A Pagan Looks at Christmas

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Even though I do not consider myself a religious person, (spiritual but not religious), I do enjoy the Christmas season.  As are nearly all Scandinavians, I was baptized a Lutheran, and attended Sunday School as a child.  But today I consider myself a Naturalist/Pagan, (I believe in Science, the power of nature and Mother Earth.   I also like the idea of Evolutionary Humanism, which requires people to consider their moral principles free from religious beliefs.)

This is the first time in the past ten years that I have been able to travel home to Oregon for the holidays.  It was very nice to be home with family and in cooler temperatures than Florida for this time of year.

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I’ve always maintained that Christians stole a great pagan holiday and turned it into Christmas.  In a book from my mother’s collection, The Book of Christmas, a Time-Life publication from 1986, I have found a description of the history of Christmas in a comprehensive and entertaining way, and with great illustrations.  The quotations below are all from that book.

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My holiday card says “Happy Winter Solstice”, the turning point of winter when the days become longer once again.  “Solstice” means “sun stands still.”  In the time before Christ, the winter solstice celebration wasn’t just a party, as I have liked to imagine.  Thousands of years ago “…people knew the sun as a god, the provider of light and warmth and life.  In late December, the god offered only a brief daily showing…yet in the days that followed, the god fought back against the encroaching darkness, slowly winning through to the midsummer months, when the sun’s golden brightness blazed high in the heavens.”

Until quite recently in human history, people didn’t understand the rotation of the earth or the changing of the seasons as we do now.  The people believed they had a part in the entire process and “… that the sun and light were truly endangered at the solstice.  The earth trembled under the footsteps of the dead, and unless the living offered prayers and performed ceremonies, death would triumph:  There would be no return of summer.”

So in the north – the Celts, Scandinavians, etc – performed rituals “…to ensure the rebirth of the sun.  They adorned their houses and themselves with holly and ivy and mistletoe and evergreen – all of the plants that withstood the death of winter and so were charged with enchanting power.”  These early survivors believed not just that the sun may not return, but also feared that the dark held evil creatures such as witches, spirits, and demons.  So they used fire to fight the darkness.

“Fire was at the center of all the winter festivals.  It was the brother of the sun, calling out to the heavens.  Great bonfires blazed on the hills of Ireland and Scotland, on the mountains of France and Germany and in the halls of the Norse kings.”

There were many festivals in the darkest time of the year; Brumalia, Saturnalia, Samain and the Yule of the Norsemen, originally in November.  Saturnalia ended on December 24th and December 25th was the birthday of the god Mithra.  All of the ceremonies “…were intimately concerned with the great natural crisis that reached its acme on the day of the sun’s shortest and feeblest appearance.”

The story of the birth of Jesus, the miracle of the star, the angels descending from the heavens, was “…the whole of the chronicle.  The rest is garlands, added by subsequent ages – by monks, scribes, priests, wits, storytellers and common people – to adorn the source of the faith that was their life’s greatest treasure.  Nothing from the time portrays Joseph, the shepherds, the inn, the innkeepers.  The year itself is in doubt, and the time of year a topic merely for speculation…It would be some three hundred years before the date of the birth was fixed by the elders of the new religion and Christmas was set at the 25th of December.  The reasons for the choice are not difficult to discover:  Even a brief glimpse at the stories told about Mary shows how the event was to become the crowning symbol of a thousand years of ritual and custom.”

“All of these rites were gathered at last under the mantle of the Christian celebration and while the origins were forgotten, traces of the old ceremonies remained…The child who was the Son of God and called the sun of righteousness promised delivery from darkness and the hope of everlasting life.”

As we bring in our Christmas trees and decorate with lights, we are hearkening back to the days before Christ.  But don’t call a Christmas tree a holiday tree around some uptight folks.  They say “keep the Christ in Christmas”, even though to me a Christmas Tree isn’t as accurate as holiday tree.  But to truly celebrate Christmas (Christ’s Mass) in the original sense of the powerful and consequential event of the birth of the Savior, the son of God, (in my humble opinion) there would be no trees or gifts or the buying frenzy we see so much of today.  It would be a solemn, contemplative celebration, a time to relive and revive faith in a miracle.  Today’s commercialization of Christmas is tragic, and I feel that most people in the US are not celebrating it in a religious fashion.  It seems to be a mix of many traditions, which is why I claim to celebrate the older customs, the changing of the seasons, and the return of the sun.

Saint Martin as depicted by Michael Hague

Saint Martin as depicted by Michael Hague

There were many Christian saints who had magical powers.  One of those was Saint Martin, whose saints day is November 11th.  Saint Martin was the patron of wine and of vintners, who rode “…across meadows and fields on his white horse, releasing from the folds of his cloak the first snow of the season.  Saint Martin’s Day was one of feasting, when the first of the new wine was drunk.  And in memory of his patronage, German children placed vessels of water on the doorsteps with the plea that the water be changed to wine.  On the morning of Martinmas, the water would indeed be wine, beside it would lie a special cookie, shaped like a horseshoe to show that the saint had ridden by in the night.”

Michael Haute's version of Odin from the book The Book of Christmas

Michael Hauge’s version of Odin from the book The Book of Christmas

Another Christian Saint, Saint Nicholas, also has roots in the ancient gods.  Santa Claus’ origins can be traced to Odin the All-father, who rode through the skies in winter with a crowd of elves and spirits.

A Winter Solstice dance interpretation by Michael Hague

A Winter Solstice dance interpretation by Michael Hague

December 21, The Winter Solstice.  “From time before memory, people danced to make magic, and throughout Europe, they danced at the solstice as a defense against the dark.  The recollection of those early ceremonies lived on in the form of village sword dances, performed on the shortest of days, December 21.  Clothed in elaborate ribboned costumes, men would circle sunwise – from left to right, in the apparent path of the sun – using the swords they bore to form patterns in the air.  The most important pattern marked the climax of the dance.  It was a six-pointed star, the earthly symbol of the longed-for sun.”

 

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The following is an excerpt from an article written by Russell Sadler and printed in the Daily Astorian, possibly as long ago as a few decades.  My mother clipped it out and saved it all this time.

Our traditional view of Christmas comes from our English roots and our nation’s New England beginnings.  Christmas is enduring images of snow-covered countryside dotted with evergreens and horses drawing sleighs over white and drifting snow.   Grandmother’s house is over the river and through the woods.  Christmas is no place like home for the holidays by the hearth of a New England farmhouse.  A log fire blazing in a rock fireplace is required equipment.  Town is a country cross-roads with white clapboard churches whose spires reach toward the sky and snow-covered red barns in the background where the cattle are lowing.  These powerful images are perpetuated by the illustrations of the English emigrant artist Reginald Birch, illustrators Currier and Ives, painter Norman Rockwell and generations of artists at Hallmark cards.   But the most powerful influence on our traditional view of Christmas is the English journalist and author Charles Dickens.  The Christmas Americans find familiar and export to the world is not an age-old tradition.  It is only a slight exaggeration to argue that Charles Dickens invented Christmas in 1843 when he published A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.  To put the event in perspective, Dickens published his influential story of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future the same year Jesse Applegate’s wagon train arrived in Oregon with 900 souls over the Oregon Trail, doubling the Oregon Territory’s European-American population overnight.  A Christmas Carol introduced Scrooge and Marley, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit and Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig to the world.  On its pages we still find the Christmas we know and celebrate.  It is the Christmas of blazing Yule logs under cozy rooftops, the Christmas of plum puddings, smiles, gifts and happiness.  All the modern commercial Christmas glitz would have baffled Tiny Tim.  In Dickens’ pre-Christmas Carol England, Christmas was primarily a family feast at home on Christmas Day.  Dec. 25 marked the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas and the beginning of the celebration.  Gifts on Christmas morning were few and limited to the very young in all but the wealthiest Victorian families.  Christmas in Dickens’ day was followed by 12 days of exchanging small holiday notions, visiting, feasting, family games and joyous Christmas dances.  The emphasis was on people being together.  Today’s emphasis on ostentatious commercial consumption was conspicuous by its absence.

Norman Rockwell's Santa

A Norman Rockwell painting of Santa Claus

 

Of course things change with time, but I think it is past due for a return to a simpler and less commercial celebration, whether for religious reasons or others.  My family generally tries to get together for a meal, and does not go overboard with gifts.  My mother bakes traditional Scandinavian cookies and puts up a real Christmas tree.  This year the tree went up on Dec 23rd.  The days after Christmas, the traditional 12 days of Christmas, are quieter and more peaceful than the buildup to The Day.

Christmas dinner or salmon, potatoes, carrots, green beans and of course an nice Oregon Pinot Noir, Four Graces.

Christmas dinner of salmon, potatoes, carrots, green beans and of course a nice Oregon Pinot Noir, Four Graces.

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An old ornament

An old ornament

Another old ornament

Another old ornament

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2 Responses to A Pagan Looks at Christmas

  1. erikw says:

    These are wonderful! Thanks for taking the time. 🙂

  2. Russell Garvey says:

    Owing to the sentiment above, here is a bit of what I wrote to my sister thanking her for one of my gifts…
    “Although I already own a copy of “A Christmas Carol,” (obviously) this edition we found in The Book Table is a great addition, especially with the forward, which I read, and the introduction, which I skimmed; both of which contain insight and perspective which enriches the story – particularly the idea of the “Christmas Season” which this story helped to create, as I understand it. An idea that goes well beyond the Christian imperative, although the “naming rights” are pretty heady stuff! I always have to shake my head a bit when I see those bumper stickers that advise us to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” They do have a point – those naming rights again – but the season engenders, Yuletide Greetings, Christmas Trees, Yule Logs and songs about “the weather outside…,” “Rudolf” and the “Jolly Old Elf” which owe more to age-old Winter Solstice celebrations, Germanic in tradition I believe, than a babe in swaddling clothes who was probably born in the spring, and most assuredly, not in Bethlehem. We Christians are nothing if not opportunistic! But I digress.”

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