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Unpacking the Christmas Myth
Observations from the Edge
Robert T. Nanninga
December 16, 1999
Somehow, over the last hundred years, the great melting pot of greed has absorbed the true meaning of the holidays, and stuffed them into Santa's sack, to become a generic gift-giving orgy. Borrowing traits from each of the traditions it sought to eclipse, Christmas has became a hodgepodge of customs all subsumed and co-opted by consumerism. The Yuletide season is no longer a series of religious holidays based on faith and virtue. It has become a gaudy ritual manufactured by the commercial establishment designed to take your money.
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away winter festivals had many names and were celebrated according to local customs and beliefs. December 17th marked the beginning of the Roman festival of Saturnalia. During this seven day celebration, slaves were allowed to meet their masters on equal terms as a gesture of goodwill. The only aspect of Saturnalia that continues today is the extravagant decadence that surrounds our modern holiday.
December 6th is the day when the pageant of Saint Nicholas was celebrated. Born in the Greek city of Patara, Hagios Nikolaos grew up to be the Bishop of Myra. His gift-giving role in Christmas rites is probably a result of his fame as a friend to children. He was also known for giving gold coins to the needy. His cult, a group believing that a person could only achieve salvation through frequent sexual intercourse, spread the legend of St. Nick. Kinda puts the jolly fatman in a whole new light.
Understandably, the worship of St. Nick spread to Northern Europe, where he absorbed pagan attributes such as riding through the sky with reindeer. Since the reformation, Saint Nicholas has merged with Father Christmas. Also interesting, St. Nick is considered the patron saint of shopkeepers. A coincidence? I don't think so.
Joulupukki is the Father Christmas of Finland, which literally means Yule Buck. Joulupukki originated as a spirit of darkness who wore goat skins and horns. In the beginning, this creature didn't give presents but demanded them in lieu of reeking havoc. It is unclear how this pagan demon was transformed into the benevolent Father Christmas. The fur-lined coat that Santa Claus wears has its origin here, as does the North Pole, the traditional home of St. Nick. Where else would a man with reindeer live? Nowadays, Joulupukki of Finland resembles the American Santa Claus. In Scandinavia and Germany, Santa arrives on December 24th and knocks on the door, like any normal person. Only in America is he given the impossible task of squeezing his big butt down a chimney. Americans demand a lot of their cultural icons.
December 21st marks the winter solstice, and it is on this - the shortest day of the year - that Wiccans and the Druids observed the Winter festival. They had no need of fat men entering their homes unannounced. The Winter Solstice celebrates the Goddess giving birth to a son, the God, at Yule. This, by the way, pre-dates Christianity. Pagans have long held the Winter Solstice as a time of divine births. The Christians simply adopted it for their use in 273 C.E. (Common Era).
The idea of Christmas lights comes from the Pagan tradition of lighting yule fires or candles to welcome the sun's returning light. The only gifts given were to the poor. As this was the day of handouts, asking for money was considered "mumping." Sadly, Yule, one of the most holy of Pagan festivals, has been transformed into a time of no-holds-barred consumption.
Through the ensuing years, pieces of the story have been added to improve the marketing of the holiday. The Yule Log gave way to the Christmas Tree. Santa's elves were added to explain who made all the toys, and Mrs. Claus was added so we wouldn't get the wrong idea about St. Nick and the elves.
This holiday season, let's work collectively to get the commercial monkey off our backs. Let's tell those corporations who get rich - selling us things we don't need, can't afford, and have no place to put after we are done with them - that the cash cow stops here. As Americans, regardless of our religious beliefs, we need to reclaim this holiday as a spiritual one. If you have to give a gift this year, bake a pie, knit a sweater, or simply read to your children.
When you consume things, make sure your purchases help give back to something. Restore the true meaning of the holidays by volunteering at a local shelter. Create rituals that give to the planet and the human community, not detract from it. But most importantly, gather your loved ones around you and light a candle to the God or Goddess that speaks to you, and just relax.