Christmas is not as merry as you think.
In a capitalist world it can become easy to forget where many traditions and holidays originated from. The 25th of December in this modern world means gift-giving and gorging on turkey. But what did it mean before that? Almost every hallmark Christmas film made will preach about the so-called ‘true meaning’ of Christmas: spending time with family, thinking about others, spreading Christmas cheer and and having a merry old time. A nice sentiment but the truth is much darker.
In all actuality, Christmas is a mixture of different holidays or festivals from ancient times. Many of us believe that Christmas day celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ and that would be correct in a sense. However, December used to mean something entirely different. It was the year 340 AD that Pope Julius the First officially declared the 25th of December as the birth date of Jesus in Bethlehem. Before that there were several midwinter festivals that have been lost and changed throughout the course of history.
One of these festivals is the Saturnalia which began on the 19th of December and would last for a week or so. This pre-Christian festival allowed the already morally ambiguous Romans to let loose and indulge in humanity’s worst impulses. It was essentially a huge week-long party wherein slaves became their masters and criminals were not punished for their crimes. Think of the Purge films without the guns. It was in honour of the Roman God Saturn who was by no means a deity to look up to.
The old Pagan festival of Yule (Yuletide) was celebrated at the time of the winter solstice. This prolonged period of cold dark days were believed to allow the spirits of the dead to seep into the land of the living. This is where most Christmas ghost stories like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens originate from.
Some traditions of these questionable festivals and legends have leaked into modern day times, unbeknown to as to why by most who celebrate Christmas today. Mistletoe is one huge example of this. In Norse mythology mistletoe was used to maliciously kill a god called Balder, because of this it is actually bad luck to kiss under mistletoe. The plant was once thought to have grown on its own tree instead of appearing on the branches of other trees such as hawthorn: it is said that the wood of a mistletoe tree was used as the cross that crucified Jesus. Ancient druids of England also used to use the plant in their rituals and spells as they believed it had special powers. Because of Pagan associations mistletoe was actually banned from churches. A little different from what we use it for today.
Similarly holly and ivy also have more sinister connotations as according to ancient beliefs they should be kept out of the house until Christmas Eve or they will bring bad luck. It is also said that once you bring these plants into your home you should never throw them out or someone within the household will die within the following year.
Christmas Eve is a time for excitement and anticipation but it is also a time for the dead to walk the earth. Legends have it that if you walk into a graveyard on the 24th then you’ll find gold in the earth. But they also say that cows will kneel down and talk in human tongue. Restless ghosts wander the earth at night. The thought doesn’t exactly make people want to go out Christmas carolling.
Have you ever wondered where the tradition of Christmas stockings come from? As it turns out, Saint Nicholas caught wind of three sisters that were forced into prostitution: he chucked three gold coins down the chimney so they could eat without selling themselves. The money landed in their stockings that were hanging over the fire to dry. Some food for thought when you go digging through your stocking this year.
The one tradition that seems wholesome is the Christmas tree: those who think that would be entirely wrong. Christmas trees became popular in the UK when Queen Victoria brought them over in 1840. But there is a more disturbing mythological story behind those festive decorations. Cybele was an ancient Phrygian mother of Gods in western Anatolia (now known as Turkey). She fell in love with a mortal man by the name of Attis. Attis however was in love with a mortal princess so in retaliation for her rejection Cybele drove him mad. So he went on an insane dash through the woods and ended up castrating himself under a pine tree. Try not to think about that when you lay out all your presents underneath the baubles this year.
As we grow older we begin to notice that stories we are told as children are actually quite terrifying. Personally the idea of a strange man climbing into my chimney to eat and leave behind gifts does not sound as appealing as it once did. The story of nice old Saint Nick is one thing, but what about his counterpart Krampus? Krampus is believed to be a demon like creature that literally drags naughty children to hell just before Christmas – it cuts down Santa’s work hours that’s for sure. But if a child is just annoying instead of naughty then this weird goat man just simply beats them with a bundle of wood instead of tossing them in a sack and dragging them to eternal damnation.
Christmas is a wonderful time for a large majority of the population. It inspires joy and charity and can bring people together. The holiday is something to look forward to at the end of the year for those who celebrate it, a well deserved break from the drudgery of life. But the next time that you wake up to the smell of freshly baked cookies and the clap of reindeer on your roof, think about where all of these traditions came from. Maybe next year you can decide which ones you want to keep. Maybe start to make up some of your own. Merry Christmas?
Featured image credit: Sacred Matters Magazine