When you are huddling in the cold afraid there will be endless starving winter, a magical fat man flying through the sky to bring gifts and joy is a pleasant coping mechanism. That fat man is each of us.
Tis the season to be jolly. To be merry and bright.
Why is Christmas at the end of December and not, say, in June? It would be even nicer to sit around a tree outside basking in the warmth of the sun or enjoying the chill of a summer night.
Maybe it’s because of the beauty of snow. It does look pretty.
But then, there is even more snow in early February than December. In past decades in many places Christmas has been quite snow-less.
Why is Christmas on the 25th of December? Why did it become a big thing in Europe rather than Africa (there they celebrate it mostly as a fruit harvest festival)? Why is it a time to spend with family? Why is it green and red in a time when most of everything is white from snow? Why is it a celebration of togetherness?
No offense to Christians, but it’s not because of the birth of Jesus.
Leaving aside any discussion about the existence of Jesus and the truth in the Bible, it’s likely Christmas was celebrated by Christians on the 25th of December because of the pre-existing celebration on that date (Saturnalia for Romans, and under various names in other cultures), rather than because it was a calendar date for the birth of Jesus. Early Christians appear to not have celebrated Christmas, but rather fault the pagan holiday on 25th December.
The origins of Christmas pre-date Christmas trees, Christianity, and even what we call civilization. They date back from Prehistory.
Europe, 10,000 years ago
Bands of dozens of hunter-gatherers roamed the forests of Europe. In some periods they gathered into larger temporary communities.
They had no concept of Christmas, Santa Clause, Jesus, electric lights, central heating, pork pies, mistletoe kissing, gift wrapping, Instagram reels, Home Alone movies, or any of our other thousand of Christmas staples.
Their 25th of December was different.
It’s cold. Not the nice kind of cold that is refreshing after spending a lot of time in heated indoors. Not even the ‘it’s a little uncomfortable and I would rather go inside’ cold. It’s the cold that seeps into your bones and freezes the blood in your body. The cold that never stops, never relents, only grows deeper and scarier. The cold that you know will kill you if you don’t do something to get warm.
The landscape is snow. The sky is grey. The trees are grey. There are no plants, no berries, no fruit, no tubers, no anything to gather. They are either dead or hidden deep underground and under layers of snow. Prey is hard to find, and harder to catch. It is hibernating, or hiding.
It’s dark. It is the longest night of the year. Winter solstice is on 21st December but Romans thought it was 25th so that is why we celebrate the 25th.
The humans huddle together frightened. Most of them had gone through this period before, but they are still been scared. They are scared the sun might never come back (superstition), and they are scared not all of them would survive the winter (reality).
They are scared of dying frozen in the cold of night.
So they fight back in the only ways they can.
The fir tree is the only thing alive in this desolate landscape. It stand tall and green in a land of snow and grey.
Humans associated it with life and eternity. It could survive the darkest, coldest winter when nothing else could.
On Christmas time our ancestors burned fir trees in big bonfires. They made them warm, kept predators away and created light in the darkness. The fire made so much light, they reasoned it would help bring back the sun.
They sat together around the fire and feasted (if they could). It kept away they fear through the pleasure of eating and the sense of community that comes from sharing food. In time they developed rituals to make merry and feel they are helping bring back the sun. It was a way to create feelings of control over events they could not control: the dark and the cold.
How does Prehistory manifest in modern Christmas?
The Christmas tree is a safe and easy version of the burning fir tree. We adorn it with blinking lights and red ornaments which give the appearance of fire, without burning down our homes.
The pretty #christmastree photos on Instagram are the modern version of burning trees to keep wolves and freezing at bay in the long night.
In some areas of rural Europe less than a hundred years ago they still put lit candles in trees as decorations.
By the way, red and green are the colors of Christmas because they are the colors of a burning fir tree.
The celebration of togetherness and Christmas cheer comes from huddling scared of the dark and predators because we could only survive together.
Gift giving might be more recent, a transformation of a transformation of customs. From what I could find, gifts became a thing during Roman times. They celebrated Saturnalia at winter solstice. Part of this holiday was gift giving on 19th December.
What about Santa Claus?
The origin of the jolly fat man might have been the Germanic people’s holiday of Yule. This was a form of the Prehistoric Christmas, but advanced with the myths and beliefs of the time. One of them was that during Christmas Odin led the Wild Hunt through the skies. He then became Santa Claus, still rode through the sky but instead of hunting (which is not common any more), he gives gifts to children.
There is also the more recent influence of Saint Nicholas, a fourth Century Christian bishop who was known for his generosity. This made Santa Claus a gift-giver instead of an angry god.
Both show Santa Claus is a later development on the rituals of the period. But one that makes sense when you think about Prehistoric Christmas. When you are huddling in the cold afraid there will be endless starving winter, a magical fat man flying through the sky to bring gifts and joy is a pleasant coping mechanism. That fat man is each of us.
This Christmas rejoice. Be grateful for your family and all your comforts. Celebrate a holiday that in essence is about conquering our fear of the dark and cold. A holiday that is about braving the darkest night and bringing back the light and warmth. It’s about the triumph of humanity.