We’re a few weeks away from Christmas and the end of the year. A time of transience and change, civilizations have celebrated these special 12 days for thousands of years, with different customs and traditions. In this blog post, we’re going to explore the mythological origins of Christmas and how different cultures spent the holidays.
Yesterday was Sunday the 27th of November. I took a short walk around the city in the afternoon. There was only a drizzle so I got to enjoy the atmosphere without becoming soaking wet.
A few blocks away from my house there’s this little coffee shop.
In the past, it was never busy. Only a few regulars and friends of the owner. Recently, they decided to start decorating. Seriously decorating. From top to bottom, it’s covered with Christmas-ey knick-knacks and gimcracks. In the background, soft carol music is playing.
Suddenly, the traffic exploded. Nothing else changed. They simply started following the rhythmical nature of seasons – which is in tune with our internal clock!
It got me thinking about how we need those “silly” traditions and customs. When they’re missing… something feels off.
I’d argue that in the age of modernity where everything must be new and flashy, these Holidays are the only thing that helps us articulate the passing of time.
But as always, we’re interested in the real traditions and how they’ve transformed throughout the years.
Let’s take a look at the Mythological Origins of Christmas!
The Christian Mythology Behind Christmas
Today, the western hemisphere celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. It is the predominant narrative of our culture.
But the way we do it today is different from how we used to 200 years ago. And 200 years ago, it was vastly different from how we used to celebrate Christmas 500 years ago!
The point is that within the same mythology, different branches emerge in parallel with the cultural reformations that have occurred throughout the years.
You might be surprised to know that early Christians abstained from celebrating the Birth because pagan traditions placed enormous importance on the birth of their deities.
Originally, the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrated January 6th, the day of Epiphany or Theophany.
But this is an interesting shift in perspective. Instead of the Birth of Jesus Christ, they celebrated the “rebirth”, his baptism. This little nuance reveals a big tradition of older religions; the initiation rituals.
Under the Veil of Paganism
As Christianity was spreading throughout Europe, it became necessary to slowly proselytize the common folk to the brace of the Church. But “countrymen” or pagans (from paganus, meaning rural) resisted their attempts and stuck to their folk beliefs.
Eventually, through clever strategy and propaganda, we see that the Church started reassigning dates – related to pagan holidays – to Christian celebrations.
Christmas was moved from spring – which according to the position of the stars, that’s when Jesus was born – to December 25th in order to match the celebrations and customs of the indigenous population.
Thus, making the transition from these older religions smoother.
It wasn’t only dates though. Christianity appropriated many other traditions.
Christmas in Ancient Greece: Dionysia
I’ve talked a few times about the dramatization of mythology as a means of a liturgical ritual. Dionysia is a testament to that.
This festival occurred two times per year, to signify the beginning and end of summer.
Rural Dionysia happened in December and they had the function of celebrating the birth of Dionysus. People marched down the streets carrying phalli (penis-shaped objects), baskets with bread, jars with wine, etc.
City Dionysia was about cultural exposition. Theatre, dance, and music were the main attractions.
The little we know about the Dionysian Mysteries don’t resemble much of our current perception of a tame celebration…
The God of Wine
Even though Dionysus is portrayed as a clumsy, half-drunk God today, recent evidence suggests he was one of the first Olympians that appeared in mainland Greece.
It is said that he was the favorite of Zeus. He was able to climb the throne of the Allfather and play with his thunderbolts, marking him as his successor.
But like Prometheus, he cared more for humans than gods.
Eventually, the Dionysian cults spread to Rome. The infamous orgies were happening in the name of Bacchus (the Roman equivalent) with no specific narrative or structure; merely a way for the upper class to satisfy their boredom.
In reality, the Dionysian mysteries had an element of liberation from the material temptations through the use of ecstatic rituals. Themes of death and rebirth were common in Rural Dionysia, implying a very serious, religious devotion.
Saturnalia and the Subversion of Societal Norms
Romans believed that the Golden Age belonged to the ancient Greeks. So, in many ways, they tried to emulate their traditions, including the worship and celebration of the same Gods.
Specifically, Saturnalia, a holiday in honor of Saturn, is a continuation of Kronia; Kronos being the name of Saturn in Greek!
Many of our Christmas traditions today come from this Roman winter festival. Perhaps not the family-oriented celebrations we’re accustomed to…
I’d argue that Saturnalia is closer to the way the average person spends Christmas than the purported, idealized version of Christmas. Let me explain.
- Partying, gambling and the subversion of social classes were part of the festivities. Romans became free (spotting a theme yet?), acting in ways that were deemed unruly every other day of the year.
- Gift-giving was also an established practice. Toys, gag gifts, and sigillaria (wax figurines) were common.
- Humiliating acts were commanded by the King of Saturnalia, a tradition that was carried over to medieval times.
- Even greeting cards with smart limericks originated from that celebration.
As you can tell, this sounds a lot like the way most people celebrate Christmas – outside of religious devotion of course.
Yule and Santa Claus
I think most of you have heard the term Yule! After all, it has become synonymous with Christmas in the Northern countries. But the roots go back hundreds of years.
A midwinter celebration of the Germanic tribes that underwent a Christianized reformulation, it is associated with Odin and the Wild Hunt.
We encounter the concept of the Wild Hunt in many different civilizations.
It signifies a sort of initiation to the dark side of nature. In ancient Greece, Hekate, the Goddess of magic, became the leader of the Hellenized Wild Hunt.
The dramatized ritual eventually inspired witches’ Sabbaths in medieval times — and neopagan practices today.
In Norse Paganism, the leader of the pack is the dark side of Wodan, a primal manifestation of Odin.
Modern interpretations of the myth have changed the Odinic figure to the gentle gift-giving Santa Claus or St Nicholas.
Instead of red-eyed horses and an army of the dead, he commands a fleet of reindeers, visiting every house, not to scare them, but to bless them.
This is a testament to the commodification of ancient mythology to match modern, cultural demands.
Why Are We Celebrating Christmas?
This seems like a weird question, right?
But trust me, the answer might surprise you.
After all, if we consider that the concept of time is merely an illusion humans created to make sense of the world, then it seems so random for all of these civilizations to share the same holidays.
Well, there’s a good reason we all chose the end of December. See, we’ve had a fairly decent understanding of astronomy before modern technology arrived. And we knew that the ~23rd of December signified midwinter, the winter solstice.
For us today, winter is a time where we can get cosy, sit near the fire all bundled up, and read. But for most people in the past, winter was a dangerous time.
In fact, we used to spend the rest of the year preparing so we don’t… die during this time.
Shortage of food, cold weather, 16 hours of darkness were legitimate concerns for your average serf or peasant.
Imagine waking up in the middle of November. The winds are howling, you can hear the cold water whipping your windows. The only thing left in your storage is barley and wheat. That’s your food for the next three months…
What do you do?
You start praying.
All of these celebrations we’ve outlined are an attempt to strengthen the bonds within the community and prime us to work together to survive.
Winter is a time of liminality. It’s the time of death and rebirth. Nature dies, it hibernates, so it can rise again in the spring. And humans are sensitive to these changes, and our attempt to articulate our feelings is Christmas, Saturnalia, Kronia, Yule, etc.
Mythology is in tangent with the realities of life. The folklore beliefs and mythological stories contain more truth about life than all psychology books in the world combined.
Christmas in the Context of Comparative Mythology
The Scarlett thread through Christmas, Yule, and Saturnalia is honoring the “Sun” as an atavistic deity.
Of course, each culture has a different way of celebrating and projecting this primordial God figure but every single one shares the same sentiment of worshipping the growing and rejuvenating properties of the Sun!
Not All is Bleak and Dreary
“In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.”
In the last section, I talked about the harsh realities of this season. Indeed, even to this day, people are affected by it.
But, there’s also a bright side to bleakness. Winter festivals were a reminder that warmer days are coming.
Also, in most parts of the northern hemisphere, there isn’t much agriculture work, so winter was almost like a break for cultures that relied on the land for food and work.
Before Christmas became a family-oriented holiday in the 18th century, it was about “partying”; eating and drinking.
This paradox of celebrating in the face of a cold and harsh future is typical of human nature that seeks to overcome whatever obstacle stands in the way.
So, I say let’s follow this tradition. With a big heart and a warm smile, let’s brace the snow and greet the season!
Writer. Seeking to discover my private mythology through dreams.