Pagan Roots: Saturnalia, Yule and Christmas

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“It’s a mistake to say that our modern Christmas traditions come directly from pre-Christian paganism. you’d be equally wrong to believe that Christmas is a modern phenomenon. As Christians spread their religion into Europe in the first centuries A.D., they ran into people living by a variety of local and regional religious creeds.”

~ Ronald Hutton, Historian at Bristol University in the United Kingdom.

“Christian missionaries lumped all of these people together under the umbrella term pagan.”

~ Philip Shaw, who researches early Germanic languages and Old English at Leicester University in the U.K.

Early Christians wanted to convert pagans, but they were also fascinated by their traditions.  Christians of that period are quite interested in paganism.  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.  That’s why pagan traditions remained even as Christianity took hold. The Christmas tree is a 17th-century German invention, but it clearly derives from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter. The modern Santa Claus is a direct descendent of England’s Father Christmas, who was not originally a gift-giver. However, Father Christmas and his other European variations are modern incarnations of old pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter.

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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, 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. (i.e.: gender-bending sex, drinking, telling people off, trading gifts and doing whatever you want).  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 Mōdraniht. Yule-tide was traditionally celebrated during the period from mid-November to mid-January.  Nordic countries use Yule to describe 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 baptized and converted, they shifted their traditional celebrations covertly, 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.

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Why this fixation on partying in midwinter, anyway? According to historians, it’s a natural time for a feast. In an agricultural society, the harvest work is done for the year, and there’s nothing left to be done in the fields. It’s a time when you have some time to devote to your religious life. It’s also a period when, frankly, everyone needs cheering up.  The dark days that culminate with the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, could be lightened with feasts and decorations.

“If you happen to live in a region in which midwinter brings striking darkness and cold and hunger, then the urge to have a celebration at the very heart of it to avoid going mad or falling into deep depression is very, very strong.”

~ Ronald Hutton

“Even now when solstice means not all that much because you can get rid of the darkness with the flick of an electric light switch, even now, it’s a very powerful season.”

~ Stephen Nissenbaum, Author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Battle for Christmas”

Without a Biblical directive to celebrate Jesus’s birthday and no mention of it in the Gospels of the correct date, it wasn’t until the fourth century that church leaders in Rome embraced the holiday. At this time many people had turned to a belief the Church found heretical: That Jesus had never existed as a man, but as a sort of spiritual entity.  If you want to show that Jesus was a real human being just like every other human being, not just somebody who appeared like a hologram, then what better way to think of him being born in a normal, humble human way than to celebrate his birth?”

Midwinter festivals, with their pagan roots, were already widely celebrated, and the date had a pleasing philosophical fit with festivals celebrating the lengthening days after the winter solstice.

“O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…Christ should be born.

~ Thaschus Cæcilius Cyprianus (c. 200 – September 14, 258 AD) Bishop of Carthage

In the 16th century, Christmas became a casualty of this church schism, with reformist-minded Protestants considering it little better than paganism. This likely had something to do with the “raucous, rowdy and sometimes bawdy fashion” in which Christmas was celebrated.  In England under Oliver Cromwell, Christmas and other saints’ days were banned, and in New England it was illegal to celebrate Christmas for about 25 years in the 1600s. Forget people saying, “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  If you want to look at a real ‘War on Christmas,’ you’ve got to look at the Puritans, they banned it!

While gift-giving may seem inextricably tied to Christmas, it used to be that people looked forward to opening presents on New Year’s Day.  They were a blessing for people to make them feel good as the year ends. It wasn’t until the Victorian era of the 1800s that gift-giving shifted to Christmas. According to the Royal Collection, Queen Victoria’s children got Christmas Eve gifts in 1850, including a sword and armor. In 1841, Victoria gave her husband, Prince Albert, a miniature portrait of her as a 7-year-old; in 1859, she gave him a book of poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Let’s take on some of the traditions:

Almost every culture has someone like Santa Claus. He’s primarily based on St. Nicholas, a Fourth Century Lycian bishop from modern-day Turkey. 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 “Good” list, and the Germanic Frau Holle, who treats women during Solstice.

While people rarely show any excitement around the fruit-laden cakes these days, they were a real treat in times of yore. The cakes actually have origins in Egypt and were later disseminated by the Romans as they conquered parts of Europe.  Those cakes of Egypt were just about as dense and long-lasting as the brandied, fruit-studded cakes of today. Egyptians placed cakes of fermented fruit and honey on the tombs of their deceased loved ones so that they’d have something to munch on in the afterlife. Romans took similar cakes into battle made of mashed pomegranates and barley. Christians went into the crusades with honeycakes.  Fruitcakes are everywhere, no matter how hard you try to avoid them.

Caroling actually began as the Germanic and Norse traditions of wassailing. Wassailers went from home to home, drunk off of their asses, singing to their neighbors and celebrating their “good health.”  The traditional wassail beverage was a hot mulled cider, spiked with alcohol or fermented.

Mistletoe was considered a magical plant in Europe, especially among the Druids and Vikings, and holds significance in Native American cultures. Mistletoe is no modern quirk of Christmas, even Romans partook in fertility rituals beneath the mistletoe. Mistletoe stood as a neutral ground for feuding Norse tribes, who laid down their weapons in order to negotiate beneath the peace plant. The Druids thought it could protect them from thunder and lightning, as well.  Whether you’ve got the urge to make out, hide from a storm or talk it out, beware as mistletoe is super poisonous.

Romans loved wreaths and decorated everything with Laurel. Holly, ivy and evergreen are the more popular modern options today, and each one holds significance. Egyptians didn’t have evergreens, so they used palm fronds to celebrate Winter Solstice.  Christians love holly because the red berries symbolize the blood of Christ and the pointy leaves symbolize the crown of thorns. However, the advent of holly decor was around long before Christianity. Pre-Christian pagan groups believed that the Holly King did battle with the Oak King. They also thought holly could drive off evil spirits.  Romans, of course, were into laurel wreaths, but laurel was not easily procured throughout the northern reaches of the empire. Instead of laurel, they used evergreens.

All of this gift-giving and revelry, along with the secular embrace of Christmas, now has some religious groups upset. The consumerism of Christmas shopping seems, to some, to contradict the religious goal of celebrating Jesus Christ’s birth. In some ways excessive spending is the modern equivalent of the revelry and drunkenness that made the Puritans frown.   There’s always been a push and pull, and it’s taken different forms.  It might have been alcohol then, and now it’s these glittering toys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nine Realms of Norse Mythology

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Asgard: Home of the Gods

In the middle of the world, high up in the sky is Asgard (Old Norse: “Ásgarðr”). It’s the home of the Gods and Goddesses. The male Gods in Asgard, are called Aesir, and the female Gods are called Asynjur. Odin is the ruler of Asgard and the chief of the Aesir. Odin is married to Frigg; and she is the Queen of the Aesir. Inside the gates of Asgard is Valhalla; it’s the place where half of the Vikings “Einherjer” that died in battle will go for the afterlife, the other half goes to Fólkvangr.

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Alfheim: Home of the Light Elves

Alfheim (Old Norse: “Álfheimr or Ljósálfheimr”) is right next to Asgard in the heaven. The light elves are beautiful creatures. They are considered the “guardian angels” The God Freyr, is the ruler of Alfheim. The Light elves are minor Gods of nature and fertility; they can help or hinder humans with their knowledge of magical powers. They also often delivered an inspiration to art or music.

Midgard: Home of the Humans

Midgard (Old Norse: “Miðgarðr”) “middle earth” is located in the middle of the world, below Asgard. Midgard and Asgard are connected by Bifrost the Rainbow Bridge. Midgard is surrounded by a huge ocean that is impassable.

The Ocean is occupied by a huge sea serpent, the Midgard Serpent. The Midgard serpent is so huge that it encircles the world entirely, and biting its own tail. Odin and his two brothers Vili and Ve created the humans from an Ash log, the man and from an elm log, the woman.

Muspelheim: The Land of Fire

Muspelheim (Old Norse: “Múspellsheimr”) was created far to the south of the world in Norse mythology. Muspelheim is a burning hot place, filled with lava, flames, sparks, and soot. Muspelheim is the home the of fire giants, fire demons and ruled by the giant Surtr. He is a sworn enemy of the Aesir. Surtr will ride out with his flaming sword in his hand at Ragnarok “Ragnarök” “the end of the world” Surtr will then attack Asgard, “the home of the Gods” and turn it into a flaming inferno.

Vanaheim: Home of the Vanir

Vanaheim (Old Norse: “Vanaheimr”) is the home of the Vanir Gods. The Vanir Gods is an old branch of Gods. The Vanir are masters of sorcery and magic. They are also widely acknowledged for their talent to predict the future. Nobody knows where exactly the land, Vanaheim is located, or even how it looks like. When the war between the Aesir and the Vanir ended, three of the Vanir came to live in Asgard, Njord and his children Freya and Freyr.

Niðavellir/ Svartalfheim: Home of the Dwarves

Svartalfheim (Old Norse: “Niðavellir or Svartálfaheimr”) is the home of the dwarves, they live under the rocks, in caves and underground who are also synonymous with the Dark Elves (“Dökkálfar”) and Black Elves (“Svartálfar”).  Hreidmar was the king of Svartalfheim, Svartalfheim means Dark fields. The dwarves are masters of craftsmanship. The Gods of Asgard have received many powerful gifts. Like , the magical ring Draupnir and also Gungnir, Odin’s spear.

Jotunheim: Home of the Giants

Jotunheim (Old Norse: “Jötunheimr or Útgarðr”) is the home of the giants (also called Jotuns). They are the sworn enemies of the Aesir. Jotunheim consists mostly of rocks, wilderness, and dense forests, and it lies in the snowy regions on the outermost shores of the ocean. Because of this, the giants live mostly from the fish from the rivers, and the animals from the forest, because there is no fertile land in Jotunheim.

The giants and the Aesir are constantly fighting, but it also happens from time to time, that love affairs will occur. Odin, Thor and a few others, had lovers who were giants. Loki also came from Jotunheim, but he was accepted by the Aesir and lived in Asgard. Jotunheim is separated from Asgard by the river Iving, which never freezes over. Mimir’s well of wisdom is in Jotunheim, beneath the Midgard root of the ash tree Yggdrasil. The stronghold of Utgard is so big that it is hard to see the top of it. And there the feared Jotun king Utgard-Loki lives. Utgard is carved from blocks of snow and glistening icicles.

Niflheim: The World of Fog and Mist

Niflheim (Old Norse: “Niðavellir”) and it means (“Mist home” or “Mist World”) is the darkest and coldest region in the world according to Norse mythology. Niflheim is the first of the nine worlds and Niflheim is placed in the northern region of Ginnungagap. The eldest of the three wells are located in Niflheim which is called Hvergelmir “bubbling boiling spring” and it is protected by the huge dragon called Nidhug (Níðhöggr).

It is said that all cold rivers come from the well called Hvergelmir, and it is said to be the source of the eleven rivers in Norse mythology. The well Hvergelmir is the origin of all living and the place where every living being will go back. Elivagar “ice waves” are the rivers which existed in Niflheim at the beginning of the world. They were the streams floating out of Hvergelmir. The water from Elivagar flowed down the mountains to the plains of Ginnungagap, where it solidified to frost and ice, which gradually formed a very dense layer. This is the reason that it is very cold in the northern plains. As the world tree Yggdrasil started to grow, it stretched one of its three large roots far into Niflheim and drew water from the spring Hvergelmir.

Helheim: Home of the dishonorable dead

This is where all the dishonorable dead, thieves, murderers and those the Gods and Goddesses feel is not brave enough to go to Valhalla or Folkvangr. Helheim is ruled by Hel, Helheim is a very grim and cold place, and any person who arrives here will never feel joy and happiness again. Hel will use all the dead in her realm at Ragnarök to attack the Gods and Goddesses, which will be the end of the world.