There is a lot of talk among many circles of the nature of many traditions in many Christian holidays. What does a fat man breaking into the homes of tiny children have to do with the baby Jesus? Did baby Jesus have a Christmas Tree? Does the Easter Bunny summer with the Reindeer in Aspen? Many say that all of these are proof of our pagan traditions, and that the Christians are pagan for following them. Many would also like to believe that the entire holiday is nothing but a huge collection of things to make us buy more things. I however have been digging around and believe I have discovered some things that many may find surprising, enlightening or entertaining about the delightful if sometimes confusing traditions of our favorite holiday.
One story I sadly remember is of my nephew. When he was three he informed us that Santa Claus wasn’t real. His daddy told him that, (please read with a white trash accent) “We don’t worship pagan symbols ’round here.” Well as the good uncle I sat my nephew down and reaffirmed to him that no, Santa Claus was not a pagan and he is indeed real.
Santa Claus: Santa was indeed a real person. He actually did go by the name of Nicholas, his Greek name when he was a monk in the early Christian church around what is today Myra, Turkey. He lived in the 300’s and became famous for his great acts of charity. (At least he was real, but don’t tell the kids.) One story speaks of him giving dowries to three young, pious, impoverished girls so that they could be wed, and not go into other forms of lifestyle. Another speaks of him saving three wrongly prosecuted men from being put to death. For these and other reasons he was made a saint in the church. In his native home of Myra there is the first church dedicated to Saint Nicholas and many more have risen in Europe since the 7th century. He is also considered the patron saint of children and many others. His uniform is also of Christian decent as it is an evolution of the canonical robes worn by later Christian cardinals. How all these turned into breaking and entering to give presents in return for good deeds and tasty treats I can only guess, but I can promise you children that Santa Claus is real. So be good for goodness sake.
December 25: I am sorry folks, Jesus was not born on this day. Many agree that it fell sometime around the spring, probably around April or May. Some accounts I have read also place it in early January. The Bible was not clear on this and, in spite of the fact that his entire of family was Jewish, there were no good records for the exact time of his birth. What most biblical scholars do agree on is that it was not December 25th.
The reasoning for this date was to bring the important celebration of Jesus’ birth and overshadow important pagan traditions of the time. Some of these include the celebration of the Winter Solstice, Roman New Year and other holidays including the celebration of Saturnalia. Saturnalia, interestingly enough, was a Roman holiday where masters served their slaves in recognition of the duel sides (bipolar) nature of their god Saturn. During this holiday the Romans gave gifts to their slaves and a nature of equality and brotherhood was recognized during the festivities. It was also a great time to party. Along with the date, this is where many believe the practice of gift giving and merriment during Christmas comes from. In fact, in the middle ages the church tried to repress the act of gift giving because of it’s paganistic roots. (I know I thought it came from the wise men too.)
In any case, these holidays all fell close enough to each other and held a strong enough pagan tradition that in the 300’s the early church set a day when we as Christians would recognize the birth of Jesus. This allowed the influence and meanings of the pagan holidays to gradually fade away as their traditions began to become part of Christmas as we know it.
The Christmas Tree: This story is more interesting than you might think. It turns out that this tradition may technically have descended from pagan roots, but there is more to this story. The Christmas tree that we have today probably came around the end of the 1700’s around Germany. At that time the German Christians were really reinventing the holiday at that time, not in my opinion to do anything wrong, just to add some culture and something new to the celebration. They started erecting Christmas trees with decorative candles (and I don’t know how they didn’t burn down the entire place with open flame on a dried out tree in the middle of the living room.) This is also where we get the traditions of tree ornaments and Christmas lights. Once these traditions started in Eastern Europe they began to spread to the rest of Europe and eventually to the Americans through immigrants, most likely the Dutch. But where did the Germans come up a tree in the living room?
There are two majors beliefs as to the origin of the Christmas tree. One is believed to be around a play in which the “Paradise Tree” stands as the centerpiece of the play featuring Adam and Eve in the creation story. The other story (which I like better as it tells a richer, fuller story) is about how the Christmas tree is descended from some of our ancient ancestries. This is where some pagan roots to the tree story start to show.
In many Norse, Gaulic and ancient Germanic religions, trees were key figures of their religion. To the Norse the holy tree of Yggdrasil held up the entire world, which consisted of many realms included the realm where the gods lived and where humans lived, as well one for the elves, dwarves and their own version of Hell, which they called… Hel. In any case, trees were an important part of these religions and the cultures of ancient Europe, particularly France, Germany, Western Russia, Scandinavia and England. Where this becomes a Christian story is here.
In the early 700’s a Catholic Monk named Saint Boniface (Bonifacius) did much work to convert the Germanic tribes of Northern Europe. One legend speaks of him traveling to a city of the Chatti, a Germanic tribe. There he found a mighty tree called the Donar Oak, which to the people there, symbolized their patron god. Well Boniface would have none of that and he felled the tree (along with the Frankish troops who protected him from the angry savages.) According to legend this tree was used to build a chapel to Saint Peter and was the birthplace of the Benedictine order. You will also see images of Saint Boniface with an ax, a reference to this popular legend.
This may sound strange, but it makes perfect sense for a Christmas story. If this legend is truly viewed as the beginning of the Christmas tree myth then it represents something much deeper than a tree. When Saint Boniface went to Germany he went to spread the news of Christianity to the pagans. By felling the tree his action symbolized the arrival of Jesus and the death of the pagan religion in Europe. For that reason we can say that the Christmas tree is a very good symbol of Christmas as it stands for a subtle reminder of our pagan roots giving way to Christianity when Jesus was born.
Reindeer, the North Pole and the Elves: I don’t have a clue. My best guess is they are just plain pagan. You just can’t really justify those. Deer are important for many of the Norse legends and a symbol of Odin (also considered to have some relations to the modern Santa myths.) And the elves are Norse myths as well. At least these little guys are cute and kind instead of the eternal hunters of man that the ancients made them out to be. The North Pole… well I guess they chose that because only recently have we been brave or dumb enough to go there and prove it wrong. In any case, these are all northern traditions, along with the holiday commonly known as Yule (hense Yule time.) It would make sense that since they were the last regions to come into Christianity before they started keeping good books of what is and isn’t Christian, that many of their myths made their way into Christian traditions. Don’t worry though, these aren’t a big deal anyway.
What I hope you gained from this article is a few insights on things most Christians never think about (or tried not to think about because it may have led to places they didn’t want to go.) By studying the histories however, we can learn a great deal about our traditions that reestablishes some of our favorite merry making activities as authentic Christian activities. When my children are young I plan to tell them to leave cookies for Santa (who favors my wife’s chocolate chip) and when they are older I will tell them about what the real Saint Nicholas did for the people of his village. We will also decorate the tree and when they are older I will tell them about how Saint Boniface taught the Germans about Jesus and how he started the Christmas tree tradition. They will also place stars on the trees, sing both the secular and Christian Christmas songs and go to church to see the plays.
I also hope that readers consider this. What symbols, acts, decorations or traditions are yours these Christmas holidays, it matters less about where the tradition comes from and more about what it means to you and those you celebrate it with. Doing something that may have been similar to something done by people dancing around a fire fifteen hundred years ago doesn’t make you a pagan. And these traditions we now celebrate are now important to our culture and heritage. So don’t get caught up and worry too much about what everything in the holidays may or may not have meant, but just enjoy the traditions of your special holiday.
Also see other posts about the holidays at the Christmas Discussion.