A story by Tricia Szirom
Driving out the other morning I was listening to the Gardening Show where they were talking about buying Christmas trees, when the question came up of where this Christmas tradition comes from and neither of the presenter knew. “Probably something pagan in origin that was taken over.” Said one. “Interesting to know.” Was the reply.
According to many sources, the tradition of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas started in Livonia and in Germany in the 16th century. However the link between an evergreen tree and the 25th December predates Christmas and even the birth of Jesus.
According to ancient Babylonian tradition, Semiramis (who eventually became known by the various names as the Goddess Astarte/Asherah/Ashtoreth/Isis/ Ishtar/Oestre) claimed that after the untimely death of her son/husband Nimrod a full grown evergreen tree sprang up overnight from a dead tree stump. Semiramis claimed that Nimrod would visit that evergreen tree and leave gifts each year on the anniversary of his birth, which just happened to be on December 25th.
The ancient Babylonians, came to worship these trees as the ‘Queen of Heaven’, and gifts were brought to the groves of trees that had been grown in her honor and placed beneath them as offerings. The Babylonians also used wreaths to represent the nativity of the sun, since they were objects that depicted the "womb" of the Earth mother.
The modern tradition of decorating the Christmas tree is a custom that evolved from the silver fir and pine groves associated with the Great Mother Goddess. The lights and ornaments hung on the tree as decoration were symbols of the Sun, Moon, and Stars as they appear in the Cosmic Tree of Life.
In the book of Jeremiah (as recorded in the Old Testament) the "heathen" would cut down trees, carve or decorate them in the form of a god or goddess, and overlay it with precious metals. Of course Jeremiah condemned this behaviour (As did the Protestants at later times).
In ancient Europe Pagans did not cut down evergreen trees, bring them into their homes and decorate them as that was counter to their worship of nature. However they did decorate their houses with clippings of evergreen shrubs and decorated living trees with bits of metal and replicas of the god, Bacchus.
Christian Adoption of December 25th
December 25th is referred to for the first time in 324 AD in documents as Christmas Day when it was recognized as an official Christian official holiday. Many of today's customs came into Christianity through Constantine who, in 325 AD, began the process of converting the official Pagan religion of the Roman Empire to Christianity.
The period of 20-25th December in the northern hemisphere has been one of great celebration from ancient times. Winter solstice, the turn of the year, with the return of the sun was a significant time right across Europe and the Middle East from pre-history. In every culture there were goddesses and gods honoured at this time. Many Pagan Gods have Yule as their birth date including Ra, Cronos, Lugh, Mirthra and Odin, for example. This celebration was usually about the Goddess and the birth of her son (associated with the return of the sun).
For example, in ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. 'Yule' is the Chaldee name for an 'infant' or 'little child'; and as the 25th of December was called by our Pagan Anglo-Saxon ancestors, 'Yule-day,' or the 'Child's-day,' and the night that preceded it, 'Mother-night'. There was also a celebration of the birth of the son of the ‘Queen of Heaven’.
In the northern parts of Europe the night before mid winter solstice is known as Helya’s night, in ancient times the children were blessed and committed to the protection of a goddess, ancestor, or the female deities known as the Disir In later years the ceremony became Christianised and the mother was equated with the Virgin Mary.
While this time was sacred across the ancient world it was an old Roman festival that played a major part in the choice of this particular day. December 25th in ancient Rome was the 'Dies Natali Invictus,' 'the birthday of the unconquered son,' the day of the winter solstice and at the same time, in Rome, the last day of the Saturnalia. This pagan festival was transformed by the Catholic Church into the festivities of Christmas, in honor of the Madonna and Child.
Along with the evergreen tree, many of the plants used at Christmas are symbols of fertility. The holly, the ivy, and the mistletoe are three of particular interest. Holly was the plant of death and regeneration sacred to Mother Hollie, or Hel, the Goddess of the underworld. The red berries represented female blood of life while the white of the mistletoe was the semen of the sacred marriage. In Dionysian beliefs the male symbol was the ivy and boughs of holly and ivy decorated doors at solstice. So when you join your family in singing ‘The Holly and the Ivy’ you are singing of an ancient pagan tradition
Creating Father Christmas
Christian mythology linked the modern ‘Santa Claus’ with a bishop by the name of St. Nicholas of Asia Minor of the fourth century. However it has recently been acknowledged that this is not the case and that St Nicholas did not himself exist. Traditions of a god who gave gifts under an evergreen tree antecede the Asian Minor bishop by thousands of years! Among the Scandinavians it was the god Odin or Woden who left special gifts during the Yuletide season under the evergreen tree, his sacred tree! The tradition of Santa Claus coming down the chimney dates back many centuries. The Norse believed that the goddess Hertha appeared in the fireplace and brought good luck to the home. In some Scandinavian traditions, Frau Holle is known as the feminine spirit of the woods and plants, and was honored as the sacred embodiment of the earth and land itself. She is associated with many of the evergreen plants that appear during the Yule season, especially mistletoe and holly.
And what about the food we eat during the Christmas celebratory season? The story of the death of Adonis, also known as Tammuz, involved a fatal wound from the tusk of a boar. Supposedly this lead to a tradition of sacrificing a boar on this particular Pagan holiday. Another myth about the sacrifice of the boar is in its connection to the Norse god Freyr. Today, a Christmas ham is a traditional favorite for many.
The tradition of the Christmas pudding comes from the solistice celebrations when often there was very little left after the long cold winter. Dried fruits, some flour and eggs made a fine treat. Small tarts were originally based on the cakes made each day of the festive season by the priestesses as ‘bloodless offerings’ to the Queen of Heaven.
In some countries the table is decorated with a chocolate ‘yule log’ which is symbolic of the yule log discussed above.
A few other examples of adaptation and adoption include: the use of jingle bells is from an Old Norse custom to drive away the evil spirits, at a time and place where night was longer than day. The Yule log is actually an indoor equivalent of the outdoor bonfire of Midwinter Eve. There used to be an old custom of saving a piece of the Yule log, 'for luck' to kindle the next year's blaze. The wreath, the complete circle, represents the Wheel of the Year. The colours of Christmas, green and red and gold, are also derived from pagan traditions.
In the Southern Hemiphere
Many years ago my immediate family decided that our annual celebrations would be Summer and Winter Solstice given our commitment to Goddess spirituality. However our broader families and friends celebrate Christmas; some because they hold a strong Christian belief and others because of the cultural traditions and connection to family.
As can be seen, Christmas has always been more Pagan than Christian, with its associations of Nordic divination, Celtic fertility rites, and Roman Mithraism. However all of this relates to winter in the northern hemisphere and we celebrate Christmas in the middle of summer here in Australia. Many of the traditions have been brought from various European countries and cultures and most of them sit uneasily in this hot dry climate.
Understanding the origins of many of the Christmas myths and rituals has helped me to cope with, and even enjoy, this time of the year when we come together in family and friendship groups. And it is possible to adapt them to more appropriately associate with summer solstice. For example use of an Australian native as a tree (preferably still in the garden) such as a Woolemi pine and decorate it with images of Goddesses associated with the summer solstice.
This time is of new beginnings, of reflection on the past year, taking a deep breath and planning for the next. Create a ‘gratitude’ calendar with the twelve days of the season marking a time in which you are grateful. Decorate with gold to represent the abundance of the Earth Mother. Make your own gifts so that they come from your heart and abundance of spirit and gift of time.
For me it doesn’t matter if I have Solstice and Christmas in the same week; it is the opportunity to take time out and to make a priority of those people who are important in my life. To let them know that this is a special family occasion whether the family is of choice or birth; a time when I honour their part in my life and bless the Goddess that they are with me. Goddess Bless Us Every One