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Why do we ‘deck the halls with boughs of holly’? Why was Bacchus ‘one hell of a neat guy’? Alastair Mabbott unearths the pagan roots of some of our most treasured Christmas practices, while over the page The Listsuggests some healthy alternatives to Back to the Future and Stanley Baxter.
Another year passes, and countless adults throughout the country grumble once more about about the increasing commercialisation of Christmas. The Victorians complained about the same thing, but it’s been a very long time since any outcry was heard about the Christianisation of Yuletide. If Christ the Redeemer seems a forgotten figure in the festivities, it’s hardly surprising: many of our most treasured Christmas rituals have come down to us from pagan times, happily co-existing with the comparatively recent Christian trappings.
Although the Celts ritualistically cut mistletoe (thought to be a powerful protection against witchcraft) at the summer and winter solstices, it’s really the Scandinavians we have to thank for the majority of our Yuletide
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traditions. Settling in this country in the 6th century, they continued to celebrate the return of the sun from the farthest point ofits cycle. Their festivities were times of unbridled revelling in food, drink and dancing, with the crucial item of the communal banquet being a boar’s head, brought in in honour of Frey, god of sunshine, who rode across the sky on a boar.
When Christianity arrived in Scotland, the displacement of the traditional festival with a new one was remarkably smooth. The people were told that they could continue with their festivities, so long as they honoured the new God, not ‘the birthday of the unconquered sun’. As F. Marian McNeill points out in her landmark study of Scottish folklore, The Silver Bough (out of print), ‘There is, of course, no historical justiﬁcation for associating
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the day with the Nativity, but no date could have been more fitting to celebrate the birth of ‘Him whom death could not conquer’.
So easy was the transition that many of the traditions were never discarded. The hanging of evergreens around the home was thought to promote the growth of greenery in the coming spring. and the same ‘sympathetic magic‘ was behind the Yule log (in Scotland this is traditionally oak, a wood sacred to
Thor), which was burnt to encourage the return of the sun. Both the decoration of trees and the giving of gifts can be traced back to the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which honoured Bacchus, god ofwine, inspiration and ecstasy. Plum pudding, too, would appear to date back to pagan times, when it was dedicated to the Celtic deity Dagda, god of plenty. Yule-bunnies, which
The List21 December 1990— lOJanuary 1991 73