Many people might say that we’ve now lost the real meaning of Christmas. But what is the real meaning?
I’ve long struggled with Christmas but it has indeed got worse as its magic in early childhood was beaten out of me by the guilt of consumer responsibilities and the realisation that Santa or Jesus didn’t exist – at least certainly not in the way we are told. My interest in the roots of dogmatic social events has led me to look into the symbology and practices that this time of year brings.
Why the 25th December? The film Zeitgeist first pointed me in this direction. In hindsight I am a little skeptical about the ‘facts’ presented by the makers and am currently looking deeper into them but regardless of the minutiae that is now argued over in debunks and counter-conspiracy there is one simple and glaring fact that happens year in year out in the northern hemisphere generally on the 25th of December or thereabouts. With the winter soltice (between 21 and 23rd December) we are all aware of the shortage of light as the sun struggles to lift over the horizon. From the summer solstice onwards it rises and sets in a more southerly position each day and the further north you are this is more noticeable. After a certain latitude the sun barely rises at all and for that period the streets needed a lot of lighting. Could this be the start of the tradition of Christmas street lights?
Despite the limited understanding and tools of the ancients it would have been observed that around 3 days after the soltice, the sun would appear to start to return to set more in the west and the days would start to get longer. A NEW SUN IS BORN. Steeped in fear of failed harvest (understandably) and owing their fortunes to gods, the passage and existence of the sun would have been central in their observations and no doubt it was a focus of ‘worship’ as the life giver. Stonehenge dated 2-3000BC is on a sight-line that points to the winter solstice sunset. It is thought that the Winter Solstice was the most important festival of the year and was a time when most cattle were slaughtered so as not need feeding during winter. Also the majority of wine and beer was finally fermented. The plentiful meat and booze would be much appreciated by agricultural workers with little to do and would be cause for much merriment along with the onset of brighter days.
Given that the Bible doesn’t specify a date – historical cross references allude to a year between 7 and 2BC – and also the time of year isn’t in keeping with shepherds abiding in their fields, then we can immediately dispense with the notion of it being a celebration of the birth of Christ (whether he existed or not) and equally then of course the name Christ Mass. The religous format was fully introduced by the Church (4thC) to usurp the earlier Greco-Roman pagan customs and traditions by rebranding and intergrating old ones without causing too much dissent, finishing the work started by Emperor Theodosius I.
Back in 1st century Rome, The Feast of Saturnalia was celebrated (17th – 23rd) with banquets and gift giving and the customary greeting for the occasion was “Io, Saturnalia!” — Io (pronounced “e-o”) being a Latin interjection related to “Ho” (as in “Ho, praise to Saturn”)….Ho! Ho! Ho!
On the 25th itself was the festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (The Birth Of The Invincible Sun). Sol Invictus had been imported from Emesa, Syria by Augustus where this sun-god was known as Elagabalus and the first noticable longer day after Solstice was given as its day of celebration. Traces of this Emesean cult have been found as far north as Holland which indicates the extent of its influence. The Babylonian go Nimrod is said to have the 25th December as his birthday and also is represented by a huge evergreen tree that is said to have grown out of a stump.
It is in the higher latitudes we now move to find more origins of this other central theme, the Christmas tree. Although most would associate the decorated tree with a Germanic tradition from the 17thC we can find relative writings in Biblical text. In Jeremiah 10 ‘they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold’. The ‘ungodly’ men spoken of in this text were most likely the non-semetics of Mesopotamia for whom The World Tree was an important religous motif. Also known as the Axis Mundi (world axle) it expressed the connection between the earth and the sky and the underworld and can be found throughout global cultures from ancient to current. The fixed appearance of the Pole Star – the celestial nail – gave rise to this notion of an axis and it is most likely where we get the practice of annointing our tree with a star. The World Tree features heavily in Siberian mythology and it is here that things get really interesting. Animistic shamanic cultures such as the Evenks of Russia see the Fly Agaric mushroom as part of the world axes. Entheogens, psychoactive plants taken for spiritual experiences, are used by shaman in many cultures but when one looks at old christmas cards and glass tree decorations one has to ask why the Fly Agaric so often features in this context?
Originally native to the Northern Hemisphere the mushroom is symbiont to coniferous trees. The ethnobotanist Jonathan Ott ascribes the red and white colour theme of Santas outfit, xmas stockings and suchlike to the mushroom. Coca-cola have dispelled the urban myth, propogated by a Brighton school, that they created the red version in the 1930’s and it is now accepted that the modern image of the tubby old man is attributed to the German born American cartoonist Thomas Nast for a drawing that featured in Harpers Weekly in 1863. In Victorian and Tudor times the character was presented in green and in old English folklore Father Christmas is identified with the god Woden, the proto-Germanic pagan god. Closely linked to the Norse god Odin he is associated with mantic states of divination which brings us back to the World Tree (known as Yggdrasil in Norse mythology) and the psychotropic journeys experienced from ingesting the Fly Agaric.
Odin is also widley thought of as a precursor to Santa Claus as he rode an eight legged horse that could leap great distances in the sky and was know by many names which often translate as Longbeard or Father Yule. The Christian legend of Saint Nicholas of Myra (who had a reputation for leaving coins in shoes left out for him) was merged with the mythology of Odin giving rise to Santa Claus/Father Christmas. Legend has it that children would leave their boots filled with straw or carrots near the chimney for Odins horse for which they would be rewarded with gifts or candy.
The word shaman comes from the language of the Evenk, hunters and reindeer herders in Siberia, although Mongolian shaman share very similar traits including that of the flying horse. Found beneath pine, fir and spruce among other evergreen trees, the relationship we see between these mushrooms and Christmas starts to take place. Lithuanians mixed A.muscaria with vodka and were known to export quantities of them to the Lapps in the Far North for use in shamanic rituals. The Laplanders, indigneous nomadic arctic people, whose main livelihood is reindeer herding that import psychedelic mushrooms – flying reindeer eh!!? The reindeer are know to be partial to a drop of psychotropic herders piss and he (also the shaman) would carry a pouch of it to attract any lost from the herd. In many regions it was confined only to shamanic use to reach an altered state but it was in Eastern Siberia that the consumption of the A.Muscaria was most common among the community. First ingested by the shaman, the lay people would then drink his urine (which filters the negative deliriant effects and makes for a more clean entheogenic experience) and this is also possibly where we get the idea of getting pissed. This process could remain potent for up to six passes. Is the case for a magic man aided by many elves and flying reindeer starting to make a bit of sense now?
To collect these valuable ‘jewels’ would be quite a ceremonious matter. As they were found they would be collected and hung on a central tree to initiate the drying process then later taken inside to dry above the fireplace. Entry into the house/yurt in winter time was often through the smoke hole in the roof as this would be the only access in heavy snow. It was possibly through the spiritual trance that the shaman could tell who was good or bad, or maybe the response to the effects upon the layman having a good or bad reaction, would be where this notion came from?
The Holly & the Ivy is ubiquitous in song, imagary and decoration. Back in Pagan times, in the depths of winter when there was little growth, it would be only the evergreens that were available to decorate the home, use at funerals, weddings etc. Even though pagan ritual useage was forbidden by the church, the tradition was so strong that it had to be incorporated somehow. Christians may insist in their 18thC carol that the leafs prickles represent the crown of thorns, the white blossom as Christ’s purity and the red berries as his blood, but long before this our ancestors were rejoicing in the signs of life that Nature brought to their short and dark days. Dating back only a couple of hundred years the most familiar of songs about this pair is but a cover up for the masculine and feminine superstitions of lore. Halls would be ‘decked’ with a pole, a winter equivalent to the May-pole although in some cultures it was only the holly to be brought inside. The ‘sex’ of the holly first brought in would determine whether the man or the woman would rule the house for that year. A sprig of the decorative holly was then saved for the following year, when it was used to light the fire under the following year’s Christmas Plum pudding.
Also saved for next year would be a remnant of the ‘Yule Log’. This was not always a cake covered in chocolate with the appearance of bark. It was originally an entire tree that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony with the purpose being to provide maximum warmth and endurance. In some European traditions, the largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room (I remember a scatty old landlord doing this but I think it was because he didnt have a saw or was too lazy to use one and not for ritual purpose). A remnant of this ‘log’ would be saved until next yule to light the fire then. Yule or Yuletide is from the Germanic pagan winter solstice celebrations where again we see faeries, Woden, Odin or the Welsh psychopomp Gwyn ap Nudd and suchlike flying horses across the sky in ‘The Great Hunt’. This was probably a tradition related to the sacrificial superstitions of the Yule Boar as a tribute to Freyr, a pagan god associated with boars, harvest and fertility, which now manifests itself on our tables as the Christmas ham.
In my research for this piece I discovered a bizzare tradition of the Welsh called Holming Day (26th Dec) whereupon the last (female) out of bed would have their unprotected arms or legs thrashed with holly branches until they bled. Luckily this tradition died out by the 19thC – although there is from my experience some psychological remainder of being chastised for sleeping in and it’s not only confined to one day.
It wasn’t just the Catholics who tried to ban festivities around this time. In 1644, Cromwell enforced an act of Parliament outlawing celebrations. Christmas was regarded by the Puritans as a wasteful festival that threatened core Christian beliefs. Consequently, all activities relating to Christmas, including attending mass, were forbidden. Not surprisingly, the ban was hugely unpopular and many people continued to celebrate Christmas secretly. The Puritan War on Christmas lasted until 1660. Under the Commonwealth, mince pies, holly and other popular customs fell victim to the spirited Puritan attempt to eradicate every last remnant of merrymaking during the Christmas period.
In the first half of the 17th century Christmas was an important religious festival and a time when the English population would indulge in a variety of traditional pastimes. The 25th December was a public holiday, during which all places of work closed and people attended special church services. The next eleven days included additional masses, with businesses open sporadically and for shorter hours than usual. During the twelve days of Christmas, buildings were dressed with rosemary, holly and ivy and families attended Christmas Day mass. As well as marking the day’s religious elements, there was also non-stop dancing, singing, drinking, exchanging of presents and stage plays. The population indulged in feasts of roast beef, plum porridge, minced pies and special ale. Twelfth Night, the final day of celebration, often saw a fresh bout of feasting and carnivals. Despite the threat of fines and punishment many people continued to celebrate Christmas clandestinely. The ban had never been popular and many people still held mass on the 25th December to mark Christ’s nativity and also marked the day as a secular holiday. In the late 1640s Cromwell tried to put a stop to these public celebrations and force businesses to stay open. As a result, violent encounters took place between supporters and opponents of Christmas in many towns. Once Charles II was restored to the throne, all legislation banning Christmas — enforced from 1642 to 1660 — was dropped and the common people were once again allowed to mark the Twelve Days of Christmas.
One last idea on the mushrooms and how Christianity gets involved. In the book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross, John Allegro claims that the church is built on an ancient fertility cult involving psychotropic mushrooms. Given that Yule is a fertility festival and that Santa’s roots are most likely from tripping Shaman – is it not quite possible that there is something they are not telling us? They wouldn’t lie would they? The Roman Catholic Church and its feast of