Susan C. Anthony

Modern-day Asherah PoleOrigins of Christmas Customs

Like Easter (Ishtar), Christmas has its origins in pagan religion. Many of its traditions are of relatively recent origin (1700s or 1800s). A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, for example, was first published December 19, 1843.

The first mention of December 25 as a date for Christ’s birth is on a Roman calendar in 336 A.D. The Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and “Christianized” the pagan festivals honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture, and Mithras, the god of light.

The date

December 25 corresponds closely to the winter solstice, the time when days begin to lengthen and light returns. This was a pivotal point in pagan nature worship. The Roman festival Saturnalia began December 17 and continued for a week, during which all business stopped. Executions and military operations were postponed. People feasted and exchanged gifts. Slaves were given temporary freedom and were allowed to sit at the head of the table and be served by their masters. Romans decorated trees with bright pieces of metal. As the Roman Empire became more corrupt, Saturnalia became a rowdy, out-of-control, drunken party.

The birth of Mithras, Roman god of light, was replaced by the celebration of the birth of Christ, light of the world. The church hoped to draw pagans into its religion by allowing them to continue their traditional revelry with a Christian twist.

By 1100, Christmas was the most important religious festival in Europe. But during the Reformation in the 1500s, some Protestants, including American Puritans, outlawed the celebration of Christmas because of its pagan origins and practices. The United States Congress did not declare Christmas a federal holiday until 1870.

Christmas Trees

Trees are common objects of worship in pagan religions. The “Asherah poles” and sacred groves mentioned in the Bible were sites of tree worship and idolatry for ancient Israel. A “Paradise Tree” decorated with red apples was part of a popular German Christmas play about Adam and Eve. German settlers in Pennsylvania set up the first Christmas trees in the U.S. in the early 1800s. Trees were decorated with fruits, nuts, lighted candles, and paper. The custom of decorating Christmas trees became popular around the world during the mid-1800s.

Wreaths

The ancient Romans bestowed a “victory wreath” on athletes and warriors. The Lutherans absorbed this symbol into Christmas as a symbol of Christ’s victory over sin and death.

Christmas Gifts

Gifts were given to celebrate the solstice in ancient Rome. Sweet things were given to ensure sweetness for the year to come; lamps to wish for light and warmth; or money to wish for increasing wealth. This existing custom was “baptized” by the Roman church by connecting it with the gifts of the Magi to the Christ child.

Mistletoe

Ancient Celtic priests considered mistletoe to be sacred. It was believed to have magic power to bestow life and fertility, to bring about peace, and to protect against disease. Sprigs were carried as charms. Its association with Frigga, the Norse goddess of love, led to the custom of kissing under a mistletoe branch.

Yule Log

Early Europeans believed wood had magical powers. A Yule log, a large piece of tree trunk, was burned during the solstice celebration. It was believed that bad luck would come if the log went out. The unburned portion left at the end of the holiday would be saved to start next year’s fire.

Christmas Carols

Angels appeared to the shepherds praising God, but the Bible does not say they sang. The word “carol” comes from a Greek dance accompanied by flutes. Later, carols involved singing only. Most of our traditional Christmas carols were composed in the 1700s or 1800s.

Christmas Star

This symbol is Biblical, and represents the Shekinah glory. Balaam prophesied in Numbers 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” The Magi, knowing this prophecy, followed a bright light (Shekinah glory) they first saw in the east. It led them in a westerly direction from Babylon to Bethlehem, going ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. (Matthew 2:9) The Magi did not arrive the night of Christ’s birth. Although three gifts are mentioned, there were more than three Magi. It is likely that Daniel, carried off to Babylon centuries earlier, taught the Magi what he knew, accounting for their response to the sign when even Jews paid no attention.

Christmas Cards

The first Christmas card was a postcard created by an English illustrator in 1843. About 1,000 cards were sold. The custom of sending Christmas cards was popular in Great Britain by 1860, and in 1875, Christmas cards were published in America.

Christmas Stockings

Early legends of St. Nicholas recount him helping poor noblemen by dropping dowries for their daughters down their chimneys. The coins landed magically in stockings hung to dry by the fire.

Santa Claus

Most Christians know the Santa Claus legend has nothing to do with Christianity. St. Nicholas was a 4th century bishop in Turkey, venerated for helping storm-tossed sailors and giving generous gifts. His feast day was December 26. He was called Sinter Klaas in Holland, which became Santa Claus in the U.S. He originally was said to ride through the sky on horseback, generally accompanied by Black Peter, an elf whose job it was to whip naughty children. He would arrive on the eve of his feast day, which coincidentally happens to be December 25. The publication of the poem “The Night Before Christmas” turned him into an elf and introduced reindeer. Coca-Cola ads in 1931 changed him from an elf into a life-sized person, with elves helping him. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was invented in 1939 for a Montgomery Ward promotion.

The real origin of the Santa Claus figure is much darker.  As mentioned above, when Rome declared Christianity to be the state religion, the old pagan festival of Saturnalia continued to be held, but in a new way, as Christmas. The date of Christ's birth is not known, but is probably not December 25.

The Greek equivalent to the Roman god Saturn is Zeus and the Babylonian equivalent is Molech. According to mythology, Kronos envied the power of his father, Zeus. Saturn's mother, Gaia, shaped a great sickle for him with which he overthrew his father. She then warned him that he would, in turn, be overthrown by his son. To prevent that from happening, Kronos swallowed each of his sons as soon as they were born, until Gaia hid one of the babies and gave Kronos a stone in swaddling cloth that he swallowed, believing it was his son.  Baby Zeus grew up in secret and eventually overthrew his father as predicted.

In about 60 B.C., Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote the following description of an idol to Kronos:  There was in their city a bronze image extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.” Going back to Old Testament times, the same god was worshiped in the same way under the name of Molech. Rashi, a Jewish sage who lived in 1100 A.D., described the worship of Molech:  "Topheth is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved." Topheth meant a high place used for human sacrifice.

So Saturnalia evolved into Christmas, and Saturn evolved into Santa, a red hot giant who holds crying children in his arms, whose festival is held at the winter solstice and involves license, festivity and exchanging of gifts.

Christmas Stockings

Early legends of St. Nicholas recount him helping poor noblemen by dropping dowries for their daughters down their chimneys. The coins landed magically in stockings hung to dry by the fire.

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