How the origins of Christmas go much further back than Christianity
As I write this we’re just a few days away from the Western European winter festival which, for the last 1,700 years or so has been largely synonymous with Christian mythology. Before the Roman Emperor Constantine decreed Christianity to be the official religion of the Empire back in 313 CE, Saturnalia had marked the turning of the year for those living within the bounds of Roman civilization.
Of course, festivals on or around the Winter Solstice have been going on, as best as we can tell from written and archaeological evidence, since humans first arrived in northern latitudes. Each new mythology simply overlays its own fables on top of whatever was there before. Hence while Christmas is nominally a Christian myth there are many echoes of older pagan rituals. Have you ever wondered why Santa is old and dressed in either green or red? He’s old because he symbolizes the passing of the old year, to be reborn as a baby. He’s green if he’s in parts of Europe that worshiped wood spirits (hence the Yule log), and red in parts of Europe where they ritually sacrificed a virgin on the Solstice and spread his/her blood over the fields so as to ensure bountiful crops in the coming year.
For countries that once were in thrall to the Roman Catholic version of Christianity, the main celebration is on 25th December but for Eastern European countries the celebration occurs on 7th January. The reason for this disparity is the cleaving of the calendar: the Gregorian calendar was adopted in the West after its introduction in 1582 while the East continued to use the older Julian version. Either way, both dates are essentially near enough to the Winter Solstice that they effectively replaced the ceremonies and festivities that took place prior to the spread of Christian mythology across continental Europe.
Our species seems to have originated in the East African rift valley somewhere between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago. Being so near the equator, this part of the world doesn’t experience much seasonality aside from the long Dry Season and the much shorter but vitally important Wet Season. Year-round temperatures are reasonably constant and unless an early hominid ventured to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro they’d never have experienced real cold and snow.
That all changed as our ancestors migrated out of Africa in waves, starting somewhere around 60,000 years ago (these dates are all subject to revision as more archeological evidence comes to light and as DNA analysis of ancient bones helps us to piece together our complex history). As our ancestors walked north they began to experience more extreme changes of climate. At a certain time of year it would be warm and sunny, yet later in the year the days would grow shorter and temperatures would fall. As we knew nothing about the universe, we invented tales to explain these strange and powerful phenomenon.
We invented sky gods whose anger was the origin of thunder and whose sadness was the origin of tears. We imagined some gods dying as the harvest was collected and then being reborn as the days began to lengthen again. It’s not a coincidence that Easter, which today is the fable of the rebirth of the Jesus god, was set near the Spring equinox where daylight and darkness more or less balanced out and heralded the return of good times and bounty. This is also the reason why a nominally Christian festival still contains ancient fertility objects like eggs and rabbits: the new Jesus myth was simply overlaid on the previous pagan myths and carried over many of their core elements.
The same is true, by the way, of most aspects of Christian mythology: many of its early saints are merely reworkings of old Roman and Greek gods and demi-gods, because we humans love multiplicity. Indeed the Christian notion of a Holy Trinity is nothing more than an adaptation of the Greco-Egyptian combination god Hermes/Thoth, as the singular cult god of the Hebrews known as Yahweh (and derived from the older cult god known as El) seemed insufficient to early Christians, especially in contrast to the philosophical wealth contained within the Greco-Roman pantheon they were seeking to supplant.
So the Christian celebration of Christmas is more adequately seen as a continuation of far older festivals, all inspired by our ancestors’ desire to usher in a new and bountiful year during the very darkest and least life-friendly period in the Northern Hemisphere they’d migrated to. No doubt there were human sacrifices aplenty before the Axial age slowly eradicated these more bloody customs and rituals by substituting either animals or symbolic objects in place of human victims. Again, the Christian mythology hints at this Axial age replacement, as does the Oresteia of Aeschylus and the Orestes of Euripides, among other literary artifacts that have survived the ravages and dissolutions of time.
It’s impossible for us today to imagine the very real insecurity experienced by our distant ancestors. They depended for their very lives on matters largely outside of their control. If the rains came at the wrong time or came too late or came in insufficient quantity, crops were ruined and many people would subsequently die of starvation. If a warm Spring was followed by several days of unwanted frost, crops would die and many people would subsequently die of starvation. It is no wonder that our ancestors invented rituals to attempt to placate the sky gods and the earth gods and it is no wonder that the turning of the year was of fundamental importance in their lives.
Today we think of the holiday season as a time to buy things we don’t need for people we don’t necessarily like, and over-eat ourselves into a stupor. But for our ancestors it was a time of great uncertainty and potential danger, not to mention careful rationing of food and a constant battle against cold and illness. The echoes of their psychological state carry over into our own very different world.
If you happen to live in the Northern Hemisphere, perhaps you’d like to step outside one midwinter’s eve and pause a moment in the biting cold. If you are attentive enough and imaginative enough, you may just hear a whisper of an ancestor earnestly invoking the gods to grant a bountiful harvest in the distant months ahead.