O come, all ye pagans...
As those who celebrate Christmas (particularly in the United States) rush to and fro in mad pursuit of last minute gifts and stocking stuffers, clogging roads and parking lots, we can pause a moment to consider some interesting precursors to Christmas revelry... and compare these peculiar rites to our own...
Roman pagans had the holiday of Saturnalia, a weeklong period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. During the festival period, courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people. Opening ceremonies included the selection by Roman auhorities of an enemy of the Roman people who was known as the Lord of Misrule. Each community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the celebration. (Sounds like a fun job, doesn't it? Read on.) At the festival’s end, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by sacrificing this innocent man or woman. In addition to human sacrifice, the Greek poet and historian Lucian, in his description of the holiday, mentions these customs: widespread intoxication; going from house to house while singing naked (the origins of here we come, a-wassailing??); rape and other sexual license; and consuming human-shaped biscuits! Presumably this festival contributed to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire...
The Winter Solstice, which is also known as Yule, is one of the oldest pagan winter celebrations. The seasons and weather were extremely important to ancient people, who, being hunter/gatherers, spent the majority of their time outdoors. Understandably, these cultures has great reverence for, and even worshipped the sun. (Those of us living in the northern climes have a little bit of this pagan spirit still beating within, as we go to work in the dark and come home in the dark, checking Tom Skilling's weather page in the Chicago Tribune, anxiously watching as the sunrise and sunset times slooooowwwwlly start to move farther apart again!) The Norsemen of Northern Europe viewed the sun as a wheel that changed the seasons. It was from the word for this wheel, houl, that the word "yule" is thought to be derived. At mid-winter the Norsemen lit bonfires, told stories and drank sweet ale. (Sound familiar? Substitute a wide-screen TV, Big Bang Theory or Sunday football and bottles of Bud Light and you've flashed forward to the 21st Century.)
In Britain, the winter solstice was celebrated on the shortest day of the year (usually December 21st) long before the arrival of Christianity. Oak trees were sacred in the Celtic culture and the winter fruit of the mistletoe which grew on the oak was a symbol of life in the dark winter months. The Druid priests would cut the mistletoe and give it as a blessing. The Druids also began the tradition of the yule log. The Celts thought that the sun stood still for twelve days in the middle of winter (imagine that! -- seems like longer than 12 days to me!) and during this time a log was lit to conquer the darkness, banish evil spirits and bring luck for the coming year.
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