Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The hidden pagan side of Christmas

In the Netherlands Sinterklaas arrives with his helper Black Peter who stuffs bad boys and girls in a sack and brings them back to Spain. Zwarte Piet probably derives from a black raven that helped the the God Odin.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past.

Most Christians assume that Christmas traditions go back as far as… well, Christ’s birth. In fact, most were invented during the early 1800’s, many right here in New York. Surprisingly, other Christmas traditions actually predate Christ. I know what you’re thinking: “Dude lay off the eggnog.”

Bear with me.

Have you noticed that it has been getting darker earlier in the day?
Well, ancient cultures in the Northern Hemisphere used to notice it too. They would mark down the days, as they got shorter. The shortest day of the year was called the solstice, meaning “standing still sun”.

The original date of the solstice was December 25th. As the calendar shifted so did the date, this year it falls on Dec. 21st, the official start of winter.

On December 25th in the northern hemisphere, across the globe, folks would gather at night waiting expectantly to see if the sun would come back.  Since the sun was considered to be a god, the thinking was the god was sick and dying and might not come back if you didn’t pray for him.

In Egypt, they venerated Ra the Sun god by decorating homes with green palm fronds to symbolize the triumph of life over death. The Romans venerated Saturn by decorating their temples with evergreen boughs. And so you see, decking the halls actually predates Christmas.

The Chinese considered the Winter Solstice the fulcrum upon which the earth balanced; it was tied into the concept of Yin and Yang.

In Northern Europe evergreens were thought be have magical powers because they could survive the harsh winters and thus were a major part of Pagan worship.

Circular wreaths of evergreens were made to remind folks of the cyclical nature of the season. Winter was coming but if you waited long enough for the dial to turn spring would soon be here.

   If this nature/evergreen stuff interests you check out the legend of the Green Man.

You'll find the Green Man alive living on the facades of buildings all over New York.

You'll also find him alive in images of Santa with Holly and green leaves in his hair.

The Norse myths spoke of Balder a sun god and the son of Frigg (Friday is named for her, it was originally “Frigga’s day”) Similar to the Greek Achilles myth, Balder’s Mom went to earth and got all manner of animal and mineral to agree not to hurt her son. Rocks and metal agreed they wouldn’t form arrows and kill him. But the evil Loki/Loke found out that she hadn’t asked the lowly mistletoe not to hurt Balder.  And so Loki fashioned an arrow made from pointy mistletoe and tricked the blind god of winter to shoot the arrow in the air hitting Balder, mortally wounding the sun. The Winter Solstice party was a bedside vigil to see if he would live another summer.

The Scandinavian custom was to build huge bonfires of logs. It was thought the light of the fire would help reignite the Sun. The festival was called Jule pronounced “Yule” which is how those logs got their names. The logs stayed lit for 12 days (as in the 12 days of Christmas)

The Greeks called their Winter Solstice “Lenaea” the Festival of the Wild Women. The festival, as the name implies, consisted of drinking and Toga flashing. 

 Lenaea-The original Greek Girls Sorority gone wild.

Long before Christ’s birth, the Romans,had a post-harvest festival in December called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture, fertility and four-cylinder cars.

It was at this harvest festival that society was turned on its ear. The social order would be inverted. The upper classes would kiss the asses of the lower ones. Masters would serve their slaves. This Carnival was meant to be a safety valve to allow the lower classes to blow off some steam. There was a good deal of carnal fun going on (The root word for carnal and carnival means flesh or meat). Public nudity was condoned. Since Saturn was the god of fertility -- wife swapping, and servant girl swapping was a popular feature. Society officially let down its hair and condoned lots of public drinking and philandering. It was all kind of like a Girls Gone Wild Video minus Snoop Dawg.

(If you’re interested in the salacious stuff read a book called ‘The Battle for Christmas.” Published by Knopf)

When the Christians got sick of being lion-feed in the Coliseum they took over Rome. And as we’ve discussed in other memos, the Church attempted to smother pagan celebrations by imposing Christian feast days upon them. So in an attempt to redirect some of that wild libido they decreed that on December 25th there would be a mass to celebrate Christ’s birth. The olde English for mass of Christ “Cristes Maesse” would become --Christmas.

And even though Christ’s birthday was probably in spring (shepherds in the Holy Land would only have been tending their sheep in spring, not winter) they set it in the middle of this bacchanalian feast. They intentionally chose the exact same feast day that Pagans venerated their powerful god Mithra, December 25th.  Which was also the birthday of another powerful pagan God called Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris.

For the record, the idea that Dec. 25th is Jesus’ birthday was conceived by one Pope Sextus Julius Africanus in 221 AD. The earliest reference to the celebration of Christmas is in a manuscript from 354 AD.

So did Christmas eradicate the pagan customs?

Kinda, maybe.  A little.

The Church continued to try to overlay Christian themes upon the season. Pagan Germans venerated evergreens. It is said that in the 7th Century a monk in a St. Patrick like trick used the visual of a fir tree to describe the Holy Trinity. By the 12th century Germans were hanging them upside down from their ceilings to symbolize Christianity. Christmas trees only became popular outside of Germany when the German Prince Albert married the English Queen Victoria and brought his tree to the English Court in 1846. In the U.S. Christmas trees began to become common after the Civil War. The first American patent for a Christmas tree stand was granted in 1876.

It was taught that pagan holly was symbolic of Christ. The sharp edges symbolized Christ’s crown of thorns and the red berries his blood.

None of this boosted the Christmas story.

Through the Middle Ages Christmas was a lesser feast day overshadowed by Easter and the Feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the baptism of Jesus and the visit of the Magi –We Three Kings and all that.  I’ll explain the Epiphany in a post in a few weeks. But the celebration of the Epiphany underscored two holiday themes. One was the concept of adults (Kings) giving gifts to children (infant Jesus.) The other was it reflected the idea of inverted social order “kings” bearing gifts for a poor child in a manger.

In fact, through the years children looked forward to New Year’s Day, the Epiphany, or the Feast of St. Nicholas because those were the days they were given treats or gifts. On Epiphany Eve children would leave hay out for the 3 Wise Men’s camels.  Eventually this would become leaving carrots out for Santa’s Reindeer

In Italy, the tale was of a witch called LaBefana who was asked by the 3 Wise Dudes to accompany them. She declined. Then changed her mind, hopped on her broomstick to look for them. To no avail. So on Jan 6th  (The Epiphany) LaBefana (name derived from epiphany) flew down every chimney in the world and left a present for every child in the world hoping one would be the Christ Child. Which is why children in Italy waited for the Epiphany, not Santa.

The point is Christmas wasn’t all that important.

And the randy Bacchanalian stuff?

Well traditions die hard.  Some were merely bent a bit. In the Middle Ages, the custom of inverting the class structure transformed into a custom where gangs of low class folks would go door to door at Christmas demanding food, drink and coin. They would “Wassail” similar to assail the homes of the well-to-do threatening to burn down the house if they didn’t get grog. (We now call this caroling and the carolers now demand hot cocoa). Mumming was a big ritual. Men would dress as women and vice versa and they’d traipse drunkenly through the village.  The Mummers parade in Philadelphia on New Year’s Day is one last legacy of this. Still to this day blue-collar plumbers and steamfitters dress up like Vegas showgirls in feathered costumes and parade through the streets of Philly. The parade was nationally televised until the 1960’s when the networks pulled the plug over concerns that there were racist overtones to the parade.

Philadelphia Mummers marching on New Year's Day

All this naughty behavior became to be known as “Misrule.” The Season of Misrule began on Dec.6th and ended on New Year’s Day.

Why the communal kookiness?  In agrarian economies the work was all done by the end of fall. There were stores of grain, the beer was brewed. The traditional butchering time on the farm was done the first week of December (St. Nicholas Feast Day) since there was no refrigeration you had to wait until the temperature dropped so the meat wouldn’t spoil as you salted it for the winter.  December would be your last taste of fresh meat for a while. There was no work to do, there was food and drink a plenty, so let’s party. This was true from 1500’s through the early 1800’s

The ruling classes knew not to mess with the working class Dec- New Year’s Mardi Gras of drinking and booby flashing.

In the middle of all this the Protestant Reformation occurred in 1517.

After the Reformation there was great debate amongst Protestants about what to do about Christmas.  The pagan aspects of Saturnalia were still pretty close to the surface.  For a while when the Puritans took over England they criminalized Christmas. In puritanical colonies like Massachusetts, you were legally prohibited from taking off on Christmas day.  It was assumed you were up to no good. Even here in the U.S. Christmas Day wasn’t generally a holiday.  Christmas wasn’t officially declared a United States Federal Holiday until 1870, signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.

The German celebration of Christmas would be the most familiar to a modern day celebrant. They gave gifts to children and it was in fact, Martin Luther who brought the tree into the Christmas story. The Germans would tie their presents to the tree, little dolls for girls and horns and drums for boys.  It’s the reason why many folks nowadays put little drums and horn ornaments on their tree, not realizing they’re continuing this old practice. The Germans were also big on Biblical pageants during the holidays. A favorite was the story Adam and Eve. Apple trees were bare in winter so an evergreen with red apples tied to the branches would be substituted.

And still today some folks decorate their trees with red apples, not knowing why

The Protestants also had another problem.  Many Protestant denominations rejected the Saints of the Catholic Church. One of those saints –St. Nicholas had become widely, wildly popular. His feast day of Dec 6th was celebrated by the giving of small gifts or candy to children.

 Who was St. Nicholas?
There may never, in fact, have ever been a Saint Nicholas. Tradition holds that St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop stationed in Myrna, Turkey who performed assorted good deeds. I’ve never read it but my guess is he was a member of the Greek Orthodox Catholic church.

St. Nicholas was the patron saint of Greece, Rome and the City of New York. Ole Nick is supposed to have died in 321 AD. The citizens of Bari, Italy sent a delegation to Turkey to dig up his bones and placed them in a basilica in their town.

His feast day is on December 6th.  

In the 1960’s the Roman Catholic Church started investigating Nick trying to separate fact from fiction. Eventually at a religious conference called Vatican II, St. Nicholas was demoted and dropped from the Roman Catholic Liturgical calendar. In other words, his feast day need not be celebrated.

One of the reasons the RC church was worried about ole Nick is that there is a strong feeling that his legend evolved from various Gods of the Sea and other ancient evil pagan characters. It is thought his legend may have been one part Pan – the mischievous nature spirit and one part Eros the randy man. Pan had a goatee beard and the hindquarters and sexual habits of a goat. The sight of Pan could sow fear into people, which is where we get the word “panic.” He was also pictured as a god of the sea.

You’ll notice that in some older images of Santa he is holding a branch in his hand. The older evil gnome character used to whip children if they were bad. This stuff gets way too involved and depresses people to no end. So, if you are interested in learning more about the horny-toad version of Santa read a book called “Santa was a Shaman” by Tony Van Renterghem it will make your head spin.
In olden times the Germans had a strange version of St. Nick. He was called Pelznickel (pelz as in pelts—furry Nick). He wore furs and tattered clothes carrying a sack and holding chains. Pelznick would break into a home, rattle his chains and threaten to kidnap children if they weren’t good. Sometimes forcing them to recite poems and answer questions before he left them treats. Kind of like a reverse trick or treat on kids. Explains a lot about the Germans. When German immigrants got to the U.S. his name was corrupted into Belznickel.

The nice legends of Bishop Nicholas are numerous. In one he learns that some young women lack a dowry to get married and he tosses three bags of gold into their open window. Thus he became the patron saint of brides. His coin tossing also made him the patron saint of moneylenders.
The 3 gold balls in front of a pawnshop were originally St. Nick’s 3 bags of gold. 

In another, Saint Nicholas was onboard a ship during a storm. He caused the storm to subside (think Sea God) and was thus was also considered the patron saint of sailors. And that’s how ole St. Nick immigrated to America.

The Dutch were big sailors. In the 1600’s they brought the patron saint of sailors with them to New Amsterdam (New York.) The Dutch called Saint Nicholas “SinterKlaas” and a bastardized, anglicized pronunciation of that became: Santa Claus.

Okay so if you’re a concerned Protestant parent who has been told that you’re supposed to reject Catholic Saints, how do you replace beloved Saint Nick?

It was at that point that many of the Protestant countries went ransacking through their cultural attic and pulled out an old pagan custom. They reinvented their old god of winter. A large portly man in a green fur lined coat and turned him into a non-Catholic Saint version of Santa. The ancient figure who went by the names: Father Winter, King Winter, King Frost, Jack Frost, was now called Father Christmas. In Dicken's Christmas Carol, it was Father Christmas who visits Scrooge, not Santa. Notice he carries a wreath with him and has holly in his hair. He is a holdover of the Pagan Green Man.

Father Christmas

The Germans tried to pull Christ back into the story by inventing
Krist-Kindl, or the Christ-Child. Instead of St. Nick giving gifts to kiddies the Krist-Kindl would do it. In German villages a cherubic child would ride a mule into town and deliver gifts. The mule couldn’t fly, didn’t have a red nose or nuthin, so he couldn’t compete with Santa. Eventually all that was left of him was that he became a nickname for Nick –Kris Kringle.

Okay, so if we can’t have St. Nick we can have Father Christmas.
But Christmas still looks like a Fergilicious video. What to do? What to do?

In the 1800’s Victorian Society had had enough. It decided to wrest control of Christmas away from the lower classes and re-direct the holiday to a more family focused event. One reason it was able to do that is because of the Industrial Revolution had begun. People were moving off the farms and starting to work in factories. They didn’t have as much dangerous leisure time.

The major cultural forces for the Upper Classes taking control of Christmas came out of New York and London. The London part probably makes sense to you --  Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge and all that.

But why New York?  Because hordes of low class immigrants, mostly Irish Catholics, were beginning to settle on the island. And it was scaring the bejazzus out of the old Knickerbockers and Yankees who were becoming minorities in their own town.  This was touched upon in the movie “Gangs of New York”

So 3 WASP New Yorkers got together and decided to reinvent Christmas. They were, Clement Clarke Moore, Washington Irving and Irving’s brother-in-law John Pintard.

These were the people who invented Santa Claus, as you know him.
Pintard was one of the founders of the New-York Historical Society, which chose St. Nicholas as their patron saint and made him the official Patron Saint of New York. At a Society dinner in 1810 Pintard whipped out illustrations showing Nicholas, two children, and stockings hung from a fireplace. The bedrock upon which the story would be built.

Pintard’s St. Nick
Moore of course is credited with the poem “A visit from St. Nicholas.” commonly known as “Twas the Night before Christmas.”

But two years before the poem Pintard described to him a scene at his Wall Street home on New Year’s Eve.  He heard a racket outside his door. And in effect…From outside heard such a clatter rose from his bed to see what was the matter. What he spied outside was a group of drunken rowdy men banging pans, kettles and playing tin horns. Groups like this were a common sight and were called Callithumpian bands. Probably from the Greek Muse Calliope, the Goddess of Eloquence, this in an ironic sense. The callithumpians were out for some holiday misrule. ( The French word for Callithumpian bands was “charivari.”)  Misrule and mob violence was pretty normal this time of year.  In 1828, after one particularly violent Christmas riot the city decided to form the New York Police Department.

Pintard’s brother-in-law, Washington Irving, wrote extensively about Dutch New York and the Hudson River valley, inventing Rip Van Winkle and Ichabod Crane. In the 1800’s, he wrote a hit book called “Diedrick Knickerbocker’s History of New-York.” It was the faked diary of old Dutchman. It became so popular that a “knickerbocker” became a nickname for a native New Yorker. And that’s why NY’s basketball team is called the Knickerbockers –the Knicks.

In his book Irving explained that it was Santa Claus who told the Dutch to settle here on Manhattan Island. Since he mistakenly thought Santa was Dutch, Irving invented some supposed Dutch Christmas "traditions" making up the idea that this Saint could disappear by touching the side of his nose.  He also fabricated from whole cloth a picture of how the traditional Dutch Christmas celebrations centered around family with peace and love between the classes used to be celebrated in New Amsterdam. It wasn’t true but he had invented “tradition.” And then he and his friends went around lamenting how as New York was growing larger “the old ways are being lost.”

Charles Dickens wrote to Irving telling him that he was greatly influenced by his Christmas interpretation. He also said that his Jacob Marley character was inspired by shackled prisoners he saw here in NY at the infamous Tombs prison downtown near Foley Square. You can see an original copy of “A Christmas Carol” on display at the Morgan Library on Madison Avenue.

Washington Irving’s co-conspirator, Clement Clarke Moore, owned the Chelsea Section of New York and was therefore decidedly not of the lower classes. Moore is generally given credit for writing the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas."  Some claim a relative of his in the Livingston family was the actual author. Here’s a site that explains the debate:

Moore’s Santa --
Skinny and wearing plebian garb and a stub of a pipe. 
The upper classes smoked long pipes.

One interesting thing in the poem is -- since Moore thought Santa was Dutch he gave some of his reindeer Dutch names.  Their original names were Donder and Blixem –thunder and lightning. Over the years that has become corrupted into Donner and Blitzen.

The poem borrowed a bunch of cross-cultural myths and inserted them into the St. Nick story. The Teutonic God Thor used to fly across the sky in a sleigh pulled by goats. The poem turned them into miniature reindeer. (If you listen closely to the poem you’ll realize Santa was a dwarf – a right jolly old elf) Moore also borrowed the LaBefana Witch Epiphany story from Italy. And thus Santa is now coming down chimneys. One reason why Santa was tiny may have been so that he could get down those chimneys.

The most important thing this poem did was to move Santa's wanderings from his usual trekking on his feast day Dec 6th, to the night before Christmas --Christmas Eve. Linking the fat man with the Christ child.
An original draft of the poem is on display at the New-York Historical Society (that’s not a typo New York used to be called New-York.) Each year on the Sunday before Christmas the poem is read uptown at the Church of the Intercession, afterwards there’s a procession to the grave of Moore in the Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street.

One other thing to help you understand the mindset of Moore as he wrote the poem was the fact the City had just laid out it’s street grid and plotted Ninth Avenue to go right through the middle of his estate. The City claimed the land for 9th Avenue using the right of eminent domain. Moore really wished things could go back to the way they were before and really wanted all those low class people going past his home to learn how to behave.

The poem helped to make Christmas the child-centered holiday it is today. It also deftly took the Saturnalia concept of inverted class structure and shifted it to family. The adults would now serve the children.

It worked like gangbusters.
But of course, from our vantage point 180 years later it’s easy to see the irony that Santa was moved to Christmas Eve in an attempt to counteract the Pagan influences upon Christmas. The outcome being that the fat man has edged out the Christ Child in the Christmas story.

If you need further proof that Christmas was “invented” in the 1800’s here’s a little test. Try to find a Christmas visual before the Victorian era. You’ll only find Christ in the Manger visuals, because Christmas as you know it didn’t really “exist” until the 1800’s.  Further proof is to look at the dates when our “ancient” traditional songs were written:

Silent Night 1818
O come All Ye Faithful 1841
Joy to the World 1848
Hark the Herald Angels Sing 1856.

The New York influence:
As I mentioned, New York has had an outsized influence on the modern celebration of Christmas. One reason was that in the 1800’s it was becoming a major force in popular culture.

 Nast’s Santa.

During the American Civil War A NY illustrator, Thomas Nast, gave Santa his face, even had this Greek Bishop hold a long Dutch clay pipe because he read in the Irving stories that he was Dutch.  Nast chubbed Santa up. He was no longer a scrawny little elf, no longer lower class.

Nast was the person who put Santa’s home in the North Pole. Most European legends held that Santa was from Lapland. A NY financier, Morris Jessup, was paying for an American expedition to be the first to reach the North Pole. It was a big story in the paper that Nast worked for. Nast imagined that they would find Santa there.

Nast’s Northpole Santa
Actual genuine Dutch tradition held that Sinter Klaas came from Spain. He was also accompanied by a helper, Black Peter, Zwairte Piet who would punish bad children.

The New York Sun wrote the editorial “Yes Virginia there is a Santa Claus”. It stood where Pace University stands today across from City Hall.

Go read the editorial, it’s pure pleasure:

Clement Clarke Moore’s home was at 21st street and 9th Ave. The place where the world’s first Christmas Eve Santa sighting took place.

O'Henry wrote the classic story of Christmas sacrifice " The Gift of the Magi" in Pete's Tavern on of all streets Irving Place.

Currier & Ives had their shop at 115 Nassau Street in the Financial District and sold millions of lithos of sleighing and skating scenes in Central Park.

The world premier of Handel’s Messiah was held at the City Hotel across the street from New York’s City Hall.

The first American Christmas cards were printed in 1851 by a New York engraver, Richard Pease.

New Yorker Joshua Lionel Cowen invented Lionel trains. And helped make New York the center of the American Toy industry.

Norman Rockwell worked and published all his Christmas favorites at the Saturday Evening Post on Madison Avenue.

In the mid 1800’s a New York man started a shipping company by placing an ad in NY papers that said every Saturday he took his wagon up to Boston. Contact him and he’d take your parcel.  His express shipping business was engulfed with Christmas parcels. He encouraged people to ship them before December and invented a tag to place on them that read: DO NOT OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS. The firm is still in business a few blocks from where it started. It is now called the American Express Company.

Irving Berlin, a Jewish New Yorker wrote "White Christmas" right here in the city Jesse Jackson called “Hymietown.”

The world’s first Christmas ads appeared in the NY Post.

And as we all know when Santa isn't working at the North Pole he's temping over on 34th Street at Macy's.

In 1874 when Macy’s only store was still at 6th Ave and 14th street, they set up a tableau in their windows of hundreds of dolls illuminated by gaslight. The crowds were so huge that they lined the steps of the old 6th Avenue Elevated train causing delays.  By 1883 Macy’s had introduced steam powered moving mechanical figures. A new tradition had begun --decorated Christmas window spectaculars.

The New York celebration of Christmas became all the rage across America. Other cities added things —Boston had the first Department store Santa. A Chicago department store invented Rudolph the Red nosed reindeer as a poem on their shopping bags. Santa had been Americanized and commercialized.

And eventually like all American things The New York Christmas became a cultural tsunami that has rolled across the world. Today you’ll find the New York Santa in Tokyo department stores and standing in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

So to come full circle, in the end did Christmas really shuck off its pagan undertones?


The Christmas tree is pagan.
The Christmas wreath is pagan.
The Holly and evergreens are pagan.
The Yule log is pagan
The Mistletoe is pagan

(And is perfect for the hidden sexual side of Saturnalia.)



Santa, Father Christmas and Pere Noel come from Pagan tradition.

The carolers are still wassailing.

The mummers are still parading.

The callithumpian bands still come out with their noisemakers each year in Times Square.

Saturnalia’s inversion of the class structure and kowtowing to the lower classes still exists in the concept that at Christmas you have to give a gift to anyone who is lower than you on the social ladder: the doorman, the mailman etc. Similarly, bosses give bonuses to their slaves, err workers. Officers in the Royal Navy still have to serve common sailors on Christmas Day.  The Brits still celebrate Boxing Day on Dec. 26th a day to give gifts to those below you. (Workers used to walk around with a little “Christmas box” where you would place your tip, thus “Boxing Day.”)

The excessive drinking, carousing and sexual side of Saturnalia remains alive in the office Holiday party and New Year’s Eve bashes.

So as you can see, over the years Christmas has changed and it hasn’t.

In 2000 years we’ve turned a late December agrarian orgy into a holiday that has the twin billing of the Christ Child born in a manger and a fat old Greek bishop in red religious robes, smoking a Dutch clay pipe, with flying reindeer doing his global breaking and entering routine.

Man my head hurts.

Merry Christmas.

Happy Saturnalia. And a wicked Wild Women Day to all.

Lord of Misrule.

1 comment:

  1. Great Post,
    thought you might like my machinima version of A Christmas Carol