Like Halloween, Easter and probably every other major Western annual holiday, Christmas has its roots in European pagan culture when spreading Christianity borrowed from established winter solstice traditions and festivals across pagan Europe to establish itself as the dominant form of religious expression. In much the same way that McDonald’s or Burger King operate now except with less burgers and more eternal damnation. But how exactly does Christmas borrow from the pagans?
Christmas Develops From Roman Festival Saturnalia
As Christianity began to spread through Europe, early leaders wanted to cement the idea that Christ was a human man and like all human men had a birthday, so decided to appropriate the already rampant Roman celebration of Saturnalia during which revellers honoured the god of agriculture, Saturn, on the winter solstice. Over the centuries then this Roman holiday merged with Christmas to celebrate the birth of Christ, the success of the harvest and the coming spring.
Getting Pissed Up And Eating A Fuckload
Like Saturnalia the tradition of eating and drinking a lot on Christmas Day comes from the practice of celebrating the bountiful harvest with a feast of winter vegetables and fowl. When you’re downing your fifteenth mulled wine and slurring the words to Auld Ange Syne, spare a moment to thank our Roman ancestors!
Kissing Under The Mistletoe
During Saturnalia there existed the practice of performing fertility rituals underneath the mistletoe, basically people getting their fuck on while a piece of greenery dangled above them. Not a bad ritual to have, unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your prudishness) we now only kiss under the mistletoe. Ah well, I’m sure in thousands of years, future historians will look back on office Christmas parties and naturally assume it was some kind of fertility, arse-photocopying ritual celebrating bumsex, probably.
Singing to the good health of people in your neighbourhood or caroling, wasn’t a tradition specifically associated with Christmas but actually derives from the practice of wassailing. In pre-Christian times villagers traveled through their fields, villages and orchards singing to banish away evil spirits, wish good health to their neighbours and also as a kind of fertility rite where they poured wine and cider into the ground (for their dead homies). So next time you hear Cliff Richard crooning over the PA in some department store this Christmas, you’ll know to blame that on pre-Christian wassailers.
Just because the baby Jesus was given gifts during the nativity it’s now totally traditional for modern Christians to spend thousands on computer consoles, chocolate and naff socks. But in traditional terms the giving of gifts wasn’t that prominent an aspect of Christmas and is one that has only really taken hold in the last century or so. During Saturnalia, it was tradition to give children gifts of wax figures that represented the sacrifices made to Saturn to wish for a bountiful harvest and there are other accounts of French nuns giving gifts to the poor on St. Nicholas’ Eve as well as many other accounts of varying people giving gifts during the period.
The big man himself, like a cross between New Testament God, David Attenborough and your granddad, Santa Claus the character actually derives from the legend of St. Nicholas from early Christian tradition, a Turkish saint famed for his charitable nature and piety. It was claimed that he gave away all of his inherited wealth and traveled the countryside helping the sick and the poor until he became known as the protector of children and sailors. The modern image of Santa Claus (derived from the Dutch name Sint Nikolaas) was popularised in a poem by Episcopal minister Clement Clarke Moore including his supernatural abilities, big beard and red suit. Other sources that have helped to create the Santa myth vary from country to country, in England Father Christmas gave gifts to children on Christmas Eve, whereas German and Swiss children could expect a visit from Kris Kringle.