Christmas is one of the biggest festivals in the western world, but what does it mean to us living in a largely secular culture?
Christmas is an amalgam of stories. Its namesake of course is the story of the birth of Jesus, which most of us are familiar with. There is also the story of St Nicholas, which later evolved into the more popular story of Santa Claus.
St Nicholas was originally the bishop of Myra in ancient Rome (now a part of Turkey) standing up for his Christian beliefs in the 4th century at a time when Christians were being persecuted. Due to his fierce defiance of the authorities, his reputation lived long after his death, and he eventually became sainted. Primarily because he was a patron saint of many different groups, his story became more and more popular, and by around 1200 AD he was known as the patron saint of children and a magical gift bringer.
The story changed again after the protestant reformation, where the original St Nicholas fell out of favour and became influenced by German fairytale folklore, shapeshifting into Aschenklas (Ashy Nicholas), Ru-Klaus (Rough Nicholas) and Pelznickel (Furry Nicholas) who now expected good behaviour in exchange for presents or dealt out whippings or kidnappings to children who weren’t well behaved.
St Nicholas was accompanied by a horned figure from Central and Eastern Alpine folklore called Krampus, whose task it is to scare badly behaved children and to punish them if necessary with birch rods, while St Nicholas rewards good children with gifts. In tradition this ritual occurs before Christmas Day on the 5th or 6th of December.
Krampus is celebrated to this day in the Alpine regions of
Austria, where groups of men dress up in horned masks and fur coats, rattle chains and take to the icy streets to scare people.
It was only in the early decades of the 19th century that the cute cuddly Santa Claus that we celebrate today was created by American poets, artists and writers who wanted to make Christmas a family celebration, and portrayed him as a pipe-smoking bearded man in red, flying over the rooftops delivering presents to good children.
Another influence in the current Christmas myth is an older Roman festivity called Saturnalia, celebrated in December in honour of the god Saturn for an entire month. It was a hedonistic affair with lavish food and drink in plenty, when all the rules were turned upside down and slaves became masters and peasants were in apparent command of the city!
There are some much older traditions that influence the festive time. Before the story of Christ, December was host to a festival dedicated to the return of the sun on the shortest day of the year (the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere), marking a turning point when the days progressively get longer and then warmer with the advent of spring. For early people, European winters were cold and harsh, and life would have at times been quite challenging and grim. Festivals of abundance are natural ways that we keep psychologically strong, and all of us are aware of the emotional benefits of good cheer and celebration.
It makes sense that half way through the winter, early tribes would enjoy the lift in morale achieved through coming together and feasting. At that time of the year livestock were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. For many, it was the only time of year when they had a supply of fresh meat. In addition, most wine and beer made during the year was finally fermented and ready for drinking.
The Yule tradition comes from the Norse people, who celebrated the winter solstice by burning very large logs of wood and feasting until they burned out (sometimes as long as 12 days). The practice dates back to the iron age, and the logs were decorated with holly, pine cones or ivy to symbolise the coming of spring. Later when it became impractical to burn large logs, the Yule log was represented in the form of marzipan on the medieval table.
The Christmas Tree
Of course we are all familiar with the tradition of the Christmas tree, which has its roots (excuse the pun) in antiquity. In ancient Egypt at the winter solstice, palm leaves were used as decorations to represent the triumph of life over death. In Roman culture, during Saturnalia, they used evergreen branches in their homes and temples to symbolise the returning fertile time of spring and the promise of abundance in the fields. In northern Europe the Celts also used evergreen boughs at the winter solstice as a symbol of everlasting life, while the Vikings attributed evergreen branches to the god Baldur (a christ-like figure).
The actual use of a whole tree with added decorations is credited first to the Germans in the 16th century, and as the story goes it was Martin Luther who was inspired to add candles. Looking at our Christmas tree this year decorated with baubles, angels, stars, birds, snowmen and snowflakes it is easy to see a version of the tree of life, especially when the candles are lit.
In the early years of Christianity, Easter was the main holiday; the birth of Jesus was not celebrated. In the fourth century, church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. The date for Christmas was chosen by Pope Julius I (AD337 to 352) to coincide with the Roman cult of Mithra, whose infant god (a representation of the sun) was born on December 25th and already celebrated at that time.
In essence the living evolving myth* that we call Christmas is a complex collage of ideas, values and beliefs. I wanted to write something about the Christmas ritual largely because I have spent some years in the southern hemisphere actively taking more distance from it, in order to gain a more objective view of something I grew up with. This has meant resisting the impulse to buy presents, choosing not to put up a Christmas tree, not playing Christmas carols, not writing cards, but instead cultivating a quiet spiritually receptive atmosphere oriented around peacefulness and appreciation.
*I use the term myth here to mean a deeply rooted story or meme that shapes human behaviour, as opposed to something treated as ‘untrue’. A good example of how Christmas memes affect behaviour is the impulse for some to travel to Lapland even though when they get there it can be -50˚C. A friend of my mother, decided to take her young grandchildren to Lapland one December, not realising how cold it would be, and how hard that would be for the young ones - it’s like we’re trying to connect to something through the story without being grounded in reality.
Festivals & Feast Days
There is no doubt that Christmas for most people is now first and foremost about coming together as a family and renewing or strengthening bonds. In general there are more people now engaging Christmas without the Christian religious dimension; the emphasis I see is more about feasting and less about the story of Jesus. This becomes obvious when watching the number of tv adverts on festive foods from competing supermarkets, not to mention the abundantly filled shopping trolleys, many with significant amounts of booze.
The practice of feasting goes back at least 5000 years and is recorded in Sumerian literature, and archeological evidence of feasting at the Hilazon Tachtit Cave is dated at 12,000 years old. Feasting rituals appear to be deeply rooted in human behaviour; there's something innately meaningful in people gathering together to eat; a chance to connect and bond over a common human need for and enjoyment of food.
We still love to buy presents this time of the year, but as someone who has experienced Christmas without them, I have mixed feelings; there is something powerful and meaningful about the giving of gifts for both the giver and the receiver, but in an era where almost all of us are significantly better off than our recent ancestors, should we be more discerning and move away from compulsory gifting? It makes real sense in times of hardship to express love and respect with gifts, because they would in almost all cases be needed items. But today we all enjoy a great deal of material abundance such that it's common to receive presents from people that we don’t know what to do with. I myself find it uncomfortable to be given something from someone that I don’t want or need - often in these situations (thankfully all well in the past) the person doing the giving has been so caught up in the Christmas story that they just grabbed something off the shelf so that they had something to give and wouldn’t stand out of the crowd; it may have been well intended but such a demonstration lacks fundamental meaning and sentiment.
I accept that for children, Christmas is a magical affair and gifts have more significance. After all children have limited resources and cannot provide for themselves; they also have an inexhaustible curiosity and subsequent joy of new things.
Incidentally the practise of giving gifts at Christmas most probably comes from ancient Rome and their festival of Saturnalia. The main celebration lasted for seven days from the 17th to the 23rd of December. Gift giving ceremonies were seen as a way of gaining fortune for the next year. People initially gave simple gifts like candles, cheap wines, fruits, nuts and the like.
On the one hand it's a lovely idea to agree as a community to give gifts at the same time, but it seems at times somewhat immature as if we as individuals cannot determine for ourselves when and how to give to the people we care about. Relative to the 1980s, the trend does seem to be moving toward a less materialistic approach; there were several members of my family last year who requested not to be given presents, and this year the trend continues, with a focus on small useful tokens of affection and appreciation.
The Cancellation of Christmas
It may be surprising to know that Christmas has for a time been cancelled. In 1645 after the civil war in England, Oliver Cromwell in a bid to counter decadence cancelled Christmas (not surprisingly this didn’t go down well, and before too long King Charles was back on the throne along with Christmas). The Puritan settlers in north America did not support Christmas as a holiday and it was actually outlawed in Boston in the early years.
It’s obvious today that the idea of Christmas is now to a degree socially engineered; a capitalist orientation has inevitably led to corporations manipulating how we relate to Christmas, via advertising in order to increase sales; something many hardly notice I suggest.
The problem I see with Christmas is that its a hodge-podge of ideas and motivations that I think leave most of us inwardly confused. If we are actively following the Christian faith, then the holiday should be all about the birth of Jesus and his teachings. But for those of us who are not religious, then what? Are we to be limited to the values of a materialistic culture, with rituals that drive us to consume unnecessary resources at a time when resources matter? Are we to be left filling our already comfortable bellies until they feel like bursting? In a world context where many of us are dying from overeating, this hardly makes any sense.
Oddly enough the solstice is an event that is actually common to all of us, and despite that it's been with us as a holy festival since time immemorial, it's somewhat ironic that we don’t pay any attention to it. As an Evolutionary Astrologer I understand that there is something fundamentally significant about the cycle of the sun, and the solstice continues to happen every year, twice a year, with its simple yet lovely symbolism; the shortest day of the year heralds the end of a long cold winter and an immersion into spiritual self-reflection, while the longest day of the year is a time of fullness when the energy is high with the joy of life.
No matter what belief system we have, we are all moved by light, because we need it to be healthy in both body and mind, and sunlight is crucial to all food production.
Am I proposing Sun worship? Not exactly LOL, but perhaps we should be conscious of why we do what we do, and through awareness become more sovereign and less manoeuvred into patterns of behaviour that benefit big business and rob us of our spiritual nature.
We should know why we decorate a tree, we should deeply appreciate the rich metaphor in the story of Christ, and we should understand why we gift each other and why we gather around the table to eat festive foods.
In my vision of the future we all come together timed to the universally shared movement of the sun. We may choose a diverse array of symbols, metaphors and stories, but we should come together in peace, love and harmony, bridging any difference with mutual respect and good cheer. Christmas or the Solstice shouldn't be just for the children as i've heard so many say over the years, adults too need spiritual rituals for psycho-emotional wellbeing. It's not enough that we gather on the table but don't really connect; humans need depth periodically throughout the year, and this is the point of festival gatherings. Drunkenness isn't a substitute for real connection either, we could be more courageous than that, not necessarily to avoid drink altogether, but certainly to consume in moderation so we are fully present for others.
May peace find you, joy fill you, and the spirit of love guide you this Solstice, Christmas and New Year.