Belanger Talks About the Creepy Origins of Long Ago ChristmasesDec 30, 2020 06:00AM ● By Pamela Johnson
by Ashley Kazijian, Contributing Writer
Jeff Belanger, local author and explorer of the unexplained, broke down the Christmas holiday into its (creepy) origins during his virtual event on December 3rd, hosted by the Bellingham Public Library.
Belanger’s program started by taking us back thousands of years to when winter solstice (Dec. 20 to Dec. 23) was a time of fear for survival. Not knowing then what we know now, people would wonder if the sun would return, if they’d have enough food without farming, and if their shelter would hold up. Preparation for the winter solstices led to the creation of festivals like Saturnalia (Rome) and Yule (Scandinavia). These festivals became times of merriment, celebration, and unity—all in preparation for the unknowing that would follow the winter solstice.
During the solstice, while they were hunkered inside with no lights, oftentimes they would hear spooky sounds from outside. These sounds could have come from the leafless trees and the cold winter winds—or were they the sounds of evil spirits (which Scandinavians believed to be the case)?
So, did you ever wonder why you were hanging that wreath on your door or stringing garland around the tree? Well, Nordic ancestors began placing pieces of evergreen over doors and windows because they believed that since the evergreen survived winters (while much else died off), it was magical and could protect against those (imagined) evil spirits. And while out hunting, they would hang animal entrails on the evergreens as an offering to the sacred tree. Much different from the garland we use today!
Other Scandinavian-rooted beliefs include the Yule Log and Mistletoe. Belanger described the Yule Log as a specially selected tree that was fed into a hearth, tip first, and burned all the way through. The people picked trees based on the outcome that they were looking for, for example, the ash tree for protection, prosperity, and health or the oak for healing, strength, and wisdom. As for the Mistletoe, have you ever questioned hanging up this toxic parasite and kissing underneath it? According to folklore, the white berries on mistletoe symbolize the tears of the Goddess Frigg, who cried after her son Balder was struck and killed by a spear of mistletoe. The story goes that the magic of his mother’s tears and broken heart revived Balder, and she declared mistletoe a symbol of love and thought that those who encounter it should show affection, such as a kiss.
Next, Belanger took us through the origins of the Nativity, which led us back to the festival of Saturnalia in Rome. During Emperor Constantine’s reign, he sought to unify the people under one God and one religion. He felt he had his best chance to sell Christianity toward the end of the Saturnalia because he felt he couldn’t compete with the festival. So, he extended it by two days and assigned a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The result? Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
While Jesus is a widely celebrated figure of Christmas, there are a few more figures that you may not be aware of. But before looking at them, there’s one we all know, Saint Nicholas. Originating in Myra (modern day Turkey), Saint Nicholas was born into a wealthy family, went into the priesthood, and became known for helping people. As his reputation for generosity became widespread, he became the patron saint for people, someone who would aid in time of need, which led to the idea of celebrating Christmas as a time of sharing and giving.
Now, the other figures, which Belanger described as the “cohorts” of Saint Nicholas, weren’t known for being as nice. They were in fact quite dark and were used to instill fear in children as consequences for bad behavior. Some noted figures included Krampus (Germany), Belsnickel (Germany), Tomten (Sweden), Pere Fouettard (France), Befana (Italy), Karakoncolos (Bulgaria), Gryla (Iceland), Yulelads (Iceland) and Yule Cat (Iceland). Though not all of these yuletide creatures were monstrous killers of naughty children (some were just a helpful hand around the house looking for a bowl of sticky rice pudding in return), they were all presented as working with Santa Clause, not against him. And according to Belanger, they all had their own consequences if you failed to please them.
Oh, and how about our beloved Christmas songs and caroling? Door-to-door Christmas caroling originated in Wales as a tradition called Mari Lwyd. Groups of men would gather, along with their hobby horse (made from a horse skull mounted on a pole), and they would perform door-to-door caroling looking for treats (seeking mainly alcohol), said Belanger. As for the songs, Belanger broke down the original lyrics of “Jingle Bells,” which is just one Christmas song that is (in its original form) incredibly inappropriate to be singing along with our children, and never mind to the neighbors. Look it up!
Jumping across the pond to our very own Boston, Belanger highlighted some dark moments of Christmas past that happened right outside our doorsteps. Back in 1659, Christmas was banned (illegal, imagine that!) in Boston for being too pagan. Though it was repealed in 1681, it was centuries before Christmas made a come-back in Boston.
Belanger said that modern conceptions of Santa Clause and Christmas were shaped by readings such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, both published in the early 1800s. Reading the poem on Christmas Eve became a tradition in many households, and the story of A Christmas Carol spread an understanding of why and how we celebrate the day.
Later in the 1800s, Harper’s Magazine published illustrations showing the image of Santa Clause that evolved into what we know him as today. Believe it or not, Coca Cola is responsible for the jolly, long-bearded, red-suited, cookie-loving Santa we know today. Toward the end of the Great Depression, the company used this image of Santa Clause to sell more products. This led to other companies, such as Macy’s, to start bringing Santa Clause out around Christmas. The result? Christmas turned into a time for spending money.
If you’d like to learn more about the yuletide creatures and creepy origins of Christmas past, visit Jeff Belanger’s website, https://jeffbelanger.com, for resources.