Pagan Christmas Traditions / Sun Worship (1883)


(Source: Radical Review, 1883)

That joyful holiday of Sun-worship known as Christmas, was celebrated again last week as it has been celebrated among all the northern peoples for thousands of years.

If men must worship a superior being, or intelligence, a bountiful Creator, what religion can be more beautiful than the adoration of the Sun, that visible Creator of all things that make life in this world possible? The incarnation of the Sunbeams into a Christ the Redeemer, was a poetic thought naturally springing out of the visible beneficence of the Sun, when, relenting of his purpose to forsake his creatures, he turns back from his journey to the South, and promises to redeem the world from the dominion of frost and snow.

For months the people had watched the Sun departing from them, and as he went away there came darkness and cold, the leaves fell from the trees, and the earth grew solid like stone. At last they saw him stop, as if relenting, pause for a moment, and then turn hack; joy broke forth, for here was the promise—that he would warm the earth again, bring back the flowers, and ripen the wheat and corn.

Then they gave gifts and pardon to one another, for they knew that the frozen land would give them bread once more, that in due time the dead grass would live again, and the stark trees be clothed with the foliage of a glorious resurrection.

The Merry Christmas time was a festival celebrated for thousands of years before the Christian era. The Roman Saturnalia began in December about the time of the Sun’s return, and lasted seven days. That celebration came down to the Romans from the most remote period of antiquity of which they had either historical or traditional knowledge; and in the regions further north, in the temples of Thor and Woden, decorated with mistletoe and holly, the Sun-Redeemer was worshipped as he was worshipped last Tuesday in Chicago.

To this day Christmas is a Pagan festival in England. The Christians failing to extirpate it, adopted it, and dedicated it to Christ, In that country the Druidical mistletoe is hung in the houses from Christmas eve until Twelfth-night. This plant is so identified with Christmas that it is called “Christinas,” and thousands of English people, even in London,.do not know it by any other name. It has supernatural virtues and is inhabited by a good fairy, who allows young men to kiss any maiden who is careless enough to stand under it. As the mistletoe was the sacred plant of the Druids, it is easy to see whence comes the English veneration for it.

Part of the Druid Sun-worship was the burning of the yule-log, which was in the nature of a thankful sacrifice to the Sun on his return. The yule-log was as religiously burned by the English last Tuesday as it was by their Druid ancestors two thousand years ago. In fact, Christmas cannot be technically kept in England without burning the yulelog. To be sure, it may be kept after a fashion, but much of its virtue is lost without the yule-log. The bringing in of the log and the setting fire to it were important ceremonials, and are yet.

The yule-log, like the mistletoe, has supernatural powers, and it cannot properly be lighted except by a brand from last year’s burning. It shone with impartial warmth and light upon servant and lord, and was therefore the symbol of the equality of men: and to this day it has that meaning in many parts of England. To this day, in some of the great halls, the lord and his lady dance with their servants on Christmas eve by the light of the Christmas log.

It had still greater powers: it consumed the wrongs, the jealousies, and the heart burnings of the year, and because of that splendid virtue men took off their hats to it as it passed.

The procession of the yule-log was thus sung by fine old Herrick:

Come, bring with a noise,

My merry, merry boyes,

The Christmas log to the firing,

While the good dame, she

Bids ye all be free,

And drink to your hearts desiring.

With the last yeere’s brand,

Light the new block, and

For good success in his spending:

On your psalteries play,

That sweet luck may

Come while the log is a-tending.

In righteous resentment of the Christian usurpation of this fine old Sun-festival, Rabbi Sonneschein, of St. Louis, informs his congregation that Christmas belongs to all the nations north of the equator, and that the Jew can observe it without violating his religious principles. He tells his people that their fathers observed the 25th of December in the days of the Maccabees, and also that the pagan world always celebrate it as the time when the longest night gave way to the lengthening of the day, and that the early Christian church, which used to celebrate Christmas in the spring, accepted at the end of the fifth century the pagan festival, transferring the celebration of Christ’s birth to December.

It is to be regretted that priestcraft will not permit a purely natural rejoicing at the birth of a natural Redeemer, the new Sun, without adulterating the festivities with a lot of astrologies, mythologies, and ignorant stories about stables, and mangers, and swaddling clothes, and foolish wise men following stars to Bethlehem. Those impostures debase the festival; and it is pitiable to see men of education and character, protestant ministers, preaching the gospel story as veritable history, and proclaiming the poetical miracles of a savior’s birth as events that actually occurred. Their trade is of doubtful morality, for many of them do not believe the legends that they teach. Only those who actually believe them are justified in telling them, while the others must plod along for ever in the contempt of their own consciences.

Christmas is a season of praise and feasting; sectarians who have tried to make it a time of praise and fasting never succeeded. The Puritans tried it, and yet Christmas trees full of presents for little children blossomed radiantly in all the Puritan homes throughout the land. Centuries before the Puritans were heard of there were sectarians in England who declared that the proper way to observe Christmas was by fasting, but an act of parliament settled them.

Six hundred years ago an act was passed to punish all persons “who did not duly honor the birthday of Christ according to the flesh, but pretended to honor it by fasting on that day.”

Source: Radical Review, 1883
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