Well, it’s that time of the year: days getting shorter, nights getting colder, choirs singing and priests commemorating the virgin birth. I know what you’re thinking: it must be time for the rural Dionysia! Mmmm, chanting in ritualistic praise of the wine-god just gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling — like eggnog by the fire.
Okay for real though, obviously Christmas is the best holiday in the history of ever. But Christmas as it’s celebrated these days is a mash-up, a “greatest hits” of December festival practices from the ancient and modern world. A lot of our traditions go all the way back to ancient Greece. So to get in the spirit, here are five of my favorite yuletide rituals, along with their ancient Greek roots. They’ve been mathematically ranked and arranged in ascending order depending on how merry and/or bright they are. Happy ancient Greek Christmas, everyone! (And more importantly, happy real Christmas, too.)
1. The Power of X Compels You: “Merry Xmas”
As traditions go, it doesn’t get much less festive than this: it’s become common practice to shorten the word “Christmas” to “Xmas.” Some folks think of this as an open affront to the reason for the season — an attempt to cut Christ out of Christmas. Other folks think it’s just lazy. Then again, maybe it’s part of a coded secularist conspiracy to replace Christmas with its degraded humanist iteration, Pornmas. As in, Elves Gone Wild: Comet and Cupid help Santa Keep Warm during XXXMas. I’ll wait while you desperately try to scrape that mental image out from under your corneas.
Actually, Xmas isn’t secular at all. In ancient Greek, the “Ch” sound is spelled with the letter Chi, which is written as “X.” That means that “Christos,” the Greek word for Christ, is spelled “Χριστός.” Then, in the 1500s, some scribes got too cool for school and started using “X” as a stand-in. So the X in Xmas represents Jesus, not spiritual emptiness or (perhaps disappointingly to some) the adult film industry. This means you can go on frantically scribbling “Happy Xmas” on store-bought cards to relatives you don’t care about, you heartless grinch.
2. In the Bleak Midautumn: December 25th
We’re all in agreement that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, but no one’s exactly sure when that time is. We don’t know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, but we can make some good estimates from the Bible. Shepherds didn’t usually watch their flocks by night in the dead of winter, so that puts the date somewhere in spring, summer, or fall. Some people argue for September or October based on the biblical timing of John the Baptist’s conception. Whenever it happened, it probably wasn’t late December, or those would be some extremely unhappy, frostbitten shepherds.
Christianity was once a hot new religion looking to break out onto the faith scene. So the early church cut-and-pasted a lot of pagan traditions to help generate buzz — “all your favorite yearly rituals, now with more eternal salvation!” The winter solstice had all kinds of selling power, and in Greece and Rome it involved a lot of singing, presents, and often the birth of a savior god. According to Julius Caesar’s trendy new Julian calendar, the solstice could be celebrated on December 25th, so that date was an easy sell for pagans as Jesus’ birthday party.
3. Fork it Over: Caroling for Food
Nothing says Christmas like carolers. Imagine: you’re settled into your comfy chair, the fire’s blazing, you’ve poured yourself a glass of eggnog with a healthy slug of bourbon. Suddenly, the doorbell rings and a pack of red-cheeked innocents gathers picturesquely outside your door to picturesquely bellow at you in four-part harmony until you’re ready to picturesquely deck them upside the head. Even worse, they’re asking for food: “bring us some figgy pudding, / . . . We won’t go until we get some!” As in, give us a handout or we’ll never, ever go away… it’s like the welfare state around here.
Turns out the hallowed tradition of leveraging cuteness and music to bag a free lunch goes back way further than Christmas. Thousands of years ago, in archaic Greece, little kids used to go door to door singing endearing songs and asking for payment in the form of “happy barley-pots full of sesame.” Their reasoning was that they deserved free snacks “because we’re not geezers — we’re little kids!” Apparently this actually worked, so it’s easy to see where Christmas carolers got the idea that if they just stood there looking cute and singing loudly enough, someone would feed them.
(Homeric Epigrams 15; Poetae Melici Graeci 848)
4. On Comet, On Cupid! Santa’s Sleigh
One of the many profound questions that arise during this season of reflection is whether or not one recalls the most famous reindeer of all. It is a question to which each man must seek an answer in his own heart. But the original Santa Clauses, St. Nicholas and Sinterklaas, were more into valiant horses than misfit reindeer. Eventually, in 1821, William Gilley published a poem in which “Old Santeclaus with much delight / His reindeer drives this frosty night.” But that doesn’t explain the sick, tricked-out flying sleigh that the S-Man drives in “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
Classical mythology is full of pimped-out airborne chariots. In particular, the myths about Dionysus have some common ground with the Christmas story. Dionysus was a savior god, born to a young woman impregnated by the divine ruler of the universe, Zeus. And Dionysus was the god of getting trashed, so some people thought (probably incorrectly) that he turned water into wine. Dionysus rode around on a flying chariot pulled by exotic animals — he didn’t bring presents, but he always had really good booze. So Santa wasn’t the first Christmasy character to harness the untapped power of airborne woodland animals.
5. Deck the Temples: The Christmas Tree
As everyone knows, it’s not Christmas until you’ve hoisted your axe upon your shoulder, fought your way through the arctic wilderness, and dragged an enormous conifer to a premature death in your living room. Evergreen branches have been a December holiday decoration for ages — people from ancient Gaul to medieval Germany used evergreens to celebrate in the dark of winter. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert made the modern Christmas tree a thing in England in 1848, but it had been around forever — as had the yearly tradition of having to sweep up pine needles off the floor every freaking day.
The ancients were way into trees. Pausanias, who essentially wrote the Lonely Planet guide to ancient Greece, describes sacred groves all over the place. Holy trees were standard issue for old school Greeks and Germanic pagans, and even in imperial Rome some die-hard fans still got into tree worship. Greeks loved trees as much as those dudes in Avatar (although the Greeks were probably not blue). One Roman tradition even seems to have involved hanging decorations on a pine tree as part of a celebration of Bacchus (AKA Dionysus). Tragically, though, Rome never got around to inventing sugar cookies.
Those are my favorite Christmas traditions — what are yours? And what are their origins? ’Tis the season for weird rituals from the shadows of ancient (family) history, so share the ones you like best in the comments. I happen to be partial to those little butterball cookies, which I’m pretty sure aren’t Greek but which are definitely delicious. Let me know all the best parts of the holiday — and bonus points if you know where they come from. After that, you may return to your regularly scheduled Peanuts Christmas special (which is definitely not from ancient Greece).