Sunday, December 23, 2007


This Christmas season I’ve noted many sincere Christian folks of good will waxing teary-eyed and eloquent about the sacred traditions of Christmas and their two thousand year old pedigree? Their claims are born of ethnocentrism, an incredible leap of faith and ignorance of thousands of years of history. Given that most of us seem to be losing the real meaning of Christmas, I thought it appropriate to set the record straight. I am not intent on debunking Christmas (no Bah Humbug here), rather to shine the light of day on the origins of the holiday and ultimately straighten our path.

In a great irony we have the formerly anti-Christian Romans to thank for the start of the evolution of December 25 as the celebration of the birth of Jesus aka Christmas. Despite the evolution of this holiday there remains significant pagan and secular symbolism. For starters we know that Jesus wasn’t even born in December!

Pagan cultures all over the world have traditionally celebrated the winter solstice as a feast day, the precursor of the beginning of deep winter and the rebirth of the Sun. Indeed, Bronze Age archaeological sites to include many stone circles like Stonehenge in England had their footprints aligned with the sun of the winter solstice.

The symbolism of the year as reborn fits nicely with the celebration of the birth of Jesus, The Son emanating from the rebirth of The Sun. It’s an easy segway that leads us to many other celebrations of new beginnings to include Hogmanay's Redding (cleaning) tradition in Scotland and the North Country.

Indeed, this correlation was not lost on several early Christian writers to include the former pagan and martyred Saint Cyprian of Carthage who connected the rebirth of the sun to the birth of Jesus in the mid third century when he wrote, "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born . . . Christ should be born."

Roman Emperor Aurelian laid the foundation for the modern tradition of Christmas by establishing December 25, 274 A.D. as the Festival of the Sun God. Early Christians who were being ruthlessly persecuted reputedly used the festival to celebrate the birth of Christ without being detected. In many modern quarters Aurelian is known as “The Father of Christmas.”

Some agenda driven, intellectually bankrupt naysayers like William J. Tighe have tried to unsuccessfully convince us that Aurelian chose the date in an attempt to, “create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians” despite the fact that pagan cultures had reserved and celebrated that date for thousands of years based not on some incident of historical import but the winter equinox. Tighe’s suspect scholarship and use of “appears” and “was almost certainly” is no justification for his theory. Indeed, most scholars agree that it was the other way around; that the Christians lifted many elements of the Mithraic theology and incorporated it into their own ritual. To early Christians, the childhood or place and manner of the birth of Jesus was irrelevant as The Resurrection, the Kingdome of God, was at hand. That postponed, they had to build a complete history of their, "beginning."
This is the stuff of a whole other treatise which I may engage at a later time.

Of course, we ultimately need to thank Roman Emperor Constantine I who after attributing his victory over Maxentius at the Tiber River in A.D. 312 to a Christian sign, “converted to Christianity”. Constantine then lifted sanctions against Christians, returned confiscated property, built many churches and may well be more of The Rock than Peter. It was Constantine who made Christianity the official state religion and convened the first Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. Without his protection and patronage one wonders how Christianity might have evolved or whether it would have survived. Otherwise, we might all be worshipping Mithras? Even with his fervor, Constantine was a politician to the end, hedging his bets and playing both sides against the middle, not being baptized until he was on his deathbed.

Though Constantine worshipped the full pantheon of Roman gods and especially the Roman Sun God Sol, the symbolism noted earlier was not lost on him. Constantine was one sharp guy who saw great benefit in using Christianity to unify his empire by bringing it under the banner of one religion.

Constantine was intent on blending the existing pagan traditions with the new Christianity. He knew that he wouldn’t be favorably received if he took away two of the more popular Roman holidays – the Mardi Gras-like celebration of Saturnalia (December 17-24) and the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, "the birthday of the invincible sun" and the inclusive celebration of the birth of Mithras, the Persian god of Light (December 25-Jan 1) that was embraced by many upper class Romans and especially, the Roman military.

A significant side note: In a not too surprising coincidence, December 25 was Mithras' birthday before it was Jesus’, Mithras healed the sick, made the lame walk, gave sight to the blind, raised the dead and before returning to heaven at the Spring Equinox, had a last supper with 12 disciples?

The Mithraic, and Christian cults were very similar both in appearance and in the character of their ritual. Indeed, the similarities between Mithraism and Christianity are so numerous that it cannot really be denied that the older cult influenced the more recent one. Early Christian priests alarmed with the similarities with their liturgy could offer no better explanation than to surmise that the Devil had gone back in time and planted the belief system so as to confuse the Christians of the day.

The initiates of Mithras, the sun-god, believed that he was born of a virgin in a cave on December 25, and was worshipped on Sunday, the day of the conquering sun. Mithras condemned evil, practiced baptism and consumed the sacraments of bread and wine. He was a savior-god who exceeded Jesus in popularity in ancient Rome. He died and was resurrected in order to become a messenger god, an intermediary between man and the good god of light, and the leader of the forces of good against the dark forces of the god of evil. Hmmmmmmmmmm…

The Mithraic Holy Father wore a red cap, robe, and a special ring, and carried a shepherd's staff. All Mithraic priests were called ‘Father’ not unlike Christian priests who adopted the same title. Mithra's bishops wore a mithra, or miter, as their badge of office. Christian bishops also adopted miters. The Mithraic mass involved the eating of a sun-shaped bun embossed with the sword of Mithra, which was a cross. The Catholic communion wafer continues this Mithraic tradition, and the structure of the old Catholic Latin Mass closely mirrors the Mithraic mass.

Back to the origins of Christmas - Saturnalia was a hedonistic celebration where normal Roman social order was turned upside down and Romans paraded in the streets wearing masks (and sometimes little more), costumes and animal skins and practiced ritual which continued later in Europe evolving into the Mummers tradition. Emperor Constantine merged these pagan festivities with the new Christmas holiday though many of the pagan celebratory traditions from these festivals continued unabated. They just had a new label. Gifts were exchanged and Families and Friends gathered to drink and feast – traditions that are resoundingly familiar to us today. By the 12th century the remnants of Saturnalia were formally incorporated into what we now know as the “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

In 350 CE, Pope Julius I reaffirmed that Christmas would be celebrated on December 25 and like Constantine I was sensitive to the still Roman pagan majority’s penchant for the debauched celebrations of their non-Christian past (a bitter pill goes down easier with a little sugar). The first mention of December 25 as the celebration of the date of Jesus' birth is found in an early Roman calendar from A.D. 336, well before Pope Julius’s proclamation. OK, so now we know that Christmas is a pagan-based holiday fraught with considerable political ramifications.

The rest is a matter of history with many elements of our Christmas being incorporated from many cultures around the world.

Several hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Druids used mistletoe to decorate their homes and celebrate the coming of winter. The Druids believed the plant had special healing powers for everything from female infertility to poison ingestion while the Scandinavians thought of mistletoe as the plant of peace and harmony. The Norse associated mistletoe with their goddess of love, Frigga, who rode in her cat-drawn chariot (they were Norwegian Forest Cats) and whose tears became the white berries of the mistletoe. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is believed to originate from this belief. Contrary to the end and not surprisingly, the early church aggressively banned the use of mistletoe for Christmas substituting the use of holly. That failed and we now have the tradition of the mistletoe and holly.

Remember the Yule Log? Yes, on the occasion of the winter festival called Yule they were lit to honor Thor, the God of Thunder, with the belief that, “each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year. Feasting would continue until the log burned out, which could take as many as twelve days. In pagan Germania (not to be confused with Germany), the equivalent holiday was the mid-winter night which was followed by 12 "wild nights", filled with eating, drinking and partying. As Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, its pagan celebrations had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul. In English, the Germanic word Yule is synonymous with Christmas, a usage first recorded in 900.”

The early Christian Church strictly prohibited the decoration of their houses with evergreen boughs perceived then as “Pagan”. While the modern celebration of Christmas continues to incorporate the pagan symbols of the evergreen tree (the green symbol of the renewal of life), they have long been a pagan tradition dating back to prehistory.

The ancient Romans may have had the distinction of having the first decorated “Christmas tree” as they decorated trees with small pieces of metal during Saturnalia through to its ultimate conversion to Christmas.

The modern Christmas tree originated in the Alcase region of western Germany in the 16th century. German Christians decorated fir trees with flowers, apples, candles and colored paper in celebration of Adam & Eve Day on December 24th. The decorated Christmas tree known to the Germans as Paradise trees didn’t catch on throughout the rest of Europe and the United States until well into the mid-19th century. The great irony is that bastion of pagan ritual in some more politically correct towns and villages in the United States has now evolved into a Christian symbol and rejected as such on the basis of separation of church and state, surely amusing the spirits of our pagan ancestors.

United States President Franklin Pierce arranged to have the first Christmas tree in the White House in 1856 while it was President Calvin Coolidge who started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn in 1923.

Today, the Christmas tree has become accepted by Christians, by people of other faiths (many of my Jewish Friends have adopted Chanukah Bushes), and even for those who do not follow an organized religion. It has become a popular late-December tradition and part of our present-day culture, commercially inspired or not.

Lastly, we tackle the image of today's Santa Claus, a folk figure with multicultural roots. Santa Claus, while not religious, has become an important symbol of Christmas throughout the world.

As a member of the Kingdome of Räknar, a Scottish-Norse society (I do also celebrate my French-Norman-Viking) roots) I appreciate that Odin, the Norse God has been recorded, at the native Germanic holiday of Yule, as leading a great hunting party through the sky. There are many historical references to Odin to include Snorri Sturluson’s 1220 CE epic, Snorri’s Edda, an Icelandic collection of poems and stories from Norse mythology. In this saga Odin is described as riding an eight-legged horse name Sleipnir that could leap great distances giving us to immediately compare Sleipnir to Santa’s reindeer.
It gets better, still.

Odin's appearance was hauntingly similar to that of Saint Nicholas, usually being depicted as an old, enigmatic man with a long white beard and conical hat.

According to writer Phyllis Siefker, author of the wonderful book, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years, “Children would place their boots, filled with carrots, straw or sugar, near the chimney for Odin's flying horse, Sleipnir, to eat. Odin would then reward those children for their kindness by replacing Sleipnir's food with gifts or candy. This practice survived in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands after the adoption of Christianity and became associated with Saint Nicholas as a result of the process of Christianization and can be still seen in the modern practice of the hanging of stockings at the chimney in some homes. Children still place their straw filled shoes or stockings by the chimney every winter night, and are rewards with candy and gifts.”

Despite this rather familiar and (to some) alarming reference to Odin as a Santa Claus figure, many historians give the original Santa Claus nod to St. Nicholas, the 4th century Turkish saint who was known for his generosity to the poor. Nicholas was imprisoned and tortured for his good works by the Romans and it was only the intervention of Emperor Constantine I that saved his life. Saint Nicholas’ persona ingratiates himself to the role as Santa Claus as the patron saint of children.

There were many other personalities whose characteristics and traits ended up in Santa Claus. Some of these personalities include Cronos, the Greek Father God who was worshipped at harvest time; the Holly King, an important deity in Celtic and Norse mythology; Freyr, the Norse fertility god who, "bestows peace and pleasure on mortals"; the Tomte/Nisse a shape shifter and small, elderly man (red elf) often with a full beard known for giving gifts to children at Christmas and, indirectly, Thor, the Norse god of thunder and sometimes benevolent protector of human kind who rides the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr. Now enter Julbock or Julbukk, the Yule goat, from both Sweden and Norway, who derives from and had his beginnings as a carrier for the god Thor. Now he carries the Yule elf when he makes his rounds to deliver presents and receive his offering of porridge.

So we can see when Early Christians embraced the Yule holiday, they replaced the old gods with new characters like St. Nicholas but retaining many of the more magnanimous and supernatural characteristics of their personalities.

The Dutch, when they weren’t plugging holes in their dikes, kept the legend of St. Nicholas alive. With thanks to California State University at Northridge, “In 16th century Holland, Dutch children would place their wooden shoes by the hearth in hopes that they would be filled with a treat. The Dutch spelled St. Nicholas as Sint Nikolaas, which became corrupted to Sinterklaas, and finally, in Anglican, to Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement C. Moore composed his famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," which was later published as "Twas The Night Before Christmas." Moore is credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly fat man in a red suit. While Moore’s authorship was lately controversial it now appears there is no controversy at all.

Who do we really thank for our “Christmas stockings hung with care”? We look to the Dutch again and to their former colony of New Amsterdam (now known as New York City) where the custom evolved from shoes to the hanging of socks or stockings at the fireplace.

Santa Claus as the fat, jolly man in his red and while suit and boots (wonder what his cholesterol numbers are?) is the image long maintained and reinforced by song, radio, television, and films. It would appear that the modern persona of Santa Claus survives from the Claus as portrayed by Clement Moore, illustrated by Thomas Nast of Harper's Weekly and later depicted in the Coca-Cola Company’s early 1930’s Christmas advertising.

The bottom line of all this is that Christmas is a collage of customs and traditions derived from cultures all over the world. The tradition has been distilled, synthesized and commercialized to its present form even to the degree that many of us have forgotten the real reason for the holiday. We sure can’t thank the very sour Plymouth Rock Puritans for the holiday as they did everything they could to suppress and crush it even to banning the holiday in Massachusetts. The holiday was suppressed in Scotland until the 1960’s, as a subversive “Catholic holiday.” I know Scots Families who didn’t start celebrating this holiday until the 1970’s!
They made up for it with Hogmanay!

So what’s Christmas all about in 2007? In our over the top, politically correct time it seems that we can’t say Merry Christmas any more, rather the more PC, Happy Holidays. I’m not one that wears my religion on my sleeve, so in my more private mode I do not choose to address that issue. I’m comfortable in my own skin with my own beliefs and faith. It’s OK by me if folks want to tread their own paths.

Some say, “Well, it’s all about the children.” I absolutely agree with that though I surely want them to learn the basis for our celebration; that it’s just not about presents. I experienced that sense of anticipation on Christmas Eve though I never lost sight of the real meaning of Christmas. My Mother, Brothers and I spent the greater part of Christmas Day in church; me singing in the choir, John as an acolyte and Mother as the jack of all trades and eventually becoming Acolyte Mother at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island. The true meaning of Christmas was already indelibly etched in our hearts and minds.

As an adult, the ability to research and comment on the multicultural aspects of Christmas with the caution to not get too proprietary about a holiday that has seen contributions from non-Christian cultures all over the world, puts yet another slant on the holiday. Since we have apparently lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas, the great irony is that we need to get back to the basics and that includes the one-time pagan symbols that were so eagerly embraced by the early Christian church, disowned and then reinstated by them. Yes, these symbols remain in our domain to this day.

That will lead us back to greater truths and the reality of our faith. For me Faith is not easy. I have to experience - to see, feel and touch every aspect of my beliefs. For me the pagan symbols and evolution of Christianity do not diminish my experience. I suspect that they all came from the same source and that it was the honest, righteous attempt by Man to explain the ultimate mysteries of Life in his environment. How can the symbols of peace, harmony, mercy, the renewal of life, helping the poor and respecting children be bad? I know the right of it in my mind and soul and will always celebrate my rebirth by embracing the Christmas holiday.

Let this holiday to include embracing the Jolly Old Elf be the catalyst to further our efforts to enhance our commitments to our Families, Friends, Community and Country by being the best that we can be. That means becoming one of those thousand points of light and allowing Christmas to be the occasion for renewal and the hope that better days lie ahead.

And, yes, I still believe in Santa Claus. Falalalalalalala. Merry Christmas!


Ned Buxton

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