During this time of peace on earth, goodwill t'ward men, love, charity, and togetherness, I think it's important that we look back and remember the foundation of this most joyous holiday... where our traditions come from, what they really mean... why we celebrate the way we do.
I figure I'll start out with everyone's favorite Christmas song, the 12 Days of Christmas. I'm sure, like myself, many of you have often wondered what the hell this song was about, why anyone would give all of these things to anyone, and why, after being given the gift of three french hens, anyone would continue calling the giver "my true love". You have also probably wondered why we only celebrate one day of Christmas, when there are allegedly 11 more floating around.
The twelve days of Christmas, as it turns out, start on Christmas day, and end on January 5th. This is, according to tradition, when the three wise-men showed up and gave their gifts to Jesus... though you Bible scholars and historians all probably already know that there may or may not have been only three wise-men, and that they probably showed up considerably later than 12 days after Jesus was born. The song itself was written in England some time between the late 1500's and the early 1800's, during a time when it was illegal to be Catholic. So, if you find this song as irritating as I do, thank King Henry. Because Catholics (much like Jews in Germany, or early Christians in Rome) were scared of being punished should they be found, in this case by being hanged, drawn, and quartered (you've seen the end of Braveheart, right? Well they left off the worst part, where they tie your hands and feet to horses and have them run in different directions, while you're still alive, tearing you limb from limb) they had to come up with a way for children to remember the tenets of their faith without being able to write it down. So, the song was born, with each gift representing an important element. The "true love" would of course be God, and the "me" would be all of us.
1 Partridge in a pear tree: Jesus. A mother partridge will feign injury to protect her young.
2 Turtledoves: The Old and New Testaments
3 French hens: The virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity
4 Calling birds: The four Gospels, and/or the four evangelists
5 GOLDEN RIIIIIIINGS!: The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible).
6 Geese a-laying: The six days of creation (and on the seventh day He rested)
7 Swans a-swimming: The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, courage, knowledge, reverence, fear of the Lord) or the Seven Sacraments, which are rites in which God is uniquely active, or "visible signs of the invisible at work" (Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, Anointing of the sick)
8 Maids a-milking: The 8 beatitudes (you know, that whole "blessed are the meak, for they will inherit the earth..." bit)
9 Ladies dancing: the 9 visible attributes of the Christian life which comprise the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control)
10 Lords a-leaping: The ten commandments (which I won't recount because I'm sure everyone here has them memorized).
11 Pipers piping: The eleven faithful apostles (screw you, Judas, you don't get to be in our song).
12 Drummers drumming: the twelves points of the apostle's creed (look it up. I'm lazy and this is already going to be a long post).
You got all that? Good, because you will be tested on this.... eventually.
Now, with that out of the way, let's move on to lighter fare.
For most people, what is the one symbol of Christmas that most fully embodies the warmth, joy, peace, and love this season is supposed to be full of? More than Santa Claus (who I'm not even going to go into because I'm sure you all know the story already) or the common yet inaccurate picture of Christ in the manger in a barn, with Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, friendly beasts, and angels all around. It's something that often shows up on the outskirts of that manger scene... even though, to my knowledge, it isn't even native to the area. If you haven't guessed it yet, I'm talking about the Christmas tree. That evergreen unchanging whose relatives nearest to Bethlehem would probably be the cedars of Lebanon, which don't look anything like the trees we cut down and cover with trinkets and gaudy lights every year. It might surprise you... though, if you know anything at all about human history, it really shouldn't... to know that this Christian tradition was stolen from the pagans.
When Christian missionaries got up the courage to march into the frozen wilderness in what we now call northwestern Europe and tell the French and Germans that everything they believed and did was wrong, they may or may not have been surprised to find them somewhere on the screw-you side of the receptiveness scale... so these missionaries decided that the best way to get the pagans to change sides was to convince them that we're just like them, only better.
Being up that far North in the winter is probably scary for anyone, especially if you come from a particularly superstitious people... so when your corner of the earth starts moving away from the sun, and the days become increasingly short, and the nights increasingly dark, you won't be too surprised if someone in the crowd says, "the sun is tired of us, and is probably not coming back... so we need to do something about that, or freeze to death.". So, believing that all life on earth depended on their ability to coax the sun back into the area, they would head out around the winter solstice to find the biggest, strongest sign of life in the area... which just happened to be an evergreen tree. They would build fires, and cover the trees and their houses with all sorts of reflective objects and lights as if to say, "hey Sun, come back, there's still light here! See? This is a fun place for light and warmth to hang out!"
So, the early Christians were like, "hey look, we do that too. You can come be one of us and keep your quaint little traditions!", kind of like they did with the adoption of December 25th as Jesus' official birthday when they made it to Rome and found a bunch of people celebrating the god Mithra on that day... so they showed the northern pagans they had a winter solstice holiday with lights and trees. However, being from the Mediterranean area, they were somewhat more inclined to bring the fire and the trees inside than to march out into a frozen forest.
While out on their travels in the frozen north, the missionaries also came across a friendly little group of people known as Vikings... who they also needed to steal a tradition from if they wanted to make any headway. While it may seem like telling Vikings to stop everything they do and come be nice Christians would be the quickest path to Heaven, the missionaries actually had some fortune with the Norse. You see, this was a group of people who set up shop far away from anywhere that any normal person would choose to live, but they would regularly travel the world to.... gather supplies. As a result, their mytholgy tends to have a lot of influence from other cultures. They would go out and hear stories from all over the world and think, "that kind of sounds like something this god of ours would do" and would tell everyone they knew about this story. Somewhere along the way, it's likely that they heard stories of this Jesus fellow, and decided he sounded a bit like their god Baldur. Baldur was the son of their great god Odin, who sits on his throne in Valhalla and watches the dealings of men, sometimes inserting himself into their lives and directing their fates (sound familiar?). Baldur was the most beloved of all of the gods in Asgard, so it brought no shortage of sorrow when the prediction was told that Baldur would be killed. His mother, when given this news, went all around the world, making every person, animal, vegetable, mineral... everything in existence promise that it would never do any harm to her beloved son. Everything, that is, except Mistletoe, which she decided was too fragile to do him any harm anyway (ironic, considering that mistletoe berries are actually quite poisonous). So she came back to Asgard content that no harm could come to her son, and told him that he was safe. He figured he would test her theory, and all the other gods gathered around and started throwing crap at him to see if it would hurt. Rocks, branches, tables, children... everything just bounced right off of him without a mark. Loki, god of messing everything up for everybody (but usually setting it right again... usually) crept over to Baldur's blind cousin and was like, "why aren't you throwing stuff at Baldur with everybody else?" to which Baldur's blind cousin replied, "um... I'm blind.". So Loki makes an arrow out of mistletoe and puts it in the blind guys hand, and guides his throw to pierce Baldur's heart and kill him. Baldur's mother offered a kiss beneath the mistletoe to anyone who would go to the Hel and bring Baldur back. No one could... but Baldur will return after the great battle at the end of the world, to rule the knew world which will be reborn from the ashes. So, when you kiss someone under the mistletoe, think about death, betrayal, and the end of the world this Christmas...
It was, however, actually the Celts who are most responsible for mistletoe becoming a Christmas decoration. They believed that the plant had magical powers, and hung it up in their houses during the Yule festival to protect the home, and cause beautiful dreams during the shadowy dream time of winter, when the dark force of Mean Geimhridh held the light of the sun back. This creepy festival eventually got absorbed into Christmas, giving us still another terrifying "why is that a Christmas tradition" tradition which has, perhaps fortunately, generally been forgone in recent years.
The Yule log. This is where the most "wtf?"d line in perhaps any Christmas song comes from. "There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmas's long long ago." Who sits around at Christmas telling ghost stories that don't involve Ebenezer Scrooge, and why would they do such a thing? Well, Who: The Irish. Why: They're Irish... it's what they do. Since I'm pretty sure you don't have a Yule log and probably never have, except perhaps as a decoration, I'll fill you in on what exactly the tradition is. You go out into your yard, or perhaps your neighbors yard while they're off Christmas shopping, and find the most beautiful, symmetrical log you can. You absolutely never buy a Yule log at a store because that will just piss off all the sprites and spirits which are apparently just everywhere in Ireland. You place the log in the hearth, where it is lit using a scrap from the previous years Yule log which has been carefully preserved under the bed of the master of the house to keep the house safe from fire and lightning. The lighting of the Yule log must be achieved in the first attempt or else misfortune will befall your family. There is a lot of stress that comes with being the head of the household in Ireland. The task must never be performed with dirty hands because it is a sign of disrespect... and, again, pissed of sprites and spirits. The embers of the Yule log must be kept lit for twelve hours and cannot be tended while eating Christmas eve dinner. After the feast, the family sits around the fire telling ghost stories while watching their shadows on the wall. If any person's shadow is seen to not have a head, it is a sign that this person will be dead within a year. While this could be fun, I suppose, the Irish Christmas tradition that I choose to include in my family celebration is drinking, because I try not to do anything to inadvertently upset mythological or ethereal beings.
Yule logs, Mistletoe, and evergreen trees aren't the only pagan plant life to have been taken by Christians to be part of the celebration of the birth of our Lord. Holly, among many groups throughout history, has been seen as a good omen, and represented immortality due to its ability to look good in every season. It was considered sacred by the ancient Romans, and was used as a gift during the festival of Saturnalia, which lasted from December 17th to the 23rd. Holly was thought to be a favorite home to elves and faeries, who must have had very tough skin, or just not minded being stabbed by sharp leaves. Romans would bring holly inside during the winter to protect these poor little creatures from the cold.
During the early years of Christianity in Rome, many Christians continued to deck their halls with boughs of holly for fear of being turned into torches in Caesar's palace, or just made fun of for not believing in the pantheon that the Roman's stole from the Greeks. Holly became a Christian symbol when Christianity became the dominant religion in the area, perhaps as an other way of wooing more converts. Eventually it was pretended that holly was a Christian tradition without pagan roots by applying Christian symbolism to the plant. The leaf has sharp pointy edges which represent Jesus' crown of thorns, and red berries which represent the blood He shed on the cross. It is also evergreen, which is taken to represent the eternal life He bestows on all who believe in Him.
It really was convenient that the pagans had so many holidays all around the same time, because it made it much easier to decide when to have Christmas. They had Juvenalia, a feast honoring the children of Rome. There was the celebration of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25th... he was an infant god, and was born of a rock by the way... which was, for some Romans, the most sacred day of the year. They had the Winter solstice. And there was Saturnalia which celebrated Saturn who was (among other things) the Roman god of agriculture. Beginning in the week leading up to Winter solstice and lasting for an entire month, Saturnalia was like Oktoberfest, Mardi Gras, and the Festival of Fools all mixed into one. Food and drink were plentiful, and the normal Roman social order was turned upside down. For one month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Businesses and schools were even closed so that everyone could join in the revelry. Honestly, who wouldn't want to steal all these holidays and mix them into one? It's a wonder that it took until the fourth century for the Church to decide to institute Christmas as an official holiday.
Up til then, Easter was the big deal. The delay, most likely, was due to the fact that the Bible doesn't really mention what time of year Jesus was born... a fact those Grinchy Puritans used in denying the legitimacy of the holiday, bringing frowns to children all over the world. Though there has been evidence cited by some people who may or may not know what they're talking about to indicate that Jesus was born in the Spring time, Pope Julius I (of Orange Julius fame) chose December 25th, probably to absorb these other holidays. Christmas, originally called The Feast of the Nativity, spread to Egypt by 423 a.d. and to England by the end of the sixth century. By the end of the eighth century, it had made its way to Scandinavia. Today, in Greek and Russian orthodox churches, Christmas is celebrated on January 6th, or "Epiphany"/"Three Kings day" (which is convenient for Santa because it means he doesn't have to fly around the whole world in one night) which is, for some reason, the day after the 12 Days of Christmas would end.
Having Christmas at the same time as all of these pagan festivals made Christmas more likely to be embraced by other people, but left the Church largely unable to dictate how it would be celebrated. Soon enough, Christianity had done away with Pagan religion, but the absorption of their festivals left the fun parts of paganism intact. On Christmas, believers attended boring church services in the morning, and probably spent the whole time dreaming about all the partying they would do afterward. When they left church, they would go home and celebrated Christmas like Mardi Gras and St. Patrick's day met on Spring Break and had a baby at Carnivale. Each year, a beggar or a student would be crowned "lord of misrule" and people would line up eagerly to play the part of his subjects. Poor people would go a-wassailing (drinking and singing) to the houses of rich people and demand their best food and drink... which I'm guessing usually involved figgy pudding. If the home owners failed to provide, their visitors terrorize them with mischief... kind of like a drunken musical trick-or-treat, which actually sounds like fun to me. Christmas, this way, became a time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined debt to society by entertaining the less fortunate citizens. As for how Christmas went from being about drunkenly helping the drunken less fortunate to wearing bad sweaters and spending too much money, I haven't really done any research on the subject.