Christmas trees and Baby Jesus – pagan traditions and why we still follow them

This is some research my friend Willem van den Berg did a while ago, while we all lived in a commune in rural Sweden. It’s something I’d like to add to – probably around the next pagan festival, in February!

It appears to be a public secret that Jesus was most likely born in springtime (beginning of June) rather than at Christmas time. So why do Christians and so many others celebrate this memorable event in December? Well, different strategies were used by Christians to convert heathen pagans (I am using this term in a very broad sense) in Europe. To gradually kill their traditions and simultaneously establish Christian traditions was a major one of these strategies. Not easy, of course, but at the expense of many priests and heads it seems to have gradually fulfilled its purpose.

One method, for example, was to cut down all the holy trees and replace them with churches. In Holland, Belgium, and West Germany the thousands of towns and villages with names ending in “loo” or “lo” (like Waterloo, Hengelo, Almelo, etc.) were Germanic sacrificial sites (loo) with an irminsul or holy tree. During the 8th century AD Charlemagne destroyed many of these places in order to establish Christianity. The councils of Frankfurt (794 AD) and Trier (1227 AD) explicitly stressed the destruction of holy trees. Priest Bonefatius ordered the huge Donar-oak at Geismar (Germany) to be cut down. In the Hessische Landesbibliothek in Fulda you can still see his personal Bible. Its deep sword cuts witness to his failed attempt at defending himself in Dokkum, Friesland, in 754 AD, after a tour of destroying “heathen” possessions. Like him, many such preachers died, but persistence triumphed eventually. Nowadays, practically all places that used to have a holy tree have a church instead, standing right at the spot of the tree, and are commonly known for their religious zeal (and in Holland, peculiarly, also for their high rate of incest and child abuse cases).

Another strategy was to reassign major Christian festivals to coincide with major pagan festivals. At our present Christmas time pagans had one of their many midwinter festivals, during which they would abundantly decorate their holy trees. The modern Christmas tree has nothing to do with the birth of Christ – it is merely a remnant of the original midwinter (Yule) festival. Easter and Pentecost have endured a similar fate.

Another example is the Roman Ambernale or torch festival (2nd of February), a remembrance of Ceres’ journey to the dark kingdom of Pluto to find her daughter Proserpina. According to Cardinal Barinius this festival was officially adopted into the Roman Catholic Church in 701 AD by Pope Sergius I. From then onwards it had to be called Candlemas, remembering the purification of Maria six weeks after the birth of Christ. The reason for this adoption was stressed again by Pope Innocentius III (1198-1216), “To neutralize this heathen superstition and change it into something better.”

Already before the worship of the ancient Persian sun god Mithra was transformed to a secret cult for men only and had made its entry into the Roman culture in the first century AD (peaking in the second and third centuries AD), Ambernale was already celebrated by the old Germanic tribes (Germans, Batavians, Belgians), Celts and Scandinavians as Women’s Day, and therefore later of course dedicated to Maria. On that day every valentine would find her valentin (an ancient Norse word for “lover”). Thereafter would come Vette Donderdag (Fat Thursday), Vastelavond (Prosperity Evening), Palmpaas (Palm Sunday) and Meidag (Mayday). This entire series of festivities was meant to ensure fertility for the coming year, for both man and nature.

Before all these festivities, however, the most important pagan celebration rang in the New Year, at midwinter, after which the sun would start climbing again. Around the 5th of December Batavians celebrated their Wodan (Odin) and his son Thor, who would ride through the sky on Wodan’s eight legged, white horse Sleipnir, announcing the change of year. Later their names changed into Kunne Klaas and Tijl, and during the Christian invasion into Sinterklaas (from Saint Nicholas). His white horse remained, but lost four legs, and his son had disappeared, as had his function of match maker in the fertility festivals.

The old Dutch word for match maker was hijlicmaker (literally “marriage maker”), cunningly changed to “heiligmaker” (same pronunciation, but meaning “holy maker”). Now he was supposed to simply have come from Spain for chastising the naughty children and rewarding the good ones with gifts from his never ending sack of presents, stuffing them through the chimneys while riding his horse on the rooftops. Of course, he also had a huge book in which everything was noted down about the kids and a bunch of black, dwarfy helpers (supposedly Moors from Spain). I’ll talk more about this Sinterklaas later.

During the days between midwinter and Easter there were many fertility rites, big and small. The men would cut “rods of life” (as Sinterklaas had), with which they would beat the girls and even the cattle. Another one of these rites involved the hiding of eggs. In the 19th century this rite was still performed by young men on the Paasweide (Easter field) at Arnhem (Holland). The word easter derives from the Celtic eostre, the name for the goddess of spring, known in Scandinavia as Idun. She has a particular fondness for young children, who, after all, represent the spring of life. Once, she saw a group of children running after birds, trying to catch them. In a gesture of playfulness, Eostre/Idun changed the birds into rabbits that went running to and fro, laying colored eggs.

Another rite involved children going from door to door with a rod to collect candy. If the owner of the home refused to make a donation, they would beat him up. This practice is still known in England, France, Germany, Belgium and Austria. Many of these pagan practices were later brought to America by colonists. Traces can still be found in Christmas and Halloween.

At the first of May the May Tree (usually a hawthorn, but later also other trees) would be planted. After the planting, young couples would dance figures around it symbolizing the trail of the sun. Originally, these figures were carved in rock or placed as small pathways into fields and hills, called tribergen and trojabergen (spiral hills). Later, they were carved into church floors and renamed “pathways of prayer.” Although this great summer festival was meant to be covered up by the Christian Pentecost, it did not succeed in many places. Especially in England famous Maypoles are still erected for the same reason as was done all these thousands of years.

In Glastonbury (England), an ancient holy place of the Celts, there grew a hawthorn that was said to blossom every year on the evening before Christmas. It had no real connection with Christian rites (although some later argued that the hawthorn descended from the stick of Joseph of Arimathea), but up till the time of Charles I a blooming branch of this hawthorn was carried along in the Christmas procession. When it didn’t blossom on the eve before Christmas in 1753, the inhabitants of Quainton (Buckinghamshire) decided not to celebrate Christmas until the wonder would take place — which occurred on the fifth of January, 1754. So much for uprooting pagan superstition!

In Holland groups of farmers used to have a mutual piece of land that was called baoken (beacon), a place where fires were lit to warn neighboring villages in case of emergency and were the local holy tree (baokenboom) was worshiped. Fires were also lit during festivals as an honor to the tree and, curiously enough, the Easter fires are still called baokenvuren (beacon fires). Often these baokens were situated on hills with sacrificial places called waraburchten or trojaburchten (spiral fortresses). Many of these trees and hills still exist. A good example being the cleverly renamed Sint Johannes Heuvel (Saint John’s Hill), at the center of a Batavian “star forest” where traditionally seven pathways come together. All holy trees of the old pagans were dedicated to planets. The oldest type of beacon tree is the taxus baccata (Yew tree), the first tree to represent Ygdrasil, the tree of life, whose twigs still turn up as “palm twigs” on Palm Sunday, the first Sunday of Easter.

So the pagans had many ceremonial festivals related to nature and various gods that had to be uprooted by the Christians so they could establish Christianity as the all in all. Therefore we nowadays find all these inexplicable folkloristic festivals, believes and customs that somehow or other always seem to coincide with Christian (or Christ related) celebrations. The Christmas tree, the mysterious Santa Claus, Easter rabbits and eggs, Pentecost’s May Tree, are just a few. No doubt that Valentine’s Day is related to one of the pagan’s fertility festivals, if not to “Women’s Day” directly.

Back to Sinterklaas. This word is really the way most young children in Holland distort Sint Nikolaas (Saint Nicholas). Saint Nicholas is a real historical person. From http://www.byzantines.net/epiphany/nicholas.htm:

“What is actually known about Nicholas is little, but as far as can be determined he was born toward the end of the 3rd century the son of Theophanes, a celebrity in his own right in the city of Patara in Lycia in Asia Minor, part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Nothing is known about his childhood, but legend has it that after his birth, while still in the baptismal fond, he stood on his feet for three hours supported by no one to render honor to the Holy Trinity. In his youth he was influenced by his uncle, Nicholas, bishop of Patara, to chose the monastic life. As a young man he was imprisoned during the persecutions of the Emperors Diocletion and Maximilian. In time he became known for his piety and acts of charity. While the Arian heresy was rampaging throughout Christendom, he sided with the Catholic party. The arch-heretic, Arius, had taught that Christ is neither equal to nor of one substance with the Father, but merely an intermediary between God and man. To crush this heresy, Emperor Constantine summoned the bishops into solemn conclave in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325. At this council the Catholic party prevailed over the heretics and Arius was condemned. The story goes that Nicholas was present at the council and was so incensed by the heretic’s arrogance that he struck him, for which reason he was expelled by the council fathers. Nicholas is nowhere to be found on the lists of bishops who attended the council.”

“Another story tells that Nicholas gave three bags of gold to three girls as dowry to spare them from prostitution. He is also said to have raised three boys to life after they had drowned and to have saved three wrongly condemned prisoners from execution and sailors from drowning.”

“Nicholas’ reputation for charitable works grew during his lifetime and after his death on December 6, 343. After the Virgin Mary and St. John the Forerunner he was the most revered saint in the early Church. The Emperor Justinian instituted his feast day in the liturgical calendar on December 6 and dedicated a splendid church in his memory in Constantinople. By popular acclamation he was declared a saint worthy of universal veneration.”

“St. Nicholas is venerated as patron saint of Greece, Russia, Kingdom of Naples, Sicily, Lorraine, and by several cities of Europe including Moscow. On his feast day he was celebrated as benefactor of children in both the Eastern and Western Churches.”

“When the city of Myra was threatened by the invading Muslims and fell into their hands, out of fear that his remains might be desecrated by the heathens, his body was transported by Italians to Bari on the east coast of Italy in the year 1084 where it remains to this day within a magnificent basilica built in his honor. His remains are reputed to exude a fragrant myrrh-like substance known as myron. This phenomenon known as “manna of St. Nicholas” was present during the reinternment of his body in the 1950ies.”

“The Protestant revolt in 16th century Europe worked hard to suppress the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the saints in the territories under its control. It was in those parts of Europe that Nicholas evolved from a saint into a jolly old fat fellow who gives gifts to children on December 6. His secularization continued in America as Santa Claus or St. Nick, moved from Myra to the North Pole whence he emerges every year to the joy of the money-grubbing merchant class and of the innocent children, few of whom know of his origins. To the faithful, however, in the Eastern Churches of the Byzantine/Slavonic liturgical tradition St. Nicholas remain preeminent for his good works and is represented for veneration in many an icon throughout the world where right-believing Eastern Christians are found.”

So how did he end up as Santa Claus?

Because of the magnanimity attributed to Saint Nicholas, especially in Belgium and the Netherlands his passage was celebrated on December 5th. It was held that Nicholas himself would come from heaven and visit children in their homes, giving gifts to those who had been good. Decked out in full bishop attire, he would arrive on a flying gray horse.

Later on, the horse turned snow white, a color usually associated with purity. Saint Nicholas would arrive by ship from Spain, together with his Zwarte Pieten (Black Peters), who were Moors. Again much later, the ship turned into a steam boat.

Nicholas would ride over the roof tops at night and his Moors would carry around canvass bags with presents and candies, which they would throw down the chimneys. Nicholas had a book in which all the activities of the children were recorded. The good kids were rewarded; the bad kids would get the roede, meaning they were spanked with a bundle of twigs. Had you been really bad, the Moors could put you in their bags and take you back to Spain — it was every child’s December nightmare. When Nicholas would visit a school or orphanage, the Moors would enter first and throw candy from their bags through the door opening. Traditional candies for this festival have always been Pepernoten, Speculaas, and Taai-Taai (all impossible to translate).

Saint Nicholas’ pagan origin is unmistakable, although hard to pin down definitively. Odin rode through the air on a gray horse each autumn. He had a long white beard. A sheaf of grain was left in the field for Odin’s horse. During the Sinterklaas celebrations children place their shoes in front of the chimney with straw and carrots for the horse. On the other hand, Thor, the god of thunder, also has attributes similar to Nicholas. He was elderly and heavy, with a long white beard, and rode through the sky in a chariot drawn by two white goats. He dressed in red and his palace was in the Northland. He was friendly and cheerful and would come down the chimney to enter his element, fire.

In Scandinavia, on the eve before Yule (Christmas in Sweden is still called Yule), the tomta (dwarfy elves from the far North) would come unannounced, bang on the door, and throw candy in the house. They would then disappear. No one would ever see them.

After the sixteenth century Sinterklaas celebrations were abolished in many European countries. Throughout northern Germany the Protestants encouraged worship of the Christkindlein (Christ child) instead. He traveled with a dwarfy helper called Pelznickel. It is from him that the name Kriss Kringle is derived. When the Dutch established New Amsterdam (now New York), they brought Sinterklaas with them. There are theories that when the English later took over the colony the English children also wanted a Sinterklaas. The Protestants, however, did not observe saints days, so Sinterklaas’ visit was moved to Christmas Eve. Over time, Scandinavian settlers added their own bits and parts, and Santa Claus was starting to take shape.

Washington Irving’s satire on the transplanted customs of the Dutch in New York ( The History of New York) mentions the legend of Sinterklaas several times. He describes Sinterklaas as an old man in dark robes who arrives on a flying horse on the eve of the celebration to give gifts to children.

In a little know poem from 1821, named The Children’s Friend a flying sleigh and reindeer are mentioned for the first time.

Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you…

But the most famous substantiator of Santa Claus is undoubtedly Clement Clark Moore, who wrote a poem in 1822 that starts with these immortal words:

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In the hope that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

He increased the number of reindeer to eight and added their names. He also gave detailed descriptions of Santa Claus entering chimneys, leaving toys in stockings hung by the fireplace. However, his Santa Claus was a tiny elf and his sleigh and reindeer were just as tiny. In 1931, Coca Cola created an advertisement that featured a human size Santa Claus drinking Coke, and he has been human size ever since.

Nowadays, throughout many countries in Europe Sinterklaas is celebrated on either December 5 or 6, when he distributes gifts to the children. In some countries, the gifts come on Christmas eve, when they lie under the Christmas tree — a representation of Ygdrasil — symbolizing the turn from winter to summer and with it the return of new life. In my birth town, on the 5th of December thousands of children would be waiting on the keys of the small harbor for the ship to arrive “from Spain,” carrying Sinterklaas and his helpers. It was well-known that the Black Peters were excellent acrobats. As the ship sailed in, you could see dozens of them hanging from the main mast and doing all kinds of tricks on the deck and hanging from the railings. Sinterklaas would slowly depart the ship, riding on his white horse, carrying his big book and bishop’s staff. He would look around the crowd and seek out the children — and often you could hear some of the kids that had been naughty cry and throw tantrums to get away!

Late in the evening we would write poems to the Saint and put them in a shoe in front of our water heating radiator. We didn’t have a fire place, but that didn’t take away from the magic, as no place was impossible to get to by the Black Peters. A treat for Sinterklaas’ horse was absolutely required, otherwise he might eat your shoe and the Saint may skip your house. We’d all be well-behaved and go to bed early. The next day, mystically, the horse had taken the treats and your shoe would be filled with presents.

At school, Sinterklaas would drop by and deal with each child individually. He would read in his book and then call your name and tell you things he knew about you that he could never have known if he wasn’t the real Sinterklaas. 😉 Some kids were sweating it out. Had you been good, you could sit on his lap and he would consider what presents to give you. The Black Peters would obey his every command. Had you been bad, the Saint would order one of his Peters to spank you with his roede. Worst case scenario, he’d order them to put you in a sack and take you back to Spain. That threat alone, with Black Peter coming at you with a sack, was usually enough to turn any five year old into an angel for most of the coming year, pleading and begging not to be taken!

Needless to say that it was quite a shock when we later found out that Sinterklaas no longer existed. I say “no longer” because for those years that we did believe in him, he was as real as you and me.

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