Join Rev. Furrer as he preaches on the pagan roots at the heart of Christmas.
Christmas, Symbiosis, and Pagan Mysticism
Every year we’re implored from certain quarters that we need to “Keep Christ in Christmas.” At it’s best it’s an effort to de-emphasize the commercial and focus on the moral essence of the holiday. But more often it comes off as evangelical jingoism. Actually, Christ is a late addition—kind of an add-on—to the holiday.
Back in the 4th century, Christianity went from being a religion of the enslaved and very poor, to becoming very fashionable—when the Emperor Constantine suddenly embraced it. I mentioned last Sunday how Saturnalia, an indulgent Roman celebration, occurred right about this time every year. There was much dancing, and drinking, and gluttony. There were other solstice celebrations, too: Mithriaism (a rival religion at the time) with its Rebirth of the Unconquered Sun celebration occurred in right there in Rome—and throughout the Empire. But it was the pagan celebrations, which, interestingly enough, have most thoroughly seeped through into our modern Christmas.
The word pagan derives from the Latin paganus, a “countryman” or “farmer:” the unsophisticated rural folk who clung to ancient folk religions. Pope Gregory once wrote to St. Augustine advising him of the best way to convert the Anglo-Saxons: let them continue slaughtering animals, only to God, not Odin. Well, who were these Anglo-Saxon pagans the Pope was so concerned with?
Before Caesar the prevailing religion throughout Northern Europe was the nature mysticism of the Druids. Remnants of Druidic rituals are intimated throughout Celtic and Scandinavian mythology. It was their practice, at this season, to honor their chief god, Odin, with a variety of sacrifices and offerings. They also lit candles on boughs as a tribute to the sun god Balder. When Christianity came to these northern lands, the locals just changed the name of the gods and continued their practices.
Actually, we don’t really know all that much about the Druids. They capture our imaginations. Pliny (the Elder) wrote about them and Julius Caesar was quoted on the subject, too. They apparently worshipped the sacred oak, symbolic of YGGDRASILL—a type of cosmic Tree of Life at the center of the world. And they believed that those plants with eternally green leaves proved that the sun never completely deserted earth—and they considered such plants sacred. Holly was one of these and they’d brig it inside for good luck at the solstice. Another, and even more important such green, was mistletoe, one of the most magical plants of European folklore.
Mistletoe is amazing stuff. It was regarded as magical and sacred from earliest times, from the Mediterranean to the Baltic:
- A bestower of life
- Protection against evil-doers
- A potion with numerous medicinal and magical uses
- An “all heal” and aphrodisiac.
And it could extinguish fire and keep fire from destroying the sacred oak groves. The sacred Golden Bough that Aeneas plucked from the oak t the gate of the underworld and which served as token for his safe conduct there was mistletoe. Both Caesar and Pliny describe the Druid rite of plucking this plant on the sixth night of the first moon after the solstice. The white-robed priests and priestesses went deep into the woods and cut the plant with a golden sickle. The gathered mistletoe was not allowed to touch the ground. (This still goes on in Celtic and Scandinavian countries.) Two white bulls were sacrificed.
Robert Graves, in The White Goddess, suggests that the ritual cutting of the mistletoe from the oak symbolized the emasculation of the old king by his successor, mistletoe being a widespread sexual symbol, and also the “life” of the oak. What did he mean when he wrote that the mistletoe was the “life of the oak?” It’s kind of counter-intuitive to think of mistletoe that way, as the “life” of the tree, when in fact it is a parasite—or rather a hemi parasite, which, through living off the host, supports it in certain subtle ways—like protecting it from fire.
Mistletoe is a symbiote: an organism in a partnership with another in which each profits from their being together. Mistletoe was prized by the ancient Druids.
The Druids left us no writings. We can only guess what the plant actually symbolized for them. Perhaps the plant’s dependence on the tree to which it clings reminded them of their own dependence upon each other and upon the Sources of Life which sustained them. Or perhaps the plant’s medicinal quality symbolized nature’s healing powers. Ultimately, we are all dependent on sources of life and renewal that are much bigger than we are: solar energy, gravity, atmospheric pressure, abundant water, ad infinitum.
While the mistletoe plant symbolizes this well in the world of nature, in the world of society nothing symbolizes dependence and renewal better than a child. Like mistletoe, the child has a parasitic quality. If you’re a parent, at any rate, it often feels that way. Kids are consumptive, demanding, and totally dependent. But on Christmas we celebrate the child as sacred, for the consumptive, demanding, totally dependent child is also our—humanity’s—redemption. The return of the sun, in the form of new life, new vision, and new hope. I read the other day that it costs over $250,000 to raise a child to 18 years old. And tens of thousands more if you’re thinking of sending them to college. Lots of money… but to me it seems like a small investment with a high return.
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Unitarians are often chastised by the orthodox for not accepting Jesus’ divinity. But the truth is we wouldn’t deny the divinity of any person. There were hundreds of holy and divine children born just last night, some of them refugees just like Jesus. As Sophia Fahs wrote, “Every night a child is born is a holy night. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther put it this way: “We all think we’d make room at the inn. We think this because we know how big, how important, Jesus has become. Actually, the truth is, we wouldn’t have made room at the inn, or in our spare bedroom. Why don’t we make room for him now when we have Christ in our neighbor?
According to the biblical narratives, hardly anyone noticed when Jesus was born. Shepherds. Three foreign scholars. Wise me, we’re told, probably studying ancient texts; they knew where to look, apparently; where to look for miracles. How ironic that only three old magi for a distant land could see the infinite gift, the illimitable promise, inherent in the totally dependent baby. One of millions born of lowly parentage in an out-of-the-way corner of Empire. Even now. Today.
Inadvertently the wise men alerted the jealous king. They brought their gifts to the stable and disappeared. And fleeing the king’s wrath, the family, too, disappeared—carrying total dependence and total expectant promise with them into exile. There—as ever—they remain. Until, and unless, people of faith—you and I—choose to let them in. That is, choose to recognize our connection with them and our mutual dependency—our symbiosis with the rest of life and creation. Christmas invites us to remember these things. And to recognize our need to rekindle hope. As babies do. And as we can, too, by bringing green and vital life back inside; inside our homes and inside each of our hearts.
So may it be. Merry Christmas!