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Saturday, December 27, 2014
SURPRISING ORIGINS OF HOLIDAY TRADITIONS by Vijaya Schartz
As I researched my medieval series, The Curse of the Lost Isle, I was reminded of old holiday traditions, and discovered a few had surprising origins.
Whether we celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, the Saturnalia, the new year, or any other holiday tradition, we usually believe the origins are specific to a religion or simply marking the passage of time. Not so. Our traditions are an amalgam of many Druid, Pagan, Norse, Celtic, Greek, Roman and other old traditions, passed on and adapted to the changing beliefs of the time.
Historically, fifteen thousand years ago, well before Christianity, our ancestors celebrated the winter solstice shortly after December 21st. Not just in Europe, but all over the northern hemisphere. When they noticed the darkness receding as the days grew longer, they celebrated their hope for the return of long, sunny days. That was enough to rejoice, although many superstitions and traditions were added to the celebrations. Archeological digs near Stonehenge revealed a multitude of animal bones believed to be the remnants of sacrifices to the gods, and extensive feasting involving gatherings of thousands of people for the winter solstice.
The rise of Christianity proved laborious, often imposed at the point of a sword. Many older cultures already entrenched in their own customs, refused to abandon their cherished traditions in the name of the new religion. Unable to prevent the newly converted Christians from celebrating their old Pagan holidays, the Church leaders in the fourth century instituted a new holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus (the existence of whom many Christians tended to refute) on December 25th, so it would stand at the heart of the formerly Pagan celebrations. Thus, the old traditions remained, in the name of a different god.
Scholars have long ago determined that according to the seasonal details in the scriptures, Christ would have been born during the spring, when the flocks of sheep pastured in the hills. Besides, according to the astrologers of the time, Jesus brought forth the age of the Pisces (the fish is still a strong Christian symbol), and according to the Zodiac, would have been a Pisces himself, consequently born in March.
Other customs, like decorating houses with lights and hitting the shopping malls, are quite recent. Queen Victoria started the trend of gift giving at Christmas, and in the Twentieth Century it gave birth to an entire industry. She also promoted the Christmas tree.
As for the Christmas tree, Norse and other Pagan cultures used to cut boughs of evergreen in winter and move them into the home or temple, then decorated them. Modern-day Pagans still do. An English monk who'd traveled to Germany, brought the tradition to England in the Seventeenth Century. When I was a child in France, the local priest forbade his parishioners to have a decorated tree, as it was considered a heathen tradition. Only a Nativity scene graced our home at Christmas time.
In my father's family in Western France, Santa Claus or Pere Noel (Father Christmas) was also forbidden to good Catholics well into the 1960s. The myth of Father Christmas dashing through the sky in his sleigh derives from old Pagan spirits flying through the sky at mid winter. My cousins were told that Jesus himself came through the chimney at night to bring presents to well behaved children. Even the good St. Nicholas (who eventually became Santa Claus) was shunned by the Church for centuries for its Pagan overtones. The early Puritans of the East coast also banned the Christmas celebrations for centuries because of their Pagan roots... and the heavy drinking and excesses usually accompanying the festivities.
Kissing under the lucky sprig of mistletoe is a Greek Saturnalia tradition. Mistletoe was sacred to the Greeks and the Celts as well as the Druids. It also had magical powers, and was the center of many fertility rituals. But it didn't correspond with the New Year at the time.
The New year started on March 25, until Pope Gregory XIII instituted the new calendar in 1582. If you look closely at our modern calendar, the names of the months are all wrong. While the first months wear the names of Roman gods and emperors, September (according to the Latin roots) means the seventh month, October the eighth month, November the ninth month, and December the tenth month. This is because as Pope Gregory changed the date of the new year and promoted January to the first month of the year, the names of the calendar months remained the same.
This said, I believe the holidays should be a time of rejoicing, celebrating all the traditions of Earth's many rich cultures. After all, with the explosion of cyber-media, we will soon be one people embracing all traditions, coming together with love and forgiveness at year's end, each making resolutions of becoming a better person for the benefit of all. I wish you the best of holidays this year, and lots of happiness in the New Year.