For the record, when it comes to Christmas, I’m kind of a Grinch. Christmas music annoys me. The endless rush of shopping spikes my anxiety like a kid left unattended at a trip at a dessert bar. And while I love gift giving and sharing a huge feast with people I care about, the strain of getting together and rushing about, traffic and schedules, wish lists and shipping dates, often leave me stretched thin.
We could blame it on the martyrs in my Christmas Past who made the holiday less a family-focused event and more an over the top drama fueled pageant. You know the kind of dog and Pony show that becomes a “my way or the highway” fueled by Martha Stewart worship and spiked with guilt. We could also blame it on growing up poor and being the oldest who understood “that the youngins need it more”. Even if the youngins in question weren’t siblings but cousins, second cousins, friends kids, and kids at school the had been to the house a time or two. Or finally, we could chalk it up to not being a Christian and year after year having everyone tell you that the reason for this season, the only thing we are really celebrating for, is a God you don’t believe in.
I know all of that makes me sound like a big old sour-ass. It paints me about as bitter as the crab apples at grew in my grandpa’s front yard. It adds just a little bit of validity to the jokes my husband and I throw back and forth about my saltiness level (which is somewhere between the level of rent and Willie Nelson). Maybe I am a salty old crone who fun sucks the life out of the party. Or maybe I’ve just had it with the typical holiday rigamarole.
Observations about my personal flaws aside, let’s get back to that whole reason for the season issue I mentioned earlier. Being told year after year that Jesus is the real reason for the season, by loved and unloved ones alike, takes it toll on a poor Pagan girl. That’s why out of all the holiday shenanigans, my two favorite things about Christmas are watching my loved ones be happy and pointing out all the wonderfully Pagan things being celebrated by nonPagan people.
Let’s start with an easy one.
The Christmas Tree
There’s a lot of Pagan lore about the Christmas tree but it’s roots are commonly said to be in the story of an English Benedictine monk named Boniface who was doing some missionary work in Germany during the eighth century.
One day Ole Boniface was doing whatever missionaries do when he observed some locals performing sacrifices in front of an oak tree for their god Thor. This angered Ole Boni because by God, Thor was a false God! How dare these native folks to worship their own gods in their own land while he was there!! So he grabbed his axed and felled the mighty oak tree in an effect to stop the heathery where it stood. When he wasn’t struck dead by the local’s gods for, you know, shitting all over their holy site, Boniface decided he could use this as a teaching moment. He hauled the tree inside and thus began the Christmas Tree tradition. Like many holy people after him, he would take something belonging to the Pagan locals and claim it in his God’s name thus using it as an outreach and a subjugating tool.
From that story alone, it’s clear to see that even before dumb old Boniface was roaming the German countryside, the German people were using trees in their devotion to the Norse gods. It was Boni’s appropriation of the tree worship that helped bring it into mainstream usage.
So remember, every time you see straight-laced Christians oohing and awwing over a big pretty Christmas tree, they got the idea from a practice much older than their religion. They got it from us.
Of course, this is just one of many different stories that feature a connection between trees and pagan practices. Trees are a key element of Nature and Nature is a foundation of Paganism. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, because I really try to be an accepting and nice person, but it boils down to this: Pagans did it first and when Christians saw it, they stole it and rebranded it without giving us credit. And then they tried to erase our fingerprints from its history.
Maybe I’ll use a little of this long-held salt to make some salt dough ornaments with my kiddos.
The Man Who Put All Those Presents Under The Tree
Well, if you didn’t know that Santa’s origins were Pagan in nature, I’m not sure where you’ve been.
While we most commonly know Santa Claus as the Coca-Cola red suit, white-bearded big belly version, we also all pretty much have a passing knowledge of him as Ole St. Nick and Father Christmas. Some of us are probably even familiar with the story of the bishop St. Nicholas and the legend about how he provided gifts, including doweries, to the poor. The juicy part of Santa’s history that a lot of people don’t have knowledge about is that Santa has a lot more in common Odin.
Before Christianity took over Germany, the people there (probably the same ones Boniface ran into) celebrated Yule like many of us do. And during Yule, as many of us know, The Wild Hunt happens. It is part of that happening that many believe influenced the idea of Santa for those who don’t subscribe to the Norse beliefs.
In her 1972 book Discovering Christmas Customs and Folklore: A Guide to Seasonal Rites Throughout the World folklorist Margaret Baker postulates that “”the appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is the 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. […] Odin, transformed into Father Christmas, then Santa Claus, prospered with St Nicholas and the Christchild, became a leading player on the Christmas stage.”
You are free to believe what you will. I personally can totally see how the lore of the Odin could be taken and morphed into the idea of Santa Claus. There would have to be a lot of creative editing, but as we have seen, for the Church, that has never been a problem. Once again, I’m not trying to be disrespectful, but I’ll be damned (pun intended) if after a while it doesn’t feel like most of their canon is just hastily written rewrites.
Before we leave the topic of Santa, I’d just like to throw this in for consideration. While originally, Santa’s sleigh was only pulled by one reindeer in Old Santeclaus with Much Delight ,an anonymous poem published in 1821, by the time Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicolas” came out two years later, Santa had upped his caravan to eight reindeer. The interesting part?
Odin’s horse Sleipnir has eight legs. I mean, I’m just saying.
Deck The Halls
Even the decorations Pinterest is all about this time of year aren’t something that just organically popped up in the mind of the Christian faith.
In order to protect the celebration of the birth of the brand new baby Jesus, early Christians would often make a wreath of holly and hang it on their door. In Roman mythology, holly was the sacred plant of the god Saturn so this was a clever way for them to make it seem like they were celebrating Saturnalia when in fact, they weren’t. Since then, holly has been overtaken and used heavily as a prominent decoration.
And if you want to get petty, which you know I do, you could even say that the tried and true holiday colors of green and red are in fact lifted from the red of the holly berries and the green of their leaves.
Another plant that has become part of common Christmas decorations is the mistletoe. Originally used for more than stealing the random kiss, mistletoe has been held as a sacred plant by the Celts, the Norse, and the Native Americans. Used by as a symbol of peace and joy, during the Roman era, enemies would meet under the mistletoe to reconcile their differences. Thus, during midwinter, it would be placed in houses and temples to appease the gods.
In Norse mythology, mistletoe is a big fucking deal to the goddess Frigga. The weak little mistletoe was the one plant that Frigga did not make promise her to leave her son Baldur unharmed. So of course, it was the one that Loki went and found when he was ready to stir some shit up. It, in the end, made up the spear that killed Bladur. The importance of the story of Baldur’s death and later resurrection is a pivotal part of the Norse belief. And the mistletoe plays an important role in it. There are different endings and interpretations to the tale but I’m pretty sure none of them include seeing Loki seeing Mommy kissing Santa Claus under the mistletoe.
I don’t want you to think I have waged my own personal war on Christmas. I haven’t. I wish people “Merry Christmas!” when it’s expected and when I truly mean it. And I truly mean it often! Although I usually say “Happy Christmas!” instead because I’m a socially awkward weirdo. I still want those people around me to have the very best holiday they possibly can. I do wish them well. I want them to celebrate however they feel is appropriate and makes them happy. I want everyone to be jolly and full of love, even if its just a few hours. If anything, the world needs more of that.
But I also want the world to stop mandating that we celebrate the season one specific way by using trying to pass off time-honored bits of other religions’ traditions as belonging to one specific religion. Not everything falls under the Christian umbrella. Not everything is about the Chrisitan God. There are many gods, many traditions, and many religions under that holiday umbrella.
So really, there are many, many, reasons for the season. And if you look hard, you can see them all.