Amongst the sleigh full of Christmas themed memes that have been doing the social media rounds since August, the above gem has graced my various timelines more than once.
Whilst I would urge anyone to dance naked and drunk rather than queuing at Argos, the question of just how a ‘Pagan’ partied at the Winter Solstice is a contested one. The origins of the Christmas festival are mysterious, to say the least; but the subversive joy many derive, each year, from suggesting Christmas has its origins in nude Pagans rutting like reindeer under the mistletoe, and spanking one another with holy sprigs is now just as much a part of the tradition as a partridge in a pear tree. But, is there any truth to this?
The reason there is so much debate around the traditions of Christmas is that numerous religious festivals all converged around the winter solstice. They still do, of course; Hanukkah, Yule, and Advent are some of the more well-known festivals. But also, ‘Soyal’, the winter solstice celebration of the Hopi Indians in Arizona; the Persian festival Yalda, is a celebration of the winter solstice in Iran that goes back to ancient times, and Dong Zhi, or the “arrival of winter,” is an important festival in China. As the winter solstice is the shortest day in the northern hemisphere, and marks the return of the sun, it stands to reason that ancient peoples recognised the significance of this; but, back to Christmas.
The Christian celebration of the birth of Christ does place sex (or rather an absence of sex) at the centre of the nativity; Mary is a virgin and Christ is born of a virgin. Mary’s virginity is a divisive issue within church history. The issue is not that Mary gave birth to Christ as a virgin, (Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-38 and in the Quran Surah 3 (Al Imran) and 19 (Maryam)) but if she stayed a virgin. This is known as the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. The Catholic Church largely agreed that Mary remained intact throughout her life; but later protestant reformers, such as John Calvin (1509 – 1564), thought it reasonable that Mary and Joseph had marital relations after Christ was born. This is still an issue of theological debate within the Church today.
None of the four gospels say when Jesus was born, and for at least two hundred years after the birth of Christ, no one paid it much attention. Easter was the key date in the Christian calendar. There are several competing reasons why December 25th was chosen as Jesus’s official birthday. To the early Church fathers, it seemed reasonable that Christ would have died on the same calendar day he was conceived. Around 200 AD, Tertullian of Carthage reported the day of the crucifixion, according to the Gospel of John, was March 25th; which meant he was born nine months after that, on the December 25th. So, December 25th became the birth date of Christ. Another, less theological, reason for selecting December 25th is that the Christian church appropriated existing solstice celebrations in order to make the conversation of Pagan cultures run a little more smoothly; a pragmatic case of if you can’t beat them, join them. Two major winter festivals absorbed into the Christian celebration of the Nativity are the Germanic festival of Yule, and the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
Saturnalia was not a sex festival (sadly), it was originally a farmers' festival that commemorated the dedication of the temple of Saturn (the Roman god of agriculture and the harvest). However, there are links to fertility, as the festival heralded the return of the spring and new life. Rather like our modern celebration of Christmas, Saturnalia was a party, involving food, drink and general merriment, with the occasional nod to the religious meaning. One can imagine disgruntled Romans moaning that Saturnalia has become too commercial and tawdry, with no one caring about the ‘true meaning’ any more. The festival ran for seven days from the 17th December, and eventually came to be so big that it absorbed several other Roman December festivals; the Opalia, the Sigillaria, and the natalis solis invicti - the birthday of the 'invincible' Roman sun-god Sol on the 25th December. Saturnalia involved a reversal of traditional roles, with slaves wearing expensive garments and sitting at the head of the table. Families gave each other gifts, and homes were decorated with wreathes and greenery (sound familiar?) The poet Lucian of Samosata (AD 120-180) wrote about Saturnalia, describing it as a time of ‘drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water.’ The festival was far too popular to suppress when the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in, or about, 312 AD. So, it was allowed to continue and was eventually absorbed into the Christian celebration of the Nativity. December 17th was still recognized as Saturnalia as late as AD 448 in the ecclesiastical calendar or laterculus ("list") of Polemius.
While we do not have Saturnalia television specials, or the Saturnalia Sales, the Germanic / Scandinavian festival of Yule has exerted a more palpable influence upon modern Christmas festivities; holy and ivy, mistletoe, the Yule log, the Twelve Days of Christmas, wassailing, etc., all derive from Yule. But, the truth is we do not know very much about the festival of Yule. The word ‘Yule’ derives from the old English geól, meaning Christmas Day, or Christmas time. There are also links to giuli, the Anglo-Saxons' name for a two-month midwinter season between December and January. Yule has even older roots in Old Norse jol, a heathen feast, later taken over by Christianity. But, as to what happened at this mysterious festival, no one is quite sure; certainly, no one can be sure if this festival involved sex.
In The Reckoning of Time (725) (Latin: De temporum ratione) the Northumbrian monk Bede briefly mentions a ‘heathen’ festival that took place on December 24th, called Modranecht (mother’s night). He writes ‘That very night, which we hold so sacred, they used to call by the heathen word Modranecht, that is, "mother's night", because of the ceremonies they enacted all that night.’ Frustratingly, the good monk tells us nothing more of mother’s night, or what ceremonies were performed there. Scholars have linked mother’s night to various sacrificial rituals and Germanic female deities, and there is the tantalising possibility that mother’s night was a fertility ritual, but the jury is still out on that one.
A slightly surprising source for Yule Tide horn is Father Christmas himself (I know; bear with me.) Today, Santa Claus and Father Christmas are one and the same, but, they actually derive from two distinct figures, with separate histories. Santa Claus is an American derivative of the Dutch Sinter Klass, a name for St Nicholas. Interesting, St Nicholas (the Bishop of Myra, in Turkey in the 3rd century AD) is the patron Saint of sex workers, as he gave three impoverished sisters dowries to allow them to get married, rather than becoming sex workers. But, it’s the figure of Father Christmas who has more sordid secrets in his sack. Father Christmas first appears as a mysterious figure associated with mid-winter festivals. He wore a green hooded cloak and carried a wreath of holly, ivy or mistletoe. If this figure sounds familiar to you, it may because Charles Dickens drew heavily on this description in his Ghost of Christmas Present.
'It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air.'
If you happen to have chanced across the fourteenth-century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a mysterious green giant enters Camelot on Christmas Day to challenge King Arthur to a contest. The giant is brilliant green, and carries a bough of holly. He has a long beard, is bare-chested, and wears a long green cloak ‘with blithe ermine full bright, and his hood both.’ This figure, later called Lord Christmas, Sir Christmas or Captain Christmas, had strong links with fertility and festivities. There are even early descriptions of Father Christmas as something of a sex symbol (and this is before we get to emptying sacks and all those phallic chimneys). The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Christmas (1646) describes how ‘women dote after him; he helped them to so many new Gownes, Hatts, and Hankerches, and other fine knacks, of which he hath a pack on his back, in which is good store of all sorts, besides the fine knacks that he got out of their husbands.’ Father Christmas is not a Pagan sex god; the most we can say is that he has obvious links with fertility (as did Saturn). So, where does the idea that Pagan celebrated the winter solstice with sex come from?
The simple truth to that is because they were ‘Pagan’ festivals. Pagan simply means non-Christian, but to the less than PC medieval mind (in Christendom, at least), non-Christian meant Satanic; Pagan and heathen were synonymous with one another. ‘Pagan’ was a catch all term of abuse for any non-Christian practice; it was an insult meant to ‘other’ religious groups. The Christian church defined itself against such heathen practices; Christians were civilised, Pagans were not; Christians were morally chaste, Pagans were not; and if Christians practiced ‘thou shalt not’, Pagans most certainly did not. The Christian Church has had a long and troubled relationship with sexuality, and it would be far to say repression, denial and control have long been the order of the day, so it is little wonder that more relaxed attitudes towards sexuality were demonised as ‘heathen’.
It is not a recent revelation that Christmas has Pagan roots. This is something that has troubled the Christian Church for a long time. In the eighth century, Church authorities complained that people in Rome were still celebrating the old Pagan customs associated with the Saturnalia, rather than the Nativity. The Puritans in Britain famously tried to ban Christmas; not only for its Pagan history, but because people preferred a piss up to going to Church. In the 1580s, Philip Stubbes complained:
'That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.'
In 1643, UK parliament passed an ordinance requiring citizens to observe that day ‘With the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights.’ In 1649, Thomas Mockett, rector of Gilston in Hertfordshire declared Christmas nothing more than a Pagan superstition that included.
'All the heathenish customs and Pagan rites and ceremonies that the idolatrous heathens used, as riotous drinking, health drinking, gluttony, luxury, wantonness, dancing, dicing, stage-plays, interludes, masks, mummeries, with all other Pagan sports and profane practices into the Church of God.'
For all the Puritans efforts to suppress Christmas and its heathen history, the festival continued. In February 1656, Ezekial Woodward had to admit that 'the people go on holding fast to their heathenish customs and abominable idolatries, and think they do well'. Of course, when Charles II (the Merry Monarch) was restored to the throne in 1660, Christmas was reinstated.
Yule and Saturnalia may well have had celebrated fertility through sex, but we do not have solid evidence to confirm or deny that; but what is clear is that the Puritans believed such heathen festivities did involve ‘wantonness’ and were therefore inherently un-Christian. The myth of the rutting, glutting and slutty Pagan was a powerful one, used to ensure good Christians towed the line; but, it is largely a Christian invention. We can see ancient solstice traditions in our modern celebrations, but perhaps what directly most connects Saturnalia, Yule and our Christmas festivities, is that people (then as now) enjoyed drinking, dancing, eating and making merry in celebration; and that religious leaders feared the general ‘misrule’ of such times. Pagans my not have celebrated the solstice by cavorting naked around a bonfire, but they certainly enjoyed themselves in much the same way we do today, and that may have included the odd festive fumble. But, whatever they did, and whatever the church leaders feared they did – it was certainly better than queuing in Argos.