Germanic mythological influences up to today’s Christmas celebrations

Odin the Wanderer (1895) by Georg von Rosen a figure in which we easily can see the (Coca-Cola red-advertisement) Santa

In a few days time lots of people celebrate Christmas, for some a holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, though he was born in October, for others it is the time to celebrate the Wild Hunt, the widely revered god Óðinn or Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht or “Night of the Mothers” or “Mothers’ Night.

In our Germanic regions lots of Christmas -traditions are taken from the ancient Germanic mythology and from the Migration Period, the Viking Age and the  15th up to 18th century introduced German customs to celebrate the Christmastide.

Customs of that Christmastide are a.o. the decoration of the evergreen or artificial Christmas tree in the tradition of the Germanic heathen  “Yule-tree” Weihnachtsbaum or later Christbaum.

It can well be that in the 7th century the English missionary and reformer St. Boniface his action of pointing to a small fir tree laying among the ruins of the oak tree, he cut down when he found some pagans preparing a human sacrifice before it, telling them to take that as the symbol of their new faith and of the birth of the Christ child, has brought the tradition into the homes of placing that tree as sign of new life. 

These days are for the majority also to celebrate the Santa or Father Christmas coming from the North to their houses bringing presents. Lots of American christians are mad of that Christmas Father and his diminutive creatures, the elves, though we sincerely wonder what they have to do with the birth of Christ, those Americans are saying that they are celebrating. For them the American abolitionist and a feminist author known for her children’s books, especially the classic Little Women, Louisa May Alcott in 1856 may have introduced those elves but the Santa Claus character is much older, emerging in US folklore in the early 17th century from the historical figure St. Nicholas of Myra with attributes of various European Christmas traditions, especially from the Slavic Father Frost and the elf-like figure or tomten* of the winter solstice who comes at Yule, plus the English Christmas gift-bringer Father Christmas and Dutch Sinterklaas.

For others the Christmas season is just some nice period of free days to spent some more time with the family in those darkest days of the year.

It were those dark days which also brought many people in the past to bring sacrificial offers to have the light returning. The god of light was worshipped and her birthday December the 25th was an important day in the year, which would bring change again in many peoples their life. christians should remember the warning giving in Scriptures about one of such celebrations, namely those of ancient Rome, where the winter solstice was celebrated at the most popular festival, the Feast of Saturnalia, which originally were celebrated the 17th of December, to honour the god of agricultural bounty Saturn, equated with the Greek agricultural deity Cronus. Lasting about a week, Saturnalia was characterized by feasting, debauchery and gift-giving.

A nisse/tomte, often imagined as a small, elderly man, on Christmas Card (1885)

Christians should know that the festivities at the end of the civil year, in the northern part of the globe, had to do with pre-Christian midwinter celebrations, where people worshipped the gods of light and darkness and the spirits of the underworld and darkness who came above the ground in these darker days. In many elements still used today we can see ancient ancestral cult elements. The spirits had to be treated well to please them so that they would protect the family and animals from evil and misfortune and may also aid the chores and farm work.

The nisse** or tomte who in ancient times was believed to be the “soul” of the first inhabitor of the farm is also consider not only the guardian of the houses but also the helper of the god of Winter, the Father Frost, who also has his elves and his flying reindeer which can be compared to shamanic practices among the Norse pagans their Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin in Norse mythology, the child of Loki and Svaðilfari.

For those who say it is the most wonderful time of year because our saviour is born, we could ask why they do not celebrate it then on the birthday of their saviour Jesus Christ, whose original name was Jeshua. today those Christians who use the 25th of December to celebrate the birth of Jesus

"Father Christmas" is often synonymo...

“Father Christmas” is often synonymous with Santa Claus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is from all those old pagan rituals and lively traditions that the Roman Catholic Church missionaries and Luther made handy use to  get the local population at ease, integrating their pagan rituals in the church and making it even Christian church traditions. In 325 at the First Council of Nicaea a meeting of bishops and other leaders took place to consider and rule on questions of doctrine concerning the position of Jesus and the persecution of their community by the Romans. By agreeing to the wishes of the Roman emperor  Constantine I, he proclaimed toleration for the Christians (313) and persecution ended, but now at that general meeting all ‘Christians’ had to come to agreement to take the three-headed Greek-Roman god the equivalent to rabbi Jeshua. Many did not agree with that and wanted to regard Jeshua (or Jesus, like he is better know today in English speaking countries) still as the Jewish worshipper of the One and only One True God. though the conversations where very agitated and after fiery debate the majority agreed to accept the figure Zeus into their leader, wherefore his name was changed to Issou (Hail Zeus) in honour of the uppergod, and to have the tri-une godhead also for him, giving him the role of being a god-father, a god-son and a god-spirit. Though it would take up to the 5th century before even more christians could accept such trinity for Jesus. At the fourth ecumenical council of the Christian Church, held in Chalcedon (modern Kadiköy, Tur.) in 451 the creed of Constantinople (381; subsequently known as the Nicene Creed), two letters of Cyril against Nestorius, which insisted on the unity of divine and human persons in Christ, and the Tome of Pope Leo I confirming two distinct natures in Christ and rejecting the Monophysite doctrine that Jesus Christ’s nature remains altogether divine and not human even though he has taken on an earthly and human body with its cycle of birth, life, and death.

In the development of the doctrine of the person of Christ during the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries, several divergent traditions had arisen. {Encyclopaedia Britannica on Chalcedon}

Cyril emphasized the unity of the two in one Person, while Nestorius so emphasized their distinctness that he seemed to be splitting Christ into two Persons acting in concert. The conflict came to the fore over Cyril’s insistence that the Virgin Mary be called Theotokos (Greek: God-bearer) to describe the intimate union of the two natures in the Incarnation. Nestorius refused to accept such terminology, and their dispute was referred to a general council at Ephesus in 431. {Encyclopaedia Britannica on Saint Cyril of Alexandria}

Chalcedon adopted a decree declaring that Christ was to be “acknowledged in two natures, without being mixed, transmuted, divided, or separated.” This formulation was directed in part against the Nestorian doctrine — that the two natures in Christ had remained separate and that they were in effect two persons — and in part against the theologically unsophisticated position of the monk Eutyches, who had been condemned in 448 for teaching that, after the Incarnation, Christ had only one nature and that, therefore, the humanity of the incarnate Christ was not of the same substance as that of other human beings. Political and ecclesiastical rivalries as well as theology played a role in the decision of Chalcedon to depose and excommunicate the patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscorus (d. 454). The church that supported Dioscorus and insisted that his teaching was consistent with the orthodox doctrine of St. Cyril of Alexandria was labeled monophysite. {Encyclopaedia Britannica on Chalcedon}

For several years discussions went on about divinity and humanity of Jesus, but in the end the majority took the easy way, to please the Romans and themselves, to go in against the Jewish teachings of there to be only One God of gods and accepting the three-headed god or Trinity plus integrating the Greek-Roman feasts in their religious calendar.

Artificial Christmas tree

Artificial Christmas tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As such we can say that with Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, many of the pagan customs became part of Christendom and when the missionaries moved to the West they had learned it was the easiest way to convert people by offering their own rituals and traditions as acceptable and part of Christendom. This way lots of Germanic and Keltic traditions where absorbed to offer Christians a similar Solstice feast by the introduction of the holy day Christmas.

Jesus became the god of light, the bringer of light or “the Light in the world” and all the decorations of trees (a pagan act as part of the worship, which is an abomination in the eyes of God) became part of the Christian tradition.

*

Notes

  • * In the English editions of the fairy tales of H. C. Andersen the word nisse has been inaccurately translated as goblin (a more accurate translation is brownie or hob).
  • ** In modern Denmark, nisser are often seen as beardless, wearing grey and red woolens with a red cap.

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Additional reading

  1. Holidays, holy days and traditions
  2. Solstice, Saturnalia and Christmas-stress
  3. Focus on outward appearances
  4. Irminsul, dies natalis solis invicti, birthday of light, Christmas and Saturnalia
  5. The imaginational war against Christmas
  6. Winter Solstice 2015: Shortest Day Of The Year Celebrated As Pagan Yule (Stepping Toes)
  7. Exodus 9: Liar Liar
  8. Jesus begotten Son of God #2 Christmas and pagan rites
  9. A season for truth and peace
  10. Nazarene Commentary Luke 2:1-7 – A Firstborn’s Birth In Bethlehem
  11. Azteekse en Romeinse tradities die ons nog steeds beïnvloeden

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About Christadelphians

Free Christadelphians or Brothers and sisters in Christ, living in Belgium, European Union. - Vrijë Christadelphians of Broeders en zusters in Christus wonende in België in de Europese Unie.
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4 Responses to Germanic mythological influences up to today’s Christmas celebrations

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