By Jason Boyett
December 24, 2011
Every year, there are banners. Every year, preachers pound pulplits. Every year, talk-radio callers shout a refrain so familiar we might as well put it to music and take it out a-caroling. We need to put Christ back into Christmas.
That's a peculiar, history-blind notion. In many cases, the things we associate with Christmas—from the greenery to gift-giving to the date itself—don't necessarily originate with the Christian faith. Some of them predate the manger, the shepherds and the midnight clear.
Since welive in a culture often defined this time of year by a “War onChristmas” or a “War Defending Christmas,” we thought it would be fun(and informative) to look at where some of our most beloved traditionsreally come from.
The origins of the evergreen Christmas tree are so shadowy, fewplaces agree where it came from, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’tBethlehem. Ancient Egypt is a contender. Around the time of the wintersolstice—the longest night of the year, occurring on either Dec. 21 or22—Egyptians would bring palm branches into their homes, taking ahopeful stand against the encroaching darkness.
Ancient Rome might also be a culprit. In late December, the Romansobserved the feast of Saturnalia—a week-long winter festival honoringthe god Saturn—by making evergreen laurel wreathes and placing candlesin live trees.
Our Christmas trees might have roots in Scandinavian folk mythology.According to these beliefs, the entire universe was contained in areally big ash tree called Yggdrasil, which balanced the sun, moon andstars in its evergreen branches. With this in mind, the ancientScandinavians celebrated the winter solstice by hanging apples, nuts and little animal-shaped cakes from evergreen trees. Perhaps the ornamented trees reminded them of their place in the universe. Or rather, theuniverse’s place in Yggdrasil.
Regardless of the culture, these tree-related customs reminded people winter wasn’t forever. After all, the winter was a scary time forancient pagans. The days grew shorter. The sun appeared less and less.Vegetation withered up during the winter months. But evergreen trees?The harsh winters didn’t faze them. Maybe evergreens had magical powers. Maybe they were eternal. Which is why eventually connecting them withJesus wasn’t all that difficult.
One Christmas tree origin story involves St. Boniface, aneighth-century monk and the eventual archbishop of Germany. He had arun-in with some local tribes who worshiped a tree at Geismar known asthe Holy Oak of Thor. They considered the tree some kind of leafy deity. Boniface wasn’t too keen on this, so he did what any good saint woulddo: He chopped down the sacred tree.
According to legend, the tree split to reveal a small, miraculous fir tree growing amid its gnarled roots. Boniface seized the timelymetaphor and suggested the little fir tree ought to remind those pagansof Jesus. See how it seems to point toward heaven? And see how its color is constant, like the love of Christ? And see how it sorta seems tosymbolize the death of paganism and the rise of Christianity?
So Boniface (and in other tales, Martin Luther) gets credit for theChristmas tree. But most scholars agree this story is probablyapocryphal. It pretty conveniently disguised the fact that evergreentrees have always played a big role in winter solstice observances. Abig, fat, pagan role.
Mistletoe is another one of those Christmas plants with a supposedlyChristian backstory. If you hang around botanists, or Latin scholars,you might hear it referred to as lignum sanctae crucis, “wood of thesacred cross.” Past Christian traditions held that the cross of Christwas cut from the wood of a mistletoe tree. Only mistletoe isn’t a tree.It’s a parasite, surviving by attaching to the branches of another tree. The legend has an answer for this, though. It says the parasitism isthe result of a curse God put on the mistletoe for its role in thecrucifixion. Its current duty as the love sprig? Just a handy way ofperforming penance for this sin.
Nice story, but mistletoe is another evergreen with a divine historyolder than Christianity. The ancient Greeks believed it had mysticalpowers. The ancient Druids thought it to be an aphrodisiac and used itto concoct fertility potions. German pagans got really excited when they discovered mistletoe growing in one of their sacred oaks (see the St.Boniface story above), because they believed a growth of mistletoe wasthe result of a lightning strike. The mistletoe, they thought, formedthe “soul” of these oaken deities. So they would sacrifice a bull uponfinding it. Hint: Don’t do this at your next Christmas party.
The ancient Scandinavians considered mistletoe to be a plant ofharmony and peace. This is the result of a complicated narrativeinvolving Frigg, the Norse love goddess and mother of Baldr, the sungod. According to Norse mythology, Baldr dies upon being struck by aspear crafted from mistletoe. The death of the sun god brings winterinto the world. Despondent, Frigg forbids mistletoe from everassociating with death again. Instead, she decrees, it must honor herson by ever symbolizing love.
So if two enemies were fighting each other in some Scandinavianforest and happened to find themselves beneath mistletoe, they wererequired to stop fighting immediately, put down their weapons, call atemporary truce and hug it out.Eventually, mistletoe’s impact on fighting warriors morphed into aconnection with fighting lovers. Instead of dropping their weapons,lovers were supposed to kiss under the fortuitous plant. Which brings us to today, when lonely people and IT nerds linger near the mistletoe atthe office Christmas parties. Do they do it in honor of Jesus and thecross? Possibly. But don’t forget to also credit Baldr and Frigg.
The gifts. This one’s a no-brainer, right? Don’t we give each othergifts on Christmas (and on our birthdays) because the wise men gaveJesus gifts on His birthday?
Not so fast. Yes, the wise men gave gifts to Jesus. But if you’llread Matthew’s Gospel carefully—instead of, say, getting your historyfrom nativity scenes—you’ll notice the wise men didn’t actually show upat the manger. At all. According to Matthew 2:16, they arrived two years after Christ’s birth. So those weren’t exactly birthday gifts. It’smore likely they were traditional and symbolic gifts reserved for aking.
Unless you only give Christmas presents to royalty, your holidaygift-giving owes less to the wise Magi and more to Saturnalia, theaforementioned Roman winter solstice feast. Its celebrants wouldexchange small gifts with each other according to socioeconomic status.The rich gave jewelry or gold coins. The poor gave homemade edibles.Children would give and receive little clay dolls. And everyone gave“strenae,” evergreen boughs thought to bring good luck.
But, hark! Gift-giving isn’t completely pagan. It does have alegitimate—but probably legendary—connection to Christianity, thanks toSt. Nicholas. Yes, that St. Nicholas. The kindly fourth-century bishopof Myra used his family’s affluence to give anonymous gifts to the poor(including once dropping a bag of gold down a family’s chimney). Afterhe died of old age, admiring townsfolk continued his habit of secretgift-giving, with credit going to jolly old St. Nick.
Giving gifts to the poor in honor of Jesus? For something rooted in paganism, it fits pretty nicely into a Christian framework.
Question: What day was Jesus born?
Answer: We don’t know, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t Dec. 25.
Even the date of Christmas doesn’t belong to Christianity. While theBible doesn’t record the date of Christ’s birth, there’s little tosuggest He was actually born on the 25th of December. As you mightrecall from the Christmas story, there were “shepherds abiding in thefield, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8, KJV).December, in Palestine, is in the middle of the region’s cold,October-to-April rainy season. Sheep would have been inside, not out inthe fields.
Regardless, Dec. 25 is a date with a lot of history. It was the feast of the Son of Isis in ancient Babylon, a festival marked with plenty of eating, drinking and even gift-giving. Dec. 25 often marked the end ofthe Romans’ Saturnalia celebration. The date also coincided with Yule,an ancient German pagan festival occurring on or around Dec. 25.
And in the early years of Christianity, that specific day wascelebrated as the birthday of the Persian sun god, Mithras. The religion built around this deity, Mithraism, had become a major rival to theChurch in fourth-century Rome, and Dec. 25 was a big party day for thepagans whom Christians hoped to convert. Which posed a problem: How dowe convert these guys if we immediately make them give up their favorite feast?
So, even though the early Church hadn’t really bothered to observeChrist’s birth at all, Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 as the official feast day to honor Baby Jesus. And what a coincidence that this date not only competed with rival religions but made it a lot easier for new converts to drop their paganism while holding on to the day’s merriment, feastsand fun. The papal pronouncement became official in 375 A.D. SuddenlyJesus had a birthday.
What does this all mean? That we shouldn’t decorate trees, kiss under the mistletoe or exchange gift cards because doing so is somehow a nodto paganism? That by eating Christmas dinner on Dec. 25, we’re affirming Mithraism? That we should feel bad for stealing all the best pagantraditions from the years before Christ?
No. Despite my humbuggery, I love Christmas. I love evergreen treesand kissing and presents. What I don’t love is the assumption that, asChristians, we own this stuff. What I don’t love is the attitude thatcries foul the minute someone removes the cross from the top of thedepartment-store Christmas tree, or that gets upset at the “HappyHolidays” banner outside Wal-Mart.
We call it Christmas and have named it after our Savior, but let’snot be so arrogant as to suggest the holiday is exclusively ours. Abetter perspective is to admit we have co-opted the season, along withmany of its traditions, for the purpose of pointing toward Bethlehem.
Christmas is the story of the Incarnation—of the insertion of Christinto the dust of humanity, of the infusion of grace into somethingworldly and pagan. In the process, mankind was redeemed. If so, then our theft of these solstice traditions is no crime against history.Instead, it’s yet another picture—a beautiful, generous, peaceful,evergreen metaphor—of redemption