Christmas has become the most important day in American culture.
However, the first settlers in this country actually opposed the holiday. Protestants were strongly against the “pagan” celebration.
Eventually, German Catholic immigrants brought their traditions to America and celebrated them in their ethnic communities.
Christmas was gradually absorbed into mainstream society, but what was the original meaning and purpose?
Yuletide began as a German Nordic winter festival. The four Nordic seasonal festivals are Yuletide (December 22), Ostara (March 20), Sommersonnenwende (June 20), and Erntedankfest (September 22).
Each occurs on quarter days of the calendar, each solstice and equinox.
Yuletide was celebrated on December 22nd, the winter solstice (the shortest day/longest night of the year).
The name “Yule” (Jul) comes from Jólner, one of the many names for the German god Woden (Odin).
In ancient times, this period of the year was particularly stressful because communities might not survive the harsh winter.
Starvation was common between January and April, also known as “the famine months”.
In other words, Yuletide was the last feast celebration before deep winter began.
During this festival, most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter. Therefore, it would be the last time that fresh meat was available for months.
At this time, the majority of wine and beer produced throughout the summer was finally fermented and ready for drinking.
The people enjoyed the drinks and made several toasts:
The first toast was to the god Woden, “for victory and power to the king”.
The second toast was to the gods Nerthus and Freyr “for good harvests and for peace”.
The third toast to the king himself.
Additional toasts were dedicated to the memory of departed kinsfolk. These were called “minni” (memorial toasts).
The feast was also dedicated to the reawakening of nature following Yuletide. After the solstice, days would start getting longer and nights would gradually become shorter.
Yuletide also celebrated the Wild Hunt (German: Wilde Jagd), a procession of spirits in the winter sky. The Wild Hunt is an ancient folk myth from Northern, Western and Central Europe.
The story is about a group of spirits, armed with weapons for hunting. They are accompanied by horses and hounds in mad pursuit across the sky.
The hunters are led by Woden and include other gods, legendary figures (including former Kings/warriors), and the souls of the dead. In the early 4th century the Catholic Church decided Christmas would be celebrated on December 25, the winter solstice.
Many believe the Church chose the winter solstice because it was already popular feast day among European pagans.
Yuletide gradually absorbed into the festival of Christmas.
The Yuletide celebration, which lasted for twelve days, became known as the twelve days of Christmas.
In fact, Historian Margaret Baker claims the basis for Santa Claus was Woden’s Wild Hunt:
“The appearance of Santa Claus or Father Christmas, whose day is 25th of December, owes much to Odin, the old blue-hooded, cloaked, white-bearded Giftbringer of the north, who rode the midwinter sky on his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts.”
Many other traditions from Yuletide became an important part of the Christmas celebration:
The Christmas Tree also began as a Yuletide tradition. Saint Boniface invented the ritual to blend German rituals with Catholicism.
The Christmas Ham was formerly known as the “Yule Boar” (Sonargöltr), a German tradition that was originally dedicated to Freyr (the god associated with boars, harvest and fertility).
The Mistletoe is a small plant that grows in the branches of a tree or bush and was a Yuletide symbol of the male essence (romance, fertility and vitality). This eventually became the modern custom of kissing under the mistletoe during the Christmas season.
The Advent Wreath is a round collection of evergreens and was a Yuletide symbol for the eternal cycle of the seasons. Candles were often included, which symbolized the warmth of life in the cold of winter. This became also became a Christmas tradition.
The Yule Log is a large, hard log which was burned in the fireplace and became a part of Christmas celebrations. In his book “The Golden Bough”, historian James George Frazer claims “the ancient fire-festival of the winter solstice appears to survive” in the Yule log tradition.
The popularity of Christmas spread throughout Europe after German King Charlemagne was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III on December 25th in the year 800.
In medieval Germany, the festival and its traditions continued as they had since ancient times.
They celebrated Christmas with large feasts and strong drinks within the sacred bonds of family and community.
However, many Protestants opposed the celebration of Christmas, claiming it was a Catholic invention and the “trappings of popery” or the “rags of the Beast.”
In many Protestant countries, Christmas was often illegal due to concerns that it was too pagan or unbiblical.
Others tried to remove the pagan elements from the holiday. They claimed Christmas was “a popish festival with no biblical justification”, and a time of wasteful and immoral behavior.
Protestants throughout early America were opposed to Christmas. In fact, the holiday was outlawed from 1659 to 1681.
The ban was eventually revoked but Christmas was still largely ignored by most Americans.
Gradually, German Catholic immigrants arrived in America and spread their traditions.
In 1870, Christmas was formally declared a United States Federal holiday and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant.
However, some Protestants still claim these traditions are “pagan” and that December 25th is not the true birthday of Jesus.
More recently, Atheists claim the “pagan” source of these traditions proves that Jesus was a myth and Christianity is a lie.
Despite these critics, Christmas has become a significant part of American culture and an important symbol of our past.