But just how "Christian" is Christmas? We all remember our Sunday School lessons about Mary and Joseph wrapping the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes and placing him in a manger. And don't forget the star and the three wise guys...er...men, who journeyed from afar to witness this December...er...spring miracle.
To understand the TRUE history behind the holiday we call Christmas, we must travel to a time when the world was dominated by pagan doctrine and Roman might. Long before Mary and Joseph made their trek to Bethlehem to pay their taxes...er...be counted in the imperial census, Roman society (along with other European groups) embraced a few interesting (and familiar) holiday traditions that may come as a surprise to the devout Christian of our modern era. So, let us pretend for a moment that we have ventured back in time to late antiquity and witness how these various European societies celebrated their winter holidays.
Our first stop in our voyage back in time will take us to one of the greatest civilizations known to man: Rome. The date is December 17th and the streets are full of celebration and jubilation. It is Saturnalia: a holiday dedicated to the pagan god Saturn, who has been loosen from his bonds during the festivities so that he can enjoy the fruits of the offerings given to him. As the god of the harvest/agriculture, Saturn is praised by the masses from having provided a bountiful harvest.
To celebrate the occasion, Roman citizens gave up their traditional toga and adorned themselves with more festive clothing. Traditionally, the clothing was green and decorated with leaves, flowers and berries. Men and women regularly took holly berries and branches and turned them into wreathes, which they placed on their heads, believing that they had the power to ward off evil spirits. It was also common in homes throughout the Roman empire to have their halls "decked" with holly in order to keep them safe from the wrath of the gods.
In addition, Saturnalia was also marked by the temporary freeing of slaves, who would often (in pure fun) switch places with their masters. Public demonstrations of sex, gambling, drunkenness were commonplace, while many other laws, which were normally punishable, were temporarily allowed (in some cases even rape). Simply put, Saturnalia became the ancient world's version of Mardi Gras.
Along with the revelry and laissez-faire Roman policies governing these holidays, many Roman citizens also took to adorning evergreen trees as part of the festival of Saturnalia. It was common for wealthy Roman families to decorate a tree with candles, silver and gold lace and to have it nailed to the floor of their home. This "Saturnalia Tree" became a symbol of Rome's collective petition to the gods for a bountiful new year. The Jews (and early Christians), refused to embrace such pagan beliefs and even preached against them. As the Bible itself states in Jeremiah 10:2-4:
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.And while the common person was busy celebrating Saturnalia, the elites of Roman society also celebrated the birth of Mithras: the god of the unconquerable sun, whose birth fell on December 25th. For many, this was the holiest day of the year and celebrating his birth was done in the hopes that Mithra would return in full power (summer) to bless their harvest, etc.
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.
Now that we've had our "Saturnalia fix," let us move up north a bit and enter the Norse/Celtic/Germanic regions, where the winter holidays were celebrated with just as much festivity as their Roman neighbors. For many who dwelt in the Rhineland, the celebration of Yule (or Yule-tide) took place in late December and lasted for usually twelve days (hence the Twelve days of Christmas). During the celebration of Yule, people gathered in their homes to burn the Yule Log in the hearth of their home (a tradition that eventually spread all the way to the British isles). The Yule Log was occasionally even carved into a penis shape due to the fact that some (albeit smaller) Celtic communities believed the Yule Log had the ability to impregnate.
Even our "blessed" Mistletoe has its roots in the ancient world. In both Celtic and Druidic rituals, mistletoe (which blooms in winter) was believed to be a powerful sexual stimulant. Ancient legends maintained that the juices found in the mistletoe berries were, in fact, the semen of the gods. As a result, it was believed that if a man held the mistletoe over a woman's head she would be unable to resist his sexual advances (a far cry from a simple kiss). In essence, mistletoe became the ancient world's date rape drug. Exciting!
Along with the funny looking Yule logs and sexual plants, many Germanic communities also believed that the god Odin (Lugas in Celtic England), who patrolled the skies during those cold winter nights, would decide who should prosper and suffer, live and die in the following year (a.k.a. "going to find out who's naughty or nice"). Later, of course, Odin would be woven in with other figures to give us Santa Clause, but that's a topic for another day.
So maybe you are wondering how the birth of Christ got entangled in this pagan mess. The answer is pretty basic. Once Rome became a Christian nation, the newly established Christian church found itself in competition with the entrenched pagan traditions of Roman, German and other Nordic, communities. Instead of abolishing festivals like Saturnalia, the church simply decided to embrace the holiday, but added its own elements. For example, the evergreen trees that were taken into homes were adorned with apples in an effort to symbolize the Garden of Eden (later these became ornaments). Stories of pagan gods were replaced with tales of elves, gift-giving, etc., all which eventually evolved to give us many of our current holiday symbols.
And Since none of the gospels mention specifically when Jesus was actually born, early Christian church leaders simply adopted his birth to fit an already existing holiday. Pope Gregory the Great and other early and influential popes, established the earliest foundations for converting Saturnalia into CRISTES MAESSE (which eventually evolved in the English version to CHRIST-MASS and then Christmas), called for the removal of older pagan gods to be replaced with the Christian ones. It was believed that Christ's birth would eventually replace the festival of Saturnalia and abolish its traditions. The early church was at least half right in this respect. While the implementation of Christmas eventually led to the demise of Saturnalia, the pagan traditions and celebrations remained intact, and many still permeate our celebration of Christmas to this day. In fact, if we were to see some of the earliest Christmas celebrations of the Medieval world, we would be surprised to see how similar it was to a carnival or to Halloween. Most Christians of the Middle Ages continued the ancient celebrations of Saturnalia and Yule by indulging in public drinking, lascivious sex and dressing up like demons. For over two millennia the Christmas/Saturnalia Mardi Gras never let up!
In conclusion, while many of the TRADITIONS of Christmas remain rooted in ancient pagan beliefs, there is no doubt that the SPIRIT of Christmas is something quite different. My intention for writing this was NOT to discredit the celebrating of Christmas. Quite the contrary. I believe that understanding the TRUTH of the Christmas season can actually aid in our celebration of Jesus' birth. After all, it's never been about trees, gifts, flowers etc.