Monday, December 11, 2006
The True Origin of Christmas
There are a lot of Christians running around these days chanting "Put Christ back into Christmas". Well, I am a Christian, but I've got some bad news for you guys. Christ was never a part of Christmas in the first place!
The Shepherds and the Wise Men
Jesus wasn't born on December 25th or anywhere near it. Shepherds don't sleep out in the fields watching their flocks by night in the middle of the Middle East winter, so the best guess for Christ's birth is somewhere in September, but the date isn't recorded. A lot of people get confused because they've heard the Wise Men may have taken years to get there, but the shepherds were on the scene pretty much straight away. The Wise Men were almost certainly Astronomers from China or Persia. They came from the East, and took up to 3 years to get there, because Herod ordered all children under 3 killed. There weren't 3 of them, either, this is a common assumption based on the fact that 3 different types of gift were given. Considering the length of the journey and their importance, there may have been a caravan of hundreds of people in their retinue.
December 25th was the Roman Festival of Saturnalia, where lawlessness, intoxication, debauchery, rape and human sacrifice reigned, all without punishment. Human-shaped biscuits were eaten, and singing naked in the streets was common (the precursor to modern carol singing). In the 4th century, the Catholic Church, hoping to convert the heathen, adopted the Festival by promising they could continue to celebrate it after conversion, and in 1466 Pope Paul II revived many of the old customs to persecute Jews.
Christmas Trees and Mistletoe
Worshippers of the pagan Asheira cult worshipped trees in the forest and brought them into their homes to decorate. Their practices also were adopted by the Church, giving us the modern Christmas tree. In Norse mythology, Hoder killed Balder while fighting for the female Nanna, using a mistletoe-poisoned arrow. Druid rituals used mistletoe to poison their human sacrifices. The custom of kissing under the mistletoe is a mixing of the sexual nature of the Saturnalia Festival and Druidic sacrifice.
In pre-Christian Rome, the Emperors forced citizens to bring them offerings and gifts during Saturnalia. The Catholic Church simply invented Saint Nicholas and adopted the gift-giving practice.
Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus
Nicholas was Bishop of Myra around 300, and was named a saint in the 19th century. In 1087 a cult worshipping him developed, and in Turkey he supplanted a female deity called The Grandmother in the role of giving gifts to children. The Nicholas cult spread north and was adopted by German and Celtic pagans. These groups worshipped many gods but their leader was Woden, father of Thor, who had a long white beard and rode a horse through the sky every August. The legends of Saint Nicholas and Woden merged, and his schedule was changed to December 6th, Nick's birthday. In an attempt to convert pagans in Northern Europe, the Catholic Church adopted the Nicholas cult and moved the date to December 25th. In 1809 novelist Washington Irving wrote a satire of Dutch culture which referred to Saint Nicholas using his Dutch name, Santa Claus.
Santa Becomes Famous
In 1822, Professor Dr Clement Moore published a poem, "The Night Before Christmas", based on the character of Saint Nicholas after reading Irving's book. The modern image of Santa is largely the work of illustrator Thomas Nast, who from 1862 to 1886 drew more than 2,200 cartoon images of Santa for Harper's Weekly. Nast also invented the North Pole address, the workshop filled with elves, and the list of good and bad children. The only thing missing was Santa's red outfit, and for that we can thank the Coca Cola company, who contracted Haddon Sundblom to create an advertisement featuring Santa drinking Coke - and insisted that his suit be Coca-Cola red.