This is Lee Carter for Atheists United. For the last three weeks I've been discussing the
origins of this holiday season, along with our present customs and the myths and
superstitions on which they're based.
On the first program I traced the history of Christmas back to its beginnings as a
celebration of the winter solstice, which marks the solar new year. On the second program, I
compared Christian mythology with the historical records of how Christianity actually began.
And last week I followed the lineage of Santa Claus, parades, feasting, gift-giving,
firecrackers, wreaths and Christmas trees.
But there are still more customs of importance, so today I'll conclude this series with the last
of them. One custom that's become outmoded in our modern world of apartment dwelling is
bringing in the Yule log. But for many centuries it was one of the highlights of the season. It
started with the Druids and Vikings of northern Europe. When the Norsemen built bonfires
on hilltops to aid the sun in its fight against winter, they'd select a particular log, which was
large, and of a fruit-bearing variety. It was probably associated with their sacred groves,
and with the magical tree called "Yggdrasil" or "Tree of the Universe." This was a mythical
tree whose roots reached down to hell, and whose branches stretched all the way to
heaven. When kings finally got the idea of building castles, it then became customary to
bring the log inside... to the huge fireplace... and celebrate lighting the bonfire in the comfort
of a banquet hall instead of a snowy hilltop.
Bringing in the log became a very festive pageant – with much singing, drinking, feasting,
and game-playing. Everyone participated because it was bad luck not to. When the log was
in place, it had to be kindled by a piece of wood left over from the previous year's log. And
after the log had burned, it was believed that its ashes had the power to ward off evil spirits
and cure diseases.
Another custom that's now become obsolete is the Boar's Head. In northern Europe the
fertility god was named Frey, whose symbol was the boar. When the harvest was in and
snow was on the ground, that was the time to slaughter any excess animals and store meat
for the winter. Since he represented a god, the boar was treated somewhat like the
sacrificial king was in Mesopotamia. He was pampered, honored, worshipped and then
executed. For Christmas dinner the main event was bringing in the boar's head on a silver
platter, with a crown still on his head. But whether they were aware of the parallel between
eating this fertility god and the Christian ceremony of the Eucharist we are not sure.
The ringing of bells on Christmas and New Year's is a custom that still survives in a few
places. This has always been common during the winter solstice celebration. They were
rung in the temples of Osiris in Egypt, of Attis and Cybele in Greece, and the temple of
Jupiter, in Rome. They were used to signal the beginning of services, to announce the time,
and to act as civil-defense alarm systems.
Church bells were also good at driving away evil spirits. So it was common for the bells to
be given Christian names and baptized before they were hung – otherwise they might
summon evil spirits instead.
One custom that survives in modified form is using lights as decoration. There's nothing so
cheerful on a snowy night as the warm twinkling of firelight. So there's been an evolution in
all cultures – from bonfires, to torches, to oil-lamps, to candles, and finally to electric lights.
During the Saturnalia, Romans decorated their homes with evergreens and candles. The
Jews celebrated Hanukah with their "feast of lights" for eight days.
In northern Europe, candles were kept burning throughout the entire winter to fend off
goblins – and make the bleak winter seem more cheerful. But by February, the days were
getting longer and the battle against darkness was nearing an end. So as a final assault on
any demons of winter that might still be lurking about, a special mass was held. This was a
procession through the streets, and into the church, with each person carrying a candle. In
492 CE, Pope Gelasius established Candlemass Day as a time for blessing all the
candles that were brought into the church. Believers would keep the blessed candle
throughout the year and light it whenever it was desirable to ward off evil spirits – such as
during an illness or storm. The wax was also smeared on various things to bless them and
bring good luck.
Candlemass probably originated with the Roman ritual called "Cerealia" when candles
were carried through the streets in honor of Ceres, who was searching for her daughter,
Proserpine. According to Greco-Roman tradition, Proserpine was a fertility goddess who
was kidnapped every winter and held captive underground by Pluto, but each spring she
was allowed to return to the surface to revive all life on earth.
Christmas cards also have an ancient heritage. It was customary for the Romans to send
holiday greetings to their friends and relatives during the Saturnalia. But it wasn't until the
mid nineteenth century that someone thought of the commercial Christmas card. Several
artists and writers were given credit for starting the enterprise.
One custom that's been revived in the last few years is the preparation of "wassail" for
office parties. This is a hot, alcoholic punch; and the name comes from the German phrase
"waes hael!" – which is simply a toast meaning "here's to you!" Farmers used to "wassail"
their orchards on Epiphany. They made a hot, apple cider, which they'd use to toast each
tree. First they'd sprinkle some on the tree, then drink some. This insured fertility for the
trees and tranquility for the farmer.
Finally, there's the custom of what is called a "crèche." This is a tableau of dolls arranged to
symbolize the birth of Christ. This "nativity" scene was said to have originated with St.
Francis of Assisi in 1224, in the town of Greccio, Italy. He staged a mystery play, or
pageant, which combined the story of the wise men from the book of Matthew, and the story
of the shepherds and manger from the book of Luke.
To this day, in Spain and Mexico, there's a pageant called "Los Pastores" (The
Shepherds.) It's a very long miracle play about how the shepherds traveled great distances
to find the Christ Child. This was acted out over a period of several nights. One of those
acts, called "Los Pasados" (The Lodgings) is still reenacted in Los Angeles. And Jean
Carlo Menotti wrote an opera for television, which plays every year, that also tells a
variation on this story. It's called "Amahl and the Night Visitors."
In some countries the nativity scene is the focal point of the holiday season. Each family
may have a scene set up in the house, varying from miniatures to life size, and from dime-
store toys to jewel-encrusted heirlooms. There's often a kind of contest within
neighborhoods to see who can design the most impressive crèche, or "putz," as it's also
Incidentally, atheists have no objections to churches, individuals, or private companies
setting up crèches on their own property. But when it comes to government agencies
setting them up on public property at taxpayer expense, that's a violation of the first
amendment. So we've filed several lawsuits against this practice. But the Supreme Court
has just ruled that a scene depicting the so-called miraculous birth of Jesus Christ has no
more religious significance than candles and evergreens. How's that for "doublespeak!"
Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” seems to have arrived a few months early!
At any rate, those are the primary customs that are associated with our holiday season, and
I hope you have found it interesting to know how they originated.
Now for the last few weeks, I'm sure you've heard many people say that Christmas has
become a "mockery" of its "true religious meaning” – it has degenerated into an excuse for
parties and overindulgence. Well, here's what really happened.
During the Saturnalia, Romans masqueraded through the streets, held sex orgies, feasts, and
drinking contests, in honor of Bacchus, also known as Jesus Dionysus, the god of wine and
merriment. They held reunions with relatives. Masters and slaves exchanged roles. And they gave
friends pieces of fruit cake, which brought good luck. As late as 303 CE, pagans in Europe were still
executing a mock king on the solstice. And St. Dasius was one Christian martyr who was executed
in this way.
The customs of the Romans gradually migrated to the rest of Europe. The parade of revelers
wearing masks were then called "mummers," and they wandered the streets in bands, headed by a
mock king who was dressed as a clown. They still built bonfires and practiced magic.
In Belgium and France, a cake was baked at the castle which contained one dried bean. When
guests came for presents, they were given a slice of cake, and the one who received the bean was
crowned "King of the Bean." This mock king was no longer executed, but he was still allowed to
issue orders, which everyone must obey. He was also referred to as the "Lord of Misrule," the
"Abbot of Unreason," and the "Pope" who presided over a "Feast of Fools," or "Festival of the
Asses." They made him a bald-headed, red-nosed, clown, and set him on a donkey, which he rode
backwards. He was followed by a retinue of tattered hobos, who followed him to a church where
they proceeded to satirize everything religious – a la Monte Python.
The period from "New Christmas" (December 25th) to "Old Christmas" (January 6th) was called the
"Twelve Days of Christmas” – best known today for a goofy Christmas carol about a Partridge in a
Pear Tree and a number of wacky gifts. Each day represented one month of the coming year. So
these days were filled with fortune-telling and magical incantations. The evergreen branches, for
example could bring good luck if someone switches you with them. So children used to collect gifts
from the neighbors by offering to beat them with green branches.
According to legend, King Arthur introduced Christmas to England in 521, after his victory at York.
And the Christmas season in England was the biggest festival of the year. There were clowns,
jugglers, music and dancing, jousting, hunting parties, gambling, etc. The castle jester, who usually
presided as the "Lord of Misrule," organized all the festivities, which lasted through the twelve days
– and sometimes longer. Christmas plays and dramatic festivals were held, and great pageants
were presented – that included much anti-religious satire and slapstick. Shakespeare's comedy,
"Twelfth Night," was written specifically for this occasion.
Christmas feasts got to be incredibly expensive. Preparations lasted all year. And the feast itself
sometimes went on for several days.
The entire holiday season, during the middle ages, shaped up like this:
November 11 was St. Martin's Day, calling for the beginning of bonfires.
This was followed by four "Advent Sundays."
December 6th was St. Nicholas' Day, when gifts and Christmas trees were brought to children.
Between then and December 25th, they would then troop about collecting more gifts.
December 24th was Adam and Eve Day, during which an apple tree was carried through the streets
in a parade, and then burned as a Yule Log.
December 25th was Christmas Day, and New Year's Day in England.
December 28th was Holy Innocent's Day – commemorating Herod's slaughter of the innocent
January 1st was New Year's Day on the continent.
January 6th was Epiphany, or "Twelfth Night" – when all greenery was taken down and burned in
February 2nd was Candlemass. In America it's now celebrated as Groundhog Day.
When the Puritans came into power under Oliver Cromwell in 1642, Christmas was forbidden in
England, as a blasphemous and pagan practice. But it was restored, along with the monarchy, in
1660. However, the celebrations ever since Cromwell have been much more subdued.
The English attitudes were exported to America, where the royalists continued to celebrate, and the
Puritans continued to pass laws forbidding the recognition of Christmas in their colonies.
The conflict continues to this day. The sour old Christian puritans continue to grumble – because
they have never been able to suppress the world's oldest and most exuberant natural holiday.
I hope you've enjoyed this series on the holiday season. We'd like to hear your comments. Be
listening next week at this same time for another commentary by Atheists United – The Rational