As I write these words, Samhain/Winter’s Night (think Halloween) is several days away. During the course of my day, I cannot help but see the Christmas decorations across the aisle from the disappearing “Halloween” costumes and candy; the artificial pine and holly eagerly await the Christmas shoppers. Soon our neighbors will be decking their halls and trimming their trees. In addition, let us not forget that blow up snowman and candy canes. Do you think that they will stop in their revels to think where their Christmas traditions came from?
In ancient Rome, a variety of different cultures thrived and prospered. Contrary to Judeo-Christian belief, the old Rome was tolerant of those diverse culture’s religions. So tolerant that, regardless of creed, most of the citizenry prepared four weeks in advance for the Feast of Saturnalia (a feast dedicated to Saturn). This feast began December 17 and concluded on December 25. During Saturnalia, master and slave exchanged places, and like the old saying, “anything goes,” did happen, (I will let you use your imagination here). December 25th saw the end of Saturnalia with a huge celebration and the exchanging of gifts. However, it appeared that when Saturnalia ended, the celebration of the birth of Sol Invictus began. The Winter Solstice occurred, as it still does, either on the 20th, 21st, or 22nd of December, and was/is the longest night of the year. The celebration of Sol Invictus took place approximately three days after the “dark night” of the Solstice amid great revelry. Saturnalia and Sol Invictus were not the only celebrations that happened in Rome and its provinces during that time.
The sun god Mithra, a Persian import, had many followers in the Roman Army. Mithra’s followers believed that the god had incarnated as a man from a heavenly realm, was born of a virgin on December 25 for the purpose of human salvation. Egyptians who lived in Rome at that time celebrated the birth of Horus, a god said to be of virgin birth by the Goddess Isis. Depictions of Horus in the Egyptian temples were that of a babe in a crib with his virginal mother, Isis looking on. At the other end of town were the gladiators, many of them Germanic prisoners of war. The Germanic peoples celebrated Yule, the turning of the wheel and the rebirth of the god as a babe from the goddess (they also noted with great respect that the days became longer - the return of the Sun, and life). The celebrations mentioned above are not all inclusive; history tells of many more. So what about that “other stuff” - the food, drink, and evergreens that come from our rich past? Hang on we will get there. Many people of European ancestry, including myself, yearn for some snow at Yule, unless you have to drive in it. This is a hazardous condition, but our ancestors faced much worse.
Generations ago, a snowstorm was life threatening. Those storms snowed in farms and villages, and even walking to a neighboring farm was treacherous. The preparations that led up to and followed the holiday - the salting, drying, and smoking of fruits, vegetables, and meats (Gepokeltes) had to feed people well into the spring. However, the human spirit prevailed, despite the weather and the best efforts of the Church to eradicate Yule and it gave us a rich a wonderful tradition.
Our ancestors called the period between Winter Solstice and January 6th “The Raw Nights.” One reason - it was so damned cold! Another reason, taken from tradition, was that disembodied spirits would be out haunting the countryside. During these “Raw Nights,” certain nights were observed for ritual and smudging (smudging – today it is akin to lighting incense). The people smudged their homes and property for protection against negative energy (all that stuff that goes “bump” in the night), and to help bring on the re-birth of the Sun. Then, they partied (now that I have your attention, you will have to wait to find out how well they partied!).
Another reason for the “Raw Nights,” also taken from tradition, is Wotan’s (Wodan/Odin) Wild Hunt. Tradition tells us that Wotan, the Germanic God of Gods, rode his horse Sleipnir along with his mighty Host throughout the earth, forest, and sky, and created mighty windstorms. People believed that the smoke and scent of the smudging pleased the gods, particularly Wotan, and that he would grant mercy on humans and protection from evil. Wotan had some interesting attributes. The people considered him the divine masculine of creation and known for granting wishes. This god, while on the Wild Hunt, was traditionally dressed in red and white with of course, a long beard. So here we go; a man of divine stature, riding through forest, earth, and sky, fulfilling wishes, dressed in red and white with a beard; good golly Miss Molly! You do not need a compass and ruler to draw the line from Wotan, to Father Winter, to St. Nicolas, to Sinter Claus and to Santa Claus. I guess we can tell Virginia there is a Claus; pick one. Moreover, the horse Sleipnir had eight legs and could fly. Some historians believe that Sleipnir was the precursor of Santa’s eight flying reindeer.
Then, what about the so-called Christmas tree? Well, humans always had a special affinity for trees. According to Pliny the Elder,
For a long time Her (the Goddess Natura) good deeds,
were hidden; trees and woods were the highest of all
gifts given to human beings.” (Pliny the Elder, V)
We can trace our relationship to trees back to its shamanic origins. Trees, the fir tree included (aka evergreen), were thought of as sacred, as if ladders to the “Otherworld.” In addition, many trees symbolized Life itself.
The Yule Log and Yule Tree (erroneously called - Christmas tree) are inextricably intertwined. On Solstice Eve the Yule Log was burned (and still is by some of us) along with wishes, hopes, and dreams, in thanks and remembrance to the dead King. The next morning, people placed a fresh cut fir tree in their home and it symbolized the rebirth of the King (Sun) as a babe. The very first inference of the Yule Tree as a Christmas tree occurred in Strasbourg in 1604.
Mistletoe comes to us through the Celtic Druids. When they observed mistletoe in nature, our ancestors drew the conclusion that, since it was not rooted in the earth, it had to be divine (even though it killed Balder!). This plant grew on trees then as it does now. Today, because of science, we know that mistletoe is a parasitic plant. In the Germanic countries, the folks referred to it as “Donnerbesen,” or, Thunder broom. The Church, in an effort to demonize the plant, called it “Hexennest”- Witch nest, and “Teufulbesen”- Devil’s broom. Our ancestors, with a devout belief that the plant was divine, used it for good luck, fertility, and healing. The act of standing under the mistletoe for a kiss has its roots in rites for fertility and good marriages.
Also from the Druids, we get our holly. Holly, too, was divine. The priests cut the holly branches and called them “rods of life.” The red holly berries represented the divine feminine while the white berries of the mistletoe symbolized the divine masculine. During the Summer Solstice, the Druid priests would mash the berries together to bring about renewed life and a bountiful harvest.
Our ancestors considered ivy symbolic of everlasting life. In ancient Egypt, ivy was associated with the god Osiris. Our ancestors attached immortality to all evergreens. In folklore, evergreens had the power, through the Wood Mother (Silva Mater), to prolong life and strengthen the weak. That was the consideration given to all evergreens, holly, mistletoe, and ivy.
Since its modest beginnings, Christianity did its utmost to demonize and ban the Yule tree, mistletoe, holly, and ivy; anything “evergreen,” pagan and heathen. According to the Church of that time it considered cutting down and displaying anything evergreen at Yule a “heathen” practice and a punishable offense; the Church absolutely forbade it. When reading from the Book of Jeremiah, 10:2-4 we find this:
“Thus says the Lord: Learn not the ways of the Heathen….
For the customs of the people are vain. One cuts a tree out
Of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman with
The axe. They deck it with silver and gold. They fasten it
With nails and hammers. It moves not.”
Now, how many evergreen trees adorn the various churches during their Christmas season?
Babylonia, as well as Egypt had used a variety of trees at Winter Solstice, as did Rome. According to some historians and archaeologists, the “Old Testament” was composed after the supposed 500 plus years (now known to be drastically less) of the “Babylonian Captivity.” Could it be that a people bent on state building would want to devoid themselves of their past in order to create a “more perfect union?”
As an aside, evergreens grow in most areas on our planet. The exception is the sand trap known as “The Holy Land” (with the exception of some areas of Lebanon). It also appears that the Church influenced secular governments to provide laws and fines to protect against so-called “forest damage.” In light of this, one must wonder why the Church is not more pro-environment today (a new list of “sins” recently were let loose from Rome: one is a “sin” against environmental abuse). The early church father Augustine used this approach:
“Do not kill the Heathens - just convert them; do not cut
their holy trees - consecrate them to Jesus Christ.” (De Civitate Dei).
As you can see, something that was sacred to our ancestors and the gods, the Church dedicated to its Jesus; the same happened with mistletoe, holly, and ivy. What the Church could not demonize and eradicate, they Christianised. For example, the pointed holly leaves became a symbol of Jesus’s crown of thorns. However, weathering persecution, our ancestors persisted in the use of various evergreens. This “Christianising” is reminiscent of what the Church did with the Goddess Brigid, approximately 500 CE. The Church made her a saint and kept Imbolc as her feast day while they ushered in Mary as the mother of their god.
Another curious fact deals with the fixed date of Christmas and the floating date of Easter; it is a calendar thing. Two different calendars are used. Christmas is based on a fixed solar calendar while Easter is always the first Sunday following the full moon after spring equinox (Muslims have a good time with this!). I have yet to find a Christian who is aware of this. With all this in mind the terms, Christmas tree, greens, and fauna are, well, in my opinion, laughable.
Earlier, I mentioned that our ancestors celebrated (partied). Those celebrations took place after the ritual and smudging on the four assigned nights. During those “Raw Nights,” every effort was made for gluttonous feasting, even at the expense of future hunger (remember the winter snow?). I hope that what you are about to read will not shock or embarrass you (I am smiling gleefully). During the harvest season, hemp (I do mean cannabis) and fly agaric mushrooms (amanita muscaria - a natural hallucinogen with red and white spots), were gathered with the harvest and dried for shamanic and celebratory purposes. In our times, shamans still use cannabis, agaric mushrooms, and a host of other natural material worldwide. Our ancestors, along with their priest/shamans used cannabis and agaric mushrooms in two specific ways. Long before the introduction of tobacco from the “New World,” the people smoked “Baccy.” Baccy was a mixture of dried herbs, cannabis, and agaric mushrooms. The people of that era smoked that mixture in a pipe for shamanic, ritualistic, and celebratory purposes. If you are familiar with the old Hollywood westerns where the Native Americans pass around the “peace pipe,” you get the idea. The second is, and this should be no surprise, our ancestors made beer. If any “purity laws” existed for brewing beer, our ancestors threw them out the window.
Cannabis and agaric mushroom were active ingredients in the mash. Now, just imagine it - after ritual, the gluttonous eating, passing the pipe, and drinking beer; a lot of beer. All this lead to, well, amore; sounds like the 60’s without birth control. In August and September, babies became a part of the harvest.
Our ancestors have given us a rich Yule tradition and we should live up to it. They gave us the evergreen; use them as intended. They knew how to celebrate - make your neighbors envious. After reading the quote below, you will see the envy of others-------
“By us, who are strangers to Sabbaths, and new moons
and festivals once acceptable to God, the Saturnalia, the
feasts of January, the Brumalia and the Matronalia are
now frequented. Gifts are carried to and fro, New Year’s
day presents are made with din, and sports and banquets
are celebrated with uproar. Oh, how much more faithful
are the Heathen to their religion, who take care to adopt
no solemnity from the Christians.” -----
Church Father Tertullian, On Idolatry
Hmmmmmm,…………………… Oh well, Party On!
Originally published in my book, Beneath Valhalla – Opinions of an Iconoclast, copyright 2009.
Re-edited for my Blog, Copyright @ 2012 Terry Unger
Reference Sources...........the Internet