When I was a little girl, I was taught that the origins of Christmas could actually be traced back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was a celebration of the winter solstice and the god Saturn. Saturnalia was a time of feasting, gift-giving, evergreen wreaths, and revelry, and it was observed from December 17th to December 23rd. There's no one single account of Saturnalia beginning to end, but many of the writings we have from Rome show it as a time of intense almost hedonistic fun, with gambling, role reversal, drinking, and joy.
The early Christian church in Rome was known for often taking on the cult practices of other cultures and celebrating their holy days in the spirit of appeasement, in order to gain favor with the gods of the countries they were conquering. In this case, the early Christian Church co-opted some of the traditions of Saturnalia (like gift giving) and incorporated them into the celebration of Christmas, which was originally a religious holiday that commemorated the birth of Jesus. Over time, the holiday evolved and took on many of the cultural and secular traditions that are associated with Christmas today.
Christmas was influenced by many other pagan traditions as well, such as the festival of Yule, which was celebrated by the ancient Norse and Germanic people. The festival of Yule, observed around the winter solstice, involved the burning of a Yule log, Yuletide caroling, and the Christmas ham.
Christmas today has evolved over time and is a combination of various cultural and religious traditions. While it has roots in ancient pagan festivals, it's primarily associated with the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus.
As a kid, I thought of Christmas as an American cultural holiday, and the time of year that good ole St. Nick would come to visit with gifts or coal. In high school I also learned about Saint Nicholas' shadow, the Krampus, who would whip misbehaving children with a birch rod, and in some cases even imprison them in a basket and stealing them away to his lair. I saw Krampus as the devil of Christmas, and promptly chose to forget about him.
But who is Krampus? Through history, Krampus was depicted as a half-goat creature with horns, fur, and a long tongue. He's believed to have originated in pre-Christian Alpine traditions as a figure associated with the winter solstice. He may even come from the norse honoring of the virile masculine Horned God, a deity associated with the natural world and fertility. I've watched over the years as this horned god has often been merged with the Christian concept of the devil for modern day horror movies, fantasies, and thrillers.
Krampus has returned in modern holiday traditions in some parts of Europe, particularly Austria and Germany. In these areas, it's common for men to dress up as Krampus and participate in parades or other holiday events. Krampus has also gained popularity in other parts of the world in recent years. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a Krampus bar crawl event in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I believe this speaks to a modern day reclaiming of old cultural stories and traditions. Krampus is a good reminder that we are in the darkest time of year, and that all of our partying and gift giving can have a dark lining if we're not conscious of our actions and acting from our hearts. If people somehow miss the message with Santa Claus, then they'll get it with Krampus.
I enjoy connecting with the pagan roots of the holiday season, and celebrating this time of year with family and friends, in a beautiful spirit of lovingkindness.
This is a time of honoring the gods and goddesses of the dark winter, and the solstice return of the light. While my Christian family members are celebrating the birth of Christ, I'll also be there, ready like the Romans, to honor the baby Jesus, munch some advent chocolate, and wish that our greater human community can receive love all around.
DAILEY LITTLE is a healing practitioner, transformational life coach, ordained Priestess, and teacher who founded Healing Heart Reiki to help others navigate life with joy. She offers private sessions, and teaches classes in healing and mindset from a magical peaceful corner of the world in Northern California. For more info see: www.SantaRosaReiki.com