http://www.benbest.com/history/xmas.html

by Ben Best

CONTENTS: LINKS TO SECTIONS BY TOPIC

  1.  HOLIDAYS AND SUN-WORSHIP
  2. DIVINITY AND VIRGIN BIRTH
  3. THE STAR OF BETHLEHEM AND THE WISE MEN
  4. CHRISTMAS IN ANCIENT ROME
  5. FROM SAINT NICHOLAS TO SANTA CLAUS
  6. FORBIDDEN CHRISTMAS
  7. CHRISTMAS TREES AND OTHER PLANTS
  8. CHRISTMAS MUSIC
  9. CHRISTMAS FOOD
  10. OTHER CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS
  11. CHRISTMAS AROUND THE WORLD
  12. CHRISTMAS SPIRIT

I. HOLIDAYS AND SUN-WORSHIP

Among all peoples of the world, the most common times for celebration are the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Considering that the austerity and bleakness of Winter (in contrast to the relative abundance and warmth of Summer) would be so impactful upon the lives of primitive peoples living in temperate climates these festival times — and even Sun-worship — should come as no surprise. Stonehenge and hundreds of other megalithic structures throughout the world were constructed to receive a shaft of sunlight in their central chamber at solstice dawn.

December feasts were common in Europe because it was necessary to slaughter cattle that could not be fed during the winter and because the meat could be preserved by the cold weather. With the completion of the harvest and snow on the ground, farmers were loaded with provisions. There was not much work that could be done, so there was time to relax, to feast, to celebrate and to engage in social activities.

The word Yule may come from the Anglo-Saxon word geol (feast), applied to December (geola, feast month). Or it may come from a Norse-Saxon word meaning wheel, referring to the seasonal cycles of the sun. Or it could have come from the Scandinavian Jule (Jul), who was the god of sex and fertility. (“Tide” as in “yuletide” may have come from an Old English word meaning time, occasion or season.)

Midwinter sun festivals were celebrated in ancient Britain & Scandinavia. In Germanic & Scandinavian countries a huge log was carried into the house to serve as the foundation for holiday fires. The Yule log at Jultid (Yuletide) would burn for twelve days, and a different sacrifice would be made on each of the twelve days. Lighted candles and winter fires were used by sun-worshippers to encourage the rebirth of the Sun (as if some feared that days would continue to get shorter until the Sun ceased to return). Similarly tying fruit to the branches of trees was intended to encourage the coming of Spring.

During the midwinter festival Makar Sankranti, Hindus bathe in rivers such as the Ganges (Ganga) and offer water to the Sun god. Makar (Makara) means Capricorn and Sankranti means transition, so the festival celebrates the transition of the Sun from Sagittarius to Capricorn, and the ascendency of the Sun god into the Northern Hemisphere. It is the Sun god who transcends time and who rotates the Wheel of Time. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges can result in forgiveness of sins and help in the attainment of salvation.

The Chinese Dongzhi (“extreme of winter”) Festival is viewed within the Yang and Yin philosophy as a time of returning of positive energy associated with lengthening daylight hours.The Sun is associated with yang (male), whereas the Moon & Earth are associated with yin (female). Family gatherings and reunions with feasting are the traditional means of celebration.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Winter Solstice occurs around December 21st, when the Sun is at its greatest distance below the celestial equator. The Spring Equinox occurs around March 21st when the sun crosses the celestial equator and days have the same duration as nights (“equinox” comes from a Latin word meaning “time of equal days and nights”). The Spring Equinox marks the beginning of Spring, and for the ancient Mesopotamians was the beginning of their new year festival. The Mesopotamians believed that their god Marduk did battle with monsters of chaos at the end of the year. Their own king was to be slain so that he could assist Marduk in the spirit world. But to preserve the king, a criminal was made into a mock king, who was treated as if he was a king until he was slain. Year-end celebrations in which masters acted as slaves and slaves acted as if they were masters became popular in several regions of the Mediterranean. The festival was transformed into the PersianYalda (“birth”) winter solstice celebration, which remains a social occasion in present-day Islamic Iran.

The constellation (Zodiac sign) visible at dawn on the day of the Spring Equinox has been regarded as of special significance (currently changing from Pisces to Aquarius due to the 26,000 year precession of the Earth — the advent of “the Age of Aquarius”). The chief holiday for the ancient Hebrews was celebrated at the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. Although this holiday was originally a celebration of Spring, it was later celebrated in remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt and was called Passover. The holiday entered Christian celebration by the fact that Christ was reputedly arrested and crucified at Passover. Because Christians insisted that Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday, the Council of Nicea decreed that Easter be the first Sunday after the fourteenth day of a lunar month (Paschal Full Moon, which is approximately the first full moon) following the date of the Spring Equinox (which is assumed to be March 21st, often incorrectly). Easter can occur on any date from March 22nd to April 25th. In the first centuries of Christianity Easter was by far the most significant Christian holiday (holy day) and Christmas was not a holiday at all.

The ancient Egyptians celebrated the passion (suffering before fatal dismemberment) of the god Osiris, and celebrated his resurrection in the Spring, coinciding with the flooding of the Nile (and rebirth of vegetation). The Greek god Dionysus was also a god of fertility whose resurrection was celebrated in the Spring. In the ancient Mediterranean Osiris-Dionysus mystery religions celebrated life, death and rebirth through secret rites involving sacramental wine.

The word for “Easter” in most of the Romance Languages is a variant of the Hebrew “Passover”, but the English word is unrelated to these forms. Possibly, the English word “Easter” is derived from the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring, “Eostre” (source of the word “estrogen”). Or it may have come from “Ishtar/Astarte” the Babylonian/Chaldean Venus who was the consort of the sun-god. Or it may have come from the same root as “east“, associating the source of the rising sun with the resurrection (“rising”) of Christ. Sunrise service, painted eggs and rabbits have all symbolized rebirth and fertility in Spring celebrations from ancient times. Celebration of motherhood (mother’s day) is also most often in the Spring, another possible association with fertility.

The Summer Solstice was widely celebrated with late June “midsummer festivals” throughout ancient (pagan) Europe. The celebration of the Nativity of John the Baptist at that time is believed by some scholars to be another example of attempts by the Catholic Church to assimilate pagan holidays for the purpose of converting pagans to Christianity during the first millenium A.D.

The Autumn Equinox occurs around the 23rd of September, but it is over a month later that the impact of falling leaves and dying vegetation is most noticeable. Ancient Aztec autumn celebrations of the memory of their deceased ancestors resembles European pagans honoring the souls of the dead and their ghosts at the end of October. The Roman Catholic Church may have assimilated pagan traditions by declaring November 1st to be All Saints’ Day (revering saints & martyrs) and November 2nd to be All Souls’ Day (revering all faithful deceased). Halloween is believed to have originated from the Celtic belief that the spirit world is closest to the world of the living on October 31st. The Armistice that ended the first World War was signed on November 11th, giving rise to another occasion to honor the dead in mid-Autumn.

Possibly because desert nomads preferred to travel by night rather than under the oppressive fiery Sun, the primary god of the ancient Arabians was the moon god Hubal. Mount Sinai was reputedly named after the semitic lunar deity Sin. The crescent associated with Islam originated from Artemis (Diana), who displaced Selene as the goddess of the moon, and who was the patron goddess of the city which became Constantinople. Emperor Constantine added the star symbol (representing the Virgin Mary). The Ottoman Turks later spread the star and crescent symbol of Constantinople over the Islamic world.

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