Each December we head to the mall to buy our annual Christmas decorations. This fine yuletide tradition is usually followed closely by yet another great tradition: the annual debate about what (if anything) trees, holly, or mistletoe have to do with the birth of Jesus or the Jewish Festival of Lights. The answer, usually, is nothing at all. Like many revered Judeo-Christian traditions, most of these were borrowed from others. The following brief synopsis of the origins of Christmas customs is offered in an attempt to shed light on some of the more-obscure references.
Wassailing, or caroling, is Celtic in origin. Originally, wassail was a cup used for beverages made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, nuts, eggs, and spices. The word comes from the Old Norse ves heill, meaning “be well, and in good health.” (Encyclopedia Britannica, wassail bowl)
The tradition of wassailing (or singing for ale) supposedly comes from a Saxon woman named Rowena who presented Prince Vortigen a bowl of wine and toasted him with the words “Waes hael.” The Celts mimicked this toast by going door-to-door singing to bless the farmers for the next season of crops. In thanks, the farmers would offer the wassailers a drink, usually mulled wine or hard cider, in return for the well-wishing. The wassailers would wind through the city and end up at the orchard. There, they would blow horns and beat drums in an attempt to wake the tree from its winter slumber so that it would again bear fruit. This was also a community service disguised as a ritual. By going door-to-door, the crowd was able to check-in on the sick and elderly of the town to make sure they were still alive.
The Feast of Stephen
The Stephen in the carol Good King Wenceslas is the biblical St. Stephen who was martyred by being thrown off a cliff near Jerusalem. Saul of Tarsus (who later became St. Paul) was witness to Stephen’s martyrdom and it is said that this was one of the main reasons that Saul embraced Christianity. The Catholic Church holds a feast day to St. Stephen on December 26. (Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Stephen)
The Christmas Tree
The origin of the Christmas tree is difficult to pin down as so many cultures had sacred trees. The Roman Saturnalia festival included the decorating of houses with fir branches. The Norse had Yggdrasil, the Great Tree of Life, which some contend is the original Christmas tree. Others credit the enemies of ancient Israel, quoting Jeremiah’s condemnation of sacred trees in Jeremiah 10, verses 2-4:
Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are false. A tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. Men deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
Gift-giving and Christmas Lights
Gift-giving in December is a very old tradition. It dates back to the Saturnalia festival in Rome in the first century AD. This festival, named for the god Saturn, took place from December 17th to December 25th. Adults exchanged strenae, boughs of laurel and evergreen. Children were given small clay dolls called sigillaria. Because Saturnalia took place at the Solstice, it was also known as the Festival of Lights. Many of the presents given were candles, used to summon the sun back to life. Several hundred years later, the Celts also developed a winter festival, which they called “Candlemas.” It was a midwinter house-cleaning day wherein people would light candles and clean everything. This tradition was originally a health precaution. In the middle of winter, the small hovels would become rank and dirty. A day was set aside to cleanse the houses of the soot and dirt that would accumulate through European winters. The early Catholic Church allowed the idea of lighting candles in December, eventually adopting the practice into Christianity as birthday candles for Jesus. Whether they adopted this idea from the early Romans or the Celts is debatable, though it is likely the former.
Originally, a wreath was called a “diadem.” It was a band made of cloth that was worn as a circlet around the head very much like a joggers sweatband. In 776 B.C., diadems or wreaths made of laurel leaves were used to crown victors of Olympic games. The Roman Caesars wore these laurel wreaths to show their victory over Roman territories. During the Olympic games in Greece, each host city would award head garlands made of branches of local trees. This version of the wreath is likely the origin of the traditional Christmas wreath made of fir trees. Hanging the wreath on a wall likely began as a remembrance of the person who owned it.
Good King Wenceslas
King Wenceslas (also “Wenceslaus”) was born in Bohemia, present day Czech Republic, in approximately 907 AD. Because he was too young to rule, his mother, Drahomira, became regent when his father died. Drahomira was opposed to Christianity, and banned all Christian practices in Bohemia. When Wenceslas took power he lifted the ban on Christianity and allowed people to worship as they wished, which is why he is referred to as “Good King Wenceslas.” The carol refers to his death in the line “Good King Wenceslas last looked out on the feast of Stephen….” His brother, Boleslav, had joined nobles in plotting an assassination. Boleslav invited Wenceslas to celebrate the Feast of Stephen and then attacked him on his way to mass. While the two fought, Boleslav’s supporters jumped in and murdered Wenceslas. He died in 929 AD and is now the patron saint of the Czech Republic. (Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Wenceslaus)
Holly and Ivy
In both Norse and Celtic myth, Holly represented the woman and Ivy the man. In any fertility ritual, both were used. The intertwining of holly and ivy was meant to represent the male and female united, and good luck for any marriage. In Christian lore, the holly became identified with the crown of thorns Jesus wore on the cross; the ivy became associated with the ivy (sometimes translated as “gourd) that God gave Jonah to rest under. (Jonah 4:6-10) Both of these interpretations are ways of including the pre-Christian tradition into the “Xmas” festivities.
The Norse were likely the first to record mistletoe as being a “magical” element. In the Norse myths, Odin’s wife, Frigga, made a charm that would protect her son Balder from fire, water, air, or earth. Because it grew on trees as a parasite, mistletoe was not considered to be of these four elements. Loki was able to kill Balder with a dart made of mistletoe. Afterwards, Frigga swore that mistletoe would never cause harm again, so she is said to kiss anyone who passes under it. An interesting side note to this is that the word Friday comes from Frigga’s name. It was originally Frigga’s Day. Similarly, Wednesday was originally Woden’s Day, or Odin’s Day. Thursday was Thor’s Day.
St. Nicholas did not live in the North Pole. He was from Myna, Turkey. The only tale we have about his life had to do with a father who had three daughters and no dowry money. The father decided to sell the daughters into prostitution, as he wasn’t going to be able to find them husbands. To prevent this, Nicholas anonymously threw bags of money through the father’s window. The father used the money as a dowry for his daughters and they were saved from a life of prostitution. Nicholas is also famous for miraculously saving the life of a sailor while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He eventually became the Bishop of Myna, and died in 340 AD. Because he was credited with saving the sailor while at sea, the Catholic Church canonized him as the patron saint of mariners.
(Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Nicholas of Myra)
Sinter Klass (Santa Claus)
When the Dutch adopted Christianity, the name St. Nicholas became Sinter Klass, the Dutch rendering of Saint Nicholas. To distinguish Sinter Klass from Odin, the Dutch Church donned him in a red robe that flowed to the ankle. The red outfit (that of a bishop) became the popular image of St. Nick throughout Europe from that time onwards.
The word “yule” is generally accepted to mean “feast,” although some scholars attribute it to the Scandinavian Ylir, the name of a winter month. The tradition of a Yule Log was originally a huge pyre of logs burned at Yule in honor of Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Regardless of the god in question, however, the burning of a log in December when it is freezing is less religious than it is practical. (Dictionary.com, Yule)
One of the most misinterpreted words in the Christmas vocabulary is “Xmas.” Many Christians contend that using “X” in place of “Christ” is the way that evil atheists take the “Christ out of Christmas.” In fact, the opposite is true. The X has been used by theologians for hundreds of years to denote chi, the first letter in the Greek spelling of the word “Christ.” It is meant to represent Christ and remind the reader of the cross upon which he was hung. (Dictionary.com, Xmas)
During the transition of power from fun-loving Hellenistic orgiastic cults to supreme Christian control of the Roman Empire in the forth century AD, just before it collapsed, Rome was rife with parties and feasts of all kinds. At the point where the Christians took control in Rome, their theology was up against a month of feasting that consisted of:
- Consualia, or the end-of-sowing-season festival, December 15
- Ops (Goddess of plenty/agriculture), December 19
- Dies Juvenalis, Coming of Age for Young Men, December 22
- Saturn’s Feast, December 25
- Feast of Mithra, the Unconquerable Sun, December 25
- Brumalia, Winter Solstice on pre-Julian calendar, December 25
- Janus Day and New Year’s, January 1
In December, the early Christians who fought so hard for stoic abstinence and purity were confronted with a month of drunken revelry and fun. It is no surprise that, in the end, the revelry won out. The best they could do was to adopt the festivities and mask them in Christian interpretation.