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It’s that time of the year! To devour, without the slightest remorse, mince pies, turkey, sweets, and to down a few gallons of wine and ale. Unfortunately, for those with little imagination when it comes to buying presents (like the author), it’s also the time of the year for Secret Santa.

If you don’t give a f*** about the religious nature of Christmas, then you’re a bad person and only deserve the coal Santa will bring you coal. Otherwise, perhaps you know a little about the godly baby (not Superman), born in a stable between donkeys, and visited by three suspicious sorcerers, bringing spices. Great parenting, to accept spices for a newborn, from sorcerers like Voldemort.

But the truth is, Christmas has more to do with magicians and paganism, than with Christ’s nativity. How? You are probably wondering, while swallowing Christmas pudding. That’s why I bothered to go through a lot of boring books and articles, to sum up these 10 Xmas facts, here for your perusal.

1. Christmas day

#The day of Sol Invictus

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, when Christianity wasn’t yet the big bully of religion, Christians weren’t sure what day Christ popped out from Mary’s virgin womb. The earliest mention of a date came from the calendar of Philocalus, in 354. Long has it been suspected that the reason for choosing the 25th December, was because the Romans already celebrated a festival then.

In 274, Emperor Aurelian declared the 25th of December the worshipping day of Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun), and early Christians, who had a leaning towards cultural appropriation, seized upon it. I guess the commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”, was open to interpretation. On the 25th, the Romans used to celebrate the slow return of the sun, the resurrection and triumph of light over darkness, which happened after the winter solstice.  

Man with a toga and a halo with the shape of sun beams
Disc of Sol Invictus. 3rd century

2. Christmas carols

#Saturnalia

Ancient Romans were a festive people with many gods, and December happened to host another important celebration, taking place from the 17th to 23rd. It was called the Saturnalia, a festive period which honoured Saturn, god of agriculture and wealth.

The Romans offered sacrifices, met for banquets, got drunk, gambled and sang songs. It was a tradition during the Saturnalia, that masters served their slaves, and gifts were exchanged, usually wax and pottery figurines. There’s strong reason to suspect than the merry-making of Christmas derived from the Saturnalia gatherings. Pity the orgies haven’t been preserved.

Romans gambling, drinking and feasting

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet, 1783

3. Christmas dinner

#Yule

The third jolly pagan festivity shaping Xmas, is the Yule, a Norse tradition. The word ‘Yule’ is speculated to have derived from ‘wheel’, symbolising renewal and resurrection. It was celebrated on the 21st of December, during the winter solstice. The Norsemen exported it during the Viking Age, especially infuencing Christmas celebrations in northern Europe.

During Yule, the shortest night of the year, people offered sacrifices to the Norse gods, and prayed for a benevolent winter. Most of the cattle was slaughtered, since they wouldn’t be able to feed them properly during the hard-core winter months, and for the last time until spring, families and friends feasted in abundance and got drunk.

Too delicious to be described, and too malicious to even try

Recently abandoned the tradition of burning the Yule log, people switched to eating this mouth-watering dessert called Yule Log

4. Santa’s flying sleigh

#Wild Hunt

Folk believed that the longest night of the year was a propitious time for evil spirits, demons such as fascists and Trump supporters, and other malefic creatures. During the Yule, it was idiotic and suicidal to go out alone, because the Wild Hunt thundered across the dark sky.

The Wild Hunt is a ghostly procession of huntsmen accompanied by demonic hounds and demons themselves. They are doomed souls, usually knights slain in battle seeking penitence, or hunters who ignored the Church, and now belong to the perpetual hunt.

Half-naked woman leading a massive host of shadows galloping on black horses.

Asgårdsreien 1872 by Peter Nicolai Arbo. Depicting the Wild Hunt

The Germanic variant it was led by Wotan (Odin), although Diana and local figures are commonly found. It was first associated with Christmas among German speakers, in the 16th century Holy Roman Empire. On the other hand, in Scandinavia, folk believed the Wild Hunt was a brief comeback of the old gods led by Odin, making war on the Christian God.

The ghostly parade galloping the skies was a bad omen, and disasters were sure to befall any direct witness. The demonic riders would often drag careless observers to hell, too fatty and burdened with the Yule dinner to escape.

5. Santa Claus

#Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas lived in Asia Minor, between the third and fourth century, and is the inspiration for Santa. He famously tossed three bags of coins through the window of an impoverished, but devout man. In order to pay the dowries of his three daughters, they were about to become prostitutes, but Nicholas heard, and anonymously provided. Remind you of anybody? Ho Ho Ho! Sadly Nicholas didn’t throw me a few notes for my degree fees.

Later, in the Middle Ages, tradition depicted him resurrecting three children ripped off by a mad butcher, who intended to make ham with them. Painting him, accompanied by the three naked children, in stained glass windows, tapestries and panels became common. And that’s why he came to be known as the patron of children. 

Saint Nicholas depicted as a bishop with the three resurrected children

6. Christmas presents

#Sinterklaas

St Nicholas day, known as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Belgium, is celebrated on the night of the 5th December. The children leave their shoes in front of the doors and Sinterklass fill them with presents and sweets. During the Reformation, saints were resented like charlatans who abused God’s benevolence, but Protestants still wished to preserve the gift-giving tradition of St Nicholas, and thus attached it to Christmas, paving the way for the future Santa Claus.

Exactly like Santa but dressed like a bishop

Sinterklaas. Notice the similarity of his clothes and beard with Santa’s

The name Santa Claus derives from Sinterklaas, and its tradition was exported to America via New Amsterdam (modern New York). Sinterklaas went for a long nap during the 17th and 18th century, but was reanimated in the 19th century.

7. Santa’s dress

#Christmas outfit

The unfashionable red dressing gown and unhealthy belly of Santa, was the product of the American caricaturist Thomas Nast, who depicted him with his well-known attributes for the first time in 1881.

Looks rather an unkempt backpacker Santa
Nast’s caricature. 1881
The first depiction of Santa Claus

His creepy approach of descending through chimneys, rather than using the door like normal people, was first seen in an anonymous 1823 poem called, ‘A visit from St Nicholas’ (disputed authorship). The flying sleigh pulled by reindeers, and the bag of presents, also made their first appearance then.    

8. Christmas Tree

#Yggdrasil

The ultimate Christmas decoration passes unquestionably many times, as a simple adornment. But it’s quite easy to smell traces of nature-worship and renewal symbolism in its tradition. Germanic, Norse, and Saxon paganism had believed in a giant tree as the centre of the universe, called Yggdrasil.

The Yggdrasil branches hold the world

The Ash Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, 1886

During the Renaissance, Christmas trees were mentioned for the first time in modern-day North Germany, and Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia). The custom spread across the German states during the 18th and 19th century, and with the surge of German emigration in the last two centuries, it proliferated in the rest of Europe and the U.S. 

9. Christmas mistletoe and wreaths

#Loki, Baldr and a misteltoe arrow

Nobody really kissed me this Xmas under the mistletoe, but maybe you’ll be luckier, so let me give you a hint about its origins. Let’s go back to the Saturnalia, when the Romans hung evergreen wreaths in their doors, as did northern Europeans during Yule, because evergreen symbolised the triumph of life over death.

Celtic people believed it to possess healing qualities, but the most famous tale related to the mistletoe comes from Norse mythology. Baldr, son of Odin, was made invulnerable to everything in the world, except mistletoe. Loki, a precursor to modern scientists, decided to test the hypothesis and deceived Baldr’s blind brother, Höðr, into shooting Baldr with a projectile weapon made of mistletoe, thus killing Baldr. DON’T try shooting mistletoe at anybody this Christmas please.    

10. Christmas log from Catalonia

#Cagatió

And last but not least, a tradition from my native Catalonia. Our Christmas Eve revolves around a decorated log, which we have been feeding since the 8th of December, with orange peels and other stuff you’d give only to a war prisoner. We call it Cagatió (Shitting log or Poo log) or Tió de Nadal (Christmas Log).

Literally logs with smiley faces and Catalan red hats

They come in all shapes and sizes, and are a common purchase in Christmas markets in Catalonia

The children of the house lock themselves in a bedroom while the Cagatió warms-up. When the kids return, they grab a stick and beat, literally, the shit out of the log. Literally. Chanting a special song, which varies in every household, they demand presents, and the Cagatió lays them down inside the box underneath him. The young-ones keep repeating the routine until the Cagatió runs out of magical poo.

Caga tió
Tió de Nadal
Caga torró
D'avellanes i pinyó
Si tió no vols cagar
Al cul t'haurem de picar!                 

Shit log
Christmas log
Shit nougat
Of hazelnuts and pine nuts
If you don't want to shit
We’ll beat your ass!

Traditionally, in the Catalan homes the Cagatió brought small gifts like sweets and Torró (a typical Christmas dessert), but nowadays has improved his intestinal capacity, and brings larger and more expensive gifts.

The Cagatió is part of the European tradition of the Yule log, and years ago, it used to be burnt as well, after being exhausted of presents. If you think I made it up, that is impossible that your country lacks such a cool Xmas custom, and that you must simply resign yourself to the fat guy illegally breaking into your home; then watch this demonstration, and start celebrating Xmas in style like the Catalans:

Hope you enjoyed, don’t forget to subscribe and comment! Have a most wonderful non-pagan, pagan, or secular Christmas, notwithstanding your faith, because gathering with your beloved ones is what it truly counts!
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