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( Originally Published 1909 )
Now I must own that at first sight it is difficult to explain how the Christ-child of the past-the Holy One whose birth is remembered and honored in that feast which we call Christmas, should gradually have been changed into the white-haired, white-bearded, merry-hearted and kindly old pagan whom we sometimes call Christ-Kinkle but more frequently Santa Klaus.
Yet at the very moment when we come face to face with this difficult problem we have reached the explanation which seemed impossible when we strove to understand the much less startling transformation of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, into Santa Klaus, patron of the Christmas season.
We remember that the Christmas festival of today is a gradual evolution from times that long antedated the Christian period. We remember that though it celebrates the mightiest event in the history of Christendom, it was overlaid upon heathen festivals, and many of its observances are only adaptations of pagan to Christian ceremonial.
This was no mere accident. It was a necessary measure at a time when the new religion was forcing itself upon a deeply superstitious people. In order to reconcile fresh converts to the new faith, and to make the breaking of old ties as painless as possible, these relics of paganism were retained under modified forms, in the same way that antique columns, transferred from pagan temples, became parts of the new churches built by Christians in honor of their God and his saints.
Thus we find that when Pope Gregory sent Saint Augustine as a missionary to convert Anglo-Saxon England he directed that so far as possible the saint should accommodate the new and strange Christian rites to the heathen ones with which the natives had been familiar from their birth. For example, he advised Saint Augustine to allow his converts on certain festivals to eat and kill a great number of oxen to the glory of God the Father, as formerly they had done this in honor of the devil. All pagan gods, it should be explained, were looked upon as devils by the early Christians.
On the very Christmas after his arrival in England Saint Augustine baptized many thousands of converts and permitted their usual December celebration under the new name and with the new meaning. He forbade only the mingling together of Christians and pagans in the dances.
From these early pagan-Christian ceremonies are derived many of the English holiday customs that have survived to our day.
Now get clearly into your head one very important fact. Although at the time when Augustine visited England the date of Christmas had. been fixed upon as December 25 there is no biblical reason why this should be so. The gospels say nothing about the season of the year when Christ was born. On the other hand they do tell us that shepherds were then guarding their flocks in the open air. Hence many of the early fathers of the Church considered it most likely that the Nativity took place either in the late summer or the early fall. The point was of no great moment to them, as the early Church made more fuss over the death day of a great or holy person than over his birthday. The birthday is only the day when man is born into mortality, the deathday chronicles his birth into immortality.
The important fact then which I have asked you to get clearly into your head is that the fixing of the date as December 25th was a compromise with paganism.
For countless centuries before the Christian era pagan Europe, through all its various tribes and peoples, had been accustomed to celebrate its chief festival at the time of the winter solstice, the turning point when winter, having reached its apogee, has also reached the point when it must begin to decline again towards spring.
The last sentence requires further explanation. I shall try to put it into words as simple as possible. You must be aware of the fact that the shortest day in the year is December 21st. Therefore that is the day when winter reaches its height.
It was on or about December 21st that the ancient Greeks celebrated what are known to us as the Bacchanalia or festivities in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine. In these festivities the people gave themselves up to songs, dances and other revels which frquently passed the limits of decency and order.
In ancient Rome the Saturnalia, or festivals in honor of Saturn, the god of time, began on December 17th and continued for seven days. These also often ended in riot and disorder. Hence the words Bacchanalia and Saturnalia acquired an evil reputation in later times.
We are most interested in the festivals of the ancient Teutonic (or German) tribes because they are most closely linked with Christmas as we ourselves celebrate it.
The pagan feast of the Twelve Nights was religiously kept by them from December 25th to January 6th, the latter day being known, as it is still known to their descendants, as Twelfth Night. The Teutonic mind personified the active forces of nature,that is to say it pictured them as living beings.
The conflicts between these forces were represented as battles between gods and giants.
Winter, for example, was the Ice-giant,-cruel, boisterous, unruly, the destroyer of life, the enemy alike of gods and men. Riding on his steed, the allstiffening North Wind, he built up for himself great castles of ice. Darkness and death followed in his wake.
But the Sun-god and the South Wind, symbols of light and life, gave battle to the Ice-giant. At last Thor, the god of the Thunderstorm, riding on the wings of the air, hurled his thunderbolt at the winter castle, and demolished it. Then Frei j a, the goddess of fruits and flowers, resumed her former sway. All of which is only a poetical way of saying that after the Ice-giant had conquered in winter he was in his turn overthrown by the Sun-god in spring.
Now the twenty-first day of December, the depth of winter, marked the period when the Ice-giant was in the full flush of his triumph and also marked the beginning of his overthrow. It was the turning point in the conflict of natural forces. The Sun-god having reached the goal of the winter solstice, now wheeled around his fiery steeds and became the sure herald of the coming victory of light and life over darkness and death of spring over winter.
A thousand indications point to the fact that Christmas has incorporated into itself all these festivals, Greek, Roman and German, and given them a new meaning. The wild revels of the Bacchanalia, the Saturnalia and the Twelve Nights survive in a milder form in the merriment and jollity which mark the season of Christmas today.
Christmas gifts themselves remind us of the presents that were exchanged in Rome during the Saturnalia. In Rome, it might be added, the presents usually took the form of wax tapers and dolls,-the latter being in their turn a survival of the human sacrifices once offered to Saturn. It is a queer thought that in our Christmas presents we are preserving under- another form one of the most savage customs of our barbarian ancestors!
The shouts of "Bona Saturnalia!" which the Roman people exchanged among themselves are the precursors of our "Merry Christmas!" The decorations and illuminations of our Christian churches recall the temples of Saturn, radiant with burning tapers and resplendent with garlands. The masks and mummeries which still survive here and there, even in the America of today, and which were especially prominent in the Middle Ages, were prominent also in the Saturnalian revels.
And a large number of the legends, superstitions and ceremonials which have crystallized around the Christian festival in Europe and America are more or less distorted reminiscences of the legends, superstitions and ceremonials of the Twelve Nights of ancient Germany.