Some Christmas Traditions of Pagan Origin

This discussion of the pagan origin of many Christmas traditions, appeared in an essay Christmas Throughout Christendom (1873).

“On earth peace, good-will toward men.” This Christian idea of Christmas, with its love, charity, and forgiveness, has probably found its most striking realization in the Julafred, or Yule-peace of the Scandinavians — a custom, though ancient as the Runic stones, still existing in Sweden, by virtue of a Christian baptism, as a Christian institution. Extending from Christmas-eve to Epiphany, and solemnly proclaimed by a public crier, any violation of the Yule-peace is visited with double or treble punishment. The courts are closed; old quarrels are adjusted; old feuds are forgotten; while on the Yule-evening the shoes, great and small, of the entire household, are set close together in a row, that during the coming year the family may live together in peace and harmony.

To this pacific, Christian conception of the Christmas-time not a few pagan elements have been added, which are clearly traceable, as we shall see, to the old German “Twelve Nights” and the Roman Saturnalia. Hence its mirth and festivity, its jesting and feasting, its frolic and license. The decoration and illumination of our Christian churches recall the temples of Saturn radiant with burning tapers and resplendent with garlands. The ” merry Christmas” responds to the “bona Saturnalia,” and our modern Christmas presents to the dona amicis.

During the Saturnalia, which were intended to symbolize the freedom, equality, and peaceful prosperity of the golden or Saturnian age, all labor was suspended. The schools were closed; the Senate adjourned; no criminal was executed; no war proclaimed. Slaves exchanged places with their masters, or, seated at the banqueting tables wearing badges of freedom, jested with them familiarly as their equals.

All these customs have found their counterpart during the Christmas holidays in modern society. In Italy, at the present day, masters and servants not unfrequently meet and are seated at a common Christmas table; while among the Euglish aristocracy the “huge hall table,” at least in the times when Scott sang of the Christmas-tide,

“Bore then upon Its surface broad

No mark to part the squire and lord.”

Nor do we fail to find the outcropping of the freedom and license of the old Saturnalia even in Protestant England aud Puritanic Scotland. In the stalwart times of “good Queen Bess” the Christmas holidays lasted over a month.

Those were the balmy days of the Christmas-tide, when the mystic mistletoe bough, as now, conferred upon amorous swains a charter for kissing as “broad as the wind,” when the Christmas logs flamed and roared, when boars’ heads and barbecues smoked, and fun and frolic and boisterous mirth raged furiously through the ” wee short hours” until the sky turned round.

Then it was that the Lord of Misrule or Abbot of Unreason was the autocrat of the Christmas-time, when, clothed with the same powers as the lord of the Feast of Asses in France, he enjoyed the right to say with impunity whatever he chose, to whomsoever he pleased, even to hooting the minister during divine service, when the congregation would frequently desert the church in a body to join the roistering revelers under his capricious command.

Although Epiphanius dates back the custom of commemorating the birthday of Christ to the days of the apostles, its origin is to be referred with greater probability to the latter part of the fourth century. The primitive Christians, it is true, celebrated the birthdays of Christian martyrs, only they selected the day of their death as their real birthday—the birthday of their eternal life. When, however, Constantino proclaimed the Christian faith as the predominating religion of the Roman empire, the Christian Church, relieved from persecution through out both Orient and Occident, began to solemnize, under the segis of imperial authority, Christmas as the birthday of Christ.

One prominent feature, however, of Constantino’s political propaganda of Christianity was the adoption under Christian forms not only of pagan rites and ceremonies, but also of pagan festivals. In order to reconcile heathen converts to the new faith, these relics of paganism, like antique columns transferred from ancient temples to adorn Christian churches, were freely incorporated into the Christian ceremonial.

Thus it was that Christmas, though formerly observed on the 6th of January, was transferred to the 25th of December, the time of the Roman Saturnalia, and became invested with much of the paraphernalia of the heathen festival. This transfer became the more easy from the fact that, although the early Christians had fixed upon the 6th of January in their symbolic calendar as the day of Christ’s birth, the date could never be satisfactorily determined. Piper, however, rather curiously explains the adoption of the day we now celebrate from the fact that the conception of the Virgin Mary was supposed to have taken place on the day corresponding to the creation of the Christmas mummers, Christmas playworld, which must have been upon the 25th of March, as the days and nights are then equal, and consequently that Christ must have been born on the 25th of December.

The custom thus established in the Occident spread rapidly, particularly through the efforts of St. Chrysostom, who makes mention of it in one of his sermons as early as 380. Fifty years later it was introduced into Egypt. Here, however, it came into collision with the feast of Epiphany, which was already celebrated, as the feast of the birth and baptism of Christ, on the 6th of January, the birthday of Osiris, the Egyptian sun-god.

In Germany the Christmas holidays appear to have been substituted for the old pagan festival of the “Twelve Nights,” which extended from the 25th of December to the 6th of January. The Twelve Nights were religiously observed by numerous feasts, and were regarded by the ancient Germans as among the holiest and most solemn of their festivals.

Regarding, in common with other pagan nations, the active forces of nature as living personifications, they symbolized the conflict of natural forces by the battle of the gods and giants. Thus in the old German mythology Winter is represented as the ice giant, heartless, inexorable, the enemy of all life, and the relentless foe of gods and men. By the aid of his powerful steed Swadilfari, the all-stiffening north wind, he constructs a formidable castle of ice, which threatens to inaugurate the reign of Night and Winter, of Darkness and eternal Death.

Then follows the conflict of giants and gods, of Winter with Spring, of North Wind with South Wind, until Thor, the god of the thunder-storm, demolishes with his thunder-stone the castle of the ice-giant, when Freija, the beautiful goddess of spring, resumes her former sway, and life and light and prosperity return.

But the restless giants ever invent new stratagems to regain their lost supremacy. Thrym, the prince of the giants, robs the sleeping Thor of his dreaded sledge-hammer, and hides it eight leagues under the earth. This insures the reign of Winter for the eight months of the year when the thunderstorm slumbers, until Thor, accompauied by Loki, the spring wind, again demolishes with his recaptured hammer the castle of the ice-king, when the Winter Storm is again compelled reluctantly to retire.

This eternal conflict of the opposing forces of summer and winter frequently occurs under various forms in the German mythology, and constituted one of the most striking features of the old German poesy, as the beautiful legend of Iduuna and her appies and the giant Thiassi, in the poem of “Edda.”

In the midst of this struggle of the conflicting forces of nature the Germans and other Northern peoples celebrated the festival of the Twelve Nights. This festival, as already stated, commenced on the 25th of December. Though in the depth of midwinter, when the ice-king was in the full flush of victory, it was nevertheless the turning-point in the conflict of natural forces. The sun-god having reached the goal of the winter solstice, now wheeled his fiery steeds, and became the sure precursor of the coming victory of light and life over darkness and death.

But while a pagan festival might he transformed into a Christian holiday, there was no place in a system of theism, unless in its poesy, for the pantheon of pagan gods. These were therefore either relegated to oblivion, or, metamorphosed into demons, witches, and ghosts,  now supposed to have special power to work mischief, particularly during the Christmas-time. Hnlda, once the producing night of spring, now bewitches the distaff of lazy spinner-girls. Odin, the god of fecundity, who formerly pursued with impetuous ardor the fair and beautiful Freija, now, as the wild huntsman of hell, sweeps through the air with his devilish crew, foretelling future wars or portending coing calamity.  The once-resplendent Berchta, now a malevolent witch, hung with cow-bells and disguised with a horrid wooden mask, has become the bugbear of children, as she mutters from house to house,

“Children or bacon, ,

Else I don’t go away.”

A singular rumor of sea-birds, during the nights of November and December, in the island of Schonen, is still known as the hunting of Odin.

In the Bavarian and Styrian Alps the Twelve Nights are called “Rumor Nights,” on account of their visions of ghosts and hobgoblins, when priests and prudent housewives, with prayer and invocation, holy-water and burning incense, fumigate dwelling and outhouse, and sprinkle their cattle with salt. Hence these nights were also called “Fumigating Nights.” As an additional protection agaiust “witches’ feet” and ” devils paws,” the initials of the holy magicians were formerly inscribed upon the door-posts.

On the dreaded Twelfth-night, when Frau Holle, or Berchta, issues with her fearful train from her wild mountain home, where she dwells among the dead, she is generally preceded by the faithful Eckhart, an old man with a long beard and a white wand, who warns every one of her terrible approach.

There is a pretty legend related by Von Reinsberg in his “Festliche Jalir” (to which we are indebted for much of the material and a number of the illustrations for this article), that on one occasion the good Eckhart met two little children, who, coming out of a beer shop with a pot of beer, were overtaken by the fearful troop, who drank all the beer. Having no money to buy more, and apprehensive of punishment, they cried bitterly, when the faithful Eckhart comforted them with the assurance that if they would never tell what they had seen, their pot would always be brimful of beer. And so it was, until their parents prevailed upon the children to divulge the mysterious secret, when the miraculous gift disappeared.

As with Christmas as a holiday, so with many of its characters and customs. if not of pagan origin they constitute a curious medley of paganism and Christianity. This is particularly true among the Germans, who were strongly attached to their old religions ceremonies.

The Christchild with his gifts and masked attendant all belong to the German antiquity. In the procession of the star – singers the three kings replace the pagan gods. Only the names have been changed, while the custom has received the rites of a Christian baptism.

The German custom of some one going, in a state of nudity, at midnight on Christmas – eve, to bind the fruit trees with ropes of straw, or of frugal housewives shaking the crumbs from the table-cloth around their roots in order that, they become more fruitful, clearly points to the mysterious influence attributed by the ancient Germans to the time of the Twelve Nights. In the Tyrol the fruit trees, for a similar reason, are soundly beaten. In Bohemia they are violently shaken during the time of the midnight mass; while in other localities they are regaled with the remains of the Christmas supper, to which they had been previously and specially invited.

A similar custom, probably of German origin, still prevails in some parts of England. In Devonshire a corn cake and some hot cider are carried into the orchard, and there offered up to the largest apple-tree as the king of the orchard, while those who take part in the singular ceremony join lustily in the chorus,

“Bear good apples and pears enong’—

Barns full, bags full, sacks fnll!

Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!”

Mistletoe and holly, Yule-log and Yule-candle, belong to the same category. The mistletoe was regarded by the Druids with religious veneration, and its berries of pearl, as symbolic of purity, were associated by them with the rites of marriage. From this the transition was but slight to the lover’s kiss beneath its mystic bough during the Christmas-tide.

At this festive season also they kindle bonfires upon the hill-tops. Nor must we forget that our pagan progenitors burned a great log and a mammoth candle upon the 21st of December, which, being the shortest day in the year, was regarded as the turning-point in the conflict between the contending forces of winter and spring.

Advent is the herald of Christmas. In Protestant as well as Catholic countries choristers and school-boys during the “holynights” go from house to house singing songs or Christmas carols, with which to usher in the auspicious day.

In the south of Germany they accompany the singing by knocking at the doors with a little hammer, or throwing pease, beans, or lentils at the windows. Hence the origin of the name of “knocking nights.”

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