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    • Reviving Herstory

    • December 23, 2014 in Bloggers

    When Santa was a woman — five Christmas histories you want to know

    A version of this post originally appeared on the RH Blog on Reviving Herstory. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

    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 Frigga whose son Baldr was killed by a mistletoe spear. When the gods brought Baldr back to life, Frigg(a) 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, Mothers’ 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 Yule — a celebration of the children born after Mothers’ Night, and Koliada — possibly named for 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 travelling 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 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! Post in the comments below, and please share your sources.

    I want to give a special Yule-tide shout out to iPinion’s resident Pagan expert, Jason Mankey. What I wrote here is focused on herstory, and is only a sliver of all there is to know about the possible Pagan roots of Christmas. For a more in-depth discussion, check out Jason Mankey’s “Christmas traditions: Pagan or Christian?”

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

    For a complete list of sources cited, visit the original blog post on Reviving Herstory.

    • Interesting stuff… there is a trend in history to stamp out female symbols of power and replace them with male symbols of power — which is exactly the Pagan world’s relationship with the Christian world, as well as Pagan holidays which were overlaid with a Christian template (Yule, Ostara, Samhain being the most obvious ones.)
      But… you missed one female “Santa” – La Befana! Check out the similarities:

      • Interesting, Debra! La Befana shares so much with Santa and also with many of the goddesses here. Also interesting that, unlike these goddesses, she stems from Christian legend!

      • Danielle Prohom Olson

      • December 24, 2014 at 10:59 pm
      • Reply

      More forgotten female Christmas traditions – like Rudolph was really a she! http://gathervictoria.com/2014/12/04/doe-a-deer-a-female-deer-the-spirit-of-mother-christmas/

      • Bluma

      • December 26, 2014 at 7:10 am
      • Reply

      Baba Yaga is like the Russian Befana.

      • Pepe

      • December 26, 2014 at 1:18 pm
      • Reply

      It is wonderful that the spirit of Jesus Christ comes alive at Christmas time; sharing what you have with others that don’t have is living love. But there’s a glitch or two. Christianity condemns paganism yet Christmas is totally pagan; why? Paganism is in our blood and honoring it in rituals has tremendous power that unifies us as true brothers and sister to evolve in love and fulfillment. Truly, this power has been abused as with any power system but it was the Roman Church that condemned it to deny us our power and replace it with it’s own to dominate it’s “faithful”. Christmas time is a pagan celebration of the solar cross and has nothing to do with Jesus but was instated to keep alive the dominance of the Church in the name of Christ. It is the celebration of the midnight of the year: darkness, the void, femininity, the womb, emptiness, silence, meditation and so on. Things that are best disregarded in a restricted dominated society. The pagan significance of this solstice as the astronomical movement of the sun was usurped and modified by the Church as the birth of Jesus to maintain it’s power. I do not believe that Christ needs to be kept in Christmas but “his” love needs to be there as everywhere. Jesus, Buddha and all entities expressing the divine in us need to be present in us at every moment. The sun is part of what we are and at this point of the solar cross we need to honor emptiness, the Mother Goddess, the cosmic womb to keep ourselves tuned and in alignment to the earth, it’s nourishment and our participation of life on it. Christ should not be used to divide or dis-empower us. As currently expressed, this solstice celebration is a corruption instigated by cruel elements in the world. We have been ripped off of our power with this stupid “Holy Day” celebration. Please look deeply into this phenomena while shopping at K-Mart, Wal-Mart at all China imports, etc. that are corrupting our wellbeing. Shopping should be a human joy to fulfill our lives. I am in such sorrow as I write this and hurt for the entrapment of the humanity of which I am a part. I just cannot sit back and see the hollowness of our state of life when we have the capacity of our forgotten power to have joy and the life we love. I love you.

    • Thank you! Exactly the blog we needed to repost. Well done.

      • Cheryl Wolkonowski

      • December 27, 2014 at 8:18 am
      • Reply

      My friend and I were talking just the other day how Christmas is a “mans” holiday. Women do most of the cooking, decorating, cleaning, wrapping, buying, undecorating, baking etc. and men take sit back and then ask us why we look so tired. Since they have so little to do for the holidays, doesn’t it figure they would grab the spotlight (Santa) and take credit? Merry Christmas, I love the holidays no matter what.

      • This season is very much a family time in our house, not he vs she. My husband did all the decorating, wrapping, and cleaning while I baked and shopped.

      • Maybe in your house, not in mine. We all shop. We all cook. The cleaning we don’t want to do we hire done or do ourselves. We wrap the presents we are gifting. My mobility is limited right now so my husband put up the tree. I cooked Christmas Eve dinner because I wanted to, no one expected and everyone was grateful.

        At Thanksgiving my Dad does the largest amount of cooking, but we all help.

        If you don’t like the distribution of work in your house and resent it… change it. Just because “that’s how we always do it” doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be.

      • Thomas

      • December 27, 2014 at 11:26 am
      • Reply

      I was very interested in this, and I liked reading it, but I noticed there were a few things said that I don’t think are historically correct. In the first one, Baldur was only going to be let out of Helheim after he was killed if every creature in existence grieved for him. Every creature but Loki did. So he is said to remain in Helheim until the end of Ragnarok, the end of the world in Norse myth. Yule, as mentioned in the second, is not a celebration of children. It is also a Norse-based holiday that celebrates Freyr, the Norse Sun god. Offerings were made to him for a good harvest in the upcomimg year. Again, I enjoyed reading the article, and the origins of other traditions, but those first two aren’t correct.

      • Michael

      • December 6, 2015 at 1:25 pm
      • Reply

      When the church leaders designated December 25th as “christmas” approx. 300ad, they were operating under the Julian calendar of the time. And December 25th under the Julian calendar was Winter Solstice. When the switch was made to the Gregorian calendar we use today, there were days added to the calendar and December 25th moved away from Winter Solstice. So Christmas literally is a Winter Solstice holiday. We’ve just forgotten that over time.

    • What! no Befana? no Bertha with the crown of candles?

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