culture: Pagan roots of Christmas; Tony Henderson on the roots of Christmas in what is the darkest day of the year.
Our version of Christmas, largely due to Charles Dickens, was a Victorian relaunch.
But if you seek the true origin of Christmas, look no further than the winter solstice tomorrow, says North East archaeologist and author Paul Frodsham.
This was the pagan midwinter festival, when prehistoric people encouraged the life-giving sun to reappear at what was the darkest time of the year.
"The reason we celebrate Christmas a few days after midwinter clearly owes more to the adoration of the sun by our ancestors than to the birthday of Jesus," says Paul.
"To prehistoric people, this was a crucial time when ceremonies were held to ensure the sun would begin to climb higher in the sky and the days would gradually grow longer. If this did not happen, then all life would soon end."
Paul, who lives in Weardale, has written half a dozen books on the archaeology of the North East. His new offering is an examination of the 5,000-year history of what we call Christmas. He says: "This is the first serious attempt to trace the evolution of the festival from Stone Age origins. Today's Christmas is a curious combination of Christian and pagan traditions."
Most people now live in urban areas and have no pressing need to pay attention to the movement of the sun, moon, stars and planets - even if they could see them through the light pollution.
"In our artificially-lit world and heated and feasting. Between these two events was the Festival of the Unconquered Sun on December 25.
This was when the birth of the god Mithras, who was linked to the sun, was celebrated.
He was popular with the army - a temple to Mithras can be seen on the central section of Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland.
The early Christian church, says Paul, adopted a policy of adapting or tweaking pagan festivals rather than trying to eradicate them.
"Given the importance of December 25 in pagan religion, it was obvious that something had to be done about this date to encourage people to embrace Christianity, "The solution could not have been simpler buildings we can exist almost without reference to the changing seasons of the natural world, but to ancient people the observation of the heavens was critical," says Paul.
The solstice spanned the few days when the sun seemed to be stationary - the word comes from the Latin sol stetit, meaning sun stands still.
For our ancestors, this was a dangerous time, with cold days and nights and shortages of food, and steps had to be taken to bring the sun back.
"The ancient midwinter festival has been celebrated by our ancestors for so long that it has become part of our collective psyche," says Paul.
The fact that we now celebrate Christmas a few days after midwinter is due to the inaccuracies of the Roman calendar. In Roman times the solstice occurred on December 25.
The great Neolithic monuments of 5,000 years ago incorporate alignments with the midwinter sun, from Stonehenge to the stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters, near Penrith in Cumbria.
In the Roman world the week-long festivals of Saturnalia (from December 17) and Kalends, (from January 1) were marked by decorating buildings with evergreens, exchanging gifts December 25 became Jesus's birthday."
But Paul says: "Our modern Christmas celebrations may not have been radically different had Christ never been born."
A recent survey showed that only one in 100 Christmas cards feature a religious scene and that Santa Claus is the dominant Christmas figure.
"The Nativity has been the focus of Christian midwinter celebrations, but the conventional story of the Nativity is at best legendary, and at worst little more than a fairy story," says Paul.
"Recent years have witnessed growing controversy between believers and non-believers over the religious nature of Christmas," says Paul.
"Christians see the 'true message' of Christmas being diluted through commercialisation and an increasing love of Santa Claus rather than Jesus Christ.
"Many Christians believe literally in the Nativity, others accept that the story is fictitious but representative of greater truths, while others argue that children should not be indoctrinated with such nonsense."
Cromwell's Parliament banned Christmas on the grounds that there was no justification for it in the Bible, with the Puritans claiming that to an outsider observing Christmas would assume the Saviour was "a glutton and a wine-bibber."
The Scottish Calvanist Protestants decreed there was no place in their church for Christmas and to this day the main focus of celebration for Scots has been Hogmanay.
Indeed, Christmas was not made a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.
From the mid-18th Century to the 1830s Christmas was little-celebrated, until the Victorians reinvented the occasion and introduced cards, the tree, and crackers, while our version of Santa was a 19th Century American creation.
Later Coca-Cola thought up the jolly Santa in the company colours of bright red and white as an advertising campaign.
The latest American import is plastering the outsides of houses with light displays.
Today, Christmas with its driven, relentless spending is now seen as the "saviour" of the high street and the economy .
It was certainly a turn-off for the dramatist George Bernard Shaw, who wrote: "We must be glutinous because it is Christmas. We must be drunken because it is Christmas. We must be insincerely generous, we must buy things that nobody wants."
But despite everything, Christmas continues to have a peculiar power and is the highlight of the year for many.
"It is a natural response of human beings to the darkest point of the year," says Paul.
"Our Christmas is a Christian gloss on something much more ancient. It is about the renewal of life in the midst of winter.
"I love Christmas."
From Stonehenge to Santa Claus: the Evolution of Christmas, by Paul Frodsham (the History Press, pounds 12.99).
SUN AND CELEBRATION Long Meg and her Daughters stone circle near Penrith, Cumbria. Left, Santa Claus as created by American artist Thomas Nast and below, Paul Frodsham's book examining 5,000 years of December 25.; STUDY Paul Frodsham has written a book examining Christmas.
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|Publication:||The Journal (Newcastle, England)|
|Date:||Dec 20, 2008|
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