What comes to mind when you think about Christmas? Santa, little baby Jesus, presents, Christmas trees and mistletoe? The origins of Christmas traditions are much older and also much newer than you might expect. Pretty much every civilization in the Northern hemisphere has held a celebration around December 25th. That’s because it is the time of the Winter Solstice, where the longest night of the year marks the beginning of the end of Winter. The days will start getting longer, the sun rises higher in the sky, and at this point you just might live through winter. It was kind of a big deal before central heating.
During the solstice Romans celebrated Saturnalia to celebrate Saturn, the god of agriculture. Saturnalia was a big ass fucking party. Crops growing again was a pretty big deal before Taco Bell. Romans were also celebrating Juvenalia to celebrate the Children of Rome. This was part of a larger seasonal theme of birth and rebirth. Nobody worked, everyone celebrated, gifts were exchanged, and just for a short time they told their slaves they could take some time off and treated them like equals. Also, all discipline and order were ignored. It was like The Purge, but with more drunk fucking and less murder.
The Scandinavians had the feast of Juul, or Yule. As was the norm, drunken feasting was the order of the day. Partiers dragged a giant ass log into the hearth and set it on fire. Then they party for twelve days until the log went out. Some of the ashes were saved to throw on next year’s log and the rest was scattered in the fields to ensure a good harvest.
Ancient Persians celebrated the birthday of the sun god Mithra on December 25th. Mithraism got picked up by Roman soldiers and spread through parts of the empire. There’s a belief by some historians that Mithra is the blueprint for the story of Jesus. Unfortunately, the argument is such an emotional dick swinging contest between both sides that I was like, “Fuck it. I don’t even care.” So, I stopped researching.
I could go on all day about all the different solstice celebrations, but those three are the ones I thought most relevant. Oh wait, there’s also the story about Jesus of Nazareth.
Whether or not you believe in Jesus, you can be sure of one thing; he definitely wasn’t born on December 25th. In the past, April 20th, March 29th and January 6th have been used to celebrate Christ’s birth. Astronomers with too much time on their hands deduced the bright star the wise men followed was an astral occurrence on June 17, 2 B.C. on the Christian calendar; when Venus and Jupiter were right next to each other in the sky and put on a cool light show. The June theory actually holds weight because in the story, shepherds were out in the fields with their flocks and the Romans were conducting a census. Neither of which would have happened in the dead of winter.
Sometime between 330-350 A.D. Pope Julius I declared December 25th as J. C’s B-Day. The Roman Catholic Church aligned Christian celebrations with pagan ones so they’d join the party and then slowly pushed the pagan religions out. Some people were very against being told this was Jesus’s new birthday, but considering it got moved to the same time as Saturnalia, which was like Mardi Gras of the 300’s; most people were like, “Cool story bro” and went back to chugging wine and losing their paychecks playing dice. We still keep Saturnalia traditions like giving gifts, thinking about people less fortunate, and hanging wreaths, but unfortunately not the wet T-shirt contests. However, the party did keep going for a LONG time. So long, in fact, that most churches hated Christmas because it was such a debaucherous, pagan, shit show.
In 1645 Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the commonwealth of England, banned Christmas and had cops patrol the streets of London to make sure people behaved… “with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.”
In 1660 King Charles II brought Christmas back, much to the chagrin of Parliament, who considered it, "a popish festival with no biblical justification"
Shit wasn’t much better in America. Christmas was banned in Boston, Massachusetts from 1659-1681 "For preventing disorders … by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county."
Christmas took another dive after the revolutionary war because it was considered a British celebration… and fuck those guys.
In the Mid 1800’s the Oxford Movement in the Anglican wing of the Church of England was trying to do a little reformation of their own by making church a little more modern, but at the same time, more boring. This would wind up being called Anglo-Catholicism. They pushed for Christmas to be celebrated, but in a warm, solemn way, with less pissing in the streets. They got a huge boost to their plan in 1843 when Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol.” This is when Christmas really started to take shape into what we know today.
Martin Luthor, original gangster of the Protestant Reformation, is credited for inventing Christmas trees while walking down the street composing a sermon. He saw stars twinkling behind some evergreens, which led him to chop down a tree. He dragged it inside and put a bunch of candles on it to recreate the beauty of what he saw for his family. Personally, that sounds like some convenient marketing for his brand, especially since pagans had been dragging evergreens in their houses and hanging wreaths for a while because they thought they kept evil spirits away. Besides, even in Christianity, they already had established decorated trees called Trees of Paradise that were adorned with apples to symbolize Adam and Eve’s forbidden fruit and wafers, symbolizing the last supper. The apples were later swapped with red ornaments. So next time you see a red Christmas ornament, remember, it symbolizes the fact that women don’t listen to shit.
Having said that, Christmas trees were definitely a Protestant tradition. The Catholics put up nativity scenes during Christmas, so the Protestants were like, “Fine. I’ll get my own Christmas, with trees and apples!” So, if you walked into someone’s house on Christmas, you’d know what kind of party it was if they had a tree or a manger scene in the living room.
For a long time, Christmas trees were pretty much exclusively a German tradition, and largely unheard of. That is, until 1848. An engraving was published in the London News of Queen Victoria and her family standing around a Christmas tree. Victoria had German roots and practiced many traditions from the old country. Then she married full blooded German, Prince Albert, who was all about putting on his lederhosen and whipping out his royal wiener schnitzel to show her his Prince Albert. Two years later the same picture was published in America by Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was also responsible for Thanksgiving being a tradition in America. Although, they decided to Americanize the engraving by scratching out the Queen’s tiara and Albert’s mustache …for some fucking reason. Since poor people copying rich people to look fancy is a tradition as old as time; the Christmas tree invaded the rest of Europe like the Third Reich.
The Famous Christmas tree that gets lit up every year at Rockefeller Plaza in New York came about in 1931 when bored construction workers put up a simple tree on the job site instead of working. Two years later they put one up with lights. Shit got out of control and now the yearly tree is like a hundred feet tall and covered in tens of thousands of lights. They spend a lot of money every year so all the homeless people can have something pretty to look at.
Mistletoe played a part in solstice celebrations due to its’ medicinal properties, being able to thrive in winter, and because its’ sticky white seeds remind people of semen. During the solstice, Romans would hang mistletoe in their houses for protection and as a symbol of love and peace. In Norse mythology, Odin’s favorite son Baldur had a premonition he was going to die, so his mom, Frigga, asked everything in existence not to hurt her son; except the mistletoe, because it looked weak and harmless. Loki’s salty, hatin’, ass found out about the mistletoe bit and tricked Hodor, the god of winter, to throw a spear of mistletoe at Baldur and kill him. The story has a bunch of different versions but the end result is the white seeds became Frigga’s tears, and Frigga decided not to punish the mistletoe. Instead, it became a symbol of protection and love and anyone standing beneath it should be given a kiss.
Stay tuned for my next post where I'll be exploring the ancient origins of Santa