The Myths and Legends Behind ChristmasChristmas is usually considered a Christian festival, but it’s probably the most syncretized holiday on the calendar. So syncretized is it, in fact, that the Puritans banned it in England during Cromwell’s dictatorship, from 1647 to 1660. Puritans also outlawed the holiday in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The Puritans recognized (albeit sourly) that Christmas was about as Christian as a pentacle.
This is one major reason why the Christmas season is so long–it incorporates traditions that go back centuries before Christ. In fact, Christmas wasn’t even incorporated into Christianity until nearly four centuries after Christ’s death. Before that, it was pagan.
The current season that we call “Christmas” or “Yuletide” includes ongoing holidays from at least two major religions (Christianity and Judaism) and pagan traditions from Africa (Kwanzaa) and Europe (winter solstice celebrations). Advent, the forty days before Christmas, was called “the forty Days of St. Martin” during the early Middle Ages and the Epiphany (January 6) was actually a more important feast than Christmas itself until later in the medieval period. Thus, the Christmas season is nearly two months long.
Needless to say, a very large number of legends surrounds Christmas. If you look at the television schedule (or literary classics), this surfeit of legend and myth is reflected in the huge amount of Christmas fiction that is fantastic. Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, a ghost story that swings uneasily between fantasy and horror, is the most obvious example, but Arthur C. Clarke’s SF short story The Star and fantasy film It’s a Wonderful Life also come to mind. Christmas stories are as rife with life-affirming miracles and Santa-or-angel-sightings as Halloween stories are with deadly ghosts and monsters.
ChristmasThe Christian holiday of “Christ’s Mass” is currently the biggest celebration of the season. The actual day of Christmas is supposed to be Christ’s birthday and the entire season is laid out according to stories from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, early Christians didn’t celebrate this holiday in December. The Christian feast on the 25th didn’t even appear in historical records until the fourth century and was not officially incorporated into the calendar until the eighth century. Before the fourth century, Christ’s birth was celebrated anywhere from January to May.
When it was first incorporated, Christmas appears to have been intended to supplant a pagan Roman festival celebrating the birthday of Sol Invictus, a collective god consisting of at least three sun deities, one of them the Roman soldier-god Mithras. Considering that Christ was considered the “Light of the World” by Christians, this was actually a pretty logical substitution.
The Twelve Days of Christmas between December 25 and January 6 are also similar to the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a week-long festival between December 17 and 23 dedicated to Saturn, where people feasted and society turned upside down, with masters serving slaves. A possible precursor to Saturnalia was the Babylonian Zagmuk Festival, which lasted 12 days. It celebrated the sun god Marduk and turned society on end in a similar way to Saturnalia.
It’s difficult to say at this point how deliberately the Christian holiday was overlaid on the older pagan festivals, which supplanted each other, as well. But as Christianity spread, the festival definitely borrowed and syncretized other winter festivals from December and January. For example, the Yule log and mistletoe come from Scandinavia, the Christmas tree from Germany, holly and ivy from Celtic druidic traditions.
St. Nicholas is a very early Eastern saint who may be apocryphal, but his modern incarnation as Santa Claus is essentially Dutch in origin and he may incorporate some traditions from the Norse god Odin. In his 2001 fantasy novel, American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s hero, Shadow, spends Christmas in a Midwestern diner with an American version of Odin, though some readers may scratch their heads at how the All-Father became a grifter.
Television show Supernatural‘s episode, “A Very Supernatural Christmas” (2007), also touches on European traditions surrounding Santa Claus, this time involving the “Companions of St Nicholas”. These companions are demons who have been tamed by the Saint and forced to do his bidding (his bidding usually involving scaring the Hell out of bad kids).
If you want an eye-opener on how medieval Europe literally demonized perceived external enemies, check out Zarte Piet/Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) from the Netherlands. This figure is a caricature of a Moor (a medieval Spanish or North African Muslim), including dark skin. There’s nothing really non-human about him, but his exotic appearance was enough to mark him as a demon to medieval Europeans. This is especially ironic considering that many Muslims don’t have the problems with Christmas that they do with Easter. Though they don’t celebrate a winter festival (the Islamic calendar, being lunar-based, has no roots in a solar calendar), they do revere Jesus as the penultimate Prophet, conceived of a virgin birth.
Realizing that pursuing the “Santa’s evil brother” angle could rapidly become politically incorrect, the Supernatural writers quickly switched to the true villains of the episode–pagan gods (cue sighs of frustration from half of the neopagans out there). In their trip down the dark side of Christmas (yes, Christmas actually has a dark side), they touched on the Swedish pagan tradition of Midvinterblot (midwinter-sacrifice). Midvinterblot, which was phased out around 1200, involved human and animal sacrifice intended to reduce the grip of winter. It may also have been connected to Yule traditions.
And lest we believe that all Christmas demons were male–the “Lucia” of St. Lucia’s Day (December 13) was originally a demon called a “Lussi” or “Lucia die dunkle” who targeted lazy kids who didn’t do their chores. She’d have a field day in the new millennium.
HanukkahHanukkah (the Festival of Lights) is another December holiday whose celebration commemorates a much earlier series of events, this time recorded in the two Apocryphal books of the Maccabees. According to the story, when Judah Maccabee, leader of the Jewish revolt against Seleucid (Syrian) occupation, and his brothers drove the Seleucid king Antiochus IV out of Israel in 165 BCE, they also reclaimed and cleansed the Temple of Solomon. Unfortunately, there was only enough oil left to light the menorah for one day. During the eight days that it took to press and consecrate more oil, the menorah miraculously continued to burn.
Hanukkah may also represent the martyrdom of a woman named Hannah and her sons for refusing to abandon their faith under Seleucid rule. Some historians also believe that it may have been the delayed celebration of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days after the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev (late November or early December), while Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret were celebrated in late September or early October.
2 Maccabees doesn’t specifically mention the festival, though the Talmud does. However, the festival was definitely being celebrated by the first century CE, as it is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus.
KwanzaaKwanzaa, an African-American festival celebrating the harvest, is the youngest of the formally recognized festivals in the Christmas season. Celebrated from December 26 to January 1, Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, an African-American activist author. Intended as a cultural rather than a religious festival, Kwanzaa exists to celebrate African-American traditions via harvest festivals from northeastern Africa.
Kwanzaa has attracted controversy as a “made-up” festival connected to Pan-Africanism. The festival does reflect the rather odd tendency to see all African culture as East African and Swahili-based (most African-Americans originally came from West Africa, which has quite different traditions). Also, the placing of the festival at the end of December is incongruous–this would put it near the beginning of the Dry Season in SubSaharan Africa, not a time when anyone would be harvesting things.
That said, it’s hardly the first time someone has syncretized winter traditions from somewhere else for their own usage. And considering that the embarrassing Companions of St Nicholas have only recently been reconsidered as a Christmas tradition, one could say that there just might be a need for something like Kwanzaa to counteract something like Zarte Piet.
Winter SolsticeNeopagan (New Age) traditions all tend to center around the winter solstice on December 21 or end-of-year celebrations. There is plenty of historical precedent in many cultures for such traditions. The last five days of the Mayan calendar, for example, were nameless and considered extremely dangerous along the lines of the Celtic festival Samhain, which was later incorporated into Christianity as Halloween. During this period, no barriers existed between mortals and gods, leaving gods free to indulge in some serious destruction.
Soyalangwul among the Zuni of the southwestern United States, is celebrated on the winter solstice, and marks the beginning of the new year.
A pre-Zoroastrian festival from the 2nd millennium BCE, Shabe Chelle, celebrated the Winter Solstice as a victory of light over darkness, and the birth of Mithras the sun god. It survives to this day in Iran as the festival of Yalda.
In Sri Lanka, a famous Buddhist nun, Sanghamitta, is commemorated on the Solstice.
In India, Makara Sankranti is celebrated on January 14. The only Hindu festival not based on the lunar calendar, it marks the entrance of the sun into the constellation Capricorn. The festival is intended to celebrate the increase in the length of days after the winter solstice. Many of the rituals involve exchanges of food.
In neopagan traditions, Wiccans and Ásatrú (Germanic and Icelandic neopagans) both celebrate Yule. Wiccans observe the single day as a Sabbat commemorating the rebirth of the sun, while the Ásatrú observe a 12-day festival beginning with the solstice.
The Lithuanian Romuva have revived the Latvian festival of Ziemassvetki, dedicated to the birth of the Latvian creator or sky god, Dievs. They celebrate this on December 23, 24 and 25. The two weeks leading up to the original festival (December 25) were known as the “season of ghosts”.
In Celtic neopagan traditions, the solstice holds significance as the major festival after Samhain. Since the 18th century, neo-druids have revived and celebrated it as “Alban Arthan”. A much older festival, Wren Day (December 26), celebrated in Celtic areas like Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man, may reflect some actual original druidic traditions. On Wren Day, “Wrenboys” would kill a wren and wander from house to house with musicians, singing and asking for donations.
The origins of Christmas are decidedly tangled. This makes the debate over its secularization into a holiday where you eat a lot and get nice stuff more fraught. Some Christians have tried to make the holiday more “religious” (more Christian, in other words) while others have rejected it as a pagan festival. Meanwhile, the neopagans have embraced it as a solstice celebration and emphasized those pagan origins. But either way, it’s not going anywhere. Christmas is such a popular holiday that people are expanding it and using it for their own purposes. It’s probably the only religious festival that we can truly say is for everyone.