Dr Masimba Mavaza
THE world over people always look forward to the next Christmas. In some cultures, years are measured by Christmas.
People are sensitive when it comes to Christmas, and that’s understandable.
Much of the world has been taught that the holiday marks the birth of the Christian saviour, Jesus Christ, but that is wrong.
Did you know Jesus wasn’t white, neither was he born in December?
Historical evidence suggests that Jesus, the person, was born in the springtime — but that Christian missionaries adopted Yule celebrations in order to appease and convert pagans who were deeply, spiritually attached to their own holidays.
Early Christians were also fascinated by the rural, rustic pagan traditions.
“Christians of that period were interested in paganism,” says Philip Shaw, a researcher of early Germanic languages and Old English at Leicester University.
“It’s obviously something they think is a bad thing, but it’s also something they think is worth remembering. It’s what their ancestors did.”
The two most notable pagan winter holidays were Germanic Yule and Roman Saturnalia. Christian missionaries gave these holidays a makeover and they are now known to us as Christmas.
Saturnalia was a lawless, drunken time in Rome where literally anything was okay — this was the original Purge, in which laws were suspended for a brief stretch of time.
Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, liberation and time (and parties!), was celebrated at what is perhaps the most famous of the Roman festivals, the Saturnalia. It was a time of feasting, role reversals, free speech, gift-giving and revelry.
After solstice, the darkest night of the year, the renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.
Scholars have connected the Germanic and Scandanavian celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Modraniht.
Yuletide was traditionally celebrated during the period from mid-November to mid-January.
Nordic countries use Yule to describe not only their own Christmas with its religious rites, but also for the holidays of this season.
Present-day customs such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from the original pagan Yule, but are used in Christmas celebrations now, especially within Europe.
As leaders were baptised and converted, they shifted their traditional celebrations covertly, so as not to upset the chieftains.
Yule was traditionally celebrated three days after Midwinter, but shifted to reflect Christian dates.
Modern Wiccans and other neopagan religions often celebrate Yule as well.
In most forms of Wicca, it’s celebrated at winter solstice as the rebirth of the Great horned hunter god, who is viewed as the newborn solstice sun.
Some celebrate with their covens while others celebrate at home.
Everybody’s got someone like Santa Claus.
He’s primarily based on St Nicholas, a fourth century Lycian bishop from modern-day Turkey.
Ol’ Nicky wasn’t a bad guy.
One story says that he met a kind, impoverished man who had three daughters.
St Nick presented all three of them with dowries so that they weren’t forced into a life of prostitution, as dowries were expected to ‘pay off’ families to take on the daughters.
Sinterklaas is the Dutch figure and Odin is the Norse god that Santa resembles.
It wasn’t just Santa or men who did the gift-giving in those myths.
There’s also the legend of La Befana, a kind Italian woman who leaves treats for children on the goods list, and the Germanic Frau Holle, who treats women during Solstice.
Carols actually began as the Germanic and Norse traditions of wassailing.
Wassailers went from home to home, drunk off of their asses, singing to their neighbours and celebrating their ‘good health’.
Well, except for the hangovers.
The traditional wassail beverage was a hot mulled cider, spiked with alcohol or fermented.
Humans as a species love to take inspiration from different cultures, customs, and traditions, and believe it or not, Christmas is no different. If you thought those cosy traditions you knew and loved were just about celebrating Christmas, think again! Things like kissing under a mistletoe, carolling, wreaths, and even gift-giving were all aspects of pagan holidays that were adapted into Christmas celebrations in the early years.
Decorating trees, feasting with loved ones, hanging up socks by the fireplace, and drinking yourself silly are no different — they’re all a part of pagan history and sacred holidays.
In fact, most of the cultural aspects we associate with Christmas are steeped in pagan roots.
Some pagan traditions have become associated with Christmas. So, now that you have an idea of the background, ask yourself what will you be doing on Christmas?