When the feast of the nativity first arose there were no bells, no greenery, and no "good cheer"" The Fathers tried strenuously to keep Christmas strictly a churchly celebration as a Worship of the MADONNA AND CHILD. But they could not abolish the pagan customs of the winter solstice. Christmas was caught up with and carried away in pagan merrymaking.
The Mithraism passed away leaving few marks on the nativity celebration, being the successful rival. But the same thing cannot be said of certain other festivals which closed and opened the year among Romans and Germanics, the Saturnalia and the Yule. For many a day the church fought bitterly the superstitions and excesses bound up with the Kalends and Yule. But burning denunciations and threats of excommunication failed to wean the barbarians from their heathen modes of rejoicing. Those customs which could not be uprooted and destroyed were given a "christian" name and interpretation, and as such survive in many instances to the present day. So what the Church couldn't extricate, it sought to "consecrate" and "purify." These heathen contributions to the celebration of the nativity are what make Christmas what it is. When the season calls to mind crackling fires on the hearth, lighted candles, rooms adorned with evergreens, fruits and nuts, feast and frolic-- these are the genuine pagan elements which the catholic church could not uproot. When once drawn within the circle they were loath to leave.
We will look at various Christmas customs individually after first looking at how Christmas was introduced into other parts of Europe through Catholic missionaries.
The Germans, Gauls, and Britons celebrated Brumalia on December 25, and the Norsemen held Yule feasts between December 25 and January 6. Their Germano-Celtic pastoral feast was known by various names such as Jiuleis and Guili; in Scandinavia it was Yule. Many of the customs of these festivals as well as the Roman Saturnalia and Kalends of January became a part of Christmas.
The name Yule can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxon word for wheel, because it bore some relationship to the circular course of the sun through the wheeling points of the solstices and equinoxes. The Church sent out an army of missionaries, but even before the missionaries brought ideas of "Christian" Rome to them, the Germanic peoples had learned a good deal from pagan Rome. But the Near East (Mesopotamia--Babylon) had long influenced the Northland via the Balkans and the Danube valley. For instance, St. Nickolas may first have reached the heart of Europe not from the South but from the Southeast. But the Germanics had no way of measuring solstices and equinoxes until they learned it from the Romans. They also learned of the Romans' Saturnalia. After the barbarians were christianized all the customs and superstitions which had belonged from ancient times to their own yuletide, and all that they had imbibed from the Romans, began to cluster about it.
To the old pagan Germanics the year began with winter, but what they called winter included our late autumn. By October or November the harvest was in and the cattle bedded down. With the long months of snow ahead and barely the provender on hand for the beeves and swine, they considered it wise to thin out the herds lest later all the animals starve. A great slaughter was followed by feastings. This feasting was in thanks to their gods, Thor, Odin, Njord, and Frey.
The god who cared for the fertile herd was Frey (after whom Friday is named) and his animal symbol was the boar. Even after the pagan gods had passed away the boar sacrifice to Frey was too enjoyable to be forgotten. It survives in the feast of "Merrie Old England, in which the boar is treated as if it were some royal personage. The show of slaughtered beasts adorned with green garlands in an English town just before Christmas reminds some strongly of these ancient gory feasts, and the same thing can be said for the American marts with their hecatombs of turkeys. Their ancestors worshipped a god to whom they sacrificed, but they themselves probably never heard of Frey.
It was discovered by the Catholic missionaries that the heathen were more ready to abandon their gods and the dates of their festivals than to change their habits and manners. The festive board proved the least susceptible of all to transformation. So the Yule table remained a part of Christmas.
The Christianizing work went on. The pagan deities were all slain and entombed in the days of the week and in the months of the year. Friday was named for Frey. Wednesday is literally, "Woden's Day", and once Woden was chief among the Northern gods. How Woden became Santa Clause will be explained later in this chapter.
-to be continued-
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