THE GREAT XMAS SPOOF
By Peter Fredson
This is how a charming myth was hijacked by Christianity and became an imposture. Northern Europe had many evergreen trees and reindeer, along with snow and ice that formed the environmental basis of the myth. People of far northern regions were greatly affected by the seasons, especially when winter seemed to kill most vegetation, made animals go into hiding or hibernation, while ice, cold and snow made life precarious. Long observation of seasonal patterns gave the hope that the winter would eventually turn in springs, when vegetation and animals were plentiful.
Seasonal celebrations for equinoxes and solstices were common. The personification of seasons occurred in many communities, of which a major figure was Father Claus. Details, such as his name and attributes, vary greatly, so do not be disturbed if this version does not match your.
This celebration came during the winter solstice, the season at which the earth makes its shortest journey around the sun. Nordic peoples feared that the sun god was dying as the days grew shorter. Around December 22nd occurred the shortest days when Nordic peoples would build great fires and kindle lights to encourage the sun to resurrect. Feasting and rejoicing occurred as days grew longer.
People’s happiness that the world was not going to remain frozen, seemingly dead, was reflected by festivities, in which food, drink and gifts were exchanged among villagers. The gifts would be dispensed by a person delegated to impersonate Father Claus. In countries like Finland he would come in a sleigh propelled by reindeer. Decoration of houses included evergreen trees and red berries, now traditional colors.
Adults knew well that Father Claus was one of the villagers, but the children were told about the hope for Spring in stories that spoke of generosity, honesty and kind deeds, with gifts dependent upon a god-like entity. The elaboration of the myth became high art of story tellers, who added new features and details with each retelling. It became a vital part of the myth to delight the children and to reward them for “being good.” The little children avidly heard the myth: their little hearts beat with excitement, their eyes shown with anticipation, while their faces reflected awe and amazement. They were spoofed by the adults, everyone chuckled at the hoax, and good will reigned.
Eventually reason and logic would creep into childhood lucubrations, doubts would arise, and some adult would confess that the entire affair was staged for dramatic effect. There might still be lingering hope that Claus, magical reindeer, and elves in some cultures, existed as more than metaphor, while the seasons went on their regular rounds, to keep the myth for artistic relief from the long winters.
Details of the myth varied immensely, still do. The myth went around the world as Claus was incorporated into the pantheon of various societies. So we have a Nordic semi-god, dressed in furs, driving reindeer on a sleigh with jingling bells, in evergreen country with heaps of snow and ice, now transplanted to hot desertic countries with practically no trees.
The Romans also observed the solstices by paying homage to Saturn, god of agriculture, with a Saturnalia festival. It was celebrated for a week to dramatize a Golden Age when Saturn ruled the world. Men and women paraded with garlands, carrying lighted candles through the streets. giving candles and green wreaths as presents. Slaves and masters changed roles as class distinctions were erased. The poor feasted as equals and took part in all the festivities.
Christmas was not a Christian holiday. Christians expropriated the Nordic myth as they did so many others and now claim it for themselves. They took the elements of hope, gift-giving, holly, evergreen trees; reindeer, a fat jolly villager dressed in warm clothes and furs, solstice, with Druid mistletoe, and by fiat declared it to be Christian, but it has no Biblical significance. Christian fanatics converted a pagan myth into an imposture.
Although pagan celebration of the winter solstice was widespread, it was strongly condemned by Christians, although they later adopted the Dec. 25th date, by fiat, for the celebration of the birth of Christ. They surrealistically merged a pagan semi-deity with a Christian deity, to form an amalgam which commercial business finds singularly attractive for its gift-giving aspect.
The story also parallels that of various pre-Christian “savior gods” such as Horus and Mithra, so that several pagan deities besides Father Claus, are now blended with the Christian myth, Persians lit fires to praise Mithra, god of light like the European Yule Log, representing warmth and light against the bitter cold darkness of winter. Latin peoples around 354 A.D. probably transferred the birthday of Christ from Jan. 6 to Dec. 25, which was then a Mithraism feast, the natal is invite soils or birthday of the unconquered Sun of Philocalus
The earliest identification of Dec.25 as Christ’s birthday is in a passage, probably spurious, of Theophilus of Antioch (c. I80), preserved in Latin by the Magdeburg centuriators (i. 3, II8), to the effect that the Gauls declared that as they celebrated the birth of the Lord on Dec. 25, so they ought to celebrate the resurrection on March 25.
Reading Christian Church History is exceedingly boring, but after several centuries of spurious arguments, the date of December 25th was set by fiat, by authority, by church authorities simply stating “Whether or not this really was the date, we don’t know, but we are going to celebrate it on that date.”
So, as Ripley remarked in his successful comic strip and television show, “BELIEVE IT OR NOT.”
“The Mavens’ Word of the Day
Copyright © 2002 Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
“Spoof can be found in slang and informal speech from 1884 on, the earliest senses deriving directly from notions of deceit, trickery, hoaxing, and nonsense. It’s interesting to note that all definitions remain free of the taint of “cheating,” the trickery is more prank than dishonesty for profit. “The House gave the willing tribute of laughter to the fact that it had been ‘spoofed’,” the Daily Mail reported in 1901. The “nonsense” sense flourished until the mid-1900’s, when spoof kept company with other great slang terms for “talk nonsense” such as “ladle out a lot of duck soup,” “footle,” “chew baloney,” “gush goo,” “turn on the gas,” and the sense-defying “go off in a cloud of balloon juice.” Around the 1920’s, spoof acquired the sense of “teasing jokiness.” It is this sense that is foregrounded in the current slang senses of spoof as a noun (“a mocking imitation of someone or something, usually light and good-humored; a lampoon or parody”) and as a verb (“to satirize gently”), as can be seen in this 1981 quote from Safire: “‘Urbababble’…spoofs the lingo of those urbane people in the city business.”