Let’s face it, whether you’re a Christmasy person or not, whether you are religious or irreverent, this holiday season touches most of us in various (sometimes complex) ways. Many families will have their traditions and expectations, while those who do not celebrate will certainly be aware of its ubiquity. But traditions come and go, and meanings shift over time. So here are a few features of Christmas’s long history to think about as we settle down for the festive season.
In modern times, Christmas has become increasingly secularised and stuck together by various traditions taken from different cultures, like some sort of Frankenstein’s holiday – but you probably don’t need reminding that that was not always the case.
The Ghost of Traditions of Christmas Past
So first things first, and this may upset some, but the Bible is kind of quiet on when Jesus was actually born. What we do know from the Christian sacred text tells us much about the events and circumstances surrounding his humble birth, but not when it happened.
As such, historians have sometimes wondered and debated how December 25 became the day of his Nativity. But from around 336 CE, the Church in Rome was officially celebrating it on this day – a day that also happened to be around the Roman winter equinox celebration of Saturnalia.
This mid-winter festival was dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture and plenty. This was a time of festivity as it marked the passing of winter and looked forward to longer days and more sunlight.
In Scandinavia, the Norse/Germanic peoples of northern Europe celebrated Yule from December 21, the day of the solstice. As part of this celebration, logs were collected and then burned. The lit lumber would signal a feast that they could enjoy until the log burnt out. This wasn’t a fleeting fire – the whole thing could be burned for 12 days.
The number 12 has connections to modern Christmas festivals, but it has even been suggested that the log shape that is characteristic of many holiday cakes and desserts could be inspired by this origin.
What about mistletoe above the door? Well, that tradition probably comes from the ancient Celtic peoples who believed the parasitic plant had mystical and healing properties. Because it is ever-green, mistletoe is easy to spot among its leafless hosts, which may explain why it was often collected around Christmas time (fun fact: kissing under the mistletoe was once thought to be a prelude for marriage, so be careful who you snog!).
Apparently, some people believe the pagan Germanic peoples had beliefs that link the god Odin to the modern-day view of Santa.
According to one idea, Odin would arrive in the sky with the Wild Hunt, which would mark the beginning of Yule. This was a terrifying thing to behold, though it was also a time of excitement as Odin would leave gifts for people as he passed. As such, some believe this is proto-Santa behavior, though it has generally been refuted by others (one thing to note, if Odin gave you gifts it usually meant you would soon be killed so you could join him in preparation for Ragnarök).
So where did the affable home invader come from? There are various explanations for the origins of Santa Claus, the modern character we recognize from poems like A Visit from St Nicholas in the 1800s. Sure, there are aspects of the themes associated with Odin – but also, more significantly, heavy influence from Saint Nicholas of Myra. This historical Saint Nick was known for his charity and went on to inspire the Dutch figure Sinterklaas.
Today, there are even those who believe Santa was inspired by shamans in association with the characteristic red and white mushroom, Amanita muscaria. According to this idea, which is growing in popularity, the origins for our jolly man in a red and white suit (mushroom colors?) stems from Siberian traditions where shamans drank the urine of reindeer to get high.
It is well documented that these deer would hunt for these mushrooms, and those who drank their urine would experience a psychedelic trip that could involve a sense of flight. You can read more about the potential links between Santa and this mushroom here. It isn’t as crazy as you may think.