Gifts from Benevolent Strangers

what is Christmas? blog series part 3 Gifts from benevolent strangers

There are ethereal visitors in many end of the year customs. Some are unpleasant and even violent. Others are benevolent gift-bearers. Most early gift-bearers brought New Years gifts. All seem to have a theme of rewarding good and punishing bad. Here are a handful of some lesser-known characters:

Woden/Wotan/Odin and his flying, white eight-legged horse led an army across the sky during Saturnalia. He had black birds that would act as lookouts during his journey. Children would leave hay, carrots and sugar for the horse. Public banquets that spanned days included masters serving their slaves and gifts exchanged including dolls, candles, caged birds. A king of the festivities was elected and would preside over the celebration.

St. Martin an adult male dressed as a bishop, complete with staff.  He gives apples, nuts, and cakes to good children and rods to bad children. In some stories, he fills stockings. It has been suggested, St. Martin may have taken the place of Woden.

Befana-Grandmother Prior to Nicholas of Myrna (St. Nick) tossing coins down the chimneys of spinsters, Befana or Grandmother, was part of Italian folklore. Befana would visit children the night before the Feast of the Epiphany¹. She would come while the children were sleeping and fill their stockings with candy and presents or coal. Families would leave a glass of wine and some snacks for her. She may also sweep the house. Befana traditions are believed to have originated in Rome and spread from there. The followers of Nicholas of Myrna were able to grow their fervor and remade shrines to Befana to Nicholas of Myrna. However, Befana is still celebrated in Italy with festivals and celebrations.

Saint Nicholas of Myrna is best know for secretly gifting sacks of gold to three unmarried young women without dowries to save them from prostitution.  He is celebrated as a patron saint of sailors and giving gifts in secret. His rise in popularity came from a small but devoted group who spread their devotion throughout the world. Even today, children put out stockings full of hay for his horse and receive candy and gifts in exchange. Also known as Sinterclaus in the Netherlands and surrounding areas,during the 16th century in the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas would leave small gifts. These traditions grew and morphed in fits and starts. Also called Sinterclaus, some festivities geared toward helping the poor with anonymous gifts started during the middles ages. There was also a lot of partying.

Knecht Ruprecht often accompanied Saint Nicholas. He rewards children who say their prayers perfectly with small edible treats and punishes those who do not.

Christ Child, Christkind was a reaction by the church to turn Saint Nicholas traditions toward Jesus Christ. One bishop wrote: “[Saint Nicholas] is a bad custom, because it points children to the saint, while yet we know that not St. Nicholas but the holy Christ Child gives us all good things for body and soul, and He alone it is whom we ought to call upon.” Christkind was developed and made popular by Martin Luther. Sometimes portrayed as a woman but most often a male, they bring gifts to many children in eastern and central europe as well as Central America. They are  intended to symbolize Jesus Christ as a child.

Kolyáda, a maiden dressed all in white who goes from home to home on Christmas Eve in a sled with runners. Kolyáda is the name for Christmas and appears to be derived from Kalendae, which probably entered the Slavonic languages by way of Byzantium. The maiden is one of those beings who, like the Italian Befana, have taken their names from the festival at which they appear. Koyada was most common in pre-communist Russia.

Grandfather Frost (Ded Moraz) emerged in Russia and other slavic areas from a god of snow and ice called Morozko after Kolyada. Popularity varied until Stalin reinvigorated Grandfather Frost in the 1940s complete with a blue suit and new years gifts. His traditional Russian sled is pulled by three white horses, each horse symbolizing one month of winter.

I hope you enjoy these characters and that some are new to you as they were to me. If there is  character I missed, please share in the comments. Next up, Celebrating with Light

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¹ The Feast of the Epiphany has been celebrated by Catholics and Protestants since before they celebrated the birth of Jesus. It commemorates the arrival of the three kings to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  It also celebrates the baptism of Jesus as an adult by John the Baptist.

What about Greenery, Wreaths and Trees?

What is Christmas for atheists, greenery, wreaths and trees

Greenery was often used to decorate for winter solstice and new year celebrations, pre-Christianity. For some, the greenery symbolized the coming spring and hope for prosperity and good fortune. Wreaths symbolized victory, hospitality, the circle of the year, as well as the circle of life. Druids were known to decorate with garland, holly and mistletoe.

A quick note about mistletoe: Mistletoe was revered as a cure-all by the ancient greeks. The celtic druids thought it was special because it was green in the middle of winter. Both groups thought it had special properties of healing and re-invigorating. (please note, don’t try this at home, while american mistletoe is only slightly toxic, european mistletoe is quite toxic. It is likely the “invigorating” experience was the early stages of poisoning)

Evergreen trees are known in many cultures as symbols of longevity, renewal, endurance, and even revered as the homes of gods or goddesses. In some cultures, trees act as a symbolic gate, for the re-entry of departed loved ones.

Trees were decorated outdoors at least as far back as Saturnalia. These trees were decorated with sun, stars, gingerbread shaped like animals and gods, and perhaps coins. At some point, trees came indoors.

Christmas Eve had also been adopted as the feast day of Adam and Eve during medieval times. Some trees were decorated with apples symbolizing the apple Eve ate in the garden of Eden. These trees were also called Paradise Trees.

While it is not entirely clear whether indoor trees were part of the Saturnalia or Kalends celebrations, we can feel certain trees came indoors by 1600 in Strasburg in Protestant homes. There are records of tree decorating being denounced by a Protestant¹  theologian around the middle of the 17th century, the criticisms aimed to redirect this practice toward more appropriate celebrations of Jesus. These indoor trees were hung by the trunk from the ceiling (upside down), in the home and decorated with homemade decorations that were often food-based. They included nuts, marzipan and animals.

Indoor decorated trees slowly made their way across Europe, until in 1840 or so, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert very publicly had a Christmas tree. Quickly, opportunistic doll makers introduced tree toppers as winged fairy dolls. Birds of paradise, glockenspiels (similar to a xylophone), and flowers were also used. Glass blowers also took advantage of the new trend and introduced blown glass ornaments.

Community trees were also introduced by businesses and communities as part of their advertising efforts.

Later, trees in homes were also decorated with unwrapped gifts hung in the branches. (Wrapping gifts was not widespread until the 19th century.)

So, if you choose to celebrate with a decorated indoor tree or greenery, you are in good, and not necessarily christian, company. Greenery creates a transformative connection to nature that can be embraced by anyone.

Next up, Gifts From Benevolent Strangers

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¹Protestant is a christian religion that started bubbling up as a plan to reform christianity around the 12th century and took root with Martin Luther and the Gutenberg press in the early 1500s. Protestant beliefs differ from other christian religions, such as Catholicism, in several ways, they do not revere saints, Mary as the mother of Jesus, and rebuked the purchasing of forgiveness. In addition, they do not believe in transubstantiation, the Catholic belief that the wine and bread included in the sacrament of eucharist actually change into the body and blood of Jesus.