The "real meaning" of Christmas is often expressed in heartwarming tales of kindness and generosity in the face of a general climate of materialism and greed: Scrooge learns to care about others and the Grinch's heart grows. These stories are, indeed, about the "Christmas spirit" but they don't capture the "real meaning" of the holiday. If it were simply to show that matters of the heart have much greater value than material acquisition it could be said that the modern celebration of the holiday has failed miserably. But beyond this failure there is a much deeper meaning that arises from the vast sweep of history and religious symbolism that gave rise to what we now call "Christmas."
To begin to understand this "holy-day," we need to understand what it was like to live close to the earth as our ancient ancestors did. Our lives in the comfort of industrialized consumption have little in common with their lives of extreme vulnerability to the forces of nature. They lived in small, scattered tribes in intimate connection with the earth. The seasons of the year were felt strongly: in the summer food was plentiful, the days were long and food could be found easily, but in the winter life was very hard indeed. It was a struggle just to stay alive - most did not survive childhood. And winter was the time when everyone was most aware of the fragile existence they led.
As our ancestors huddled around their fires at the approach of winter it is easy to imagine their fear - and their awe - at the natural forces that surrounded them. As the days grew shorter, as the sun began to spend more and more time beneath the earth in the realms of darkness, food became harder to find; there weren't as many daylight hours to hunt for it and the flowers and fruits and berries that had grown up during the long warm days were withering and dying. It seemed as if the earth was dying because the sun was leaving.
As the nights grew longer still and the bitter winter winds blew through their meager shelters they began to fear that the sun might continue to leave, or to sicken and die, until all was cold and darkness and everything, including them, was frozen and dead. In their despair we can imagine them begging and pleading with the sun, crying out for it to return to them. The fires they huddled around for warmth began to assume ritual dimensions. Fire was a way to capture the light of the beloved sun and fire became fundamental to the rites that developed to provide ritual release for their anxieties.
Our ancient ancestors weren’t stupid. They knew the cycles of the seasons, they had learned over millennia in the crucible of natural selection how to survive the darkness and the cold, how to store food and how to hunt animals in the snow. And they were, as are we, story-telling animals, animals who dealt with anxieties and fears by creating rich mythologies that still speak to us today about those same fears and anxieties. It is a fair characterization to speak of us moderns as “paleolithic hunter-gatherers pretending to be civilized.”
Communal spirituality, religion, was born around these fires in the darkness and cold. And when, on one cold winter morning, some observant soul was the first to notice that the night before had been a little longer than the present one it seemed fitting to believe that the sun had heard their pleading and seen their fires. The sun had been reborn and the earth would bear fruit again.
These anxieties were also related to the unavoidable reality of the mystery of death. It was clear that people died and their bodies went back into the earth (or predators’ bellies). The fact that this time of year death from hunger, cold and the attacks of equally hungry predators was much closer than during the mild, long comforting days of summer led them to ritualize a corresponding death of the sun and consequent joyous rebirth. Perhaps death wasn't as final as it seemed.
Over many thousands of years these basic feelings began to evolve into spiritual rituals. And with the advent of agriculture and the profound concern about the seasons of planting and harvesting, the interplay of the sun and earth became the specialty of religious practitioners whose main job was to determine, by astronomical observation, divination and sacrifice when, exactly, the seasons were changing. It is fairly clear that many of the stone circles and temples had important agricultural functions. And, since these structures show an enormous commitment of resources on the part of these early cultures, we can be fairly sure that these structures were the center-point of the people's lives and the religious practitioners who maintained and built them were central figures in the culture.
The word “solstice” means, literally, “sun stands still.” For about 6 days in December (and in June) the sun appears to rise and set at the same point on the horizon. These solstice times divide the year in two: a time of increasing darkness and a time of increasing light. The in-between times were important times; anchor points in the cycle of the year. They were liminal spaces. The winter solstice was a time of ritual reexamination of the dying of the light and its rebirth in the new year; the dividing line between the inbreath and outbreath of the year.
Over time, as religious practices became more sophisticated, oral traditions were built up around these cycles. The increasing darkness and barrenness of winter and the rebirth of life in the spring were incorporated into stories in many cultures and religions all over the world. The cycle of the seasons was seen by many as a cycle in the relationship between the God and the Goddess. People began to give names to these divine Kings and Queens: Damuzi and Inanna, Tammuz and Ishtar, Adonis and Aphrodite, Osiris and Isis.
Common to all these stories and rituals was the idea of death and rebirth. The Sun King died and was reborn, and his wife, the Earth Goddess, became filled with renewed life as a result of his rebirth. (Some say the ancient Druids celebrated this as the time the Oak King killed and replaced the Holly King – and this may well have involved actual killing of real people in their rituals.) The natural time to celebrate this death and rebirth was at the Winter Solstice. As the cycle of the year came to a close it became a time to grieve those things in one's life that were dying so that new life could be reborn. It was a reminder of the continuity of change - nothing stays the same, things are always dying and always being reborn.
At the time of the Roman Saturnalia the date, December 25, coincided with the winter solstice. "December" comes from the Roman word for "ten." December was the tenth, and last, month of the Roman calendar which consisted of only ten months and 304 days. It was the duty of the Roman priesthood to keep track of this calendar and make up the difference between the 304 days of the calendar and the actual 365.242... days it takes the earth to circle the sun once (this is changing over time). There were many problems with this system; not the least of which was that the Roman priesthood was not above taking bribes to make certain days occur at certain time and make certain years longer than others.
Roman astronomical science was not as sophisticated as other cultures, such as the Egyptians and Sumerians, and it was confusing: instead of days of the month they had the custom of naming three fixed points ("Kalendae," "Idus," and "Nonae") and numbering days based upon their distance before or after these points (not to mention no standard length for an "hour" or a "minute"). It is no wonder that things were a mess; keeping track of time in Rome had become the business of religious specialists. It took the dictatorship of Caesar to clear up the whole debacle. He made his famous calendar reform in 45 BC. To do this he had to go back and make the year 46 BC have 445 days and 47 BC have 355 days and decree that forever after the year would have 365 days except for a leap year of 366 days every four years. Thus was the Julian calendar born.
From then on we have counted the months and the days in the same way. But it wasn't until 1582 that the present calendar, the Gregorian, began to be adopted. It provided more fine tuning of the Julian calendar's leap year system which brought the calendar closer to the actual 365.242… days of the solar year. It also mandated the dropping of 10 days in order to make the vernal equinox occur on March 21, which was felt to be the proper time, since that was the date of the vernal equinox during the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Consequently, the changes instituted under the Gregorian calendar, along with the increasing discrepancy between the Julian calendar and the solar year changed the Winter Solstice from December 25 in Roman times to December 21 now. This is why we no longer celebrate Christmas on the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice and Christmas are the same; it’s just that the Gregorian calendar reform shifted the “official” celebration off the real solstice.
The Roman Saturnalia was originally an agricultural celebration of feast days for Saturn and Ops. The temple of Saturn was the oldest temple recorded by the pontifices (the Roman head priests) and Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, was honored on the winter solstice. Saturn and Ops were among the oldest Roman divinities and had origins independent of the major influence of the Greeks upon Roman religion; Saturn was an agricultural god of planting and Ops was his consort honored as "Mother Earth" and a Goddess of Plenty. With Julian calendar reform Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17 & 18 and Opalia on December 19 & 20. During the empire it was extended to a week (December 17-23). But these dates were official dates and the actual celebration of Saturnalia continued on after this time until the start of the calendar year on January 1. This is probably where the "Twelve Days of Christmas" came from.
After the reform, under Aurelian, one of the most important days during Saturnalia became Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the "Birthday of the Unconquered Sun," which was celebrated on the Winter Solstice - December 25. The Romans had originally celebrated the Solstice as "Brumalia" but this festival was eclipsed by Dies Natalis Invicti Solis. (Many of the emperors imprinted their own stamp upon this festival.) Aurelian, who had strong ties with the Mithra cult, was the last. The cult of Mithra, who was born of a virgin and died as a sacrifice to save the world, began to be absorbed into Christianity when the Emperor Constantine saw a Christian vision before a battle in 314 AD and, upon his victory, decided that the Christian religion would be the state religion of the Roman empire. He, himself, eventually converted, some say, on his deathbed.
Saturnalia was a time of riotous merry-making; the halls of houses were decked with boughs of laurel and evergreen trees. Lamps were kept burning to ward off the spirits of darkness. Schools were closed, the army rested, and no criminals were executed. Friends visited one another, bringing good-luck gifts of fruit, cakes, candles, dolls, jewelry, and incense. Temples were decorated with evergreens symbolizing life's continuity, and processions of people with masked or blackened faces and fantastic hats danced through the streets. Restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, less formal dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted, as was the "pilleus," a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule (Saturnalicius princeps) was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters' clothing, and be waited on at meal time.
This traditional celebrating continued well on through the Middle Ages with the "Feast of Fools" and mummers. Mummers were celebrants who dressed in masks and costumes and went from house to house demanding various sweets and beverages. The "Feast of Fools" had as its chief object honoring the ass on which Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. This liturgical burlesque was held on the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1). The office of the day was chanted in travesty, then a procession was formed, and all sorts of foolery were indulged in, such as playing dice on the altar and priests dressing as women and choirboys. An ass was an essential feature, and from time to time the whole procession imitated braying, especially in the place of "Amen."
It is not difficult to imagine how this inversion of the traditional order of society was unappealing to those on the higher end of the social order. It is thus not surprising that with the rise of a comfortable Middle Class of craftsmen, burghers and merchants in the 16th and 17th centuries support for this festival waned. By the time of the Protestant Reformation many of the old customs were suppressed and the Church forbade processions, colorful ceremonies, and plays. In 1647 in England, Parliament actually passed a law abolishing Christmas altogether: "there is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel, but the Lord's Day, which is the Christian Sabbath, therefore festival-days, vulgarly called holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued."
The Puritans who originally settled in America forbade the celebration of Christmas as well. But the festivities didn't stay banned; they were too popular with the common people. So the holiday survived in spite of official proclamations as to its demise. And finally, bowing to the inevitable (in the case of Charles II of England only a few years after its abolishment) Christmas was, once again, officially sanctioned. But many sects continued to refuse to celebrate it, considering, quite correctly, that it was a pagan holiday.
No one knows for sure just exactly when Jesus was born. But what is clear in the historical record, from the writings of Early Christians, is the choice of December 25 as the birthday of Jesus was a political decision along the lines of "if you can't beat 'em join 'em." One early anonymous Christian writer put it this way: "It was the custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same 25th of December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day."
Around 350, December 25 was adopted as the birthday of Jesus in Rome and, gradually, almost the entire Christian Church, with the exception of the Eastern Orthodox who celebrate on Jan. 6, agreed to that date, which coincided with the Winter Solstice, Yule and Saturnalia.
The charge of pagan influence is not only applicable to Christmas but can be expanded to the most central belief of the Christian religion. The birth and resurrection of Jesus has much in common with earlier mystery cults surrounding the death and rebirth of the Sun and the seasons. Saul of Tarsus, who became St Paul upon his ecstatic vision of a resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, grew up near Eleusis - one of the major centers of a dying and resurrecting mystery cult. A strong argument can be made that Paul was the real "Founder" of Christianity - after all Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian, and made no attempts to found a religion. It was Paul, who focused upon bringing the Gospel to the pagan "gentiles", and who emphasized the death and resurrection and the symbolism of the sacrificial "King of the Jews."
For many of the Jews in Jerusalem who became the first organized followers of Jesus, the symbolic worship of a man was anathema and smacked of idolatry. With Paul's additions of the ritual eating and drinking of his body and blood, as in many pagan mystery cults, they were horrified. In fact, there was a bitter and divisive feud between the "Jewish" followers of Jesus (who included Jesus's brothers and the "apostles") and Paul. After the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 67 AD by the Romans, the Jewish followers of Jesus in Jerusalem were also wiped out. As was their version of the story.
It is ironic that a man who spoke such things as "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven" came to be the prophet of a wealthy and powerful - and very materialistic - Roman Empire. And more ironic that, as the Saturnalia devolved into the Feast of Fools and a celebration of equality between masters and slaves, the Church that proclaims itself in his name was instrumental in abolishing it. And when this failed, the Church participated in the reinvention of a Christmas which celebrated the material security of middle class family life, with the active cooperation of the very materially concerned burghers and merchants of middle class England.
"Modern" Christmas, as we now know it, was a joint creation of a new capitalist enterprise, the department store, and the middle and upper classes who developed a distaste for the lower class revelries of the mummers. It was a vision of a more comfortable and socially decorous celebration which was heavily influenced by the Social Darwinist views of the day that wealth and prosperity were signs of favor from God and superiority of character. Gift giving was a way of both acknowledging kinship ties and demonstrating the material and spiritual success of the giver. And the Christmas feast became a great opportunity for display. (This feasting and toasting did have its own historical roots, however; in Scotland, primarily, there was the tradition of "yule-girth," or place of sanctuary - often granted by kings to territory around churches - where even those who had broken the king's law could enjoy whatever bounty and banquets they had access to.)
Gift giving in America took off at the same time as the rise of the great capitalist upper classes, around 1870. This was also the time of the rise of the Christmas card: "I thought last year would be the end of the Christmas card mania, but I don't think so now", one postal official complained in 1882. "Why four years ago a Christmas card was a rare thing. The public then got the mania and the business seems to be getting larger every year." And with the rise of a new industry devoted to manufacturing ornaments for Christmas trees, themselves an ancient pagan custom, modern Christmas had arrived.
All that was left was the creation of Santa Claus. This story begins with a Saint Nikolai of Anatolia whose claim to fame was the rescuing of poor men's daughters from lives of penury, or worse, by giving them gold in stocking shaped purses. Saint Nickolai's fame as a benefactor of young unfortunates spread to Europe and became combined with the Odin myth to become the European "Father Christmas." The first image of him in America was drawn in 1859 in the New York Sun by cartoonist Thomas Nast for the Clement Moore poem (Nast also created the Democratic Donkey and Republican elephant). The Santa we know today was created for Coca-Cola's 1930's ad campaign by illustrator Haddon Sundblom. The Coca-Cola company decided to do a marketing program to increase the sales of their soft drink during the winter holidays, so they promoted this image of a jolly fat man in a red suit and called him "Santa Claus" borrowing many of the European ideas around Father Christmas.
Along with the birth of the Coca-Cola Santa was the tradition of giving gifts. Of course, in ancient traditions it was customary for people to exchange a small gift, perhaps a cake or some wine. But there is no ancient tradition of shopping frantically for presents. It is only in the 20th century, with the active participation of department stores, that this American tradition has become the accepted Christmas practice. And this American practice has spread steadily throughout the world, overtaking and replacing many older customs.
Santa borrows much of his identity from Odin the All-Father of the pagan Nordic pantheon. The winter solstice was the time of year Odin, with a long white beard and wearing a fur lined cap and coat (although the traditional color was blue) would go out among the people and judge them. Odin rode an eight-legged steed, Sleipnir, and carried a spear - for those who were bad. Santa's eight reindeer are reminiscent of the eight legs of Odin's steed. Two of them, Donner and Blitzen, still retain some Norse symbology in their names: Donar meant thunder in the Norse, as in Thor's thunder; and Blitzen is similar to Bilskirnir, Thor's great palace. (Blitzen is also the Germanic word for "lightening.") Rudolph, however, was a modern invention. Bob May, an employee of Montgomery Wards department story originally wrote the story for his daughter in a time of family tragedy. Montgomery Ward secured the copyright and used it as a sales promotion, and by Christmas of 1947 had distributed over 6 million copies.
How Odin became associated with reindeer and how his eight legged reindeer, Sleipnir, came to fly may have its origins in the Nordic Laplanders who herd reindeer and can be presumed to have been adherents of the old Norse religion. In some shamanic practices, particularly those of Finno-Urgic speaking peoples (eg. Sammi of Lapland), hallucinogenic mushrooms, most likely Amanita Muscaria (bright red with white spots – Christmasy!) played an important part in their rituals. To avoid some of the unpleasant aspects of these shrooms they may have fed them to reindeer. The nasty chemicals are processed in the reindeer's bowels and the hallucinogens are passed in their urine. The shaman collects the potent urine, drinks it and flies to other worlds. (After all, Coca-Cola originally contained cocaine.)
Another symbol borrowed from Norse mythology is the Christmas Tree. The sacred tree, Yggdrasil - the World-Tree that supported the whole universe - was honored at this time in most homes by an evergreen tree hung with candles (do this carefully at home) and topped with the All-Seeing Eagle. At the solstice the candles would be put out and then the tree would be symbolically reborn by relighting it at dawn.
This Evergreen Tree appears to be a significant part of the celebration in many places. Evergreen because it symbolizes the continuance of life even through the darkest and coldest times. It was customary in many parts of Europe for people to bind up evergreen boughs and hit each other with them as a way of infusing new fresh, green life into themselves and the Evergreen Pine Tree was significant in the cult of the ancient Asian Divine King and Queen, Cybele and Attis. The tree was cut down and carried to a safe place to await the rebirth of Attis and decorated with African violets and sacred images of the dying and resurrecting Attis and his mother/wife Cybele.
Christmas is thus a great mix of ancient symbols and rituals with more modern practices. The Christian content of the holiday is only the latest addition to this festival. Much of the Christian story of the birth of Jesus is borrowed from older traditions. The death and resurrection of the sun is mixed with a virgin birth, very much like the virgin births of a number of mythical, and earlier, heroes like Hercules, Mithra or Perseus. A fictional census is thrown in along with gruesome tales of murdered first born infants. There is a virtuous Mother of God and a stable. All these things combine with the ancient lighting of fires to call to the sun and we have our modern celebration of the birth of the "Son of God," and the material appurtenances attached thereto.
This is not to say that there is no meaning to the modern celebration of Christmas. But in our modern celebration there is little room for the grieving and despair our earliest ancestors felt as the sun left them and they contemplated the great mystery of death. Nevertheless, in spite of modern efforts to avoid them, these feelings are still reside in our souls. The modern celebratory spirit ignores, and it ignores with a spirit of fanatic cheerfulness, the ancient darkness that still inhabits this holy-day. The fat, jolly Santa Claus originates in the grim All-Father Odin who hung sacrificed from the World Tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days as a sacrifice to himself. The pretty picture of the infant Jesus in the manger originates in the dying and resurrecting Divine King - a reminder of very real human sacrifices that marked sacred occasions for many early religions. And the twinkling lights go back to the very first fires our tribal ancestors lit. This deeper, darker side of Christmas has been almost completely submerged under the modern holiday created by retail merchants and presided over by the Coca-Cola Santa.
Sometimes there are vague mentions of statistics about suicides and domestic violence and family disputes that belie this glossy image of Christmas but these statistics are like the famous elephant in the living room - everyone knows it is there but no one admits it. In our carefully insulated and measured lives we find the deeper realities of this time of year often by accident. Finding the time from our "hectic holiday schedules" to tune into the cold, dark face Mother Earth wears at this time of year is difficult. It is easier to appreciate a warm, sunny summer day, when dropping some of the layers of our insulation from the natural world is a more pleasant prospect, but nevertheless, tuning into what this season has to offer can be deeply rewarding. Christmas, falling as it does a few days after the Winter Solstice, offers an entrance to the fundamental bedrock that underlies many of our most important rituals and spiritual celebrations.
The movement of the Earth around the Sun is a cycle that has gone on for billions of years and will continue for billions more. The changing face of Nature as a result of this oscillation is something that cannot be captured by numbered and named days on the calendar. All such numbers and names are culturally derived ornaments that we place upon the Tree of this cycle in order that they may regulate and regiment our ordered lives and measure our economic activities. Christmas, on December 25, has come to be little more than another deadline marking the economic activities that must be concluded by then. Many people will spend the Winter Solstice, unremarked and unnoticed, pushing through crowds of shoppers at the mall.