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When Santa Was a Woman: 5 Christmas Histories You Want to Know

You are probably familiar with the idea that Christmas has roots in pagan traditions. Maybe you have a vague notion that Christmas was borrowed from the winter solstice or some ancient Roman holiday. But you’re busy Christmas shopping. You have holiday travel coming up. You have stockings to hang and trees to decorate. You certainly don’t have the time to go researching the origins of Christmas.  

The truth is, I was in the same boat. I had heard that once upon a time pagan celebrations were coopted by Christmas. And that was about all I knew. But I have always wanted to learn more about this idea. And, knowing that there is so much herstory in pagan traditions, I wanted to find out what lost herstory the holiday might hold. Now that I know how much Christmas owes to a feminine tradition, I will never look at Santa the same way again. And, after discovering these five hidden herstories of Christmas, neither will you. 

1.     Kissing Under the Mistletoe

"A Christmas Kiss" by George Bernard O'Neill. Public Domain image.

"A Christmas Kiss" by George Bernard O'Neill. Public Domain image.

Kissing under the mistletoe can be traced back to the Norse goddess Frigg(a) whose son Baldr was killed by a mistletoe spear. When the gods brought Baldr back to life, Frigga declared that, from then on, people passing under mistletoe should kiss in celebration. [1] 

While few people today would credit Frigga with this tradition, “[t]he church seems to have known of the links to a pagan religion, because traditionally mistletoe is not included among the greenery that decorates churches at Christmas.” [2] 

2.     Christmas Eve and Christmas Day

"The Christmas Tree" by Albert Chevallier Tayler. Public Domain image.

"The Christmas Tree" by Albert Chevallier Tayler. Public Domain image.

Once upon a time, Christmas Eve was known as “Mothers' Night,” a festival held on the eve of Yule that celebrated The Mothers

In the 7th century, Bede, a monk living in a Saxon England that was still largely heathen, chronicled how the night before Christmas was known as Modraniht, Mother’s Night. Stretching back at least 6,000 years, there are references all across ancient Europe to three all-powerful female gods called the Mothers. [3]

The very fact that Christmas is celebrated on December 25th may have been borrowed from pagan traditions. 

In addition to the more well known celebration of Saturnalia, winter festivals included Yulea celebration of the children born after Mothers' Night, and Koliada—a celebration of the sun goddess Koliada. [4] Dísablót, the midwinter festival honoring the disir (the spirits of female ancestors) [5] was a private celebration for family and friends, [6] much like today’s Christmas. 

So what might these widespread winter celebrations have to do with the date of Christmas?

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations… If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated. [7]

3.     The Christmas Tree and Christmas Carols

"Glade jul" by Viggo Johansen. Public Domain image.

"Glade jul" by Viggo Johansen. Public Domain image.

The Christmas tree is by far the most iconic symbol of the season. The beloved evergreen is a holiday staple for Christian homes, and has been adopted by countless non-Christian holiday-lovers. 

Of all the holiday's traditions, the Christmas tree might have the most ancient and varied roots in a pre-Christian world.  

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity.” The “Christmas tree” was as common in pagan Rome and Egypt as it is today. In Rome the tree was a fir, but in Egypt it was a palm tree. [8]

When you decorate your homes with wreaths and Christmas greenery, think about this:

Ancient Egyptians brought green palm branches into their homes on the winter solstice as a symbol of life’s triumph over death. [9]

Palm trees were sacred to goddesses from Ishtar [10] to Inanna [11] to Nike/Victoria. [12]

"The Palm Leaf" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Public Domain Image.

"The Palm Leaf" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. Public Domain Image.

So, too, does the Christmas tree have roots in early Judaism. The ancient Israelite goddess Asherah was worshipped by erecting “Asherah poles,” which were either carved wooden poles or trees. [13] “Just as early Christians recruited Roman pagans by associating Christmas with the Saturnalia, so too worshippers of the Asheira cult and its offshoots were recruited by the Church sanctioning ‘Christmas Trees.’” [14]

And the Christmas tree has other herstoric pagan roots as well. Roots buried in the rich soil of Mothers' Night.

In the Viking saga Erik the Red, on Mothers' Night a traveling winter seer would pay the locals a visit. She carried a tall, decorated staff and was greeted with a feast and incantations sung to summon the spirits of midwinter. [15]

The seer’s staff symbolized—you guessed it—a tree. That decorated “tree” was an early ancestor of the beautiful evergreen you have sparkling in your living room, and the sacred songs sung to the seer were precursors of today’s Christmas carols. [16]

4.     Down the Chimney and Through the Hearth

"Christmas Fireplace" by Issa Gm. Licensed for public use under the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution.

"Christmas Fireplace" by Issa Gm. Licensed for public use under the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution.

What’s more Christmas-y than chestnuts roasting on an open fire, the Yule log burning, and stockings hung by the chimney with care? What childhood Christmas is complete without the time-old tale of Santa coming down the chimney? No matter how intrinsic these traditions are to this Christian holiday, the fireplace—the hearth—and the Christmas traditions that surround it, are rooted in herstory.

The tradition of celebrating the hearth comes from the goddess Hestia, whose name means “hearth,” [17] while families used to wait for the goddess Hertha to descend through the chimney bearing her gifts long before there was a Santa Claus.  [18]

5.     Santa’s Sleigh and Holiday Wishes for Peace on Earth

"Santa's Sleigh Lands on a Roof." Public Domain image.

"Santa's Sleigh Lands on a Roof." Public Domain image.

The Roman writer Tacitus tells us that at midwinter the goddess Nerthus—whose name was synonymous with Mother Earth—rode a “sleigh-like wagon” pulled by oxen. Wherever she went, she spread holiday cheer and peace. “It [was] a time of festive holiday-making in whatever place she deign[ed] to honour.” Along with bringing holiday cheer, wherever Nerthus went, “nobody [went] to war, nobody [took] up arms.” [19]  

Eventually Nerthus was superseded by two goddesses, Freya and Frigg. At midwinter Freya was incarnated as Mother Christmas in rituals all over western Europe, touring the countryside in a wagon, though hers was pulled not by oxen but by cats. Later, her presence was represented by wise women who were possessed by her spirit. [20]

There are loud echoes of Nerthus’ sleigh-like wagon in Santa’s sleigh. Of course the oxen (or cats!) became reindeer, and the sleigh now flies, but one thing remains unchanged in the millennia since Mother Earth was the central figure of Christmas. Wherever Santa goes, he brings holiday celebrations and (at least wishes for) peace on earth.

"Peace on Earth." Labeled for reuse.

"Peace on Earth." Labeled for reuse.

Christmas is Herstory, Too

For thousands of years the holiday season was a time to celebrate women. By learning this rich herstory, we pay homage to a women's power so pervasive that it can still be found within the wreaths and boughs of today's Christmas.

Will you hear echoes of Mother Earth in the jingle of Santa’s sleigh? Or remember Mothers' Night when you tuck your children in on Christmas Eve? Let me know! Have something to add? I'd love to learn more! Contact us and let us know, and please share your sources.

With wishes for peace, and Happy Holidays to all, whatever roots your trees may grow from.

 


Sources:

1. Hopley, Claire. “Tenbury Wells' Mistletoe Festival: the magical fruit from thin air.” British Heritage, Nov, 2010, Vol.31, p.46.

2. Ibid.

3. Bates, Brian. “Santa Claus’s better half; Mother Christmas.” Sunday Times. London, England, Dec 18, 1994, p.7.

4. Hubbs, JoannaMother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture. First Midland Book Edition 1993, pp. 64-65. 

5. DuBois, Thomas A. “Nordic Religions in the Viking Age.” Anistoriton Journal, vol. 11. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

6. Turville-Petre, Gabriel. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, London: Weidenfeld, 1964, p. 221.

7. McGowan, Andrew. “How December 25 Became Christmas.” Biblical Archaeology. August 2014. Web. 15 December 2014.

8. Hislop, Alexander. The Two Babylonians. Loizeaux Brothers, Inc.; 2nd edition (1959), p. 97.

9. Marsh, Carole. The Story of the Christmas TreeGallopade International, 2003.

10. Nevling Porter, Barbara. "Sacred Trees, Date Palms, and the Royal Persona of Ashurnasirpal II." Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Apr., 1993), pp. 129-139. Web. 23 Dec. 2014. 

11. Miller, Naomi F. "Symbols of Fertility and Abundance in the Royal Cemetery at Ur, Iraq." American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 117, No. 1 (January 2013), pp. 127-133. Web. 23 Dec. 2014. 

12. Tarbell, F.B. "The Palm of Victory." Classical Philology, Vol. 3, No. 3 (July 1908), pp. 264-272. Web. 23 Dec. 2014.

13. Clement Miles. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance, New York: Dover Publications, 1976, pp. 178, 263-271.

14. Bates, Brian. “Santa Claus’s better half; Mother Christmas.” Sunday Times. London, England, Dec 18, 1994, p.7.

15. Ibid. 

16. Ibid.

17. Kajava, Mika. "Hestia Hearth, Goddess, and Cult." Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 102, 2004. Web. 23. Dec. 2014.

18. De Witt Van Amburgh, Fred. By the Side of the Road. Silent Partner Company, 1925, p. 19.

19. Bates, Brian. “Santa Claus’s better half; Mother Christmas.” Sunday Times. London, England, Dec 18, 1994, p.7.

20. Ibid.