Friday, December 23, 2005

The Pagan Origins of Christmas

The word yule means wheel (from Anglo-Saxon hweol), as in the Great Wheel of the Year or the Wheel of the Sun. It symbolizes a pagan nativity of life as a cycle of death and rebirth, with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus replaced by Mother Nature, Father Time, and the New Sun (read: son). This was used throughout history as a symbol of Nordic divination, Celtic fertility rites, and Roman Mithraism (a solar religion). The most familiar symbol of Yule is the Yule log, which is lit on the eve of the solstice and burned for 12 hours for good luck, a Druidic tradition. The ashes of the year’s Yule log are saved and used to ignite the next year’s. The Yule tree later replaced the log in Germany and other places, with candles set upon it. Catholics later said that St. Boniface invented this custom, but it actually goes back to the Roman Saturnalia, and possibly further than that, to Ancient Egyptian festivals. The Christmas lights are the last remnants of this, but its symbolism is important--light overcoming the darkness and foreshadowing the spring. After all, who doesn’t feel secure and warmed in the dark by the presence of soft Christmas lights?

The Tree
The evergreen tree is of great importance to pagans, more so than to Christians. Roman Mithraists used to decorate their temples with evergreen trees specifically for the feast.

Mistletoe comes from the Druids, who believed it to be an aphrodisiac (symbolically, of course--it’s actually quite toxic). Celts believed it was the Golden Bough when it dried, a door to the underworld (Norsemen called it guidhel, the guide to Hel). When alive, it represented the genitalia of the oak god, usually Dianus of Dodona, the sacred oak grove where the consort of the moon mother lived. A key entering a lock is a mystical symbol of the phallus entering the womb, another reason mistletoe was the key to the feminine underworld, where all true knowledge was held. Cutting the mistletoe was the symbolic castration of the old king to make way for the new, reflected best in the legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the Norse Balder, who was slain with mistletoe. Kissing under the mistletoe is a faint remnant of the sexual orgies that used to accompany the rites of the oak god, or Green Man. When converted to Christianity, the Saxons equated mistletoe with the Tree of Knowledge from the garden of Eden.

Holly symbolizes death and regeneration and was sacred to the Norse goddess of death, Hel. Germanic witches favored holly wood for magic wands. The two berries are mixed together in a symbol of rebirth--the white mistletoe berries standing for male semen, and the red holly berries standing for the female menstrual blood. They are joined at Yule, the rebirth of the year. These are where the red and green colors of Christmas originated. Dinoysian cults substituted ivy for mistletoe, which is still heard in the Christmas carol "The Holly and the Ivy."

We Three Kings
The story of the three wise men is reflected in an Irish legend. In the time of Alexander, the land of Persia was called Carmania, "Car the Moon." According to the Irish legend, three powerful magicians came from this land bearing their bride, which was actually an idol of the Great Goddess under the name Car or Kore. The magicians were found as charlatans and fled, leaving their idol behind. The worship of Kore, the Holy Virgin, was widespread in the ancient world, from Karnak, Egypt, to Carnac, Brittany (the word itself is Greek, meaning girl). She was worshipped in France at Kerlescan, Kercado, and Kermario, and by the Carnutes who lived in pre-Roman Italy. The Roman alphabet was said to have originated with Carmenta, "the mind of Car." Mount Carmel was a shrine to the goddess, and her Coptic cult in Egypt--which has once performed mass sacrifice at Kerma in Nubia--flourished in Alexandria until the 4th century AD. She was worshipped for twelve nights (now the Twelve Days of Christmas), and the twelfth night (now the Feast of Epiphany) was the Koreion, the birth of the New Year God. The British still take the Koreion, after a fashion, as the Kirn, or Festival of Intergathering, later changed to the Feast of Our Lady of Mercy.

Santa Claus
When he isn’t pitching Coca-Cola (whose ads, incidentally, popularized the "traditional" look of Santa), Claus is a wonderful amalgamation of many different figures. The god of Yule to many Druids was Kriss Kringle, whose name literally means "Christ of the Orb" or "Christ-child" (Christkindl in German), the anointed King of the Sun. French Celts associated the year with Cernunnos, the horned god of the wood. The Norse gave the festival first to Frey, and then to Odin, the usurper of women’s power. The Saxons and Franks called him Woden; the Goths called him Godan or Father Goth. In Germany, legends tell of the Erlkonig, or Elf King, who leads the Wild Hunt every year at Halloween. Somehow, this legend was moved to Christmas and became Santa’s sleigh ride. The elves of Santa Claus are right out of these Teutonic legends, because elves were men and women who belonged to the cult of the dead--i.e. they were helpers of the god of death, Woden.

It is in Odin that the tree and Claus get especially combined. Odin hanged himself upside down from the World Tree with a spear for nine nights, a symbol of the nine-month childbirth period the Celts called noinden, or "nine-night." This was how Odin learned the secrets of the Earth Mother’s "wise blood," kept in her uterine cauldron (the cauldron itself is a symbol of regeneration and rebirth). This tree of martyrdom, called the Tau Cross or Cross of St. Anthony, allowed Odin to create his own son and reincarnation, Balder; similar to the myths of Attis, Adonis, and Jesus. Odin, the All Father (though not a creator), is older than the Teutons, originating with the Aryans who came west out of Asia, and is descended himself from Vata, the Vedic Lord of the Winds. Odin and Vata share the same title that the Christian bible gives Satan: Prince of the Power of the Air. In later centuries, fetishes and figures were attached to sacred trees to represent a pantheon of pagan deities. We continue the tradition today by placing our important symbols, including Santa Claus and Jesus Christ, and even pop culture symbols (I myself have the Superman and Kermit the Frog on my tree).

The Dutch called him Sinte Klaas, which is how the name Santa Claus gets over here in the first place. A similar Danish god, Hold Nikar, became "Old Nick" to the English, and was spuriously canonized as St. Nicholas, a benevolent giver of gifts. Hold Nikar was a sea god, sometimes equated with Poseidon, which is why St. Nicholas is said to be the patron saint of sailors. His preposterous saint’s biography says he regenerated the dead from a cauldron; how this remained in a Catholic world I cannot begin to speculate. A Gnostic sect of Nicoliates worshipped his cauldron and believed that salvation lay through frequent intercourse with both sexes! We are left with a kindly giver of gifts, which is Odin in his kindest aspect, who once a year traveled over towns and bestowed boons to his worthiest followers (those who believed in him, as we tell children of Santa).

Yule is, most importantly, the time to awake to new goals and leave old regrets behind. The star, now placed atop the Christmas tree, represents the five elements of the world: earth, air, fire, water, and wood. It has been overtaken by Christmas, but its spirit can never die. Martin Luther and John Calvin recognized the pagan origins of the holiday, and absolutely abhorred Christmas. The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, is associated with the birth of many solar gods that predated Jesus: Dionysos, Apollo, Herakles, Mithras, Horus, Adonis, Arthur. This is the night when the Great Mother gives birth to the new Sun King and the new year itself, proving the eternal victory of light over dark. This message, that the light will prevail, is the most important aspect of this holiday under any name, and connects us all in good blessings and good company. The pagan origins of Christmas are not to be abhorred or scoffed at, because the similarity of Christmas, Yule, and all the other versions unite us in our innate goodness, and bring us all closer together.

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