You know what? I'll admit it
I'll do it. I think I'm secure enough in my coolness
to admit to un-ironically liking something mainstream.
I like Christmas.
I love that time of year!
The snow, the lights, the brightly-colored ornaments
and extravagantly decorated trees
the staying in at night and drinking hot chocolate
while huge fluffy flakes of snow drift down and illuminate the street
with the softly refracted glow of the orange street lights...
I like it, alright? It's magical.
Now most people know the base line story of Christmas:
the whole birth of Jesus thing,
But most people also know that Christmas is a lot more than that
with a lot of old traditions and suspiciously Pagan sounding rituals
bound up in it.
So let's take a hot minute this busy holiday season to talk about Christmas.
What it is, how it got that way,
et ctera, et cetera.
So, at its heart, Christmas's story begins with the story of the birth of Jesus
and most people already know this,
but for the sake of completeness let's give a quick run-down:
The heavily-pregnant Virgin Mary
Having been magically impregnated by the big man upstairs
is out with her husband, Joseph searching for a place to give birth.
There are several different accounts of where exactly that happened
ranging from a guest room in an inn to a cave on the edge of town,
but the short of it is
Jesus gets born in Bethlehem,
is laid in a manger because they have nowhere else to put him,
and is immediately worshipped by all the local farmhands
and farm animals in attendance.
so begins the wondrous tale of big J versus the world.
But while this is the central story behind Christmas as a celebration,
It's nowhere near the whole story
For one thing, why December 25th?
It's kind of a random date
and given how many calendars we've cycled though
it's always kind of touch-and-go pinning down historical figures' birth dates
with any degree of accuracy
well, this is actually kind of tricky,
like the rest of this will be.
According to one theory,
Christmas is December 25th because the Roman feast
honoring Sol Invictus is December 25th
and it was an attempt to appropriate pre-existing festivities
According to another theory, its the other way around.
Kind of a you-got-peanut-butter-on-my-chocolate situation
But there's a lot more weirdness to Christmas that didn't come from the Nativity
Where did caroling come from?
Wreaths? Christmas trees?
Christmas ham? Santa!?
Well the first thing to know is that winter festivals were very common throughout Europe
and a lot of them got absorbed into Christmas over the centuries
Christmas being celebrated with a feast probaly dates back to about 300 A.D.
because prior to that it was actually considered morally wrong
or at least goofy
to celebrate a birthday with that much pomp and circumstance
especially the birthdays of gods.
But after Christmas was established as a festival,
with the spread of the celebration
traditions kinda started getting folded into it.
One of the big ones is Saturnailia
A week long Roman holiday honoring Saturn
that involved a big public banquet, some sacrifices,
some wacky role-reversal social games,
private gift-giving, and evergreen wreaths
But the bigger influence on Christmas is probably Yule
which is a Germanic Pagan-y holiday probably honoring Odin
given some etymological links between his name and the holiday
Side note: the etymological root of "Yule" might also be where "jolly" comes from.
which is an oddly expected coincidence
Anyway, Pagan Yule practices involved a huge feast,
the sacrifice of a Yule boar,
which is probably where the Christmas ham came from,
a lot of drinking, and a few other heavily Pagan associations.
For one thing, Yule was usually associated with the Wild Hunt,
A ghostly procession of huntsmen through the Winter sky
frequently said to be led by Odin himself
which might be where we got the initial idea
of a beardy old man flying through the air accompanied by horses or reindeer.
Anyway, another later incorporation was the Koliada
a Slavic winter festival that featured caroling, bonfires, music, dancing,
and a decorated evergreen stored in one's home.
Baisically, a lot of modern Christmas comes entirely from nifty pagan sacrificial rituals
to welcome the spring.
evergreen decorations, Specific kinds of cooked meats,
caroling, gifts, all that good stuff.
So in the middle ages, Christmas was celebrated in a similar way to Saturnailia
It had the role-reversal thing, the big public parties, stuff like that.
But it also kind of took a back seat to Epiphany,
aka Three Kings Day, or January 6th
which was recognized by some sects as the day Jesus was baptized.
But, oh man, if you thought we had a war on Christmas now
let me tell you something about the Puritans
See, the Puritans knew Paganism when they saw it,
and the Puritans were NOT on board with the Pagan parts of Christmas.
aka the fun parts
Just like they weren't on board with the fun parts of anything
In fact, in 1647 the Puritan rulers of England banned Christmas
leading to some of the most hilarious rioting in history
they took over Canterbury and decorated the whole place with evergreens
And for more crazy facts, Scotland abolished Christmas for over 300 years
Staring in 1640 and not officially calling it quits until 1958.
Now, because a lot of the first pilgrims to America were Puritans
this led to some prevalent anti-Christmas sentiments
among the early colonists
although it wasn't universal.
Boston actually didn't start consistently celebrating Christmas until the mid-1800s
But New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia jumped on the Christmas band wagon pretty quick
Unfortunately, post-revolutionary war
Christmas was kind of thought of as a lame English thing
and lost popularity in America again
In fact, George Washington used this to his advantage
by ambushing a group of German mercenaries the day after Christmas
since they were all partied out and his forces weren't.
Christmas gained popularity in America again thanks in large part to Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol'
Which stressed Christmas as a time for family, generosity, parting, etc.
As well as re-casting people who disliked Christmas as unpleasant miserly old folk
doomed to die without fanfare or mourning
which is... pretty dark and a bit manipulative
but who cares, that book is great.
Anyway, this is around the that Christmas trees started getting big
Formerly, they were and early modern German tradition
but they were brought to Britain, and by extension America
By Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz when she married King George III
before that, the origins are pretty unclear
it might just be an extension of the whole Pagan evergreen decoration thing
but it could also be influenced by trees of paradise
set pieces from medieval mystery plays
that were decorated with apples, later replaced with shiny red ornaments
and used as backgrounds in plays about Adam and Eve
This is also around the time when the people 'A Visit From St. Nick' came out
You know, "T'was the night before Christmas" and all that
Which pretty much introduced the idea of Santa Claus to the mainstream
But just like his holiday
St. Nick ended up absorbing a whole bunch of similar related holiday figures
the base figure was St. Nicolas
A fourth-century Christian saint with a penchant for surreptitiously giving people presents
He was hybridized with Father Christmas,
an English figure from the 1400s serving as an anthropomorphic personification of Christmas itself
There's also Sinterklaas, a Netherlands interpretation of St. Nick
with a lot more "saint" in his image
and... Joulupukki... which I am definately not pronouncing right
a Finnish version who's got the red suit with the fur trim,
the wife, the little gnome-like helpers
and he also might be connected with a Yule figure; the Yule Goat
and an overarching figure bound up in Santa Claus is our old pal Odin again
who, in true myth form, keeps showing up in unexpected places in unexpected forms
Santa Claus has more than a few elements from the wild hunt concept we touched on earlier
including the unusual flying mount
and the striking visual of a bearded old man streaking across the night sky
and in case you're not sold on this theory yet,
Odin, among other things, apparently had a habit of entering houses through the chimney.
So, Yeah. While I doubt that little character tidbit
will be showing up in American Gods season 2
its definitely fun to think about
Around the turn of the 1900s, L. Frank Baun, the writer of the Oz series
wrote a book called 'The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus"
which boosted the character popularity for Santa rather significantly
and also gave him a crazy backstory
I'd recommend it.
I read the book when I was a kid and I think it might have made me cry.
Santa's modern image as a jolly old man in a red suit with white fur trim
got solidified in the 1930s when he was rather infamously used as a Coca-Cola ad
Which, while I will admit is a disappointing case study
on the eternal struggle between consumerism and innocent cheer,
is not the scathing anti-establishment message I know so many of us were hoping for.
since Santa predated the commercial and Coca-Cola was not the first soda company to use him as a mascot
So yeah, in short, Christmas is basically a beautiful syncratic fusion of a whole bunch of different traditions
but they all share the ideas of partying, having fun, staying warm, and being with your families
As well as, for some reason, worshiping a modern cheery interpretation of Odin
and decking the halls in boughs of holly
I'm not sure why *those* are the two universal factors that bind Christmas together
I guess you could take away from this that there's no wrong way to celebrate Christmas
because there's no right way to celebrate Christmas
the other message you could take away is that Odin shows up in the most unexpected places
but then again, anyone with even a passing familiarity of Odin would not be surprised by this knowledge
Merry Christmas everybody!
[Red sings 'Silent Night']
[Red sings 'Feliz Navidad']
What's up everybody? It's that time of year again and you know what that means
we've got three and a half shiny new designs for you
A cozy winter vacation, coursesy of the underworld's #1 power couple
an thrilling chase between Egypt's many sun-affiliated gods
as they contend for the role of #1 solar deity
And two variants of a design featuring everyone favorite one-eyed trickster god
celebrating Yule in the fashion of the times
and of course, we've still got our old classics knocking around
so, if you like wearing clothes or drinking beverages out of containers
swing by our threadless store and give our cafe press a once-over.
link's in the description and have a happy holiday.