The Source of Christmas
Imagine…you are in a tribal community in the northern reaches of Europe and autumn is slowly fading into winter. You’ve gathered every bit of food you can gather and stored it as carefully as you can. That has been your main job since the thaws of last Spring. Every year it is the same – work as hard as you can while you can so that you have better odds of surviving the long, dark times ahead.
Your religions vary by area but they have some aspects that are common throughout regions that experience winter. One of them is that there is a battle going on between light and darkness, good gods and evil, and that winter is when the evil gods gain the upper hand. You believe in hell but in your religion – in your imaginations – hell is not a place of fire and brimstone but, rather, a place of eternal night, eternal cold, howling wind, and hopelessness. Winter is a preview of hell, a preview of the fate of all mankind and the earth itself if the good gods do not gain the upper hand or, in some religions, resurrect themselves after being killed by the evil gods.
Your circle shrinks as the temperature goes down. No longer can you range far and wide to trade goods, find food, or seek pasture for your animals. Animals are brought into the home, an annex, really. Home is a single room, often connected via doorway to the stable where your animals are sheltered for months at a time. That single room has one source of heat – a small turf or dung fire that gives off little heat, little light, and a lot of smoke and soot. The houses of that time were called black houses for soot covered the roof and upper walls of their dwellings. There were no chimneys – that bit of science and engineering would have to wait hundreds of years to appear. Smoke had to find its way out of the same hole where air, snow, and rain could enter.
The days became shorter and shorter. To pass the time, you worked on sewing, carving, telling stories, and sleeping. People slept when it was dark and worked when it was light; candles were too precious to burn except when absolutely necessary. Most candles were not the wax and wick kind we see in our shops or churches. Rather, they were small pots of fat or oil with a string (or woven hair) laying in them. When lit, they gave off very little light but that could make the difference between life and death so they were guarded and kept in reserve.
The days got even shorter. The sun would go down by mid afternoon and not appear again until late morning. Further north, the sun might not come up at all for months at a time. Even when it did come up, the earth might not brighten due to thick cloud cover. I can remember seeing kids going to school in Scotland using flashlights (called “torches” there even now) and using them again to light their way home. The winds…oh, the winds…become constant about this time of year. Howling winds become the ogres, trolls, spirits, and demons of the tales told in the darkness of the black houses. You can hear the screams of the triumphant dark gods all day, all night. Relentless. Snow and sleet become horizontal missiles endangering the life of any who steps outside.
You enter every winter knowing that many will not survive it. It is a dark time in every sense of the term.
And when it gets darkest…on the shortest night of the year…you engage in a bit of sympathetic magic, a set of rituals designed to inspire hope among your family, your tribe, and among the wounded or dead good gods around you. You bring in symbols of life: evergreens are brought in and piled around the inside of the home. They deodorize the home and have a slight antiseptic quality but they are mainly a sign of resistance: the belief in life in the middle of darkness. Ribbons and tools and shiny objects bedeck them as imitations of flowers, buds, and leaves. In the middle of the darkest night, you act out your faith – or, at least, hope – that life still exists, that all is not lost.
Candles are lit as a shout against the darkness and as a signal to the good gods to come back to the earth. Gifts are exchanged – tiny packets of food saved back from the common store, small tools, bits of wood or bone made into toys. They are the tribe’s way of saying “I want you to live. I want you to survive this. You are so precious to me that I am giving you extra, denying myself.” And then, in many northern European communities, a great fire is lit ignoring the fact that when the wood runs out it is gone until Spring. It is a challenge to the darkness, a cry of rebellion and hope in the night. Songs are sung.
On a small island in the North Atlantic, a young man turns to God. He is in line to be the Ard Righ, the High King of Ireland but, instead, realizing that he is a man of sin and in need of a Savior, he devotes his life to Christ. He and a band of followers get into small boats crafted from stretched reeds and animal skins (called coracles) and sale east and north, landing on the tiny, windswept island of Iona. His name is Columba and he makes this desolate place his home for the rest of his life. From here, his community sails east onto the mainland of Alba – what would one day be called Scotland. He has come to bring the light of Christ to the Picts, Druids, Scots (an Irish tribe that settled the southwest of Scotland) and others whose tribal names have vanished to history.
Facing a group of Druid priests and their armed escorts, Columba sucked up his courage and told them the story of the coming of Jesus, his birth in Bethlehem, his life, his teaching, his death and his resurrection. Upon hearing this, the story is that the Druids dropped their staffs and dropped to their news rejoicing. When Columba, puzzled by this reaction – he had been expecting resistance – asked them why they were responding this way they cried out that they had been waiting for this savior, this story. They had heard tales of him, they said. To this day, no historian can answer where they might have heard those tales or whether something in their own pagan mythology prepared them for the coming of a new religion. Regardless, they dropped their faith so quickly that we cannot reconstruct it or their language. It just vanished. (Julius Caesar wrote a book with several chapters describing Druids and their religion and life but it has been proven to be almost entirely false, made as war propaganda and nothing more)
As Christianity took hold in Northern Europe, the people changed the direction of their traditions but not the traditions themselves. Now the stories told in the dark were of the coming of the Light, the Resurrected One. The evergreens were to remind us of eternal life in Him. The lights reminded us that he was the light that had come into the world. Gifts were exchanged because Jesus was born and that changed everything. We now gave out of hope and joy.
The Victorians would later come along and standardize much of this for Western Europeans and their descendants in the Americas. Other Northern European tribes – Germanic, Frankish, etc. – would add their traditions into the new mix. What once was a set of movements and songs in the middle of the night as winds howled outside became a celebration of the Life given to us, our new Hope.
Was it once pagan? Pagans certainly did these things but that doesn’t make their actions pagan. They did them, not to worship their gods but to call to them and signal to each other that they loved each other and wanted only the best for those around them. I can get into that. There will always be Scrooges out there – and some are that way out of conviction or upbringing while others are just difficult people. I won’t be one. As the days get shorter, my eyes will lift higher. I will see the trees, the lights, the giving of sparkly gifts…and smile.