Dec 22, 2009

A Few Christmas Origins, Part I

I just couldn't resist the urge to do some research of some of our more popular Christmas traditions. It turned out longer than I anticipated, so I'm spreading it over the next two days. Today we have the origins of Christmas, and the traditions surrounding the use of mistletoe. Tomorrow will be the origins of the Christmas Tree and Santa Claus.

The Origin of Christmas

Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17 and 25. During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.” Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week. At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.

In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians.

The problem was that there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy this, these Christian leaders named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus’ birthday.

The Origin of Mistletoe

Sometimes known as the golden bough, it was held sacred by both the Celtic Druids and the Norseman. It was also called Allheal and used in folk medicine to cure many ills. North American Indians used it for toothache, measles and dog bites. Today the plant is still used medicinally, though only in skilled hands.

Mistletoe was used by the Druid priesthood in a very special ceremony held five days after the New Moon following winter solstice. The Druid priests would cut mistletoe from a holy oak tree with a golden sickle. The branches had to be caught before they touched the ground.

The priest then divided the branches into many sprigs and distributed them to the people, who hung them over doorways as protection against thunder, lightning and other evils. The folklore, and the magical powers of this plant, blossomed over the centuries A sprig placed in a baby's cradle would protect the child from faeries. Giving a sprig to the first cow calving after New Year would protect the entire herd. And so forth.

Now for the kissing part. Although many sources say that kissing under the mistletoe is a purely English custom, there's another explanation that extends back into Norse mythology.

The Norse god Baldur had a dream of his own death, which he told to his mother, Frigg. To keep this from happening, Frigg went at once to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise that no harm would come to her son. Baldur now could not be hurt by anything on earth or under the earth.

Loki, the mischief making trickster god, was angered by Baldur's invulnerability. He changed himself into a woman and visited Frigg at her hall. There the woman asked Frigg how it was that Baldur could not be harmed. Frigg responded that she had taken oaths from all things. Then Frigg admitted that: "A shoot of wood grows west of Valhalla. It is called mistletoe, and it seemed too young for me to demand its oath."

Immediately after Frigg revealed this, the woman vanished. Loki then took hold of the mistletoe, broke it off and went to where the other Aesir were being entertained by Baldur’s invulnerability.

There, Loki went to Baldur’s brother Höðr, who was blind, offering to help him honour Baldur by shooting things at him. Höðr took the mistletoe from Loki and, following his directions, shot at Baldur. The mistletoe went directly through Baldur killing him.

The sky paled and all things in earth and heaven wept for the god. The demise of Baldur brought winter into the world.

Frigg's tears became the mistletoe's white berries. In the version of the story with a happy ending, Baldur is restored to life, and Frigg is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant--making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.


Lost Wanderer said...

great post. looking forward to part two.

Erica said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erica said...

Wow. Interesting stuff - Who knew there was that much lore about the mistletoe!

Have a great holiday :o)

The romantic query letter and the happy-ever-after said...

Truly fascinating and here is what else my dad was telling me that both the ancient Egyptians and Indians celebrated a festival for a god born on December 25. This is brilliant stuff and I'll be sure to come see what is posted next.

C R Ward said...

Thank you everyone! I really love doing these kinds of posts.