his reign, or had any private property, but all things were common to all, and undivided, as one estate for the use of every one; in memory of which way of life, it has been ordered that at the Saturnalia slaves should everywhere sit down with their masters at the entertainments, the rank of all being made equal.”
— Justinus, Epitome of Pompeius Trogus 43.3
Yule

Yuletide became Christmas tide as Yule was the month of the year when Christmas took place.

Yule is where we get the English word ‘Jolly’ from and one of the names given to Odin looks like it was taken from this month – Jolnir

The etymological pedigree of the word remains uncertain, though numerous speculative attempts have been made to find Indo-European cognates outside the Germanic group. The noun Yuletide is first attested from around 1475.

Yule is attested early in the history of the Germanic peoples; in a Gothic language calendar of the 5–6th century it appears in the month name fruma jiuleis, and, in the 8th century, the English historian Bede wrote that the Anglo-Saxon calendar included the months geola or giuli corresponding to either modern December or December and January

While the Old Norse month name ýlir is similarly attested, the Old Norse corpus also contains numerous references to an event by the Old Norse form of the name, jól, such as in the Prose Edda.
The Saga of Hákon the Good credits King Haakon I of Norway who ruled from 934 to 961 with the Christianization of Norway as well as rescheduling Yule to coincide with Christian celebrations held at the time. The saga says that when Haakon arrived in Norway he was a confirmed Christian, but since the land was still altogether heathen and the people retained their pagan practices, Haakon hid his Christianity to receive the help of the “great chieftains”. In time, Haakon had a law passed establishing that Yule celebrations were to take place at the same time as the Christians celebrated Christmas, “and at that time everyone was to have ale for the celebration with a measure of grain, or else pay
fines, and had to keep the holiday while the ale lasted.

A description of pagan Yule practices is provided by Hollander in his Heimskringla – History of the Kings of Norway:
It was ancient custom that when sacrifice was to be made, all farmers were to come to the heathen temple and bring along with them the food they needed while the feast lasted. At this feast all were to take part of the drinking of ale. Also all kinds of livestock were killed in connection with it, horses also; and all the blood from them was called hlaut [sacrificial blood], and hlautbolli, the vessel holding the blood; and hlautteinar, the sacrificial twigs . These were fashioned like sprinklers, and with them were to be smeared all over with blood the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and served as food at the banquet. Fires were to be lighted in the middle of the temple floor, and kettles hung over the fires. The sacrificial beaker was to be borne around the fire, and he who made the feast and was chieftain, was to bless the beaker as well as all the sacrificial meat.

Leviticus ch 4 “15 And the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands upon the head of the bullock before the LORD: and the bullock shall be killed before the LORD. 16 And the priest that is anointed shall bring of the bullock’s blood to the tabernacle of the congregation: 17 And the priest shall dip his finger in some of the blood, and sprinkle it seven times before the LORD, even before the vail. 18 And he shall put some of the blood upon the horns of the altar which is before the LORD, that is in the tabernacle of the congregation, and shall pour out all the blood at the bottom of the altar of the burnt offering, which is at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. 19 And he shall take all his fat from him, and burn it upon the altar.”

Yule cont…

The narrative continues that toasts were to be drunk. The first toast was to be drunk to Odin “for victory and power to the king”, the second to the gods Njörðr and Freyr “for good harvests and for peace”, and third, a beaker was to be drunk to the king himself. In addition, toasts were drunk to the memory of departed kinsfolk. These were called minni.

In modern Germanic language-speaking areas and some other Northern European countries, yule and its cognates denote the Christmas holiday season. In addition to yule and yuletide in English, examples include jul in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, jól in Iceland and the Faroe Islands, joulu in Finland, Joelfest in Friesland, Joelfeest in the Netherlands and jõulud in Estonia.

Christmas Trees

A Christmas tree is a decorated tree, usually an evergreen conifer such as a spruce, pine or fir, or an artificial tree of similar appearance, associated with the celebration of Christmas. The custom was further developed in medieval Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia), and in early modern Germany where German Protestant Christians brought decorated trees into their homes
Modern Christmas trees originated during the Renaissance in early modern Germany. Its 16th-century origins are sometimes associated with Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther, who is said to have first added lighted candles to an evergreen tree. The Christmas tree was first recorded to be used by German Lutherans in the 16th century, with records indicating that a Christmas tree was placed in the Cathedral of Strasbourg in 1539, under the leadership of the Protestant Reformer, Martin Bucer

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmas time.”

Jeremiah ch 10 (KJV Version) “1 Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: 2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. 3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. 4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. 5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good. 6 Forasmuch as there is none like

Christmas trees cont…

During the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia, houses were decorated with wreaths of evergreen plants, along with other antecedent customs now associated with Christmas.

The Vikings and Saxons had sacred trees and sacred groves. The story of Saint Boniface cutting down Donar’s Oak illustrates the pagan practices in 8th century among the Germans. A later folk version of the story adds the detail that an evergreen tree grew in place of the felled oak, telling them about how its triangular shape reminds humanity of the Trinity and how it points to heaven

In early church calendars, Dec. 24 was also Adam and Eve’s day and it was thought the tree was a representation of the tree of life, promised to Adam.

This may also be the origin of Ygddrasil, the world tree of Norse mythology upon which all life on the nine worlds depends.

Sacred Groves

Trees hold a particular role in Germanic paganism and Germanic mythology, both as individuals (sacred trees) and in groups (sacred groves). The central role of trees in Germanic religion is noted in the earliest written reports about the Germanic peoples, with the Roman historian Tacitus stating that Germanic cult practices took place exclusively in groves rather than temples. Scholars consider that reverence for and rites performed at individual trees are derived from the mythological role of the world tree, Yggdrasil; onomastic and some historical evidence also connects individual deities to both groves and individual trees. After Christianization, trees continue to play a significant role in the folk beliefs of the Germanic peoples.

Asherah (sacred grove)

The name Asherah appears forty times in the Hebrew Bible, but it is much reduced in English translations. The word ʾăšērâ is translated from Greek as ‘grove’ in every instance it appears apart from Isaiah 17:8; 27:9 and 2 Chronicles 15:16; 24:18, with Greek word for trees being used for the former, and, peculiarly, Ἀστάρτη (Astarte) for the latter. The Vulgate in Latin provided lucus or nemus, a grove or a wood. From the Vulgate, the King James translation of the Bible uses grove or groves instead of Asherah’s name. Non-scholarly English language readers of the Bible would not have read her name for more than 400 years afterward.

Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas’ legendary habit of secret gift-giving gave rise to the traditional model of Santa Claus (“Saint Nick”) through Sinterklaas. He was the patron saint of children.

Little is known about the historical Saint Nicholas. The earliest accounts of his life were written centuries after his death and probably contain legendary elaborations. He is said to have been born in the Greek seaport of Patara, Lycia, in Asia Minor to wealthy Christian parents.

Father Christmas

Father Christmas is the traditional English name for the personification of Christmas. Although now known as a Christmas gift-bringer, and typically considered to be synonymous with Santa Claus, he was originally part of a much older and unrelated English folkloric tradition. The recognisably modern figure of the English Father Christmas developed in the late Victorian period, but Christmas had been personified for centuries before then.
The custom of merrymaking and feasting at Christmastide first appears in the historical record during the High Middle Ages (c 1100–1300). This almost certainly represented a continuation of pre-Christian midwinter celebrations in Britain of which—as the historian Ronald Hutton has pointed out—”we have no details at all”. Personifications came later, and when they did they reflected the existing custom

The first known English personification of Christmas was associated with merry-making, singing and drinking. A carol attributed to Richard Smart, Rector of Plymtree in Devon from 1435 to 1477, has ‘Sir Christemas’ announcing the news of Christ’s birth and encouraging his listeners to drink: “Buvez bien par toute la compagnie, / Make good cheer and be right merry, / And sing with us now joyfully: Nowell, nowell.

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