Christmas time is here! Which means that we get to take part in a lot of traditions that really are quite weird if you think about it. Christmas time is the time that we bring trees into our house, kiss under pieces of shrubbery, and tell stories about an old man in fur that goes on a serial breaking and entry spree. Although the origins of modern Christmas are undoubtedly steeped in Christian symbolism, where do all the various traditions come from? Well never fear dear readers. All will be explained.
Kissing under the mistletoe A Druid tradition tied to magical powers
Druids were a class of people in ancient Celtic cultures. Usually Druids were educated and held various important roles in Celtic society. Some ancient sources claim that a Druid was held in such high esteem that the presence of one on a battlefield was enough for both armies to stop fighting.
Mistletoe played an important role in their midwinter festivals. A Chief Druid would cut the leaves from the shrub which were caught by other Druids. If the leaves touched the ground, they were no longer considered sacred. The leaves themselves were a fertility symbol. Ancient Druid myths claimed that the berries of the leaf were the reproductive seed of the Gods, and would act as a natural aphrodisiac to anybody standing near them. Back in the day, standing near the mistletoe meant that two Druids would be doing a lot more than just kissing, but in our time the tradition has calmed down. Still, a mistletoe is seen as a symbol of love and romance.
A nighttime visitor bringing gifts- One of the many jobs of Thor
We all know the myth of Santa Claus, but have you ever wondered why he specifically travels down the chimney to deliver presents? Although the story of Santa Claus draws from many cultural myths, one of the predominate being that of Thor, the Norse God.
In Norse myth Thor would travel through the air in his chariot pulled by two goats. He was known to be from Northern lands that was only inhabited by the Gods and departed warriors. During certain times of the year, Thor would drop into people’s chimney bringing gifts. Thor would drop through the chimney so that he could appear in one of his natural elements; the fire.
Now we just need Marvel to make a Thor Christmas Special.
Evergreen Trees- Romans, Druids and Vikings
If you really think about it, bringing a tree into the house for a month is a weird tradition. It all got started with the Romans, who celebrated the festival of Saturnalia on December 21st or 22nd, the time of the Winter Solstice. The festival of Saturnalia was instated to celebrate the god Saturn, who was the Roman god of Agriculture. When the Winter Solstice came, Romans knew that the harvest season would be soon, so they would throw a holiday to gain favor from Saturn.
Saturnalia was celebrated over seven days, and one of the key parts of the festival was decorating trees. For seven days, the Romans partied, ate and decorated. They would even go so far as to let the slaves and children in on all the festivities.
Druids also used evergreen trees in their temples. These trees represented eternal life. For the Vikings, they represented the sun god Balder. In the 16th century, German Christians began to use Christmas trees in the way that we know it.
December 25th- The Festival of the Sun
Debate still rages about why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. There are no main stream Christian scholars who actually believe that this was the date of Christ’s birth, so it is generally assumed that the date was borrowed from a pre-existing Roman holiday.
A viable candidate is the festival of Mithras. In the 1st to 4th century, the mystery cult surrounding Mithras grew in ancient Rome. Mithras was a Persian God, often associated with the sun. Roman mystics began to worship this deity in secret and formed a mysterious cult around this worship. Some texts seem to put the birth of Mithras on the 25th of December.
Many scholars disagree. Since the Mithraic cults did not often worship openly, it seems unlikely that one of their holidays would become popular enough to be adapted into a Christian holiday. Other ancient texts seem to imply that there was a small Roman holiday worshiping the sun on December 25th, which may be a more valid candidate for our current Christmas date.
And there you have it. Merry Christmas.