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Mythic Origins of Christmas

by Tara Miller

Please note that myth does not mean untrue. Myth means story or legend which may be viewed as fact by some cultures or religions and fiction by others.

Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ who, according to their bible in the books of Matthew and Luke, is the only Son of God born of the Virgin Mary to redeem humanity from its sins. He would be a "light unto the world" and a Shepherd who would guide Godís flock back to God. As miraculous and unique as this tale may seem it shares many similarities with other older myths from around the world. (Campbell 308.) The traditions of Christmas are common to ancient pagan customs. Actually, Christians have incorporated different customs into the celebration since it was first noted on the Roman calendar in the 4th century CE (Hirshberg). Because Christmas traditions vary greatly in each country, this essay will focus on the customs that have been incorporated into modern American society.

The Nativity scene is either a live reenactment, picture, or a miniature depiction of the birth of Jesus. It consists of at least Mary, Joseph her husband, and the infant Jesus. A rustic stable or cave may not be depicted or used as background. More elaborate Nativity will include some or all of the other characters, which played a part in this Christian myth. They are the shepherds, their sheep, the angel which heralded the infantís birth, three wise men who brought the child gifts as well as their camels, and several cows and donkeys. Live reenactments usually are held in churches and the smaller Nativity is displayed in homes as a reminder of this important occurrence in Christianity.

The announcement of the messiahís birth to Shepherds who Ďtend their flocks by nightí shows the human qualities and humility that Jesus would show in later biblical stories. The donkey is included in the Nativity because Mary rode on a donkey going into Bethlehem were Jesus was born and Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem as an adult. "The donkey represents many of the characteristics of the self-abasing Christ: patience, courage, gentleness, peace, and humility" (Tucker "Donkey").

It also gives an idea of when Jesus was born. Christmas is celebrated on December 25 which is the middle of winter. Shepherds didnít watch their flocks at night in the dead of winter. They would be out at night to make sure the lambing went well in the spring. So historically the New Testament of the bible would place Jesusí birth sometime in the spring (Nichols 2).

There are interesting parallels between pagan myths and that of Jesusí birth. Cultures all over the world celebrated the birth of a Sun God or a Sun Gods triumph during the winter solstice, December 21. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (OCRT) site an example of the Egyptian god Osiris who was worshipped as far back as Neolithic times. He was often called Lord of Lords, King of Kings, the Good Shepherd. His birth was announced by three wise men. "Worship of Osiris was established throughout the Roman Empire in the 1st century BCE" (OCRT). Another pagan God of the day was Mithra the Persian savior. Many followers of this deity believed he was born of a virgin and other aspects of his life paralleled that of Jesus later on. This God became popular with the Roman civil service and military. The Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a celebration of the return of the sun god Saturn, also took place on the winter solstice.

Mike Nichols states that in ancient Druidic and Celtic society the winter solstice or Yule was "... the birthday of the new Sun King," and "On the darkest of nights, the Goddess becomes the Great Mother and once again gives birth. And it makes perfect poetic sense that on the longest night of winter, Ďthe dark night of our soulsí, there springs the new spark of hope . . .".

In 320 CE the Catholic leaders in Rome made December 25 the official celebration of Christís birth in an attempt to incorporate the Roman Mithraic and Saturnalia traditions and the Yule festivities of the Celts (Nichols 1) (Beaulien).

The three wise men brought gifts to the newborn King. Actually three is a guess because the bible states that three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh where given but it doesnít tell how many wise men there were. The bible mentions they came from the east and different sources speculate as to where in the East these men came from. Were they from Saudi Arabia (SOON) or were they Zoroastrian astrologers (OCRT)? Traditionally the wise men are depicted in the Nativity as Arabians lavishly dressed in colorful silk robes and turbans.

The fact that the wise men gave gifts isnít as important as what they gave. According to one web site gold is a gift fit for a king, frankincense was burnt during worship services, and myrrh was used to bury the dead so it represents mortality a very human quality. These gifts symbolize the wise menís recognition of a god in the flesh (SOON) and they are a significant part of any Nativity reenactment.

The Christmas tree is a very important aspect of the Christmas tradition. The tree is traditionally an evergreen, usually a fir, and it is decorated. The custom of a tree at Christmas was brought about by the use of trees in pagan winter solstice festivals. Teutonic people thought evergreens had magical powers because it stayed green year round, so they brought them into their homes at the winter solstice to ward off evil spirits and bad weather. This is one reason evergreen is used to decorate the hearth or for door wreaths at Christmas. Candles were used to light up Christmas trees until electric lights were invented (Beaulieu).

This custom originated in Rome where people placed candles in trees to celebrate the return of the god Saturn who had been exiled by Zeus, according to their myths. Druids in Europe decorated trees as well to celebrate the sun god Balder (Beaulieu). In modern times, "Candles are an image of Christ, His purity, and the salvation He offers humanity, especially under His title of Ďthe Light of the World.í The flame represents His divine spiritual nature and the candle symbolizes His human fleshy nature" (Tucker "Candles").

The seven days before Christmas are called Advent, in the Christian religion, because it represents the anticipation of and preparations one must make for the birth of Christ. Seven candles are lit, one for each day. The center white candle in an Advent wreath represents the Christ.

Today, an angel or star is placed at the top of the tree to represent the angel which proclaimed Christís arrival and the star which guided the wise men. Other decorations such as colorful ribbons and bows, glass balls, miniature gifts and other things of winterland wonder such as snowmen and sleighs are used.

Exchanging presents has become a secular must as well as a religious tradition of modern day Christmas. Presents are given as a reminder of the ultimate gift God gave to humanity, his only Son. Gift giving has become a commercial fan fare and is often required as social courtesy during Christmas (Restad).

This tradition was started by St. Nicholas who lived in Myra, modern day Turkey in the 4th century CE. Nicholas wanted to give to the poor anonymously. Legend has it "that one day he climbed the roof of a house and dropped a purse of money down the chimney. It landed in the stocking which a girl had put to dry by the fire" ("Christmas"). This myth is the reason children hang bright red stockings from the hearth, or anywhere if they donít have a fireplace so Santa Clause (shortened from the Dutch "Sinterklass"), can put goodies in their stockings ("Christmas").

The modern Santa Clause, an Americanization of Saint Nicholas, with his "fur-trimmed red suit, sackful of toys, reindeer, sleigh and home at the North Pole" (Restad) was started by Clement Moore in the 1820s and later by Thomas Nast. Moore came up with the idea that eight reindeer pulled his sleigh. Nast had Santa make the toys in a workshop and use ledgers to keep track of Childrenís behavior. He also depicted Santa as working with elves, married, and in some accounts he and Mrs. Clause had children (Restad). Somehow the story of Santa Clause evolved to say that he placed the bigger toys under the Christmas tree and not just little goodies in the stockings. Perhaps it is due to a growing sense of capitalism and commercialism in America.

The lyrics to one of the more famous Christmas carols goes "Deck the halls with bows of holly ...". Indeed, for the Romans holly was a symbol of goodwill and friendship. It was customary to send a sprig of holly along with their friendís gift. The ancient people of Northern Europe hung holly on their doors to shelter woodland spirits from the cold which would ensure good luck (Benning).

Mistletoe or "thief tree" is a parasitic plant which grows on the branches of broad-leafed trees. Because it never touches the ground ancient people thought it was not of this earth. Kissing under the mistletoe is a popular Christmas custom. This custom may have its origin in the Scandinavian myth of Balder the Norse sun god. "According to this myth when Balder was born, his mother, Frigga, goddess of love and beauty, obsessed with concerns for her sonís safety, created charms and drew promises from every creature, plant, and object that they would do no harm to him. Unfortunately, Frigga forgot to extract a promise from the mistletoe and the evil god, Loki, tricked his blind brother into throwing a mistletoe spear at Balder and inadvertently killing this god of sunlight and vegetation. The death of Balder brought winter into the world and caused Frigga to cry pitifully that her tears turned into the plantís white berries. Fortunately, the gods restored Balder to life. The Frigga declared that the mistletoe must ever after bring love rather than death into the world. Everyone passing under this plant was enjoined to embrace as Frigga planted a kiss of gratitude upon them in memory of the resurrection of her son" (Tucker "Mistletoe").

Christmas has incorporated many traditions and has evolved along with society. Yet its mythic bases stays the same: In a world shrouded in the darkness of pain and suffering, the Divine shed its light of eternal hope and rejuvenation.

Bibliography Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton : Princeton UP, 1973. Beaulieu, Don. "O Christmas Tree." US Catholic. EBSCOhost online. Dec. 1995. Benning, Hayward. "Plants of the Winter Solstice." Conservationist. EBSCOhost online. Nov. 1993. Hirshberg, Charles. "Christmas Around the World." Life. EBSCOhost online. Dec. 1996. Nichols, Mike. "Midwinterís Eve: Yule." Earth Spirit Newsletter. 1 (1997) : 1-3. Ontario Contsultants on Religious Tolerance. "Christmas." http://www.religioustolerance.org/xmas.htm (10, Feb. 1998). Restad, Penne. "Christmas in 19th-Century America." History Today. EBSCOhost online. Dec. 1995. SOON Online Magazine. "Christmas". Dec. 1997. http://www.soon.org.uk/christmas.htm (15 Feb. 1998). Tucker, Suzetta. "Bestiary: Donkey or Ass." Christian Legends and Symbols. 1997. http://pages.prodigy.com/Christstory/donkey.htm (15 Feb. 1998). Tucker, Suzetta. "Christmas Symbols: Candles." Christian Legends and Symbols. 1997. http://pages.prodigy.com/Christstory/candle.htm (15 Feb. 1998). Tucker, Suzetta. "Christmas Symbols: Holly." Christian Legends and Symbols. 1997. http://pages.prodigy.com/Christstory/holly.htm (15 Feb. 1998). Tucker, Suzetta. "Christmas Symbols: Mistletoe." Christian Legends and Symbols. 1997. http://pages.prodigy.com/Christstory/mistleto.htm (15 Feb. 1998).

Copywrited Tara Miller 1998


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