Christmas was not originally a Christian festival. It was taken over by the Church in the 4th century AD, by which time Christianity had become the official state religion of the Roman Empire. The takeover was part of a comprehensive programme of driving through mass conversion by slowly and surreptitiously Christianising traditional pagan practice.
Christianity was an invention of St Paul in the middle of the 1st century AD. It was then formalised by the Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) at the end of that century. Over the next 200 years or so, the Church percolated its way through the social undergrowth of the Roman Empire, targeting mainly the poor and recruiting anyone who would join.
By the early 4th century AD, it was the single biggest religious organisation in the Empire, and Emperor Constantine the Great’s decision to legalise it and forge an alliance between State and Church was a brilliant stroke of realpolitik. It created the combination of military and ideological power that would be the basis of Western medieval civilisation.
Jesus, by the way, was a Jewish religious teacher of the early 1st century AD. He did not claim to be a god, and could not, in fact, have made such a blasphemous claim without destroying any possibility of building a mass following. Rather, he was part of a growing ferment of politico-religious radicalism that eventually exploded into anti-imperialist revolution in Palestine between AD 66 and 73. But that is another story.
Christianity was a curious hybrid, a mix of radical Judaism and Greek paganism. St Paul never knew Jesus. He was a Hellenised Jew from Tarsus (in Turkey) who converted to Christianity a couple of decades after Jesus’s death, and then transformed it by blending it with Greek fertility cult.
Take the myth of the Virgin Mary, the ‘Mother of God’, the subject of a million Madonna and Child images over the last 1500 years. She is a direct descendant of the primeval earth-mother deity, who, in myths dating back to the Bronze Age and earlier, was impregnated by a male sky-god. The latter, having done his duty, promptly died, but had to be resurrected, so as to ensure that the annual cycle of life and death would continue.
In the bizarre Christian reconfiguration of the myth, God gets split into three: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. It is the first two that matter, and the story is that the Virgin Mary was impregnated by God the Father, gave birth to God the Son, and that it was the latter who was killed and resurrected. But the pagan origin of the myth is transparent.
The Virgin Mary, by the way, in the early development of Christianity, can be seen again and again displacing local pagan goddesses as a focus of worship. At Paestum in southern Italy, for example, the goddess Hera was depicted holding pomegranates as symbols of fertility in Greek and Roman times; and, low and behold, in the local medieval church you will see the Madonna cradling the infant Jesus in her left arm while hold a pomegranate in her right hand.
The midwinter festival was too important to be ignored by the Church. No-one, needless to say, has the slightest idea when Jesus was born. The Church plumped for 25 December because it was around the time of the winter solstice (21 December).
The solstice had been a focus of fertility cult for thousands, probably tens of thousands of years. The reason is simple: the shortest day, the longest night, was a calendrical turning-point, a liminal moment in time, and an anxious one, for the whole of life hinged on the return of summer.
Half the symbolism of contemporary Christmas celebrations reflect its origins in pre-Christian fertility cult. Evergreens – the Christmas Tree, the use of holly and yew as decoration, the hanging of mistletoe, and so on – represent the continuity of life through the darkness of winter and point the way to its renewal in the spring.
In medieval times, the Yule Log was not a sickly-rich chocolate cake (no chocolate before the opening up of trade with the Americas) but a real log, which was set alight and expected to burn for the 12 days of the Christmas festival. Manufactured decorations, which have now largely replaced natural ones, are 20th century descendants of evergreens, trees, and logs.
Both the Christmas Tree and the Yule Log seem to have had Norse and/or Germanic origins. So, too, Father Christmas or Santa Claus. He is probably a modern amalgam of the Norse/Teutonic god Odin/Woden and the Eastern Christian saint Nicholas.
He pops up in other guises. The Green Man, an obvious fertility deity who features frequently in the sculptural decoration of medieval churches but is now more familiar as a pub sign, is another incarnation. Worth mentioning in this regard that in many European countries Santa still wears green, not red. And why does he come down the chimney? He is a fertility deity and the chimney is a symbolic phallus.
The world turned upside down
There is more to be said about the winter solstice as a liminal moment. Liminality literally means ‘threshold-ness’; that is, a moment or a space which is neither one thing nor the other, but involves transition between the two, such that we find ourselves in a state of becoming. This makes us uneasy. Anthropology is full of stuff about the symbolic significance of liminality. The solstice – and therefore Christmas – has this quality.
The Roman midwinter festival – the Saturnalia – was celebrated by role reversal, with masters waiting upon their slaves at a special feast.
According to ancient myth, the god Jupiter had overthrown the god Saturn. The former represented a new order based on patriarchy, property, and power – a class society. The latter was associated with a lost golden age of equality. (The Christian version of this myth is, of course, the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.) Thus, at the Saturnalia, held in honour of the benevolent old god, it was highly appropriate that masters should be slaves for a day.
The medieval version involved the Lord of Misrule, a commoner who was crowned king for a day or more during the Christmas festivities, presiding over a riot of feasting, drinking, music, dancing, games, and fornication. Thus, for a moment, labour ceased, authority diminished, the people let rip, and the world was turned upside down.
Why feasting and drinking? Partly because sharing food and drink is fundamental to human solidarity, but also because Christmas fare represents the bounty we look forward to with the lifting of winter, the return of spring, the renewal of life, and next year’s harvests.
Feasting is another form of fertility magic, where we symbolically represent what we wish for. We consume special food both to mark the importance of the festival, but also to signify Nature’s bounty – thus, for example, cakes, pies, and puddings filled with dried fruit, the preserves of last year’s harvest.
Nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas. It is primeval and pagan, something deep-rooted in our collective psyche. It gives expression to a basic human yearning for togetherness and solidarity. It connects us with the earliest members of our species.
Ignore the Christian takeover, the rampant commercialisation, and the shallow sentimentality of our rulers and their publicists: the midwinter festival belongs to the common people.
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