Have you ever caught yourself wondering, what is the true meaning of Christmas? When you step back and take a real look at the strange and obscure things we do for the holidays, it doesn’t make any sense. Why do we decorate trees and exchange gifts? What is so special about December 25th? To uncover the roots of this winter holiday we must dig deep into the past, to the first “Christ Mass” during the reign of Roman Emperor Constantine, further back to the pagan Yule festival, and then eons ago when a light, warm and bright, was your only source of hope in an illimitable and terrifying darkness. So keep a close circle around the fire while we delve into the Christmas past, and together we may yet uncover its true nature.
Food is scarce, the cold is deadly, and the light of the day is short and wavering, yielding to a unquenchable blackness. In the dark there are nasty things, creatures that claw and bite, unknown pitfalls and unforeseen dangers. All one can do is find a safe haven and try to sleep, startled awake by screeching sounds in the night, aware of the unstoppable cold slowly seeping into your bones. At last, there’s a spark of light that burns warm, crackling cheerfully and chasing away the shadows. The flames give you courage and hope. Together, with your family and those you want to protect, you build the fire brighter. Together you dance, you laugh, you make a lot of noise, you fight against the shadows of uncertainty, until the first drops of melt-water glisten in the dawn of a new day. So begins the cycle of tradition, the Winter Solstice celebration, a time of cheer but also fear– fear that the sun will never return.
The celebration of the sun during the darkest hours became a necessity and the ritual spread amongst all northern cultures. December 21st, the Winter Solstice, is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and has always been an important turning point in the seasons. After the night of the 21st the days will only get longer and the sun will rise higher in the sky– a sure sign of hope that the adversity of winter won’t last. Since the Neolithic age, prayers and sacrifices would be offered to the sun god while fires would be lit to encourage his return, to bless the world with his light. Most livestock were slaughtered because there wasn’t enough food to keep them through the winter, and vast banquets of meat would follow. The fermentations of fruit and grains, which started during the harvest season, would have finished creating wine or beer and be ready to drink. With food and booze a-plenty, winter became a time of heavy drinking and eating. Without much else to do but wait for the coming of the warmth and the light, it’s no wonder people partied hard to bring their spirits up.
From those humble, winter customs developed Yule, a full-blown, twelve-day festival where Germanic tribes would gather in their temples to eat, drink and glorify the gods. A bonfire would be lit in the middle of the temple floor, and a special Yule log would be burnt as an emblem for the returning sun. The temple was decorated with evergreen boughs which symbolized immortality as they do not “die” in the winter. In fact, anything still living, like holly berries or mistletoe, was brought indoors to remind everyone that spring will come again. Animals would be sacrificed before the banquet, their blood collected in bowls and smeared on the walls, the people and their idols. After ceremonial toasts to the gods, the chieftains and the dead, vast quantities of alcohol would be consumed while the villagers feasted on the boiled meat of their sacrifices.
A world away from the European tribes, a similar holiday was practised in ancient Persia, long before the creation of Islam. Shab-e Cheleh, still celebrated today in Iran as Yalda, took place during the longest night of the year: December 21st. It was believed that during this time of darkness, evil forces were at their strongest and had the power to inflict grievous misfortune. Friends and family would gather together in groups (safety in numbers) and stay up all night lest malicious spirits should attack them in their sleep. Fires would be lit and kept burning while prayers and offerings were given to the god of the sun, Mithra: the arch-foe of the powers of evil and suffering. Along with a dinner of fruit and nuts, crimson-coloured pomegranate and watermelon were consumed, symbolizing the coming of a red dawn and the rebirth of the god of light.
After the Roman Empire took control of the known world, it adopted cultures and traditions from both European and Persian influences– including celebrations of the Winter Solstice. The winter festivities would get started early on December 17th for Saturnalia, when all Romans would let loose and have a romping good time. The first day was filled with religious ceremony and sacrifice to glorify Saturn, the god of agriculture and ruler of the Golden Age. The Golden Age was the first Age of Man, a mythical era when there was no suffering and no winter. As well as glorifying the god of crops so that next year’s harvest would be plentiful, Saturnalia was nostalgic about that Golden Age of joy, freedom and prosperity. Everything was closed down, including the law offices, so after the ceremonies and the banquets there were often drunken riots where no man could be punished for his misdeeds. A mock-king, or Lord of Misrule, was chosen during the holiday to command the people to do ridiculous things, often involving singing and dancing naked in the streets. Every home was decorated with wreathes and greenery, the trees outside were covered in ornaments of suns and stars, and simple gifts of pottery or wax figurines were exchanged.
By Dec. 23rd Saturnalia had ended and life returned to normal, but in later years the holidays were extended for Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, on December 24-25th. Candles, lanterns, and bonfires were lit everywhere while prayers and exhalations were made to the sun god to encourage his rebirth. It is believed that this festival was taken especially from the Persian Shab-e Cheleh, for the god Mithra had become very popular in Rome at this time.
When Emperor Constantine declared Christianity as the new religion of the Roman Empire, the pagan festival of Saturnalia was in trouble. Now, for an entire society to quit their old beliefs and traditions cold turkey is just not possible, and forced conversion would likely cause riots in the streets. To keep everyone happy and facilitate a peaceful transition between religions, the people of Rome were allowed to hold on to their older, pagan traditions with a Christian twist. Instead of the Sun god’s birth on the 25th of December it suddenly became the Son of God’s birth, the birthday of Jesus Christ. Everything else stayed pretty much the same: Romans would attend Christian mass and then afterwards feast, drink, and exchange gifts. Citizens would still decorate their houses with wreathes, hang ornaments on trees (don’t forget about the star on top!) and light candles on their windowsill.
If you compare the Roman’s Christmas to what Christmas is for us today; other than becoming a little tamer it hasn’t changed all that much. Traditionally we still sing in the streets, it’s called Christmas Carolling. The only difference is that we don’t get the Mediterranean climate here and it’s just too darn cold to sing naked (too bad)!
By digging down to the ancient roots of Christmas we find that the same festival has been celebrated world-wide since the dawn of man. The Romans collected their Saturnalia traditions from older festivals like Yule and Yalda, while we have unknowingly carried it forward through our Christmas traditions to this day. There is nothing new about Christmas. If you strip away all the layers of ritual that have built up over the millennia, the true nature of Christmas is revealed: and that is to RAGE, my friends, rage against the dying of the light.