December graces my calendar, Christmas music assaults my last nerve, snow is expected to fall in the next few days – it must be close to Christmas. I know I loved Christmas as a child; not for the birth of a mythical character, but for stringing popcorn garlands and anticipating the pancakes my father made on Christmas morning. I loved the way the tree smelled, it was organic, intoxicating – a welcome addition to our rather brown 60’s living room.
I find myself pondering Christmas trees, reminding myself how it came to be that our “Christian” world erects this symbol year after year.
We deck the halls because Pagans used to bring greenery into their homes on the shortest day of the year for the sun god to eat. It was an “offering” to get well soon; a custom shared by ancient Druids, Romans and Greeks. Jesus could have been born in July for all we know but Dec. 25 was set to soothe uppity Pagans by coinciding with their solstice parties.
Many stories circulate over the first Christmas tree. One account comes from 8th century Germany; British missionary St. Boniface cut down a giant oak tree obliterating everything in it’s path except a tiny Fur sapling. He called it a miracle, dubbing it “the tree of the Christ child”. Decorate it any way you like – all the tinsel in the world can’t alter the fact Christianity adopted Pagan rituals to suit their purposes.
The Protestant reformation of the 16th century banned Christmas; viewing it as little more than a rowdy Pagan celebration. Oliver Cromwell’s England had no place for Christmas, and puritan immigrants to New England were forbidden by law to deck the halls. Christmas falling on Dec. 25 has nothing to do with the birth of Christ, and everything to do with the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
Romans celebrated Saturnalia for one week every year. From Dec. 17 – 25 courts closed and citizens were exempt from retribution. During the 4th century, Christianity succeeded in converting large numbers of people by promising they could still celebrate Saturnalia. Lacking a Christian angle – the church named Dec. 25, the last day of the festival as Jesus’s birthday. In exchange for “observance” of Christ’s birthday, the church looked the other way as Saturnalia participants drank themselves silly, ran naked through the streets, and indulged in excessive sexual activities.
Historical accounts tell of Pope Paul II standing on a balcony laughing as unfortunate Jewish citizens were forced to run naked through the streets. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Jewish rabbis were plucked from Roman ghettos, placed in ridiculous clown costumes and marched about for the delight of crowds armed with debris to toss at them. A 1836 appeal from the Jewish community to Pope Gregory XVI to stop the abuse resulted in this response “it is not opportune to make any innovation”. Dec. 25, 1881 Christian leaders whipped Polish followers into such a frenzy, 12 Jews were murdered, countless Jewish women raped.
Christmas is not a religious holiday – it never has and never will be. Jesus wasn’t born in December – Christmas is a Pagan holiday celebrating the winter solstice. Christmas symbolisms like the tree, mistletoe, even gift giving – “Christianized” to placate Pagan hordes.
I plan to put up a tree, buy gifts and spend time with my family. Christmas is a welcome break in the midst of dark winter days and crappy weather. Not for a second will I see it as anything other than what it is – the festival of Saturnalia.