When looking at the history of Europe, one of the interesting things that comes up time and time again is the overlap of Christian holidays (particularly Catholic) with Pagan precursors. It’s pretty well known that Halloween is actually a Christian holiday that was created to overlap with the Samhain. Christmas probably had some influences from the Saturnalia and Yule. Easter may have straight up taken its name from a pagan goddess. But how Christians react to these holidays today is based in large part on just how much the church sold the “Christian” aspects of it. Easter and Christmas, anchored deeply into the lore of Jesus himself, is now generally forgotten by the general worshiper to have some pagan roots, but Halloween?
And because these three holidays are the most widely celebrated of the Christian holidays, they kind of shape how we think of Christian holidays as a whole. For those who don’t go out of their way to find these origins, it seems ridiculous that these holy days may be related to pagan holidays. Meanwhile, for those who’ve been told about this often, it often leads to the belief that every single holiday Christians ever came up with were to rip off the pagans (even when this isn’t necessarily true). But when someone takes the time to really look into the history of these holidays, it often turns out to be more complicated than first glance.
Like, for instance, when people celebrate the same holidays in the same fashion for the same reasons… to completely different gods. Continue reading Witchy Holidays
Drawing inspiration from many sources, be they cultural or even corporate, the figure known today as Santa Claus is a mercurial figure that changes for almost every region he’s in. His clothes, his figure, his behavior, and even his name change from one region to another. He’s associated now with names like Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, and of course Santa Claus. But regardless of what influences he may have mixed with over time, the figure started long ago with a man named Saint Nicholas.
Living in the city of Myra in the 4th century AD, in what is now Turkey, Saint Nicholas is the root of many of the stories and traditions that dominate the Christmas season.Having been associated with stories of great generosity and a penchant for secret gift giving, Nicholas was a natural fit for the gift giving season. And, as a Saint, he was also an acceptable figure to associate with the Christian holiday (even if it was originally a pagan holiday instead). However, one question presents itself:
How does the Bishop of Myra, far from the Arctic circle, end up on the North Pole of all places? Continue reading The Many Homes of Santa
As spring time rolls around and certain holidays come to pass, a few questions inevitably start popping up. Our modern holidays, inspired long ago by more ancient traditions, don’t make a lot of sense to us in our modern frames of reference. For instance, the Easter Bunny references a spring hare that traveled with some old European deities. Coloring eggs for Easter is part of an old Norse tradition representing the dawn. And, as for St. Patrick’s Day, there’s a whole lot we don’t fully understand about these little bastards.
The Leprechaun as we know them today have been changed repeatedly over the course of centuries. Beginning as part of Irish folklore, they’ve since become entwined with Irish stereotypes and traditions that have long since lost meaning. With even the origin of their name not being entirely clear, with some sources citing “little people” and others saying it was referring to their jobs as shoe cobblers, it makes sense they didn’t stay firm in all that time. Even the color they wear and the way they behave has been altered to suit contemporary mindsets over the ages. By this point, they’re essentially an inkblot test of how you feel about the Irish – for better or worse.
But one thing that hasn’t really changed much about Leprechauns over the ages is the fact that they are magical, lucky, and generally holders of great wealth. Some stories say this is due to their workaholic nature, acting in a miserly fashion and hoarding every coin they could possibly get. Others say that it’s due to their magical nature and ability to do things no human could. And some even say they found the treasures lost or buried by people and simply kept them. But all variations of this story generally have one unifying detail: If you can capture the little shits, they have to bargain their way free – potentially even giving you the location to their treasure (which is one of the few things they’re bound to tell the truth on).
Just one problem for you: they’re trickster spirits, and they’re not about to go down willingly. Continue reading Trapping A Leprechaun
As of this writing, we’re all of one day away from St. Valentine’s Day. A day of lovers, romance, and bitter singles – many wonder just how the day came to be associated with such warm or contemptuous feelings. Saints are generally chaste and unrelated to such things, so the idea of one being associated with young lovers is a bit hard to grasp. This is particularly true because the Catholic Church tells you to be ashamed of most emotions in one way or another and even defines a couple of them as cardinal sins. The only emotion the Church doesn’t seem to look down on at some point is guilt, which is probably why they so mercifully give you a shot of wine on Sundays. Of course, whenever such contradictions happen to come up it’s a good time to check for some sort of pagan holiday behind it all. Surprise, found one.
A quick google search for the origins of Valentine’s Day will no doubt produce dozens of articles talking about the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a fertility celebration held on February 15th. And this makes sense, the most common of Catholic celebrations started as a pagan tradition of some sort. Like Christmas, Halloween, and Easter, Valentines is said by many to be lifted from the traditions of the pagans. And, of course, you can’t spell Romance without Roman – the people who literally originated the “romance languages” and gave us the very words we need to express our deepest desires.
Just one problem: it would appear that the connection doesn’t really exist… Continue reading Romans, Romance, and Roaming Dates
As October rolled around and the blog calendar begged to be filled with topics to write, I penciled in what seemed like a good topic for a Mythology Monday. Many people have long known the story of Jack O’Lantern, the poor condemned soul who would wander the world. But, thinking about the nature of the story and the usual way folklore twists and bends from other traditions, I wondered where that story originated. Was there a cultural significance to turnips? Were there stories from older cultures that reflected the story of Jack, maybe putting light to why you would mimic his carving and stick a candle into it? There were a lot of possibilities, so I thought, surely, this would be a cute entry for the Halloween season.
But what I found was actually kind of amusing in a whole different sort of way. Because what I found was that the story of “Jack O’Lantern” specifically didn’t seem to have an origin. First being told in the mid 19th century (a little after the practice of lantern carving became most common), the folktale appeared a little late to the party to be credited for the practice. Other stories of similar nature have appeared across Europe, all to account for the origin of what is most commonly known as the Will-O-Wisp, but the actual act of carving a turnip and using it as a lantern seems to be somewhat unique. Essentially, while you could find the origins for other versions of the will-o-wisp stories across the continent, “Jack” didn’t really seem to have one.
Now, that’s not to say that the name itself was just pulled right out of a hat. “Jack” has also long been a character used in many stories about borderline (and sometimes not so borderline) tricksters. Like the trickster spirits of other cultures, “Jack” is generally a clever but troublesome fellow who’ll use his wits to get out of situations. But as I was considering that, something occurred to me about why so many articles just could not figure out the when and how for Jack’s inclusion on the gourd carving practice in Ireland.
Because, you see, I believe we’re looking at the result of massive generational Trolling… Continue reading Jack, Gourds, and Trolls
The time of year has come once again, the world has turned autumn shades and winter is coming. A season of holidays, ranging from thankful to solemn, now begins to stretch over the dark months. And to open these we celebrate Halloween, the days of the dead, or variants thereof. Long made a family friendly holiday, there was once a time that All Hallows Eve was seen as a very serious and solemn time, marked with a time of worship and reflection that would help the Catholic Church convert the pagans in Northern Europe and give them an opportunity to celebrate their own rituals within the framework of Christianity.
Of course, many people today know of Samhain, the Celtic festival devoted to the time when the veil between this world and the next would be thinner. Every year, you’ll hear at least one person tell you of how Halloween was all based on this one holiday, that the various traditions we’ve lost the meaning to once held an important place in the Celtic celebrations. But few people actually take time to make note of the fact that Samhain was also the celebration of the New Year, a time when one year was coming to an end and the next year was about to begin. And fewer mention the fact that the Celts and Gaels weren’t the only ones with a celebration this time of year.
Because this was also the time of the Norse New Year, the Vetrnætr, the “Winter Nights”… Continue reading History of the Holidays: The Winter Nights
Ah, holiday traditions. As has been pointed out many times before, even here, a lot of the traditions we hold for holidays are rooted back to unrelated but similarly timed events. Yule logs root back to Yuletide, lucky clovers were a Celtic charm throughout history, and the Easter bunny was part of Eostre’s posse. But sometimes you have to ask – why were the Christians so eager to adopt it across the board?
The answer changes depending on the element in question. Some traditions were adopted over time because of the proximity between different groups. Some traditions remain regional forever, some start to get adopted over time as neighbors share their traditions together. But others are just so ubiquitous that you’d have to wonder how they spread so fast. For those the answer is convenience – sometimes traditions had a parallel across both, and rather than one side adopting traditions from the other, both brought a similar tradition to the table and gradually merged them together.
Need an example? Easter Eggs.
As of this writing, St. Patrick’s Day is once again on the horizon. A festive but rarely understood holiday, St. Patrick’s Day is a colorful combination of the Catholic faith, Celtic traditions, and American love for an excuse to drink. Truly the child of multiculturalism, the American version of St. Patty’s is generally full of traditions no one understands but will eagerly follow regardless.
Most people have no idea who St. Patrick actually was aside from a story where he drove the snakes out of Ireland (an island which never had a native snake population in the first place). No one’s particularly sure why they have to wear green, or why you’re required to pinch someone who doesn’t. Very few people who follow it have any idea what the actual Catholic traditions are for the day. And other elements are just generally a complete mystery.
For instance: why the hell are shamrocks and their four leaf cousins lucky? And, for that matter, why would they represent the… Continue reading Lucky Clovers
Ah, the holidays, a time when we do things we don’t quite understand because we’ve decided they just have to be done. Hanging stockings over a fireplace? Sure, why not. Leaving cookies out for an invisible fat man? Hey, we’ve done stranger. Kissing under a poisonous plant because someone decided to hang it?
Why the hell do we do that?
The truth is, no one really knows the true origin of the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe. It’s one of those ancient traditions where it’s been around so long that it didn’t really get written down. However, what is known is that mistletoe was an important figure to the older Celtic cultures such as the Druids and the Norse. As many traditions around Christmas are derived from those celebrated during the Norse Yule, it would be safe to assume that there would be a link. And when you know Mistletoe’s place in Norse mythology, you realize the reason we’re supposed to kiss under it is simple…
It’s guilty of murder.
The Holiday Season, a time when multiple religions and cultures come together to say “it’s too damn cold, we need to distract ourselves.” From the most ancient times to the modern day, everyone finds a reason to feast, celebrate, and sit close to fires of one form or another in the dead of winter. Since civilization itself was formed, we’ve found reasons to be happy at a time when the world tends to be pretty bleak. And don’t let the angry people on TV fool you, that’s the reason we say “Happy Holidays” instead of just Merry Christmas – this time of year is full of them.
But we often don’t know too much about the Holidays that are happening around us besides Christmas. Even there, as I’ve discussed in the past, we aren’t too clear on all the details. Why do we care about mistletoe? What exactly is Kwanzaa? Why are the Jewish people lighting a Menorah for 8 nights? Honestly, most of us only have passing understanding of any of these.
So today (and the next couple weeks), I intend to tackle one of these as a bit of a Mythology Monday, Alternative Mythologies, and general history mashup. ‘Tis the season, after all, and I intend to at least give it the nod. As of this writing those Menorahs are about to get lit, so it’s only fitting that I start with the ancient (but only recently important) festival of lights… Continue reading History Of The Holidays: Hanukkah