Pagan Orgies to Human Sacrifice: The Bizarre Origins of Christmas
Christmas was not, as it turns out, miraculously handed down as a fully formed holiday, complete with wrapped gifts and blinking lights. Rather, it is a rich tapestry woven from countless inexplicable and pointless customs.
Why December 25th?
The Bible doesn't give a lot of clues as to what time of the year the birth of Jesus happened (i.e., "... they met many travelers along the way, for it was just three days before the final game of the NFL Season...") So, why December 25th? No one knows for sure.
One likely explanation is that early church leaders needed a holiday to distract Christians from the many pagan revelries occurring in late December. One of the revelries was The Saturnalia, a week-long festival celebrating the Romans' favorite agricultural god, Saturn. From December 17 until December 23, tomfoolery and pagan hijinks ensued, and by hijinks we mean gluttonous feasting, drunkenness, gambling and public nudity.
The Romans would also switch roles between masters and slaves for the occasion, so not only did the slaves get to pathetically lower their own sense of self-worth by participating in the charade of freedom, they also got to wear a Pileus (roughly translated, "Freedom Hat").
Google Image Search result for "Freedom Hat"
Master: "Happy Saturnalia! Here's your freedom hat! We're equals!"
Slave: "Thank you, master!" (puts on hat and primps in the mirror)
Master: "Saturnalia is over! Give me back my hat! How dare you put a hat on your slave head! YOU SHALL TASTE THE WHIP TONIGHT, BOY.
One other pagan celebration that might have given Christmas its date was Natalis Solis Invincti, which roughly translates to "Birthday of the Invincible Sun God," giving it officially the most awesome holiday name ever.
By the 12th century, the Christian Church had incorporated a few of the less-sinful pagan traditions into the 12 days of Christmas. We only wish the public nudity could have been left in ... maybe on the 10th or 11th day. Along with the gambling. And the drinking. Then again, it appears everyday is Saturnalia in Vegas so maybe we'll just go there instead.
Our favorite morbidly obese, undiagnosed diabetic trespasser is actually a bastardization of the Dutch Sinterklaas, which was actually a bastardization of Saint Nikolas, the holier-than-thou Turkish bishop for whom the icon was named.
The actual saint was not, in fact, famous for making dispirited public appearances at shopping malls. Rather, he was known for throwing purses of gold into a man's home in the cover of night so that the man wouldn't have to sell his daughters into prostitution.
So, back then Christmas wasn't "get a new Xbox day." It was, "you don't have to become a filthy whore day." While it could be argued that this basically makes Nicholas the anti-pimp, we prefer to think of him as the Bible's answer to Travis Bickle.
Later, Martin Luther invented his own Christmas symbol, Kristkindl, as part of his rejection of all things Catholic. What he came up with is by far the gayest of all Christmas symbols, as Kristkindl is portrayed as a "blond, radiant veiled child figure with golden wings, wearing a flowing white robe and a sparkling jeweled crown, and carrying a small Christmas tree or wand."
This is why you sometimes hear Santa referred to as "Kris Kringle."
Not surprisingly, most of the world has rejected his weird-ass version and over the years we've cobbled together our own Santa Claus: part Saint Nikolas, part Sinterklaas and part Norse god Odin. By the 19th century American writers were describing Santa as wearing a red sash with a skin-tight red suit with white spotted fur at the fringes. He was basically all those other figures with a little Freddie Mercury thrown in.
Writers at the time were still calling Santa an "elf," including Clement Clark Moore in his famous poem The Night Before Christmas. Perhaps the image of a dwarf-sized intruder seemed less threatening than a Chris Farley-sized version, but we're pretty sure we'd be more likely to piss our pants if an overly jolly costumed dwarf magically appeared and started hopping around our living room floor. The little person might just end up with a bullet in the head. Not that there's anything wrong with frolicking little people with a propensity for wearing elf garb, of course. Except that there totally is.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Some of you are disappointed that we explained Santa without mentioning that the modern image of him was invented for a Coca-Cola ad, as the Internet has probably told you. That's because it isn't true. Come on, guys. Not everything in the Western World is based on some crass marketing campaign.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, however, is.
This signature character in Christmas folklore, with his own song and movies and a mountain of yearly merchandise, was slapped together by the Montgomery Ward marketing team for a coloring book they were giving out. Prior to inventing Rudolph, they used to just buy the books and hand them out each Christmas, but in 1939 they figured it'd be cheaper to have one of their guys draw one up in his spare time. It's not like toddlers are great at detecting quality in these things.
So copywriter Robert L. May wrote it up, and created what turned out to be a marketing bonanza ... of which he didn't get paid a penny. A few years later the company actually let May have the rights to Rudolph, which was either an act of amazing corporate generosity or else they just assumed the Rudolph fad was over. After that, May's brother-in-law wrote up the song that you've no doubt heard every Christmas since you were born. It became a huge hit and the Rudolph marketing empire was born, along with a permanent addition to the Santa legend.
That's right; Europe brought their real-life saints, Norse gods and rich cultural traditions to the table, and America slapped on a promotion from a department store. Who knows, maybe 300 years from now Santa's sleigh will be towed by Energizer Bunnies, long after society has forgotten what an "Energizer" is. And, maybe Santa will sport a cheap cardboard crown and a creepy frozen grin.
Making out under the mistletoe
First of all, we'd love to know who actually puts up mistletoe in the first place. Everybody knows about it, but does anybody actually do it? We only see it in sitcoms and the occasional Hall and Oates Christmas video, but we're 99 percent sure no one actually uses it in the 21st century.
Nevertheless, people who have enough sickening Christmas spirit to purchase the plant, then find a nail, then grab a chair, then remember they forgot to get the hammer, go retrieve the hammer from the freakin' garage, and then hang the mistletoe, might be less likely to do so if they knew the origins of the plant. The word "mistletoe" may be derived from the old German "mist," for dung, and "tang," for branch. That's right, the shit stick. As in, "let's go kiss under the shit stick, baby."
So how did people ever make the connection between the shit stick plant and romance? It goes back to the pagan belief that the white, sticky goo from the berries was the semen of the gods.
There was also a Norse tradition that if two warriors should meet under some mistletoe in the forest (it's a parasite that grows on tree branches) that they would lay down their arms and declare peace for the day. History does not indicate if this included sweaty, Norse man-kissing so we're forced to assume it did.
Both the Celts and the Druids used the plant as in ceremonial rituals, and as antidotes to poison, which was unfortunate, since mistletoe is, in fact, poisonous. But, it was the English who finally made mistletoe part of the holiday tradition. They used to cut a sprig of it from the previous year's holiday greens, then hang it in the house in some sort of voodoo attempt to ward off lightning and evil spirits.
Somehow all of that ridiculousness combined to create the "girl has to kiss you" tradition as it exists today (again, mostly on sitcoms). The invaluable American addition to the tradition is, of course, the drunken male placing the mistletoe over his crotch.
Again, give it another couple centuries and that'll be the standard.
Decorating a tree
Question: What customary Christmas holiday decoration bases its origins in ritualistic human sacrifice?
Answer: What, you can't read the heading? It's the Christmas tree, you lazy bastard.
Back in the pagan day, all inanimate objects were fair game for worship. Trees, rocks, mountains, funny shaped sticks that look like phalluses, whatever. So supposedly some of the Norsemen got it in their heads to worship a thunder god named Thor by ritualistically sacrificing humans and animals at the tree they designated "Thor's Oak."
Little did they know that Thor was too busy fighting the Incredible Hulk to notice the messy sacrifices.
You know who did notice? Christian missionaries. They notice everything. So, one missionary of the Christian persuasion, Winfred (aka Saint Boniface), came upon an imminent sacrifice and sternly disapproved. He took an ax and chopped down Thor's freaking oak, which in itself should make him some sort of god by default. Of course, because of his boring ass monotheistic beliefs, instead of declaring himself the god of thunder, Winfred focussed on a tiny little fir tree that grew from the hacked trunk. And as all Cracked readers likely know, the fir trees' triangular shape represents the Trinity, and voila, a Christian tradition was born.
However the tree did not, according to legend, spring out of the ground with little blinking lights and tin foil on it's branches. The thing with decorating the tree goes as far back as the 16th century, when people in Germany used to decorate their trees with apples, a tradition we can only assume stemmed from some crooked tree salesman who ran out of apple trees one year and wouldn't admit it. Other decorations included nuts and cheeses which again appears to be the same salesman testing the gullibility of his clients.
A guy brought the tradition to America in the 1800s, and when we say "a guy" we literally know who it was: a German immigrant named August Imgard. He was the first to stick little candy canes on it, and to put a star at the top. Whatever German strand of mental imbalance caused him to do that, this guy's spur-of-the-moment decoration idea now utterly pervades the imagery of the holiday. He was just a very bored German dude that needed a place to hang his candy canes.
We can go on and on about how different Christmas would be without him, but of course his contribution pales in comparison to St. Boniface. Without him, when little Timmy runs down the stairs this Christmas the only present he would find would be the gift of human sacrifice.
Kristi Harrison is a mother of three who writes for HereInIdaho.com.
If you like this article, check out Jay Pinkerton and Sean Crespo's 6 Insane Christmas Traditions From Around the World.