There is a popular conviction this time of year that Christmas has been sold out, commercialized, co-opted and corrupted by Madison Avenue. From churches that remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season” to Buy Nothing Day, gift-giving is getting a bad rap. It may surprise many to learn that Christmas — and its many pre-Christian precursors — has long been a time of overindulgence, excess, and generosity. And gift-giving and revelry have always been a main component of the season.
The Roman counterpart to Christmas was a feast called the Saturnalia, the festival of the god Saturn marking the winter solstice. Besides the tradition of gift-giving to mark the new year, saturnalias were wont to dissolve into — as Hunter S. Thompson might say — bad craziness and drunken debaucheries, not unlike some contemporary holiday office parties. Customarily master and slave would change roles at this time. This custom survived into recent times when English lords would invite their peasants to dine with them at Christmas.
Closer to the contemporary Christmas was the Germanic festival of Yule, a time for feasting celebrated on the winter solstice. Even today the term Yuletide is often used to describe the Christmas season. If you intend to enjoy a smoked ham this Christmas it is probably because the pagan Scandinavians commonly butchered a pig or wild boar at Yule as a sacrifice to Frey, their god of fertility, who was often depicted with an enviable phallus. Frey, incidentally, lived in the far northern town of Elfhome. It was also at Yuletide on the nights between Dec. 25 and Jan. 6, that the mythical god Wodin (coincidentally a descendent of Saturn) descended on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir rewarding those who were good with gifts and punishing those who lacked civility.
The yule log, holly, laurel, mistletoe, the custom of decorating trees, and nearly every other Christmas tradition (save the nativity scene and mass) originated with this pagan feast. Since winter solstice marks the beginning of winter, surviving the solstice meant you had a good chance of making it to spring. Traditionally, relatives and close friends would share precious foods and other essentials on this day, particularly with those with fewer supplies. Thus gift-giving was literally a matter of life and death for some.
For those who think Santa Claus is a recent invention created by Madison Avenue to boost fourth-quarter sales figures, it may surprise you to learn that “St. Nicholas” has been leaving gifts for children since the 12th century. It was then that a few French nuns began honoring their patron saint by leaving candy in the shoes of local children. As for Christmas, the early Church didn’t observe the day at all since it smacked of the observance of the feast days of pagan gods. (The word Christmas, or “Cristes Maesse,” does not appear in English until 1038.) According to the Church’s founding father Origen, “in scripture sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday.” (Fifteenth-century Puritans in England and America would also ban Christmas for similar reasons.) Similarly early Christian leaders tried to stamp out all vestiges of Yule and the Saturnalia, but eventually gave it up as a hopeless job and absorbed many pagan traditions into St. Nicholas Eve (Dec. 5).
Today in much of Europe rather than the paunchy elfin figure of Santa Claus you will find St. Nicholas dressed in red or green ecclesiastical robes and miter. Indeed, the very name Santa Claus is but Washington Irving’s Anglicization of the Dutch Sinterklaas, and arrived on these shores with the early settlers of New Amsterdam, now New York. The Dutch were honoring St. Nicholas of Myra, a fourth century Anatolian bishop known for his generosity, in particular paying the dowries of poor local girls. The Dutchman’s St. Nick was an amalgam of the Byzantine Empire’s bishop and Wodin. Like Wodin, St. Nick rides a winged horse and instead of elves, he is assisted by Black Peters, or Moorish slaves from Spain.
During the Reformation, Martin Luther put an end to the celebration of saints’ feast days, including Nicholas’s, and instead adopted Christkind, and this was soon adopted by the Protestant English. Both German Protestant churches and the Church of England exchanged St. Nick for the generic Father Christmas. Stubborn Dutch Protestants, however, continued to celebrate the feast of St. Nicholas. Even today in the Low Countries it is a more important holiday than Christmas.
Those who object to gifting at Christmas are simply ignorant of the long tradition of the holidays. Long before Pope Julius established the birth of Christ (in AD 350), Europeans were celebrating the Yuletide season with numerous toasts and presents. Just as the early church failed to stamp out revelry and gift-giving 1,500 years ago, so too, I predict, will the anti-consumerists fail today.
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