Have you ever stopped to wonder why, each December, we drag trees into our living rooms and adorn them with twinkly lights and sparkly baubles? What about that bizarre myth with which we perpetually deceive children, that a fat man in a red suit will squeeze down the chimney on Christmas Eve and drop off a bunch of presents—but only if they behave?
Christmas is, as its very name confirms, a Christian holiday. Even if you didn’t grow up in a Christian household (or in Canada), if you’ve spent a December in North America you’re likely quite familiar with the host of Christmas events and adornments, so pervasive are they throughout our culture. But many of these things actually originate from pre-Christian and pagan sources: the early Christian Church often co-opted local practices and traditions in order to convert people more easily. Christianity’s pervasive and powerful influence throughout the world, coupled with the twentieth century’s mass commercialization of all Christian holidays, especially Christmas, is why these things have endured to the present—even amongst people who have no religious or cultural ties to them.
Santa Claus as we know him today—a jolly, bearded fat man in a crimson and white suit—is American and quite recent: this image was established by Clement Clarke Moore’s iconic 1823 poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (better known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”). It was reinforced throughout popular culture through music, television, film and literature; the Coca-Cola company cemented Santa Claus’s modern image in their advertisements beginning in the 1930s.
Santa Claus is based on several earlier figures, notably Father Christmas, which can be traced to the 1400s in England, and Sinterklaas, the Dutch figure based on the gift-giving Greek bishop Saint Nicholas. Santa is also related to Krampus, a demonic creature from Alpine folklore who would punish naughty children and carry away the really bad ones in a sack; Krampus influenced modern Santa Claus’s naughty and nice list, as well as his delivery of coal to troublemakers.
But elements of Santa Claus also share strong similarities with a pagan branch of folklore: the Norse god Odin. Odin was a major deity worshipped throughout Scandinavian cultures in northern Europe. He is always depicted as an old bearded man, often wearing long, fur-trimmed robes—just like Santa. The image of Santa piloting a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer was based solely on Moore’s poem; prior to that he rode a horse. Similarly, Odin also rode a horse, named Slepnir, which had eight legs.
Odin also became associated with leading The Wild Hunt, a spectral procession of ghostly huntsmen and their hounds through the night sky. The Wild Hunt can occur any time of year, but it became especially associated with the winter solstice in late December. This time marked the end of the Hunt and the return of Odin; children would fill their boots with straw and leave them by the hearth for Slepnir and Odin would fill them with toys and treats in return. These practices exist today in a very similar form: children put out stockings by the hearth and leave a plate of goodies for Santa (and often a carrot for his reindeer), and Santa leaves presents behind.
The modern Christmas tree originated in Germany in the 1400s and this custom spread throughout Europe and its colonies. Initially a fir tree, other types of evergreens became commonly used as well, based on regional availability.
Making a tree the centrepiece of religious ceremony is a much older practice, however. Pagan and pre-Christian cultures throughout Europe were often tree worshippers; trees formed a crucial element of their belief systems. The World Tree (known as Yggdrasil to the Norse) was the centre of the universe that ensured cosmic order and ultimately the survival of humanity; all trees were therefore sacred and bringing them into the house was not a light undertaking, but rather a sacred act done to honour and maintain natural cycles. Each tree had a set of magical and folk uses; evergreen branches were considered protective wards against harmful influences and disease.
When the early Church attempted to convert these tree worshippers to Christianity, they quickly found it was much easier to simply dedicate those trees to Jesus Christ, rather than trying to uproot them entirely.
Caroling / Wassailing
Door-to-door singing of songs—often in exchange for food and drink—was known as wassailing to the Anglo-Saxons. The practice stretches back millennia, as does another version of wassailing that was done in the apple orchards of England’s cider-producing regions: people visited the orchards in winter to sing and recite incantations dedicated to the health of the trees. They hoped this would ensure a bountiful harvest; it’s another example of pre-Christian tree worship.
Mistletoe is a parasitic evergreen that grows in the tops of trees; it pulls water and nutrients from the host tree and, therefore, is not dependent upon photosynthesis. This allows its white berries to emerge in late November and December, long after all other plants have bloomed and died or gone dormant. Because of its seemingly nature-defying growth habits, mistletoe became associated with fertility in early European folklore, which gave rise to the Christmas custom of kissing under a sprig of mistletoe.
Yule is a pagan religious festival that hails from the Germanic people in northern Europe. Many contemporary pagan religions have incorporated Yule into their practice and various Yuletide customs were absorbed into Christmas after the spread of Christianity. The Yule log—a big, very hard log that smolders for a long time—is among them: fire has long been associated with the winter solstice as it’s the darkest time of year; people would welcome the return of more sunlight hours by burning stuff. Candles and fires are still a common part of Christmas celebrations, and while nowadays few people burn an actual Yule log, a lot more tune into that television station with the looped video of the crackling fire. The log burns on!