Midwinter cermonies of light and kindness – A mix of traditions


To celebrate the shift between light and darkness in Midwinter is an ancient phenomenon in human history, and has occured for thousands of years in many places on Earth. The most ancient ways of celebrations are long gone and lost in the mist of oblivion and fusions. About 4000 years ago though Arian groups from the area south of the Black Sea and today’s Iran wandered into the Indus valley and northern India to settle. With them they had brought their deities and beliefs. In what’s now Iran and parts of south eastern Turkey the tribes there around 1300 BCE celebrated Midwinter, and the birth of the sun god Mithra. It has in Iranian tradition been called Shab-e Yalda, The Birth Feast. The darkest day of the year had passed, the light returned, spirits of evil were driven out and the tribes prayed to Mithra/Ahura Mazda. Bonfires were lit. Today this Feast has lost its ancient religious aspects and become more a family gathering with gifts and good food. The cult of Mithra continued over the centuries in Anatolia and also ended up in the Roman Empire ca 2000 years ago and merged with a celebration of the farming god Saturn.The Romans also kept their local deities, Di Penates, small creatures who guarded their homes. I’ll return to that later in this text.

Around 280 A.D. a man called Nikolaus was born in Patara (Arsinoë) in what’s now Turkey. He had Christian parents of noble birth. Nikolaus as a person was silent and withdrawn. When he grew up he became a priest and went to Jerusalem where he was for some years. Later he returned to Turkey and became an arch bishop in Myra (Izmir on the west coast), but the power struggle between the old Roman traditions and newer Christian ways intensified. In 284 – 305 the Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximan persecuted, imprisoned and killed Christians. Nikolaus was in jail during these years, but when the next Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity into the new state religion Nikolaus was released. Between May 20th and July 25th 325 A.D. the first concilium was held in Nicaea, where the dogmas and creeds for the newly accepted Christianity were shaped. Nikolaus participated and during the fierce debate he assaulted his Arian opponent Arius who said that God existed before Jesus Christ. I wish here to pinpoint this fact, even though I’m Christian, that this synod contributed to the exclusion of other perceptions, pronounced them heretic, and the way to percieve women, women’s role in society and female sexuality once more in history was oppressed by the synod. One can draw many parallells to things happening in our world today. Nikolaus was nevertheless famous for his kindness and generosity. When his parents died he gave his inheritage to the poor. The most famous story is how he saved three daughters of a man in debt from being sent to a brothel. Three nights in a row Nikolaus went passed their house and threw in sacks of gold so that the man could pay his debts. Nikolaus died in Myra on December 6th 343 A.D. He was canonised and became Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors and thieves who became remorseful and improved.

Saint Nicholas’ death day, December 6th, became in the Christian countries a period of kindness and merged with the old pagan, non-Christian, traditions and beliefs. Here in Scandinavia during the Viking Era, the ancient Mithra cult from Iran had moved on and developed further 2000 years later according to the Scandinavian climate and beliefs into the Midvinterblot, the Midwinter Blood. The Vikings sacrificed animals and serfs to the gods and drank lots of mead. They too celebrated the turn of the year and were afraid of the evil spirits surrounding them. The Roman belief in Penates, small creatures that protected the farm and harvest had moved up here. Here we called them “tomtar/vättar”, (in English “gnomes” or “brownies”). There were forest gnomes and house gnomes. The house gnome was small, lived in a hole, under a tree or the house. He was often very old, very strong, could make himself invisible, helped the farmers with harvest and protecting the animals in secret. He could also make mischief and one had to keep him in high esteem and respect, give him porridge and other food. If the farmers made him angry, easily done, the gnome would curse him and make the humans’ lifes into a living hell. The Swedish nun Saint Birgitta was irritated of these folklore beliefs and warned the people in 14th century Sweden from honouring and believing in the “tompta gudhi”, (the gnome deities).

In the Christian countries Saint Nicholas continued to be celebrated, and in the Netherlands for example Sinterklaas comes alongside Black Piet, a representative of the Devil to scare the children into obedience. All over Europe Saint Nicholas was celebrated and here in Scandinavia new traditions developed during the 17th to the 19th centuries. During the 19th century in Swedish bourgois homes the one who came with the gifts was the Christmas Ram, not a Brownie, but that would soon change. In 1823 Clement Clarke Moore wrote his poem A Visit from St Nicholas (The Night Before Christmas). That poem would be one of the works that would influence the new ideas of Santa Claus. Here in Sweden the writer Viktor Rydberg would publish his poem Tomten / The Gnome in 1881. It’s about a small farm gnome who watches the late night sky in Midwinter and makes his round on the farm, watching over horses, cows, hens, dog and people. The poem evokes feelings of mystery, cold winter, tradition and deep folklore. Viktor Rydberg gave the task to illustrate this poem to the female artist Jenny Nyström. She would for the coming decades in late 19th and early 20th centuries illustrate many Christmas cards and books which came to influence our present idea of Scandinavian Christmas and Santa Claus. In the 1930’s a Swedish-American helped the Coca Cola company in the USA to illustrate their Christmas campaigns with paintings of Santa Claus, and watching his paintings it’s quite clear for a Swede that he was influenced by the many Christmas pictures that Jenny Nyström made in the beginning of the last century. Today the “modern” cult of Santa Claus has turned into something of it’s own. He lives on the Northpole or in Sápmi, northern Scandinavia, or in Finland. He has serving gnomes that help him producing the Christmas gifts, has a sledge drawn by rein deers and is a nice man dressed in red and has a long white beard, coming in the skies on December 23d or 24th to deliver Christmas gifts to the children.

Even if the many traditions have changed and merged over 4000 years we must never forget the main point. We humans have always needed traditions and a sense of belonging. We have always wanted kindness and goodness, especially in dark times, even if it’s difficult to give it sometimes. But the Christmas has for many been a period when we try to remember the good aspects of being human. That is something that never must fall into oblivion, irrespective of our beliefs, ethnicity or social background.

Anders Moberg, December 18th 2012


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