Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve and “Mother’s Night”

I find it interesting that so many of our traditional Christian celebrations not only coincide with already existing pagan traditions and other secular or religious beliefs and philosophies, but in some cases resonate in tone and intent. I feel that all faiths and beliefs serendipitously, if not intentionally, align on some greater, Gestalt-like scale. Let’s look at Christmas and the pagan Yule for example.

According to Wikipedia, “Yule [Jol] is a winter festival associated with the winter solstice celebrated in northern Europe since ancient times and which fell on December 25 upon establishment of the Julian Calendar in 45 BC. Its Christianized form is called Christmas, which is essentially the symbolism and traditions of Yule with the Christian story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth superimposed upon it. Yule traditions include decorating a fir or spruce tree, burning a Yule log, the hanging of mistletoe and holly, giving gifts, and general celebration and merriment.

In pre-Christian times, Germanic tribes celebrated Yule from late December to early January on a date determined by a lunar calendar. When Christianity was just beginning Christmas was set on the dates of Yule. During Christianization Yule was suppressed by the Christian Church, with many of the traditions being adapted to the new holiday.[2] Thus, the terms Yule and Christmas are often used interchangeably[3], especially in Christmas carols.”

Yule celebrations at the winter solstice predate the conversion to Christianity. The custom of ritually slaughtering a boar on Yule survives in the modern tradition of the Christmas ham and the Boar's Head Carol. Other symbols and motifs associated with the modern holiday of Christmas are derived from traditional pagan northern European Yule celebrations. The burning of the Yule log, the decorating of Christmas trees, the eating of ham, the hanging of boughs, holly, mistletoe, etc. are all historically practices associated with Yule. Another widespread Yule tradition, and one that persists in our Christmas festivities today, was the decoration of the house with greenery.

“According to the medieval English writer the Venerable Bede, Christian missionaries sent to proselytize among the Germanic peoples of northern Europe were instructed to superimpose Christian themes upon existing pagan holidays of the area, to ease the conversion of the people to Christianity by allowing them to retain their traditional celebrations. Thus, Christmas was created by associating stories of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the central figure of Christianity, with the existing pagan Yule celebrations, similar to the formation of Halloween and All Saint's Day via Christianization of existing pagan traditions” (Wikipedia).

According to the 8th Century monk, the Venerable Bede, Christmas Eve coincided with the ancient pagan “Mother’s Night” (also known as Helya’s Night):

"And the very night that is sacrosanct to us, these people call modranect, that is, the mothers' night, a name bestowed, I suspect, on account of the ceremonies which they performed while watching this night through."

The “mother” connection and the “watching” ceremonies of Mother’s Night consisted of the commitment of children to the protection of a goddess, ancestor, or the female deities known as the Disir. The ceremony became Christianized and the “mother” was naturally equated with the Virgin Mary, Christ’s mother. It is through no accident (despite the explanation I provide above) that the pagan winter solstice celebration of “Mother’s Night” should coincide with Christmas Eve, which belonged to Mother Mary, who was about to give birth to our savior. The Winter Solstice was considered a time for new beginnings, the birthing of the coming spring from the dead of winter, a time of light after dark, of hope and renewal. During the medieval Winter Solstice, houses in various parts of northern Europe were decked with fir and evergreens to welcome the coming of Hertha, goddess of light, domesticity and the home or the winter mother goddess, Rozhnitsa. How fitting that this pagan celebration was adopted by the Christian celebration of Jesus’s birth through Mother Mary.

This brings me to a simple point I wish to make about faiths and beliefs on this planet Earth… First off, I am a Christian. I believe in God and I personally believe that not only did Jesus walk this sacred Earth but that he was the son of God. This belief forms and underlies my actions daily as I interact with peoples of many faiths, beliefs and philosophies. The more I interact, the more I feel we are the same. And although it is important to celebrate our differences and the diversity that keeps us vital and alive, it is critical that we acknowledge how similar we are.

In an article by Douglas Todd in the Vancouver Sun, a Muslim academic, a Roman Catholic archbishop, a Jewish scholar and rabbi, and a Protestant minister provide four views of Jesus, God, and ultimately of their tolerance and inclusion of others’ beliefs:

Jesus is one in a lineage of five prophets that began with the first human being, Adam, Moses and Abraham”—Seemi Ghazi, UBC Muslim academic.

The first sound of the son of God on Earth was the cry of a child. The eternal son of God who became flesh is truly God and truly man. It is a mystery we cannot plumb.”—Michael Miller, Roman Catholic archbishop.

Jews find fulfillment with God not through Jesus but though the Torah, or Jewish scriptures.”—Robert Daum, Vancouver scholar and rabbi.

When he is called the lamb of God, the son of God, we need to take that metaphorically. Jesus is the lens through which God is illuminated for Christians.”—Gary Patterson, Minister at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church.

Here are some other interesting notions:

Did you know, for instance, that virtually all of the more than 70,000 Muslims in British Columbia (where I live) and elsewhere believe in Mary’s virgin conception? The Koran, however has the angel Gabriel involved in the birth of Jesus and focuses on how Mary felt alone and terrified while in labor.

Despite the different status that Jews and Christians give to Jesus, there are distinct similarities between the teachings of Jesus and other Jewish sages.

The traditional Christian claim that Jesus is the only begotten “incarnate” son of God, providing the exclusive route to salvation, remains a key theological sticking point for the Muslim, Jew and liberal Protestant. The archbishop said that the Christmas story is about how “the all-powerful God became humbled like us” through the birth of divine Jesus. The others, however, do not view Jesus as the only son of the Supreme Being, whose visitation on Earth and resurrection were necessary for all to attain eternal life. The Protestant joined the Muslim and Jew in not accepting the traditional concept of humanity’s “original sin”, which had to be atoned by Jesus’ sacrificial death. Instead, writes Todd, they seek “ongoing redemption in a mystical sense through developing a deeper relationship with God.”

So, despite differences, Muslim scholar, rabbi, minister and archbishop agreed that people can grow in their own faith through inter-spiritual and respectful dialogue (I emphasized respectful).

No religion is an island—Abraham Joshua Heschel (20th Century Jewish teacher)

Have a Wonderful Christmas!

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

A most excellent lesson in the forming of Christmas traditions, and well worthy of a Quality Post!

Karen said...

Thank you, Nina, for that lovely lesson.

Merry Christmas to you dear!

sfgirl said...

Thank you, Jean-Luc and Karen! A very Merry Christmas to you too! I wish you a joyous and wonderful year full of the miracles of God's making...

Greg said...

It isn't coincidence that pre-Christian festivals coincide with modern celebrations. It is the result of Christian persecution of so called pagans or non-Christians that create the similarity.

What actually happened is that Christianity was forced on a great many people. When the people would continue to celebrate their own traditions, the Christian authority would take over the tradition as a Christian holiday and either make the previous symbolism new Christian symbols, or declare them evil.

The dominant examples of this occurring are Halloween and Christmas, but we see remnants of older religions in most of our other holidays such as Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Easter, etc.

There were many pre-Christian celebrations that generally coincided with the closing of the year, or the winter’s solstice. Saturnalia is probably the most well known. It was the ancient Roman celebration to the god Saturn. Eventually, under the Roman Empire, this festival extended for the week of December 17th through the 23rd.

Because Christianity came to dominance, became an official religion, under Roman rule, and because this Roman holiday of Saturnalia was strong in the people, Christianity took over the festivals. The birth of Jesus was arbitrarily assigned to December 25th to mark the culmination of the celebrations, or the Christ Mass. In no Christian story is there mention of the day Jesus was born.

The concept of Santa Clause comes from several non-Christian sources. The German god Odin is a big influence and from German folklore and belief comes the Christmas tree, stockings, flying critters pulling Santa's sleigh, and many other modern "Christian" traditions.

The distance of time often leads us to believe that a natural progression occurred from early beliefs to modern ones. Reality is that many people had their cultures stolen away from them and were persecuted or killed unless they conformed to the new beliefs. Much of what they believed before formed the modern Christian notion of evil and sin.

The traditions that predate Christianity and are still followed today are a result of many people continuing in their beliefs despite Christianity being forced on them. They continued their traditions despite being persecuted and sometimes killed. They continued to the point where the Christian authority finally gave up and indoctrinated them into the Christian religion.

It isn’t coincidence. Today’s traditions are living memorials to those of the past that survived religious persecution.

sfgirl said...

Yes, Greg, I agree, there is no coincidence; superimposed religious celebrations made sense for reasons you give; and you provide a good summary of the hard reality of how religious celebrations arose... What's interesting to note is that Christians, too, were persecuted and their faith and ways challenged... As I mention in my next post, I feel that it is not so much the details of what we believe but what we do with it that is important.