The Christmas Tree, Decking the Halls
The so-called Christmas Tree is one of the most purely pagan of the modern holiday observances. Modern whitewash attributes the custom of lighted Christmas trees to Protestant reformer Martin Luther, with with a charming tale wherein he glimpses the starry sky between evergreen branches. It’s sweet, but hogwash. (Luther, who railed against excess, doesn’t seem a likely promoter of frivolous decor). The custom of decorating trees in honor of the gods is in fact so old it is specifically prohibited in the Old Testament*- which is why our Jewish friends don’t have Hanukkah trees**)
The Christmas tree, like many Christmas customs, originated in the ancient Roman new year festival of Saturnalia. Saturnalia was celebrated much the same as we do Christmas today. Home decoration was emphasized, and the decorations were the evergreen trees sacred to the sun- pine, holly, etc.
Gift giving was also another popular part of Saturnalia festivities- friends and families exchanged gifts of decorated branches, evergreen wreaths, incense, candles, and religious figurines. Caroling, Wassailing, and masked processions were other Saturnalia staples that long outlasted the Roman Empire.
Saturn is still honored at the new year as “father time.” Even the image of the Christmas angel was borrowed from Roman iconology- there were no female angels in Hebrew of Christian scriptures. (wrathful creatures with multitudes of eyes with animal bodies and wings or flaming swords, yes. Kindly feminine angels in flowing dresses, no.)
What about the Mistletoe? Mistletoe was held sacred to the sun to the Norse and the Celts of Europe, whose beliefs about the magical virtues of mistletoe survived into the Christian era. It was for this reason that England’s churches banned its use within their walls.
Fortunately for hopeful romantics, the prohibition didn’t stick.
The pagan Norse Solstice celebration, Yule, gives us both the Yule log and the “Twelve Days” of Christmas. The burning of a tree, a log, or a wheel was a widespread custom in European pagan Solstice ceremonies. The burning of the Yule log is a symbolic sacrifice of the sun’s sacred evergreen, and its sacrifice gave energy to ensure the rebirth of the weakened sun. The celebration of Twelfth Night is also drawn from ancient Yule practices, although the King Cake custom came later, a symbolic recreation of the ancient custom of the sacrificial king- The “Lord of Misrule” who presided over so many Christmas parties was an echo of the seasonal “king” who long ago was sacrificed at the end of the season to ensure plentiful crops and the fertility of both man and livestock.
See: The Evolution of the Christmas Tree, Saturnalia- the real “Reason for the Season”
Santa Claus is something of a syncretic figure, a patchwork of legendary characters. While most accept that Santa is evolved from fourth century Catholic Saint Nicholas of Myra (The name Santa Claus is an Americanization of the Dutch name for Nicholas, “Sinterklaas”), that’s really a bit of a gloss. In truth, traditions of elves, witches, or other supernatural gift-givers pre-existed in European tradition.
The Scandinavian gift-giving gnome Tomten (Also known as Julesvenn, Julnissen, Knecht Ruprecht) contributed the archetypal peaked red hat and associations with reindeer. Tomten was a little more volatile than today’s Santa- he could leave gifts or play tricks depending on the quality of the offerings for him Sometimes, he is portrayed as a demon who whips bad children; in Germany he’s Krampus, a ragged devil figure.
After the advent of Christianity in the North, the cantankerous elf became sidekick to the Saint -Belsnickel, ‘furry Nicholas,’ he being responsible for the distribution of whippings and coal to the naughty children. The Christmas imp was eventually absorbed, leaning only his red cap and sleigh behind. (I suspect he may now be seen working as sidekick to the white witch in the Narnia Books; he is also the close relation of Riumpelstilzkin) (and speaking of evil elves…)
Somehow stories of the generous St. Nicholas (well, mostly so- Nicholas was also reputed to have socked a rival in the jaw over a dispute about the virgin Mary) were muddled with the Scandinavian elf. According to his legend, St. Nicholas was a political activist who championed the poor, prisoners, and children. His association with Christmas giving is almost certainly cover for less acceptable pagan characters.
Santa Claus as we visualize him today sprang from the imagination of American political cartoonist Thomas Nast. Santa’s British counterpart, Father Christmas, is a little bit St. Nick and a little bit Father time. Italian children don’t know Santa; they await gifts from Befana, a kindly witch. Dutch children leave shoes out and hope for a small gift from the Kriskind, an angel representing the Christ child (another name for Kriskind is ‘Kris Kringle,’ so referring to Santa by that name creates a sort of Jesus/elf-angel hybrid).
Some Invented Legends
Candy Canes are the subject of an annual pass-around email, but they were never the special creation of a pious Christian candymaker. When the Christmas tree became popular in Germany, it was commonly decorated with sweets and colored paper. Cane-shaped candy fits over a tree branch. Their popularity with children might have led some to take advantage of their shepherd’s crook shape to teach some religious lessons.
Connections are often made between Santa Claus and the Norse god Odin, usually centered around the coincidence of eight reindeer and the eight legs of Odin’s magical horse. The problem with that similarity is, Santa only had one reindeer companion, until a New York writer upped it to seven, along with inventing the idea of Santa -then portrayed as a tiny elf- slipping down the chimney.) However, there is some connection- early Scandinavian pictograms of Odin often portray him on a reindeer, which is certainly a good way to leave people scratching their heads around the punchbowl..
*Well, maybe not. After all, the Hannukah menorah is, in a sense, a representation of the Tree of Life.
**See Jeremiah 10:3