Sunday, 23 December 2012

Merry Christmas?

Christmas is by far and away the largest and most popular festival in the Western world, the observance of which  used to be marked by the attendance of church services celebrating Christ’s birth on this planet.  Nowadays, as remarked upon by countless commentators, it is primarily observed by the spending of money, which possibly could be, in part,  a throwback to the original animal sacrifices at the north-west European winter festival of Yule.  However, instead of sacrificing animals for food, we offer up the money used to buy our food instead.  The most glaring thing about this rather large holiday is that although, ostensibly, it’s about the birth of Jesus Christ, the reality, at least in contemporary Britain, is that His nativity is peripheral at best.  Figures from the 2005 English Church Census announce that 6.3% of the population attend church regularly.  Even if church attendance tripled over the festivities, we are still talking about less than a fifth of the population.  So, if most folk do not attend Christian services, is it really a Christian holiday that most of us celebrate?

The main components of the contemporary secular Christmas are the feast, which can be spread out over several days (office parties, meeting friends and family for a pre-holiday turkey meal), present-giving, special food and drink available from the start of December (mince pies and mulled wine, mainly), shopping for all of the above (an important component of the ritual itself) and the intergenerational coming together of family for the main event.  There is also the consumption of seasonal media, too.  All of the above can (and, to my mind, is) normally be done without any belief in and meditation upon the birth of a god of any kind.  The desirability of this is quite obviously subjective, but I strongly suspect that our contemporary Christmas is observed, if not celebrated, as an almost humanist festival.  The large number of exceptions to this are the millions of children who believe religiously in the supernatural gift-giver, Father Christmas.

I would suspect that most of us already know that, due to the early Roman Catholic churches’ appropriation of pagan holidays, more than a few of our Christmas traditions can be found in the Roman midwinter festivals of Saturnalia and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which were in honour of the gods Saturn and the Unconquered Sun respectively.    Loosely speaking, they were festivals of light leading up to the first longer days and the New Year.  Some of the similarities to contemporary Christmas include present-giving, constant partying and a tradition still kept in the British Army of the officers serving food to their men which is predated in Roman times by masters serving food to their slaves.  There was a certain amount of cross-dressing that was a part of the holiday which has come down to us through the pantomime, with its characters of principal boy and the dame.  There was even what we tend to think of as a modern phenomenon; those folk who wished to avoid the holiday!

Yule was such a notable predecessor of Christmas that the name still survives as a label for our holiday.  There are also some rather surprising throwbacks to Yule itself, as opposed to the Roman winter feasts.  One of these is the tradition of the Yule Boar, which some say is the oldest of all of our seasonal customs.  In the UK, one of the more popular meats stocked in shops prior to Christmas is gammon.  In the United States they explicitly have a Christmas Ham.  Queen’s College, Oxford, to this day has the Boar’s Head Feast, along with quite a few other educational and ecclesiastical establishments.  One theory was that this was supposed to have represented a sacrifice to the Scandinavian God, Freyr, who rode a golden boar named Gullinbursti, which seems to have been a very early form of cyborg!.  The next, and most obvious of Yule customs is that of drinking, especially beer.  This looks to be specific to the United Kingdom, as other countries tend to save most of their drinking in order to mark the New Year celebrations.  However even this, our national libation to Yuletide, can be seen as an echo of ancient Yule practices.  King Haakon 1st of Norway passed a law ordering his subjects to stock up with enough beer to see themselves over Yule or pay a fine.  Thus, even the consuming of copious quantities of ale go back into the millennia before us.  There are, as well, the echoes of the Northern winters with that glorified Swiss roll that gets covered in chocolate and is known as the Yule Log.  Based on the original large piece of firewood, it reflects both the fire festival and its Northern origins.  Next we come to that most pagan of beliefs, the Wild Hunt.  These were spectral hunters riding through the air accoutred for hunting, and there was supposed to be a build-up of a paranormal nature as the borders between worlds became thinner.  Traces of this may be seen in our ghost stories that are so much a part of the modern tradition of Christmas that Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol was written as one of them.

The final indication that our “Christmas” does not depend upon the birth of Jesus Christ is the Yuletide tradition of Odin donning a hood and visiting homes incognito.  Whilst there, he would talk to the families and, if he found that they were poor then he would leave gifts of money, or sometimes food.  The parallels with Father Christmas are very noticeable indeed.

So there we have it.  What we celebrate today is basically a midwinter festival of lights that, as far as the majority of those who mark its passing are concerned, owes little to Christianity except for its nomenclature.  I would also go so far as to say that, based on the above, nearly every tradition we observe now has its origins in paganism of one form or another.  So, let’s all raise a glass (or tankard) and wish each other Good Yule! or at least, Happy Holidays!

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I'm engaged to Mandy, and I'm trying to create a blog.  That's it for now.