Your author, J.X. Mason, did not grow up in the Christian religion and I remain a skeptical agnostic in my late adulthood.  But all my life, I have loved the rich traditions that my family and I celebrate around the time of Christmas.  These are the more ancient nature-based traditions of the Winter Season as first celebrated in Western Europe and now seen around the world. These traditions include the lighted evergreen tree, candles, gatherings of family and friends, gift giving, yule logs burning in the fireplace, and singing seasonal songs.

Some years ago, my good friend Laura Emerson (who now lives with her husband Bryan Off-Road, Off-Grid in Alaska) wrote a marvelous piece explaining how the celebration of Christmas in the West was grafted onto earlier traditions going way back into pre-recorded history.  At the root, these traditions celebrated the Winter Solstice — the very first day of each year at which daylight stopped getting shorter and began getting longer; promising that Spring would return and new life would again be born on Earth’s northern hemisphere.   

Before becoming an Alaskan sustainable-lifestyle pioneer, Laura earned an AB in Religion and Classics at Duke, and two Masters degrees at Washington University of St. Louis. For 30 years, she was a popular and respected guest sermon speaker and adult educator at Unitarian-Universalist churches from Hawaii to Wisconsin and Texas..   

Laura Emerson’s fascinating sermon, 4000 Years of Christmas, is quoted in full, below.  — J.X. Mason


4,000 Years of Christmas, by Laura Emerson

“Most of the Christmas Season practices we engage in today connect us to people 500, 2000, and even 4000 years ago.  Looking at the season this way – as a window on long ago, shifts the focus away from our childhoods and ourselves to embrace a past much longer, deeper, and richer.

“First, I’ll talk about those celebrations that derive from ancient agricultural festivals, then I’ll talk about Christmas Day itself, and finally, I’ll talk about how the Protestants tried to ban Christmas and who you have to thank for celebrating it at all!

Celebrating the Harvest

“In agrarian societies, the harvests were the most important periods of the year. A good harvest meant not only more to eat this year, but more seeds to plant for the following one.  Therefore, population growth variations were as closely related to periods of drought or plenty as tree rings.

“The merriest of all holidays during the year were those that celebrated the harvest, which obviously could occur later in the year in warmer climates. In December – January, which was called the month of Poseidon, Romans celebrated more than seven feast days, so the whole month was something of a party, not unlike the period from Thanksgiving through New Years, today.  Of the ancient Roman holidays, Saturnalia’s week is probably best known, but others include Opalia, and also Tellus, Consualia, Iuventas, Poseidea and Larentalia.  A bountiful year generated the same overzealous eating and drinking and gift giving we indulge in now, when our financial harvests are rich.

“These festivals celebrated various elements and deities of the harvest, such as the pruning of the vines, tasting the first wine (which some of us still do, when we taste the Nouveau Beaujolais, on Nov 17), the earth goddess, the goddess of plenty, and the god of the store houses.  Other elements of the season celebrated fecundity.  Iuventas, which means youth, focused on children, as is still true at Christmas – and Father Time got his due, too, a figure we still associate with the passage of the old year as we welcome the new – depicted, like Iuventas – as a baby. 

“People visited their temples, and gave small gifts like dolls and sweets to children – which we still do, and gave gifts to hosts when they attended private feasts with friends and families.  At Saturnalia, people visited the temple and then joined in a large, public feast.  At the end of it, all stood up, probably boozy and blowsy, with cup of wine in hand, and shouted, “Io, Saturnalia!”  Even the Christmas cards we share today can be traced back to Martial’s witty poems, bought and given with gifts this time of year.  People dressed casually and wore silly hats, not unlike today, when people wear brightly decorative seasonal earrings and sweaters and ties that we would never wear any other time of year.  They wore floppy hats, symbolic of manumitted, or freed, slaves, as representative of the freedom of the season. Could that be a connection to those floppy red and white hats we associate with elves and Santa?

“There was also an inversion of the social order.  Masters served one or more meals to their slaves, not unlike the traditional office party today.  Slaves were allowed more lenience, including public gambling and gaming this time of year. Is this the origin of office parties – the only time the boss invites staff to his or her home or serves up brisket and beer? Like today, businesses, government, and courts all closed for various periods during this season of festivities.

“You can imagine that not everyone loved this hyper-social time of year.  If you are an introvert or a full blown humbug yourself, you’d find plenty of company 2000 years ago.  Seneca complained that he had to retreat to his room while the rest of his household played.  Cicero retreated to the country altogether!  But overall, it was a time that people rejoiced in the successful harvests and plantings for another year, even if, in the cities, then as now, people had forgotten the serious life or death reason behind the revelry.

Ancient Sun Gods Were Born on the Shortest Day of the Year – The Winter Solstice

“Let’s shift to Christmas Day itself.  If you were a Sun God, when would you be born?  When are you smallest and weakest?  The shortest day of the year – the winter solstice, which we date as December 21.  Any sun god worth his rays, who has an identified birth date celebrates this one.  Let me tell you about two, known and worshipped up through the beginning of the Christian era.

“Mithra was a Middle Eastern sun god, born, as any sun god would be, on the shortest day of the year.  He was worshipped as early as 2600 BCE and through the period of the Roman empire.  His cult was so pervasive that 400 places associated with Mithraic worship have been found in the Roman influenced world, as far west as the British Isles and under the foundations of San Clemente, in Rome. His popularity relates to his association with light, power, and strength. The similarities to Christian theology are numerous and interesting, even beyond the winter solstice date.  He emerged from the darkness of a cave or rock to be seen first by, can you guess – shepherds!  Think of the paintings you have seen in which Jesus is born in a cave, rather than in a barn.  His followers referred to him as the “Light of the World” and his mother, who was, of course, a maiden (a virgin), was referred to as the “Mother of God.”

“The Deus Sol Invictus cult, also worshipped an invisible and invincible sun god, who was born, of course, on the winter solstice.  It may have developed independently in Syria or it may have combined Mithraic and other sun god elements.  Eastern soldiers, it is supposed, brought it to Rome, and it was a popular cult there in the early 200s, CE. By 274 CE, it was the dominant religion of the Roman empire – proclaimed so by the emperor Aurelian, and evident on coins of the period.  By the time Constantine reigned, his leadership was referred to as a Sun Emperorship.  When he converted to Christianity in 308 CE, it wasn’t such a huge stretch for the Roman hierarchy to embrace Christianity’s monotheism as you might have previously thought, if you presumed that the Romans still worshipped the whole pantheon of Greek descended gods, like Jupiter (Zeus) and Venus (Aphrodite).  The image of Jesus as the son of a sky god, born, died, resurrected and returned to the sky, as it were, worked well overlaid upon the stories of well known and well regarded Mithra and Deus Sol Invictus, who were both sun-sky gods, too.  So what about the difference between December 21 and December 25?    Bear in mind that today we use a solar calendar, but the Roman Empire (and many others, for centuries) utilized a lunar calendar, with extra days tacked on every once in a while.   Our Dec 25 is likely the Winter Solstice around 350 CE when Constantine or the Pope of his era, Julian, selected it as the date to celebrate Christ’s Mass.  In this logical way, religious and governmental precedent was retained in the western half of the empire (although the eastern half celebrates Christmas on Jan 6).  Cultural precedent continued as well.  Roman families and subsequent European eras still feasted and gave gifts, still closed the courts and gave cards and wore silly hats, no longer for Tellus, Consualia, Opalia, or Iuventas, but for Jesus.

In Early Christianity, the Focus Was on the Second Coming

“Today, we tend to focus on Christmas as Jesus’ birthday – we sing songs about the baby laid in a manger.  But for much of Christian history, through the Middle Ages, that was not the focus at all.  Rather, early Christians regarded Christmas as a time to focus on the Second Coming of Christ.  Advent – which means come to or the Coming referred to his coming again, not to his having come once.  Adult converts readied themselves for their baptism at that time of year, through prayer, self-denial, and other purification rituals.  Baptized Christians, too, engaged in similarly sober activities to prepare themselves for Christ’s return, so they would be found worthy when Christ ushered in a New Kingdom after Judgment Day. So in many ways, Advent was what Lent is today, when, during the 40 days before Easter, people fast and pray.  Those of us who engage in New Year’s Resolutions to better ourselves in the future may be continuing this tradition.

“There are visual similarities between these two periods of Advent and Lent. Both feature purple as a liturgical color. Purple was a royal color even in Roman times, and in Christianity, the color honors Christ as a King, not as a sweet infant.  The tradition of Advent colors seems to be waning, but wreaths usually featured four purple candles.  The use of evergreens speaks for itself – longevity, life, especially in places where nothing else is alive or evident at that time of year. Green is also a color that symbolizes faith and fidelity – that is why the marriage parties in Medieval and Renaissance paintings so often wear green.  Seasonally, it indicates that Christians are faithful to the Lord and await his return.  The circle of the advent wreath has the same symbolism as a circular wedding band – unending, but also reflects the pagan sense of a cyclical year.   

“In the preceding descriptions you can see a pretty stark contrast: On the one hand, we have the secular or pagan traditions of the season which tend to be joyful and socially oriented, celebrating the success of a recent past harvest and confidence in the ensuing year.  On the other hand, we have the Christian orientation, which was overlaid on the same time of year – sober, inward directed, and future oriented.

Merging Pagan Celebration with Christian Contemplation

“Through the middle ages and Renaissance, European Christians juggled both: fervently praying that they would be found worthy on Judgment Day while enjoying the Feast of Fools and the Lord of Misrule.  One tradition was the “King of the Bean,” in which a mock king would be chosen by baking a cake that contained a bean.  Whoever got that piece became the king. Those of you who have celebrated either Christmas or Mardi Gras with a king’s cake, in which a figure of the infant Jesus, or all the primary figures of the nativity scene are baked into the cake – repeat this tradition.  Then, as now, I suspect, the bean was purposely oriented toward a child or “underling” in the household.  The Lord of Misrule was the leader of others in pranks, games, and silly fun.

The Puritans Opposed Revelry

“The Black Plague of mid-14th c. ushered in a host of social changes, including the Reformation, and by the mid-15th c, Puritan reformers sought to reform and purify the religion of its pagan antecedents.  Christmas celebrations came under severe scrutiny.  The purest of the Puritans were so incensed by the revelry of the season that they suppressed virtually all aspects of the holiday as you heard. The country of Scotland banned Christmas celebrations in 1583 and children didn’t get the day off school for Christmas until the 1950’s!  Oliver Cromwell, that old humbug, followed suit in 1645. When Charles II came to the throne, he reinstated the holiday, prompting the following ditty: 

Now thanks to God for Charles’ return,
Whose absence made old Christmas mourn;
For then we scarcely did it know,
Whether it Christmas were or no.

“The Puritans who came to America in and after 1620 expressed their own “Bah, Humbug” attitude: Christmas was not a holiday in early America.

“In Puritan New England, Christmas remains a working day, the violation of which was punishable by fine or dismissal. In 1659, the Massachusetts Puritans passed the Five-Shilling Anti- Christmas Law:

“Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.

“The laws were repealed in 1681 when it became clear that London might revoke the charter of this inhospitable Colony.

In 1687, the American Puritan,  Rev. Increase Mather of Boston wrote:

‘The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after a holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Reveling, in excess of wine, in mad Mirth….’

“By contrast, in the earlier Jamestown settlement, which was settled as a corporate endeavor and not a religious one, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all.

“But the Puritan influence outlasted the Anglican in America, and, in fact, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution.  Children attended school and workers worked through the Civil War years, except in various local jurisdictions.  Christmas wasn’t even declared a federal holiday in America until 1870.

“To whom to we have to thank (or blame) that in our largely Protestant country we celebrate Christmas at all?  Raise a glass, a gift, or a funny hat to Martin Luther.  In contrast to his dour Calvinist and Puritan brethren, Martin Luther was a Protestant Reformer who LIKED music and color and beauty in religious life.  Luther wanted the Bible translated into the vernacular, and hymns, too.  In fact, he encouraged setting religious lyrics to familiar tunes, including folk music and even dance music.  No wonder some of our favorite Christmas hymns are Christmas carols – they are the most tuneful.  And no wonder that many of us who have never studied German know at least two Christmas carols in that language – Silent Night and Old Tannenbaum.

The Christmas Tree and Yule Log Traditions

“Speaking of old Tannenbaum, Luther gets the credit for incorporating the Christmas tree into our seasonal celebrations, too.  Although Romans decorated trees, too, for various festivals – such as the May pole, it is pretty clear that the decoration of fir trees derives from Teutonic and Scandinavian religious rites, in honor of Oden, for example. Martin Luther didn’t seem too troubled by this association.  To him is attributed the idea of decorating those (outdoor) trees with candles in honor of Christmas.  German immigrants to America brought the practice, identified as early as 1820.  When Queen Victoria married Albert, a German, the English brought fir trees inside, too.  The symbolic value of a fir tree, is that it is evergreen – or ever alive, through a time of year when other plants are dead or dormant.  This is symbolic of our hopes to live through the winter, and of Jesus’ existence, even when seemingly remote.  Naturally, Cromwell, Calvin and other party poopers banned these songs and trees.

“A few other Christmas traditions evolved from northern European pagan rites, also decried by the Puritans.  Mistletoe was valued by the Druids as a healing plant for a variety of ailments, including human infertility.  The Scandinavians valued it as a plant of peace and love, associated with the goddess, Frigga.  Both these traditions lead to our tendency to encourage young lovers to kiss under it this time of year.

“Similarly, the yule log was important to longevity.  A splinter from a prior fire was used to light a huge new log to provide continuity through the winter solstice, or the death of one year and the beginning of the new.

“Really, the crèche or manger scene is one of the few truly Christian traditions of Christmas, seeing as it depicts Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and those who came to greet his birth.  The first manger scene is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, who assembled real people and animals to recreate the scene in 1224 outside his church.

“Wrapping It All Up”

“This has been a sermon filled with little factoids about the non-Christian aspects of this significant time of year. I hope you have enjoyed tracing the historical lineage of so many things you do or notice today – everything from Christmas clothes to Bah Humbug attitudes. If you engage in New Year’s Resolutions, you follow in the steps of early Christians preparing themselves for Judgment Day.  If you wear casual, seasonal clothing, you are like the Romans during their month of Poseidon.  If you dislike the celebratory excesses, you have good company in Cicero and Seneca.  But there is something about this time of year, when I feel particularly grateful for family and friends, whom I enjoy entertaining, and I must admit to humming seasonal music and looking forward to gifts and parties.  None of this has much to do with Jesus or Mithra or Deus Sol Invictus for that matter but rather with thousands of years of human response to the turning of the season.  I, for one, find in all of this a comforting sense of connection to ancestors 1000, 2000, and even 4000 years ago.  Merry Christmas Everybody, and Io, Saturnalia!”

           — Laura Emerson