Pagan Origins Of Christmas Day ~ Winter solstice ~ Saturnalia (1864)

Pagan Christmas - Thor as Santa ClausCHRISTMAS-DAY.

.  .  .  .   but no such precision of date can be adduced as regards Christmas, respecting which the generally received view now is, that it does not correspond with the actual date of the nativity of our Saviour. One objection, in particular, has been made, that the incident recorded in Scripture, of shepherds keeping watch by night on the plains of Bethlehem, could not have taken place in the month of December, a period generally of great inclemency in the region of Judaea.

Though Christian nations have thus, from an early period in the history of the church, celebrated Christmas about the period of the winter-solstice or the shortest day, it is well known that many, and, indeed, the greater number of the popular festive observances by which it is characterised, are referrible to a much more ancient origin.

Amid all the pagan nations of antiquity, there seems to have been a universal tendency to worship the sun as the giver of life and light, and the visible manifestation of the Deity. Various as were the names bestowed by different peoples on this object of their worship, he was still the same divinity.

Thus, at Rome, he appears to have been worshipped under one of the characters attributed to Saturn, the father of the gods; among the Scandinavian nations he was known under the epithet of Odin or Woden, the father of Thor, who seems afterwards to have shared with his parent the adoration bestowed on the latter, as the divinity of which the sun was the visible manifestation ; whilst with the ancient Persians, the appellation for the god of light was Mithras, apparently the same as the Irish Mithr, and with the Phoenicians or Carthaginians it was Baal or Bel, an epithet familiar to all students of the Bible.

Concurring thus as regards the object of worship, there was a no less remarkable uniformity in the period of the year at which these different nations celebrated a grand festival in his honour.

The time chosen appears to have been universally the season of the New Year, or, rather, the winter solstice, from which the new year was frequently reckoned. This unanimity in the celebration of the festival in question, is to be ascribed to the general feeling of joy which all of us experience when the gradual shortening of the day reaches its utmost limit on the 21st of December, and the sun, recommencing his upward course, announces that mid-winter is past, and spring and summer are approaching.

On similar grounds, and with similar demonstrations, the ancient pagan nations observed a festival at mid-summer, or the summer solstice, when the sun arrives at the culminatingpoint of his ascent on the 21st of June, or longest day.

By the Romans, this anniversary was celebrated under the title of Saturnalia, or the festival of Saturn, and was marked by the prevalence of a universal licence and merry-making. The slaves were permitted to enjoy for a time a thorough freedom in speech and behaviour, and it is even said that their masters waited on them as servants. Every one feasted and rejoiced, work and business were for a season entirely suspended, the houses were decked with laurels and evergreens, presents were made by parents and friends, and all sorts of games and amusements were indulged in by the citizens.

In the bleak north, the same rejoicings had place, but in a ruder and more barbarous form. Fires were extensively kindled, both in and out of doors, blocks of wood blazed in honour of Odin and Thor, the sacred mistletoe was gathered by the Druids, and sacrifices, both of men and cattle, were made to the savage divinities. Fires are said, also, to have been kindled at this period of the year by the ancient Persians, between whom and the Druids of Western Europe a relationship is supposed to have existed.

In the early ages of Christianity, its ministers frequently experienced the utmost difficulty in inducing the converts to refrain from indulging in the popular amusements which were so largely participated in by their pagan countrymen. Among others, the revelry and licence which characterised the Saturnalia called for special animadversion.

But at last, convinced partly of the inefficacy of such denunciations, and partly influenced by the idea that the spread of Christianity might thereby be advanced, the church endeavoured to amalgamate, as it were, the old and new religions, and sought, by transferring the heathen ceremonies to the solemnities of the Christian festivals, to make them subservient to the cause of religion and piety.

A compromise was thus effected between clergy and laity, though it must be admitted that it proved anything but a harmonious one, as we find a constant, though ineffectual, proscription by the ecclesiastical authorities of the favourite amusements of the people, including among others the sports and revelries at Christmas.

Ingrafted thus on the Roman Saturnalia, the Christmas festivities received in Britain further changes and modifications, by having superadded to them, first, the Druidical rites and superstitions, and then, after the arrival of the Saxons, the various ceremonies practised by the ancient Germans and Scandinavians. The result has been the strange medley of Christian and pagan rites which contribute to make up the festivities of the modern Christmas. Of these, the burning of the Yule log, and the superstitions connected with the mistletoe have already been described under Christmas Eve, and further accounts are .given under separate heads, both under the 24th and 25th of December.

The name given by the ancient Goths and Saxons to the festival of the winter-solstice was Jul or Yule, the latter term forming, to the present day, the designation in the Scottish dialect of Christmas, and preserved also in the phrase of the ‘ Yule log.’ Perhaps the etymology of no term has excited greater discussion among antiquaries. Some maintain it to be derived from the Greek, «t/X« or J»kx»(, the name of a hymn in honour of Ceres ; others say it comes from the Latin jubilum, signifying a time of rejoicing, or from its being a festival in honour of Julius Ctesar; whilst some also explain its meaning as synonymous with ol or oel, which in the ancient Gothic language denotes a feast, and also the favourite liquor used on such occasion, whence our word ale.

But a much more probable derivation of the term in question is from the Gothic giul or hiul, the origin of the modern word wlieel, and bearing the same signification. According to this very probable explanation, the Yule festival received its name from its being the turning-point of the year, or the period at which the fiery orb of day made a revolution in his annual circuit, and entered on his northern journey. A confirmation of this view is afforded by the circumstance that in the old clog almanacs, a wheel is the device employed for marking the season of Yule-tide. Throughout the middle ages, and down to the period of the Reformation, the festival of Christmas, ingrafted on the pagan rites of Yule, continued throughout Christendom to be universally celebrated with every mark of rejoicing.

On the adoption of a new system of faith by most of the northern nations of Europe in the sixteenth century, the Lutheran and Anglican churches retained the celebration of Christinas and other festivals, which Calvinists rejected absolutely, denouncing the observance of all such days, except Sunday, as superstitious and unscriptural.

In reference to the superstition anciently prevalent in Scotland against spinning on Christmas or Yule day, and the determination of the Calvinistic clergy to put down all such notions, the following amusing passage is quoted by Dr Jamieson from Jhone Hamilton’s Facile Traictise: ‘The ministers of Scotland—in contempt of the vther halie dayes obseruit be England—cause their wyfis and seruants spin in opf>in sicht of the people upon Yeul day; and their atfectionnate auditeurs constraines their tennanta to yok thair pleuchs on Yeul day in contempt of Christ’s Natiuitie, whilk our Lord has not left vnpunisit; for thair oxin ran wod [mad], and brak their nekis, and leamit [lamed] sum pleugh men, as is notoriously knawin in sindrie partes of Scotland.’ In consequence of the Presbyterian form of church-government, as constituted by John Knox and his coadjutors on the model of the ecclesiastical polity of Calvin, having taken such firm root in Scotland, the festival of Christinas, with other commemorative celebrations retained from the Romish calendar by the Anglicans and Lutherans, is comparatively unknown in that country, at least in the Lowlands.

The tendency to mirth and jollity at the close of the year, which seems almost inherent in human nature, has, in North Britain, been, for the most part, transferred from Christmas and Christmas Eve to New-year’s Day and the preceding evening, known by the appellation of Hogmenay. In many parts of the Highlands of Scotland, however, and also in the county of Forfar, and one or two other districts, the day for the great annual merry-making is Christinas.

From a curious old song preserved in the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, we learn that it was considered peculiarly lucky when Christmas-day fell on a Sunday, and the reverse when it occurred on a Saturday. The intermediate days are, for the most part, characterised by a happy uniformity of propitious augury. The versification is of the rudest and most rugged description, but as an interesting specimen of medieval folk-lore, we subjoin the stanzas relating to Sunday and Saturday:

‘ Lordinges, I warne you al beforne,

Yef that day that Cryste was borne,

Falle uppon a Sunday ;

That wynter shall be good par fay,

But grete wyndes alofte shalbe,

The somer shall be fa y re and drye;

By kynde skylle, wythowtyn lease,

Throw all loudes snalbe peas,

And good tyme all thyngs to don,

But he that stelyth he shall*) fownde sone ;

Whate chylde that day borne be,

A great lord he shalbe.

« # • # »

If Crystinas on the Saterday falle,

That wynter ys to be dredden alle,

Hyt shalbe so fulle of grete tempeste

That hyt shall sle bothe man and beste,

Frute and corne shal fayle grete won,

And olde folke dyen many on ;

Whate woman that day of chylde travayle

They shalbe borne in grete perelle ;

And chyldren that be norne that day,

Within half a yere they shall dye par fay,

The summer then shall wete ryghte ylle :

If thou awght stele, hyt shel the spylle ;

Thou dyest, yf sekenes take the.’

Somewhat akin to the notions above inculcated, is the belief in Devonshire that if the sun shines bright at noon on Christmas-day, a plentiful crop of apples mav be expected in the following year.

From the Diary of that rare old gossip, Mr Pepys, we extract the following entries relative to three Christmas-days of two hundred years ago :

‘Christmas-day (1062).—Had a pleasant walk to Whitehall, where I intended to have received the communion with the family, but I came a little too late. So I walked up into the house, and spent my time looking over pictures, particularly the ships in King Henry the Eighth’s Voyage to BtiUaen; marking the great difference between those built then and now. By and by, down to the chapel again, where Bishop Morley preached on the song of the angels, ” Glory to God on high, on earth peace and good-will towards men.” Methoiight he made but a poor sermon, but long, and reprehending the common jollity of the court for the true joy that shall and ought to be on those duys. Particularised concerning their excess in plays and gaming, saying that he whose office it is to keep the gamesters in order and within bounds, serves but for a second rather in a duel, meaning the groome porter. Upon which it was worth observing how far they are come from taking the reprehensions of a bishop seriously, that they all laugh in the chapel when he reflected on their ill actions and courses. He did much press us to joy in these public days of joy, and to hospitality. But one that stood by whispered in my eare, that the bishop do not spend one groate to the poor himself. The sermon done, a good anthem followed with vialls, and the king came down to receive the sacrament.

‘ Christmas-day (1665).—To church in the morning, and there saw a wedding in the church, which I have not seen many a day; and the young people so merry one with another, and strange to see what delight we married people have to see these poor fools decoyed into our condition, every man and woman gazing and smiling at them.

‘ Christmas-day (1668).—To dinner alone with my wife, who, poor wretch ! sat undressed all day till ten at night, altering and lacing of a noble petticoat; while I by her making the boy read to me the Life of Julius Cesar, and Des Cartes’s book of Music.’

Source: The book of days: a miscellany of popular antiquities in connection with the calendar, 1864

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