History lesson, pt. I
The idea of throwing a big celebration in honour of the birth of Christ is a relatively recent idea. Nobody knows exactly when he was born; guesses range from 7 to 2 BC and the date is a mystery. His date of birth was once estimated to be January 6, in an attempt to beat a competing holiday (the celebration of the virgin birth of Aion, the Hellenistic deity of eternity). In the process they borrowed the symbolism of the stables. Christianity is in the business of mergers and acquisitions.
The date was later changed to December 25, partly because of the swap from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, and partly to steal a little thunder from Saturnalia—a holiday dedicated to the deity Saturn, which was celebrated from December 17-23.
Saturnalia was a festival of role reversal, gambling, ritualistic sacrifice, drinking, binge eating, and the quest for knowledge. People took the day off work, slaves were allowed to be disrespectful to their masters, and people satirized leaders by randomly appointing a King of Saturnalia, who got to shout arbitrary decrees. A topsy-turvy day to let people vent their frustration on the Winter Solstice. Think of it as a benign version of The Purge.
The Christmas practise of gift giving was probably picked up from Saturnalia, as Christianity continuing accumulating customs like an endless game of Katamari Damacy. But of course they dropped all the healthy venting and partying in favour of good old-fashioned repression.
As the Christian faith spread into areas that celebrated the Winter Solstice, slapping their Aion-Saturn holiday onto the pagan customs was a smooth process. This was quickly rationalized by the birth of Christ being a sort-of solstice celebration, as Christ was the most awesome sun of them all, conquering the darkness, changing his own diapers, etc.
Deck the halls with geysers of vomit
With the Winter Solstice merger, Christmas absorbed the indoor fir trees and the parasitic plant mistletoe, both of which played an important role in Norse mythology. The mistletoe played a pivotal role as the plant that was used to slay Baldur, the closest thing to a Christ figure found in Norse mythology. The fir tree is thought to have been in celebration of the great world tree Askur Yggdrasil. Also, these were simpler times and evergreens were thought to be magic, as they opted out of the whole seasonal cycle of death and rebirth that the other plants put up with. Finally, those nice green trees looked nice and served to slightly cover the common medieval poverty urine smell so pervasive in homes at the time.
For the Norse and Germanic pagans, late December was chosen, ostensibly due to the Winter Solstice. It is just as likely, however, that those pagans felt it was a suitable time to get properly shitfaced, as it represented a lull in the yearly workload that happened to coincide with everyone having enough to eat and drink.
The pagan Yuletide celebration may have stretched over the whole of November and December, as the ostrogoths named November the first month of Christmas and December the second. Anglo-Saxons celebrated Yule from December into January.
Not that much is known about the Yule celebrations, but odds are things weren’t as coordinated as many modern pagans would like to believe. Icelanders in those days were a ragtag group of tax-dodgers, and it’s doubtful that they had a distinctly hierarchical and well-organized system of belief.
We do know that it involved the sacrifice of livestock and systematic binge drinking. In a 9th century poem to Harald Fairhair, the first king of Norway, there are references to the “playing of Frey’s game,” which is thought to have been some kind of sexual fertility ritual. It goes on to describe the ritualistic slaughter of a hog devoted to the deity. As the hog was a common fertility symbol in the region, it does seem to indicate that there was a significant hanky-panky side to the Yule celebration. Which is par for the course when you combine loose morals and weeks of heavy drinking.
The heavy drinking aspect of the pagan feast can’t be overemphasized. People were legally required to brew ale and maintain a supply in their homes, in case any chieftains decided to pop in for a quick one. Peasants would actually be fined if they were found to be lacking in ale.
Chieftains themselves were required to stage elaborate and generous feasts, and as with the Saturnalia, they were an all-inclusive booze-up where slaves were allowed to participate.
Modern pagan celebrations are a hodgepodge of dubiously sourced, cobbled-together traditions, much like Christianity (although modern pagans are generally much more likeable and way more likely to be into heavy metal).
Icelanders are creatures of habit and strong herd-instincts, and their celebration does not differ from that of the Christian in any major ways. And why should they? The tree, the gifts, the gorging, the decorations, the date… like Ray J said: ”I Hit It First.”