Christmas is December 25th. But, what is Christmas, actually ? And why is it on this day ? For a long time, I wondered what was the true meaning of Christmas.
Yes, I know the Christian version (the birth of Christ), but why celebrate it if one is not a Christian ? Just because everyone else does it ? Gifts can be offered & refined meals can be shared all year long, can’t they ?
Since I don’t like celebrating something meaningless to me, Christmas was bothering me. I could not understand why so much food was required, along with presents, glittering ornaments, overflowing of light, red, green, gold, silver. Way too bright for me.
Where do the end of year festivities come from ?
Imagine that you live in a time when every aspect of life follows the sun’s pace : field work, as well as daily chores. Imagine that you have to live according to the sun to save oil for lamps, wax for candles, wood or peat for heating. In winter, you go to bed early, and you get up later than in summer. No TV, no internet, no Netflix.
Imagine winter as a season of fear, fear of not having enough wood or enough food if harvest have been bad, fear of dying from diseases (pneumonias, and so on), or from hunger, from cold (either because you have nothing to warm your house, or because you are caught in a snow storm and you can’t find any shelter).
Imagine that you know that evil creatures come out of woods or out of snow to devour unfortunate ones who venture out of their homes in winter…
And you know that, until spring comes back, you only have what you have been able to store in spring and summer : food, wood, clothes… You may have done your best, storing grain, oil, butter, apples, nuts, hazelnuts, preserved vegetables and fruits, cheese and potatoes, you can’t be sure all this will be enough, depending on the moment when good days are actually back. Sometimes, even worse, stocks are quite scant. If winter is very cold, snowy, even freezing, you might lack wood. If spring is late, you may lack food. Just a reminder : you can’t go to the grocery store, since this concept does not exist.
Being short of basic goods means, very simply, risking dying or seeing one’s loved ones dying…
In short, despite the beauty of winter, of snowy and frozen landscapes, despite children’s games, you are obsessed with one thing : days are getting shorter and shorter, darkness begins earlier and earlier. OK, the nice side is that worktime is also shorter. But. Always living in fear is terrible.
So, what would happen if the sun disappeared for good ? Si complete darkness settled for ever ?
Everything would die.
So, you would try to seek out the one whose life depends on : the sun. And, of course, you express your gratitude about what you see as its resurrection, don’t you ?
What is really celebrated at this time of the year ?
Yes, Christmas is a Christian holiday, but with pagan origins, and this holiday was implemented quite late : in 336 A.D in Rome. In other words, three centuries passed before the birth of Christ was celebrated.
The main point for the first Christians was, indeed, the resurrection of Christ, i.e. Easter, not the birth of a baby. Moreover, in Protestant countries, where people were keenly attached to respect the Bible as much as possible, and to get rid of any hint of paganism as well as Catholicism, celebrating was prohibited for a long time because it was regarded either as too Catholic or too pagan..
Furthemore, nobody knows the day Jesus was actually born, but it is certain it was not on December 25th, and it is not even sure it was in winter. The date is more of a symbol : celebrating God’s incarnation in a human being.
I knew that the Catholic Church substituted its own holidays for pagan holidays, so that they would have people forget the other gods without risking any popular uprising.
Actually, we celebrate the winter solstice.
Because it is the longest night in the year, and the shortest day. Which means, logically, that from the next day, days will be longer. But our ancestors wanted to make sure that the sun would be reborn, through various religious ceremonies.
Even before christianisation, the winter solstice was the center of many beliefs about motherhood, fertility, procreation and astronomy.
Let’s go for a trip !
In Korea, the winter solstice is called Dongji, the day when the sun dies and was reborn. Paper charms are hung to repel evil spirits, and red bean porridge is eaten. Red is a good luck color.
In South America, Incas and Mapuches (a people of Chile and Argentina), sun worshippers, celebrated the birth of the Sun.
We Tripantü, the rebirth of the sun, for the Mapuches.
Inti Raymi or the winter solstice day (the child-sun) in Cuzco.
In Eastern and Northern Europe, the pre-Christian celebration of the winter solstice was called Yule.
It commemorated the death of the Holly King, killed by the Oak King ; the latter rules until the summer solstice, when he will be in turn defeated by the Holly King.
Anyway, many symbols of Yule have been preserved : decorating with evergreens (holly, mistletoe, ivy, firtree…), the log (at first, a real log that was to burn all night long, and whose remains would be used the following year, to make sure that light and warmth would be back. And that one would still be alive at that time. Well, this is my very personal interpretation). OK, this tradition was slightly changed, being now easier for our homes that have no more fireplaces, and nicer for sweet teeth.
What about gifts ? Well, in Nordic mythology, Heimdall, god of the light and of the moon, leaves his throne on the North Pole (does it remind you of someone ?) on the winter solstice to visit humans. He rewards nice ones with presents he leaves in socks hung in the houses. As for the naughty ones, they receive ashes…
Then, gods and human beings feasted, sang, told stories, each group separately.
In other versions, it was Odin riding Sleipnir, his eight-legged horse. Sleipnir’s breath warmed and fed people touched by it.
Now, let’s go and visit the Romans.
A long time ago, Romans used to celebrated the end of the shortening of days.
That’s why they organized Saturnalia, to honor Saturn, god of sowing and fertility, for a whole week, from the 17th to the 24th of December. The social hierarchy was reversed (masters would serve their slaves, who were allowed to speak freely), families and friends would gather to eat, drink and sing (with the excesses that can be imagined). Houses were decorated with evergreens (mistletoe, ivy, holly). Children were offered protective clay figurines to be put on Saturn’s altar. It was a remembrance of the Golden Age, when Saturn took refuge in Lazio – central Italy, on the Tyrrhenian sea – and created a perfect society, bountiful and peaceful. During Saturnalia, schools and courthouses were closed, executions were prohibited, work stopped.
Among these days, the 21st of December was more specifically devoted to the goddess Angerona, who healed pain and sadness, and helped difficult paths, especially the winter solstice, when the sun must make a narrow path in darkness. She was the goddess of the winter solstice and of the return of the sun. She supported the effort of the sun in its fight against darkness, through mystical forces and her devotion.
OK, how important the winter solstice is, is now very clear. But why is December 25th so important ? The solstice is behind, isn’t it ?
Aurelian, the emperor from 270 to 275 AD, wanted to unify the Roman empire, which was threatening to dislocate, around a religion that would be common to all the peoples of the empire. This new cult was not to take the place of existing cults, but was to be added to them. That’s why he chose a solar religion, since the sun is supposed to be universal. The worship of Sol Invictus was born.
Who was Sol Invictus ?
That’s the guy on the coin.
The Latin phrase « Sol Invictus » means Undefeated Sun, since the sun can’t be completely vanquished by darkness.
This cult was mainly popular among soldiers ; civilians adopted it later, especially when soldiers came back from Asia Minor.
The day of worship was as important. Aurelian decided that December 25th would be the birth day of the Undefeated Sun (Dies Natalis Solis Invicti), the day following the end of Saturnalia AND the day when Mithra was born.
Now, who is Mithra ?
He was a god from Asia Minor. The sun was said to be the god’s eye. He was supposed to have been born from a virgin in a cave (Uh, does it remind you of something, again ?)
So, celebrating Sol Invictus on December 25th, that was a very, very clever way to satisfy Sol Invictus’ worshippers, along with Mithra’s and Apollo’s, in the continuity of the traditional Roman festivities. How cunning !
The emperor Constantine I (he ruled the Roman empire from 306 to 337), worshipped Sol Invictus before becoming the first Christian emperor. On the coin, he is represented with the god.
The christianisation of the Roman empire made Jesus Christ the logical substitute for Sol Invictus. Theodosius I, the last emperor who ruled the unified Roman empire (from 379 to 395), banned the worshipping of Sol Invictus (with the Tessaloniki Edict) and made December 25th a Christian-only holiday.
Well, that’s is very interesting, but why was December 25th chosen ? The winter solstice is on the 21st !
One must go three more centuries back in time.
It seems that it was due to a mistake in the calendar. On the first century BC, the republican Roman calendar (see Wikipedia) had become very complicated and changing. Julius Caesar decided to reform it, to make it a stable solar calendar. Julius was a soldier indeed, a writer, but he was not a specialist in astronomy. One can’t be good at everything.
So he asked the Greek astronomer Sosigene of Alexandria for help. And in 46 BC the new calendar was born. Very logically and very modestly, Julius Caesar called it Julian calendar. It remained in effect in Europe until the end of the 15th century, when it was replaced by the Gregorian calendar, still in use nowadays. To put it simply, the Julian* calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian one, which explains why the Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7th.
Making the calendar simpler was a good idea ! But, unfortunately, Sosigene was a little bit wrong in his calculations. He determined the start of the seasons with one or two days late. Consequence : the winter solstice was set for December… 25th.
*The Julian calendar is used by the Orthodox Churches of Jerusalem, Russia, Georgia, Macedonia, Serbia, and by several places in Maghreb (Berber from Northern Africa).
Something common to all these festivities : celebrating the light.
Whether in the Roman empire, in Northern Europe, in Korea, or in South America, all festivities at this time of the year celebrate light and the return of longer days.
And light is not honored only on the day of the winter solstice !
Let me prove it :
The 4 Sundays before Christmas, Advent candles are lit.
On December 8th, the Illuminations in Lyons (France).
On December 13th, Saint Lucia – which means « light » – is very important in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finnland, Iceland, Italy and Croatia.
On Januray 6th, the Epiphany, that reminds of the three wise men, people eat a special round cake, round and golden as the sun.
Yes, but all this is Christian, Nanook.
So, let’s talk about Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights ?
Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the second Temple of Jerusalem by the Maccabees 3 years after its desacration by the Syrians. Antiochus IV (king 215-164 BC) was a sovereign belonging to the Greek dynasty of Seleucides. His empire was made up of most of the eastern territories conquered by Alexander, from Anatolia to the Indus). He wanted the Greek civilization to dominate ; he opposed the revolt of the Maccabees (175-140 BC). This event is not only a revolt of the Jews of Judea against the Seleucids, but an internal conflict within the Jewish people, opposing traditionalist Jews to Jews who favored Greek culture.
In other words it symbolizes the Jewish spiritual resistance against a cultural assimilation.
The most representative item is the nine-branched candlestick, called hanukkiah.
This candlestick is used by Jews for Hanukkah, the festival of lights.
According to the Talmud, when the Judeans entered the Temple, they only found a tiny flask of pure olive oil to light the candlestick. There was oil for one day only, but this oil lasted eight days, which gave people enough time to provide for more pure oil. The hanukkiah has nine branches : eight for each one of the eight days during which the tiny amount of oil burnt, and one to light the other ones.
Hanukkah means then the victory of light against darkness and obscurantism, even before being the victory of light against winter darkness.
This year, it happened December 2 to 9.
Well, now that you know everything about this time of festivities, let’s go back to the first question : what is the true meaning of this festival ?
Each one can focus on what appeals most to him or her. As for me, I focus on light.
Putting light at home.
Candles, light garlands… and music, that brightens, lightens and warms.
Bringing light and warmth out.
Rejoicing about plentifulness in this cold time, when nothing grows.
Rejoicing about the end of the shortening of the days.
Huddling with books and tea.
I can indeed feel my energy level decreasing everyday : I could spend my days sleeping. I must have marmot or bear genes.
Yes, I love winter, I love staying at home.
But the lack of light drains my energy anyway.
Why are white, gold, silver, green, and red, the colors of this season ? Nothing mysterious !
White is for the snow. And white is opposed to black. White is light, black is darkness.
Gold and silver are for shining lights.
Green is for evergreens : holly, pine, mistletoe, firtree… Since it is the climax of the Holly King’s time, he logically puts his coat of arms forward.
Red stands for the color of the holly berries.
Recycling and upcycling.
At Thé.Livre.&Co., we love recycling and upcycling, homemade and handmade, and DIY.
It is not only because I am an eco-friendly-girl, but because I find it is a shame to throw away things and materials that can be perfectly be used again. These just-in-cases sometimes take much room, but I can’t help it. And when one’s budget is tight, it is even necessary.
That is the reason why I love Christmas. What ?? Christmas is more often seen as the symbol of over-consumption, waste, and too much food !
Yes, it is, and I hate this side of Christmas. But it is a great example of how to recycle a festival !! Just like Easter, but we will discuss this laterr.
Let’s go back to Christmas :
Christmas was a counter-holiday created by the Catholic Church, who aimed at unsettling pagan holidays, by making an astronomical event (lengthening of days) a cosmic event (rebirth of the light), to have its ideas implemented : birth of the Savior, Light of the World that destroys the darkness of the Devil).
For Christians, there was then not much to do to change the day of the rebirth of the real sun into the day of the birth of the mystic sun : Christ. « I am the light of the world » (Jesus).
Sol Invictus or Jesus : they fought the same war !
Once again, things went from a natural event to a theological interpretation. I won’t tell you my own opinion, I just want to explain some thigns.
Very well, since you’ve been really good, Auntie Nanook has prepared something to comfort you. Just click here !
I have to go, my kettle is whistling, & my book is calling…
(Source : Wikipédia)