Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christmas Traditions and Pagan Origins

For a few years now this little message from a friendly atheist organization has been floating around. As someone with a passing knowledge and interest in folklore and a computer for some quick fact-checking, I would like to note a few inaccuracies and misconceptions they may be unknowingly promulgating.

There is no Scandinavian god called Yule; the earliest records of the word Yule all refer to a time or season.

Wiccan "traditions" of holly and wreaths seem to be back-engineered through Christian traditions with origins from the Celts.

While Druids and many other cultures revered the mistletoe for it's supposed fertility powers, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is first recorded in the Sixteenth Century.

Though decorating houses with boughs and other greenery during the Saturnalia was a Roman tradition, there is no record of so-called "Saturnalia trees."

There is no tradition of Thor or Odin bringing gifts at night.

There is no tradition of listening for Sleipnir's hooves on the roof; although there is the legend of hearing Odin leading the Wild Hunt through the winter skies. The tradition of "eight tiny reindeer" seems to begin with Clement Clarke Moore's poem.

The Mithraic Mysteries are no more ancient than Christianity itself.

From Wikipedia: "With regard to a December religious feast of the sun as a god (Sol), as distinct from a solstice feast of the (re)birth of the astronomical sun, some scholars have commented that, "while the winter solstice on or around December 25 was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas". "Thomas Talley has shown that, although the Emperor Aurelian's dedication of a temple to the sun god in the Campus Martius (C.E. 274) probably took place on the 'Birthday of the Invincible Sun' on December 25, the cult of the sun in pagan Rome ironically did not celebrate the winter solstice nor any of the other quarter-tense days, as one might expect." The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought remarks on the uncertainty about the order of precedence between the religious celebrations of the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun and of the birthday of Jesus, stating that the hypothesis that 25 December was chosen for celebrating the birth of Jesus on the basis of the belief that his conception occurred on 25 March "potentially establishes 25 December as a Christian festival before Aurelian's decree, which, when promulgated, might have provided for the Christian feast both opportunity and challenge". "

Truth saves, yes, and is not served by serving fudge as facts.

Possibly the point of this message is to embarrass or discomfit Christians with the "pagan origins of Christmas." If so, this could be a mistake, because instead it points to one of its glories: the redemption and even consecration of Nature; of men and customs, "whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise" in them. So, it is true that many Christmas traditions have pagan origins, but Christmas--"Christ's Mass"--has its origins in Christianity itself. Jesus was possibly, even probably, not born on December 25, but that is the day, established by long tradition (not dogma) on which we celebrate it: the truth that Jesus was indeed historically born into the world, and took on our human nature to raise it to the divine.

And so, a Merry Christmas indeed.

1 comment:

Babel said...

I agree that the "facts" about a lot of this stuff are all over the place. The message that I got out of this, however, was not a poke in the eye to Christians over the pagan origin thing; but a response to the "paleo" types of christian that feel it is their duty to go all old testament on every customary holiday and put everybody in their place. We see it more and more every season on Halloween, Christmas and Easter. I know because I went through a phase of this in my belief evolution. But the way it seems to me is, just because I decorate a fake tree in my living room every December doesn't mean I am worshiping said tree. If I make colored eggs in the springtime , it doesn't mean I am worshiping any fertility gods. And so on. I think a lot of the keeping Christ in Christmas movement, though well intentioned, has made a season that is awash in anxiety and general misanthropy even more so. A girl that works at the bank told someone to have "happy holidays" the other day, and had her ass handed to her by the customer about not saying "merry Christmas", to which the poor girl replied, "I just meant to enjoy the multiple holidays coming up: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's." I understand trying to beat back the tsunami of political correctness and commercialism, but being an asshole about Christ when someone is giving you a polite well wish is perhaps counter productive. There's got to be a better way of promoting the Christian spirit than this - oh wait there is! "Love thy neighbor." Will it ever catch on?