The Origins of Christmas & Its Symbols
1. Winter Solstice
The Winter Solstice marked a time of both hardship and celebration for many ancient cultures around the world. It could be one of humankind’s oldest ritual commemorations, celebrating the Sun’s “re-birth.” Archeologists have traced the Winter Solstice commemoration back to the Neolithic era (circa 10, 200 BCE), when it may have been a special moment of the annual cycle of the year. (Astronomical events, which during ancient times controlled the mating of animals, sowing of crops and metering of winter reserves between harvests, show how various cultural mythologies and traditions have arisen.) This is attested by physical remains in the layouts of late Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge in Britain and Newgrange in Ireland. The primary axes of both of these monuments seem to have been carefully aligned on a sight-line pointing to the Winter Solstice sunrise (Newgrange) and the Winter Solstice sunset (Stonehenge). The Winter Solstice, being the shortest day-light day of the year, has been a focal point in the worship of pagan deities in that it centered around the Sun being at its lowest ebb, apparently near death, at this time of the year and needing to be “reborn.” For the ancient pagan peoples, it is the time when the forces of chaos, which stand against the return of light and life, must be defeated by the sun-gods with the assistance of the people through ordained religious rituals. When the sun began its northward trek in the sky and days began to grow longer again, pagans celebrated the Winter Solstice by burning the Yule log.
Traditional Winter Solstice celebrations existed in many ancient cultures. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, honoring the god Saturn, was a weeklong December feast that included the observance of the Winter Solstice. At the Saturnalia, all classes of people exchanged gifts, the commonest being waxed tapers (candles) and clay dolls. These dolls represented original sacrifices of human beings. The Romans also celebrated the lengthening of days following the solstice by paying homage to Mithras—an ancient Persian god of light. December 25th was the day originally determined in the Roman Empire as the Winter Solstice (in 46 CE) and the celebration of the birthday or “Nativity of the Sun,” and it was not until much later that a calendar revision changed it to December 21st. But regardless of the calendrical change, the significance and festivities that had been centered on that day remained. (The December 25th date was calculated by the Julian calendar reform of 45 CE. Pliny dated the Winter Solstice to 25 December because the sun entered the 8th degree of Capricorn on that date.)
The Winter Solstice traditions in part can be traced all the way back to ancient Babylon. Specifically, they say the holiday at this time of year (some say it was in the spring) was known as Zagmuk or Sacaea. Zagmuk is a Mesopotamian festival celebrated around the vernal equinox, which literally means “beginning of the year.” It celebrates the triumph of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, over the forces of chaos, symbolized in later times by Tiamat. The battle between Marduk and chaos lasts 12 days, as does the festival of Zagmuk. In Uruk the festival was associated with the god An, the Sumerian god of the night sky. Both are essentially equivalent in all respects to the Akkadian “Akitu” festival. In some variations, Marduk is slain by Tiamat and resurrected on the vernal equinox.
In Babylon, the battle was acted out at the royal court with the king playing Marduk, and his son-rescuer as Nabu, the god of writing. Once freed from the powers of the underworld, the king would enact the rite of the Sacred Marriage on the 10th day of the ceremony. During this rite, the king (or En, as he was known in Sumer) would perform sexual intercourse with his spouse, normally a high priestess who had been chosen from among the “naditum,” a special class of priestesses who had taken a vow not of celibacy precisely, but of a refusal to bear children. The high priestess was known as the “entu,” and her ritual act of intercourse with the king was thought to regenerate the cosmos through a reenactment of the primordial coupling of the cosmic parents An and Ki, who had brought the world into being at the dawn of Time. On the last day of the festival, the king was slain so that he could battle at Marduk’s side. To spare their king, Mesopotamians often utilized a mock king, played by a criminal who was anointed as king before the start of Zagmuk, and killed on the last day. In addition to the prisoner who was killed, it was traditional for one prisoner to be set free during this ceremony to provide balance. Thus, the background for what later became Passover and then Easter is clearly visible here, for during Christ’s crucifixion on Passover, the thief Barabbas was set free and Christ was crucified at the behest of the crowd.
2. Ancient Mythic Origins of the Christmas Story
Which Bible? There are thousands of manuscript variations. Most biblical stories are probably fiction, not non-fiction. They are mythology in the deepest sense of the word. But we need to get beyond issue of whether biblical reports happened in the historical, physical sense to understand what they mean spiritually and mythically. We need to be able to appreciate these stories as myths, rather than literal histories. When you understand where they come from, then you can understand their spiritual significance for the writers and for us. –Dr. Tony Nugent (Prof. of Theology and Religious Studies and Presbyterian minister)
Scholars don’t agree about the exact origins of Christmas. Many Americans have heard that December 25 was a birthday of Roman gods long before it was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some people also know that our delightful mélange of Christmas festivities originated in ancient Norse, Roman and Druid traditions—or, in the case of Rudolph, from Madison Avenue. But where does the Christmas story itself come from: Jesus in the manger, the angels and wise men?
The familiar Christmas story, including the virgin conception and birth of Jesus, is found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Scholars have pointed out that these stories are somewhat disconnected from other parts of these Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. These stories seem to be an afterthought, written later than the rest of the gospels that contain them. To make matters more interesting, the stories themselves have inconsistencies and ambiguities – contradictory genealogies, for example. Our Christmas story (singular) is actually a composite. The Christmas story in the New Testament (written in Greek)of Jesus’s divine birth was borrowed Hellenistic culture. Almost all Greek heroes were said to be born of a human woman and a god. However, the Jewish Christians, the first Christians, didn’t believe in the virgin birth, but believed that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus, who was adopted as the unique son of God at some time later in life. Over time, as gentile Christianity replaced Jewish Christianity, Matthew and Luke believe that the sonship of Jesus began at birth, and they want to tell a story that reinforces this point. These secondary birth stories were added toward the end of the editing of the New Testament. Thus, Matthew and Luke are the source of the Christmas story as most of us learned it.
Since no one in the Church knew when Jesus was born, where did the Church get the idea of celebrating it on Dec. 25? The answer is they got it from the pagans who had several festivals the time of the Winter Solstice which honored pagan gods. Many authorities now believe that Christmas was actually adapted from a Roman celebration called Saturnalia. The Encyclopedia Romana explains that “at the time of the winter solstice (December 25 in the Julian calendar), Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, was honored with a festival.” The encyclopedia goes on to state that “the Saturnalia did continue to be celebrated as Brumalia (from “bruma,” winter solstice) down to the Christian era, when, by the middle of the fourth century AD, its rituals had become absorbed in the celebration of Christmas.” As the Christmas celebration moved west, the date that had traditionally been used to celebrate the Winter Solstice became sort of available for conversion to the observance of Christmas. In the Western church, the December date became the date for Christmas. Christian leaders of the time endeavored to attract pagans to their faith by adding Christian meaning to these existing pagan festivals. This gave rise to an interesting play on words, because in several languages, not just in English, people have traditionally compared the rebirth of the Sun with the birth of the “Son of God.” Thus, it looks like Christmas is celebrated in ways that are directly borrowed from a harvest festival to an agricultural god of the Romans, from December 17-25.
The Church of Rome deliberately chose December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth to turn people away from a pagan feast that was observed at the same time. Since the time of the Roman emperor Elagabulus (218-222 CE), the god Sol Invictus (“The Unconquered Sun God”) had been one of the chief deities worshiped by the Romans. When emperor Aurelian (270-275 CE) came to power, he sought to restore the worship of the Sun god to prominence and make him the chief deity. In the last years of his reign, Sol was hailed as “The Lord of the Roman Empire.” Finally, December 25 was observed as “the birthday of the Sun god” (natalis solis invicti), because the Sun god was identified with Mithras, a popular Persian god who also was viewed as the Sun god. Pagan celebrations occurred throughout the empire on Dec. 25 (which was also the Julian calendar date of the Winter Solstice). The tradition of Mithras as the sun-god had come to Rome from Persia and in 274 CE. The 25th of December was established as the festival of the “Invincible Sun” by the Emperor Aurelian. This was carried forward by the Emperor Constantine, who made Christianity a state religion in the early fourth century. He carried forward the old festivities of Mithraism injecting into them “Christian” concepts and names, giving the holiday an entirely new name and an entirely new meaning. He made December 25th, the birthday of the pagan Unconquered Sun god, the official holiday it is now—the birthday of Jesus. The Pagans had no difficulty worshipping the Catholic Madonna and Child because they were just seen as another manifestation of the Queen of Heaven and her son, so it was no compromise for them. They called the holiday the Mass of Christ, or Christ Mass, which was shortened to Christmas. And they declared that Christmas was the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth and conducted it as a pagan ritual sacrifice of “the body and blood of Jesus.” Thus, Christmas has its origins in Mithraic sun-worship, which was introduced into what became the Catholic church at this time in the Roman Empire.
The Church at Rome seems to have chosen this date to counteract this pagan feast of the sun god and turn people instead to the “Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings” (Malachi 4:2; Luke 1:78). Or put another way, Julius chose December 25 so that the Son of God rather than the Sun god would be worshiped. Though there is no direct evidence that proves that the Church of Rome deliberately chose December 25 so that Christ’s birth would replace “the birthday of the sun,” we do have sermons from the Church fathers who soon after this used this line of reasoning. For example, Augustine (354-430 CE) and Leo the Great (440-461 CE) gives this line of reasoning. Although one can find a steady “inculturation” of these pagan ideas into Christianity through the various Church Council decrees, it’s not altogether clear when the decisive moment came in, when the Church made its mind up to replace the worship of the pagan sun-god with their own “Son of God.” Some authorities trace the defining moment in year 525 CE, when a monk, Dionysus Exiguus, came to Rome from Scythia. Coming upon the time of the Winter Solstice festival, when the people were celebrating the birthday of the Sun, he witnessed all Rome in revelry. He was shocked and dismayed. Reasoning that it was impossible to stand in the way of the frenzied fervor, he therefore sought to “revise” the meaning of it by claiming it to be the celebration of the birth of the Messiah, not the Pagan sun idol, Mithras—thus co-opting it by adopting it into Christianity.
Therefore, the fact of the matter seems to be that December 25 was chosen not because it had somehow been proven from extra-biblical sources that Christ was definitely born on December 25th. Rather the date was chosen to counteract a very popular pagan holiday that already had been occurring for some time on this date. We can see that festival of Christmas was celebrated by pagan societies many centuries before the birth of Christ.
But there’s a further question. Where did the pagans at the time of the Roman Empire get their festivals at the time of the Winter Solstice? The answer is that it came from the paganism of ancient Babylon, which was initiated by Nimrod and his wife, Semiramis. After Nimrod’s untimely death, his mother-consort claimed a full-grown evergreen tree sprang overnight from a dead tree stump, which symbolized the springing forth unto new life the dead Nimrod. On each anniversary of his birth, Nimrod would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts upon it. December 25th was the birthday of Nimrod. (Could this be the real origin of the Christmas tree?) Semiramis became the Babylonian “Queen of Heaven” and Nimrod, under various names, became the “divine son of heaven.” Thus the Babylonians worshiped a goddess mother and a son, represented in pictures and images as a mother with her son in her arms. The original Babylonian mother-goddess was Semiramis and the adored little child in her arms was Nimrod/Tammuz. From Babylon, this worship of the mother and her child spread throughout the ancient world. Through the generations, the “Mother and Child” (Semiramis and Nimrod reborn) became chief objects of worship. The names varied in different countries and languages.
After the decline of Babylon, this religious archetype of Madonna and Child was transported to Egypt, where they were worshiped Isis (Egyptian name for “Queen of Heaven”) and her son Osiris (otherwise known as Horus), who was born December 25th. The same mother and child deities appeared in pagan Rome as Fortuna and Jupiter, and in Greece as Ceres, the Great Mother, with the babe at her breast, or as Irene, the goddess of Peace, with the boy Plutus in her arms. In Asia Minor, it was Cybele and Deoius (Cybele known in Rome as Magna Mater or “Great Mother”). Thus, during the fourth and fifth centuries, when the pagans of the Roman world were “accepting” the new popular religion of Christianity by the hundreds of thousands (carrying their old pagan customs and beliefs along with them, merely cloaking them with Christian-sounding names), the exaltation of Mary as the “Mother of God” was proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE. This was adopted by the Holy Roman Empire as the worship of Mary and Jesus as the Madonna and Child. (Yet it should be remembered that in Babylon she was called Beltis, “the God Mother,” or in Latin she was Mea Domina. Madonna is nothing more than a corrupted form of Mea Domina.)
Therefore, we can see that pagan religion celebrated this famous divine Mother-Child pair with the birthdays of a host of savior sun-gods over most of the known world for centuries before the birth of Christ. Although it is difficult to determine the first time anyone actually celebrated December 25th as “Christmas,” historians generally agree that it was sometime during the fourth century—some 300 years after Christ’s death. And then a contrived date was chosen because
it was already a popular pagan holiday for celebrating the birth of the Sun god. Virtually all the customs associated with Christmas are recycled from ancient pagan festivals which honored other gods.
3. The Origin of Santa Claus
It is well known that most of the customs of Christmas were also observed in pagan culture and religion. Lights and mistletoe, trees and gift-giving, merry-making and revelry, yule logs and holly, and yes, Santa Claus, all found use or expression in ancient pagan religion and culture. The use of the word “Yule” and the various customs associated with it, for example, come from pagan culture. (Some scholars suggest that the word probably came the Anglo-Saxon geol, which meant “feast.” It is thought that among the Anglo-Saxons, the time of the Winter Solstice was a time of a great feast.)
Santa Claus was known as Father Christmas and became a part of popular European folklore around the 1950s. But earlier than that he was quite different. Santa Claus has his beginnings in the folklore and traditions of the pagans of the North, particularly in the Norse traditions.
His origins are steeped in Norse and Viking lore. Britain was largely a Saxon stronghold, and it took many years for Christianity to take root. Britain was still unknown and isolated from Europe’s mainstream. After the Norman invasion in 1066, the oaths that were taken were commonly sworn as “By God and by Odin.” King Frost, Father Time, or King Winter were known and welcomed by the Saxons. Someone would represented him by wearing a fine hat or crown and then would go from house to house. He would then be brought to the fireside, tell stories and share in the meals. The Saxons believed that by welcoming the figure the element of winter would be less frightening and harsh for them.
The Vikings came along and brought with them their god Odin. Odin was considered the Father of the Gods. December was known as Yalka or Jul. Odin’s month was known as Jultid, this is where we get Yuletide or Yule. At Yule or Winter Solstice, the Vikings believed Odin would come to earth riding his eight-legged horse, Sleipner. He was thought or shown to be dressed in a long blue, hooded cloak and he carried a satchel of bread and a staff in his hand. He had two companions with him, two ravens, Huginn and Munin, who would inform him on what was going on. According to Viking lore, Sleipner with his eight legs represented the number of Transformation. The two ravens, Huginn and Munin, represented Thought and Memory. The spear that he carried never missed it’s target. It was named, Gungner which represented Clear and Focus.
When Odin came to earth he was suppose to join groups who were huddled around their fires and hearths. He would sit in the background, listening to all that was going on and to see who was “good” and who was “bad.” He was also listening to see who was content and who wasn’t. Occasionally he would leave a gift of bread at the poor homesteads.
Also at Yule, it was thought that Odin lead a great hunting party through the sky with other gods and honored warriors who had came to Valhalla. Children placed their boots near the fireplace or chimney for Oden’s flying horse. They would put inside the boots things like carrots, straw or sugar for Sleipner to eat. Odin would then reward their kindness by replacing Sleipner’s food with gifts of candy and toys.
Another Norse god that could have something to do with the beginnings of Santa Claus was Thor. He was the God of Thunder. He was thought to have a long white beard and wore red, representing his element fire. He rode in a chariot being pulled by two white goats known as Cracker and Gnasher. His palace was located in the “northland” or north pole. He was friendly and cheerful. He had the utmost respect among the common folk for it was them that he loved and carried for. Many Norse traditions taught that he would come down the chimney into the fire to visit the household.
Jultomten or the Tomte/Nisse was another figure who could have loan his characteristics to the legend of Santa Claus. Again this is a Norse figure of Viking lore. He was gnome who lived on the farms. In his beginnings he was known as the Tomte. In ancient times, he was known as the “soul” of the first inhabiter of the farm. He was usually described as a short man under four feet tall, wearing a red cap with a tassel. He wore the hunters’ or farmers’ winter clothes; a brown jacket and brown trousers. He would take care of the farmers’ home and children. He would protect them, including the livestock, while they slept. There are many stories concerning the Tomte finishing the work on a barn or house when the workers would take a lunch break. People would still hammering and banging through-out the nights and they would say that the Tomte was still working. Even though he was real small, he had immense strength and was a big help around the farmstead. The family would leave him a bowl of porridge on Christmas night with a pad of butter on top.
Over time, stories were re-told or re-written and he became known as the Jultomten, who would bring gifts in a sleigh driven by the two goats of Thor. He then wore a red suit and a cap, carrying a bulging sack on his back. He would bring the good kids gifts and he would punish the bad kids.
However, there is another line of speculation about the origin of our modern Santa Claus (that is, other than the commercialized Coca-Cola advertising campaign of the 1930s) coming from Celtic/Irish, Dutch, and Germanic folklore. It is said that the original “Santa” was 2’ tall (well able to slide down chimneys), wore green, had a long white beard, and was a leprechaun with magical powers. This figure was supposedly imported from Irish sources and renovated from his Druidic form and transformed into a full-sized jolly plump elf dressed in red and white. (Some connect this “Santa” to the advertising Coca-Cola in the early 20th century.) Then there is the story of St. Nicholas, who never had anything to do with elves, chimneys, and flying reindeer. Nikolaos of Myra (270-346 CE), was a historic fourth-century Christian saint and Greek Bishop of Myra (part of modern-day Turkey) in Lycia. This miracle-working and gift-giving saint thus became the model for Santa Claus. Somewhere along the way, Saint Nicholas morphed into Saint Nick, and eventually, so we are told, he became the origin of our modern day version of Santa Claus, whose modern name comes from the Dutch Sinterklaas (itself from a series of elisions and corruptions of the transliteration of “Saint Nikolaos”). But it must be pointed out that Holland was steeped in Druidic rites at this time until the 8th century. (For instance, the hanging up of a stocking and exchanging kisses under the mistletoe comes from the practices of Druidism.) Sinterklaas is a traditional winter holiday figure celebrated in various regions of Europe (including the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, some parts of Germany and Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Alpine municipalities, and many other regions). There are also similar legends in other cultures. Thus some authorities point to the Germanic god Odin of Norse mythology as one of the mythic figures upon whom old Santa Claus was based.
Other names for Santa Claus are Father Christmas, the traditional British name for a figure associated with Christmas, and Kris Kringle, the German name. (The name “Kris Kringle” is a mispronunciation of the German name; the actual German figure is called “Christkind,” “Christkindchen,” or “Christkindl,” and is derived from the earlier Christkindl, which was introduced by Martin Luther. All of the German names mean “Christ child” and originally refer to the new-born Jesus.) The “Christkind” is the traditional Christmas gift-bringer in Southern Germany, Switzerland, Austria.
The etymology of Christmas stems from the Old English word of Crīstesmĺsse, which literally means “Christ’s mass.” Thus, Christmas is derived from the Middle English Cristemasse, which is from Old English Crīstesmĺsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038.
Finally, there is the archetype of the Holly King as a model for our modern Santa Claus.
The Holly King is a speculative archetype of modern studies of folklore and mythology which has been popularized in some Neo-pagan religions. Thus the Holly King is seen by some Neo-pagans as an early inspiration for the Santa Claus legend. The evidence often cited for this comes from poet and mythologist Robert Graves. In his book The White Goddess, Graves proposed that the mythological figure of the Holly King represents one half of the year, while the other is personified by his counterpart and adversary the Oak King: the two battle endlessly as the seasons turn. At Midsummer the Oak King is at the height of his strength, while the Holly King is at his weakest. The Holly King begins to regain his power, and at the Autumn Equinox, the tables finally turn in the Holly King’s favor; his strength peaks at Midwinter.
A similar idea was suggested previously by Sir James George Frazer in his classic work, The Golden Bough. (Chapter XXVIII, “The Killing of The Tree Spirit” in the section entitled “The Battle of Summer and Winter.”) Frazer drew parallels between the folk-customs associated with May Day or the changing seasons in Scandinavian, Bavarian and Native American cultures, amongst others, in support of this theory. However the Divine King of Frazer was split into the kings of winter and summer in Graves’ work.
These pairs are seen as the dual aspects of the male Earth deity, one ruling the waxing year, the other ruling the waning year. Neo-pagans call this primordial deity “The Horned God.” (The medieval figure of the Green Man is also associated by Neo-pagans with this primordial deity.) Stewart and Janet Farrar, following Graves’ theory, gave a similar interpretation to Wiccan seasonal rituals. According to Joanne Pearson, the Holly King is represented by holly and other evergreens, and personifies the dark half of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year.
Before leaving this survey of the origins of our modern Santa Claus, for the sake of completeness I must mention here one other speculative theory as to his origins, one which is the most recent and most controversial. We have thus far seen traditions and customs that only come out of mainstream Europe. However, in parts of eastern Siberia, a much different tradition was honored at this momentous time of year we have come to know as Christmas.
In these ancient northern villages, from Siberia to Lapland, the tribal shaman or medicine man, would be the one to co-ordinate a celebration that was meant to mark an act of expanding consciousness. During those times, it was a tradition for the shaman to venture out into the forest in search of the Amanita Muscaria mushrooms, which were found growing primarily under pine or evergreen trees. The shaman would collect the mushrooms into a sack or satchel for all the people of his village, as part of this celebration. In keeping with the ritual, the shaman would be dressed in a red and white clothing, sometimes with white fur around the collar, to symbolize the colors of the Amanita Muscaria mushroom, or “sacred mushroom.”
It turns out that caribou, or reindeer, are also fond of eating the Amanita Muscaria mushrooms. The shamans, knowing that the mushrooms are poisonous to humans, collects the filtered urine for the reindeer. When ingested by humans, it gives the sensation of flight. Therefore, this said to be where the legend of Santa and his “flying” reindeer that pull his sleigh across the night sky on Christmas Eve comes into play.
On the night of the Winter Solstice, the Koryak shaman would gather several of these hallucinogenic mushrooms (amanita muscaria or fly agaric), and ingest them in order to launch himself into a spiritual journey to the tree of life (a large pine), which lived by the North Star and held the answer to all the village’s problems from the previous year.
The shaman entering through the chimney was seen as both a symbolic, as well as, a necessary gesture, as he came bearing his gifts of the sacred Amanita Muscaria mushrooms, as if descending down from the heavens. Hence the legend of Santa Claus entering the home by way of the chimney. Once the shaman delivered his “presents” to his villagers, the mushrooms would then be hung to dry above the home fires or the fireplace, suspended from strings or stockings. The shaman himself, may have even have placed them on the pine trees to dry in the sun, as he gathered them in the forest. Hence our tradition of hanging stockings by the fireplace and placing brightly colored ornaments on the green Christmas tree.
The mushroom itself could be seen as a symbol for the shaman, or Santa Claus, with its red and white cap (Santa’s hat), the long white stem with the hanging skirt (Santa’s beard) and the soiled black roots (Santa’s black boots). While the colors of red and white would symbolize the shaman, (aka Santa Claus), or the gifts found under the tree, or in other words, the Amanita Muscaria mushroom that are found growing under the pine or evergreen tree.
So in essence Christmas, at is very inception, actually represents a celebration of expanding consciousness, as symbolized by the green pine tree/Christmas tree, aka, the pine cone, aka, the pineal gland. The pine tree also serves as symbology for the “Tree of Life” or the “World Tree,” while the lights or garlands we wrap around it represent the kundalini energy rising up the chakra ladder, or, the tree found within the human body.
This probably sounds preposterous to most people. But, in fact, it used to be traditional for the red and white mushroom to often be depicted in vintage Christmas imagery, such as cards, ornaments, elves, fairies, etc. (For images of these, see the Gypsy Scholar’s “Winter Solstice/Christmas” webpage.)
4. Origin of the Christmas Tree
The tradition of bringing in a fir or evergreen tree inside the home to decorate it for Christmas is a Christian tradition, but the folklore and traditions of the evergreen associated with the Winter Solstice or Yule is truly pagan.
The pagans honored a many variations of trees through their myths, lores, and traditions. During the winter months, the evergreen was held in high honor for when everything else was brittle, bare and dark, the evergreen was still green. It represented the eternal life even in the darkest times; that life continued on. Pagans brought the sprigs and branches of the evergreen to decorate their homes. Many pagan cultures used to cut boughs of evergreen trees in December, move them into the home or temple, and decorated them, often with gold balls.
During the Roman celebration of the feast of Saturnalia, the Romans decorated their homes with the clippings of the evergreen shrubs. They would also decorate the living trees with pieces of metal and images of their god. The Romans are said to be the ones that started the tradition of decorating their homes with the evergreen. They did this in honor of their sun-god Adonia. Even the Egyptians decorated their homes during the Winter Solstice not with evergreens but with the palm tree, which to them represented eternal life and resurrection.
However, even before this time we can find further origins of the evergreen Christmas tree in ancient Babylon. Some authorities point out that it was an early Babylonian custom to go out and place a gift on a tree at the Winter Solstice (Dec. 25th) as an offering to Nimrod/Tammuz, who was after his death believed to be the Sun. These gifts were placed in the groves on the Winter Solstice. These evergreen “Christmas trees” represented Nimrod to the ancient sun-worshipers (Jer. 10:2-5), and sunrise worship services involving “branches” are even found in Ezek. 8:17, where the priests turned toward the sun with their backs to Yahweh’s Temple.
The evergreen tree came to symbolize the everlasting life and resurrection power of the god they worshiped, originally Nimrod, who came to be incorporated into many cultures under different names (e.g., Tummuz, Osiris, Mithras, Attis, Adonis, etc.). So the evergreen tree became representative of Nimrod the sun-god himself, and it was a form of worship and veneration of the sun-god to take it into one’s home and place gifts to him at it’s base. Hence the tradition of placing gifts at the base of this altar to the sun-god. Putting tinsel around the tree comes from the practice of tying a ribbon around the tree as a prayer to the sun. Thus the “Christmas tree” has it roots in the “Solstice tree.”
A similar practice referred to in scripture was raising an obelisk (a phallic symbol) next to a tree as an altar for the god represented by the tree. This was called an “asherah” (pillar) and was forbidden to God’s people. (Deut 7: 5; 16:21; Jer.10:2-4.) The Asherim were considered altars, where animals and humans were ritually sacrificed. This altar was often a tree stump, with the trunk snapped-off, leaving jagged spike-like splinters. The Christmas tree phenomenon is also a type of altar, where gifts and offerings are placed.
But from whence does this pillar called “asherah” get its name? Since it has been observed that the deities of Winter Solstice/Yule were primarily sun-gods and mother-goddesses, we can pick up the thread of the already discussed Babylonian cult of Mother and Child, Semiramis and Nimrod, who later became known as Ishtar and Tammuz, as the cult spread out from Babylon over the entire world. In later Chaldean mythology, Tammuz, son of the sun-god Nimrod and the virgin-mother Semiramis, was known as Zero-Ashta, “The seed of the woman,” and also Ignigena, or “born of the fire.” In mythology, Tammauz, like Jesus, was born on December 25th and associated with a tree. At the time of the Winter Solstice, the past sun god would die, his branches stripped from him, and one piece, the seed, would enter the fire on “Mother-night” as a log. The next morning, the new triumphant sun god was born from the fire as a tree, the “Branch of God,” who was celebrated for bringing divine gifts to men. So it looks like Tammuz was the original Yule log. Tammuz is identified with Adonis, the Semitic name meaning “lord.” Here, again we find the same cosmic pair of Mother and Child, and again the association with a tree. Smyrna, the goddess-mother of Adonis, the sun-god, was turned into the tree by the gods and called Myrrha. Ten months afterwards, she gave birth to her divine son, Adonis. It has been said that if the mother was a tree, the son must have been recognized as the “Man the branch.”
There is yet another goddess-mother associated with the sacred tree, and here is where the asherah pillar comes in. This mother-goddess was known as Asherah, “the Queen of Heaven,” who was worshipped in Ugarit, Israel, and later in Rome. Interestingly enough, the word asherah also referred to a sacred tree or pole that stood near shrines to honor the mother-goddess Asherah. One recent study finds that “that there is warrant for seeing an Asherah as, variously . . . a wooden column of some kind; a living tree; or a more regular statue.” Her cult images were found also in forests, carved on living trees, or in the form of poles beside altars that were placed at the side of some roads. In Rome, the Asherah cult was known for decorating, painting, and otherwise displaying trees as part of their worship. They would cut trees down and bring them into their homes and decorate them with silver and gold in hopes of being blessed with fertility. Round ornaments were placed on the trees to symbolize the male organs. This was even known to that ancient prophet Jeremiah, who wrote thus about it (10:3-4): “For the customs of the heathen are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” Of course, pagans had long worshipped trees in the forest, or brought them into their homes and decorated them, and this observance was adopted and painted with a Christian veneer by the Church. Thus the Christmas tree, a symbol for Christ, and associated with the original celebration of Winter Solstice/Yule, can traced back to Babylonian times.
But the ancient Babylonians were not the only ones who engaged in the ritual of Winter Solstice evergreen tree worship. The ancient Germanic people on Winter Solstice/Yule would tie fruit and attach candles to the evergreen branches in honor of their god Odin or Woden. The candles would also represent the coming of the Sun and also would be light in the promise of the Sun King returning again. Apples and other fruits were hung on the tree to represent the plentiful food to come. The trees were also decorated with roses and colored paper.
Now the idea of bringing the tree indoors and decorating it for Christmas is credited to Martin Luther. Around the 1500, as the story goes, he went for an early morning walk on Christmas Eve. As he was walking he noticed a group of evergreens glistening in the moon light because of the snow that was on the branches. He was awe stuck at the beauty. When he got home, he set up a fir tree indoors so he could share the story with his children. He then decorated it with candles, which he said represented the Christ child and the light that he brought into the world. The candles were also said to represent the stars in the night sky over Bethlehem with the tree topper star as the Star of Bethlehem.
The idea of the Christmas tree was said to been brought to England by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert who was from Germany. The tradition of the Christmas tree that was started by Martin Luther was probably brought over to America during the Revolutionary War with the Hessian troops and also with the German immigrants to Pennsylvania and Ohio. During the colonial period in America, the English Puritans were against Christmas and anything connected to the holiday because of the pagan connections that it had. In 1851, Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio decorated the first Christmas tree in an American church. He was condemned and even his life was threatened because of this.
By the mid-16th century, young German men were setting up spruces in town squares then setting them alight as a regular part of the winter festivities. The trees would often be decorated beforehand with nuts, paper flowers, and pretzels. These trees became more widespread across Germany and Scandinavia, with families placing trees outside their houses, in a similar vein to their ancient predecessors. As decorating the trees became increasingly popular, families began to bring their festive creations indoors. Children would often raid the tree for its edible decorations on Christmas Eve, and soon presents were put beneath them. The introduction of the Christmas tree to the US can also be credited to Germans. Reports suggest that German settlers in Pennsylvania and Ohio put up the first American Christmas trees in the 18th century.
Wreaths Garlands of greenery were also hung on the doors of homes as emblems of the sun. Every good sun-worshiper had a round wreath on the door of their home. The use of the red and green holly and of making wreaths of laurel branches twisted into a circle was a symbol of the Sun. (It is said that the color red was also symbolic for the sun, bringing to mind revivifying warmth after the shortest day of the year. This may be the reason for the combination of green and red in the “Christmas” theme.) Nimrod was also associated with greenery. He was worshiped as the Sun after he was slain, and the wreaths made into round solar shapes were emblems of him. Everyone exchanged gifts, and feasting and drunken partying was everywhere engaged in.
5. The Burning of the Yule Log
The tradition of having and burning a Yule log is an ancient tradition dating back to the Druids. Different areas of England, Germany, France, and the Netherlands have their own traditions to the Yule log. In the North East of England it was commonly called a Yule clog. In the Midlands and the West Country the term was Yule Block
The Yule log has been associated having its origins in Germanic paganism. It was a large wooden log which is burned in a hearth, either in the community or privately in the household. It was an entire whole trunk of a tree, which was cut on Candlemas (Feb 2) and dried all year long. It was brought in a household by a group of males who, for the task, would get free beer from the farmer’s wife. The log was of the Oak tree. The fire that was used to burn the Yule log was started from a piece of the log that had been burned the previous year. The log’s role was to bring prosperity and protection from evil.
Druids would pray that the oak would flame, like the sun forever. After the burning, it’s ashes were thought to bring good luck and protection into the household. It was considered bad luck if the fire went out before New Years.
In Southern France, people put the log on the fire for the first time on Christmas Eve and then continued to burn it a little bit each day until the twelfth night (Jan. 5th).
6. The Mistletoe
The Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant, which means it grows attached to and within the branches of a tree or shrub. Among the many decorations that we use during these holidays, the Mistletoe is the most popular. The use of decorating homes at Christmas is a tradition that was a survival of the Druids and other pre-Christian traditions. The most popular usage for the Mistletoe is when two people are caught underneath a branch or sprig of it hanging from above and have to kiss. This custom can be traced back to a Scandinavian origin.
In Norse mythology, Balder was a god of vegetation. His mother, who was the goddess Frigga, had a dream of the death of her son. Worried, she made every plant, animal, and inanimate object promise not to ever harm Balder. Frigga accidentally overlooked the small Mistletoe plant. The mischievous god Loki who knew of this mistake took advantage of this for he didn’t like Balder. He tricked the blind god, Hoor, into killing Balder with a spear which was made from the Mistletoe. Of course Balder died and then the world went into the season of winter until the gods restored him to life. When Balder died it was said that when Frigga cried her tears landed on the Mistletoe creating the white berries. Frigga declared the Mistletoe sacred, ordering that from now on it should bring love rather than death into the world.
The Mistletoe growing in an Oak tree was considered sacred and powerful to the Druids. On the 6th night of the moon, dressed in white, Druids would meet underneath an oak which had the Mistletoe growing within it’s branches. Someone would stand at the bottom of the tree holding a white cloth, while another would climb the tree, then cut the Mistletoe with a gold sickle. The ones holding the white cloth would catch the Mistletoe, preventing it from touching the ground. The Mistletoe wasn’t allowed to touch the ground for it may loose it’s power and enchantment. Two white bulls then would be sacrificed while prayers were being said. Then the Mistletoe was broken and handed out to different recipients, spreading the blessings to their homes or used in incantations, herbal remedies or rituals.
The many uses of the Mistletoe by the Druids were lost because the Druids did not believe their teachings should be written down. Then the Romans came along and killed a lot of the Druids. Therefore, a lot of sacred knowledge was lost with their deaths. The Mistletoe is a poisonous plant, especially the berries. Some say that the white berries are the seamen of the Gods. The Mistletoe was considered to bestow life and fertility, a protection against poison, and an aphrodisiac. It was also regarded as a sexual symbol and the soul of the oak tree. It was gathered both at midsummer and winter solstices.
In Rome, the Mistletoe played an important role in the Saturnalia festivals, which were held during the Yule season to celebrate the birth of Saturn. During the Middle Ages, branches of Mistletoe were hung from ceilings to ward off evil spirits. Around Europe, they were hanged over doorways, windows and in the stables to prevent the entrance of evil. It was a tradition that if enemies were feuding or battling and they met underneath a tree with Mistletoe in it, they were required to lay down their weapons and declare a truce until the following day.
7. The Holly Tree
There are over 400 species of the holly tree. The Holly was known by different names. In Norfolk it was called Hulver. Devon, Holme and in Dartmoor, it was called Holme Chase. It was also known by Christ’s Thorn, Hulver bush, Bat’s Wings, Tinne and Holy Tree.
The early Romans would send boughs of Holly along with other gifts to their friends and family when they celebrated the holiday of Saturnalia. It was the Roman festival of Saturn held around the 17th of December around the time of the Winter Solstice.
Druids considered the Holly tree to be sacred. They would take Holly water and sprinkle it on newborn babies to protect them. Through the advice of the ancient Druids, our Eastern European ancestors would bring Holly into the homes not only to protect the home from malevolent spirits but also to give the faeries of the home a place to be sheltered so there wouldn’t be friction between them and the humans. There were strong taboos about cutting down a whole Holly tree. Even the Duke of Argyll had a road rerouted to avoid cutting down a distinctive old Holly in 1861.
The Holly tree deities were: Lugh, Tannus, Taranis, Thor, Tailiu, Habondea and Tina Etruscan. The planetary ruler of the Holly is Mars. The Holly was thought to be a male plant and also associated with the element fire. The charcoal from burning the wood of the Holly was favored by the smiths. The charcoal would burn strong and for a long time. Charcoal from the Holly was used mostly for forging the swords, knives and tools that were necessary for survival and protection.
The Holly tree was known for many ritualistic purposes and symbolic meanings: life, death, rebirth, holiness, consecration, material gain, beauty, immortality, peace, goodwill and health. The tree was thought to be very magical since, during the winter months when most of the trees had lost their leaves and looked so bare, the Holly tree kept it’s greenery and it’s red berries were very noticeable against the snow covered ground.
Again, to the Druids the Holly tree was sacred. In the Celtic tree calendar the Holly represents the 8th month of the year (July 8t through Aug. 4th) which includes the Celtic festival of Lughnassadh or Lammas. In Celtic mythology, the Holly King was said to rule over the light half of the year from Summer to Winter Solstice. Then he and his brother, the Oak King, would do battle. The Oak King would win and rule the dark half of the year until the Summer Solstice.
8. The Holly King vs The Oak King
In pagan mythology, these two were twins of a whole; one couldn’t exist without the other. Some think this folklore or belief was probably constructed by the Druids since they honored both trees; the Holly and the Oak.
According to pagan folklore, the Holly King and the Oak King battle twice a year; once at Midsummer, when the Holly King wins, and then again at Midwinter or Yule, when the Oak King wins. They both fight for the favor of the Goddess. When one looses, he goes to the Welsh Caer Arianrhod to lick his wounds for six months and then returns to battle again; exchanging places with the other. The two must battle, for they are the cycle of the Sacred Wheel of the Year. According to neo-pagan lore, they are dual aspects of the archaic Horned God or Green Man. The Oak King is sometimes depicted as the Green Man, who dresses in green and appears out from a foliage of green leaves.
Through time the Holly King became amalgamated with the famous Christmas figure of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, because he is depicted wearing red, a sprig of holly in his hair, and is sometimes driving a team of eight stags. He was also in some areas of Europe considered to be a powerful giant covered in Holly leaves and branches wielding a Holly bush as a club. In the Arthurian Legends, the Holly King could be seen as the Green Knight. Traditionally, Holly leaves are hung in honor of the Holly King and the Mistletoe is hung in honor of the Oak King, because you can find mistletoe hanging far up in the branches of the Oak tree.