I'm not much of a Christas gal (but happy Christmas!), and never have been. The level of consumerism and forced family cheer always makes me a little uneasy, but enough fo that soapbox! I'm here to help you view christmas in a bit of a Hellenic light--because that's bound to raise anyone's cheer!

Now, inherently, Christmas is Roman, not Hellenic. Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25. During this period courts were closed, and no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people.

The festival began when Roman authorities chose 'an enemy of the Roman people' to represent the 'Lord of Misrule'. Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week.  At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.

The ancient Hellenic writer poet and historian Lucian (in his dialogue entitled Saturnalia) describes the festival’s observance in his time:  human sacrifice, intoxication, going from house to house while singing naked, rape and other sexual license, and consuming human-shaped biscuits.

In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. Christian leaders succeeded in converting to Christianity large numbers of pagans by promising them that they could continue to celebrate the Saturnalia as Christians. The problem was that there was nothing intrinsically Christian about Saturnalia. To remedy this, these Christian leaders named Saturnalia’s concluding day, December 25th, to be Jesus’ birthday.

Christians had little success, however, refining the practices of Saturnalia. The earliest Christmas holidays were celebrated by drinking, sexual indulgence, singing naked in the streets (a precursor of modern caroling), etc.

The Saturnalia has its roots in the Rural Dionysia, and overall in the worship of Dionysos. The Rural, or lesser, Dionysia was a vintage festival. It was celebrated in the various demes of Attica in the month of Poseideon. It was celebrated with a large procession in which men carried a phallus and cakes. Revelers and singers were also a part of the procession. A representation of the God was included to represent His coming (not birth!). The festival also included stage comedies and the playing of lighthearted games. Generally, it was a joyful festival, shared by all, even the slaves.

Some other 'modern' Christmas customes: carol singing. The tradition of door-to-door carol-singing also dates back to ancient Hellas, when children would go from house to house holding effigies made of olive or laurel branches that symbolized health. They sang carols only in the homes of the rich. In return they received food. They would then go home and hang their effigies on their front door to bring their families prosperity.

The Christmas tree appeared for the first time in Germany at the end of the 16th century. It became globally known in the 19th century. In Christianity, the Christmas tree symbolizes the rejoicing of the birth of Jesus Christ. The tree was adorned first with fruits and later with clothes and other household objects. Ancient Greeks used to decorate the ancient temples with trees, symbolizing the divine gift offering. In fact, due to it's destinct shape, tree worship was widespread in ancient Hellas as part of the cult of Dionysos.

Santa Claus, who travels around the world on Christmas Eve delivering gifts in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, may have Dionysian roots as well. Dionysus drove around on a flying charriot pulled by exotic animals. He may not have given out gifts, but it was part of the celebration of the return of the light--perhaps the greatest gift of all.

Now, did you know that a little before the clock strikes twelve it is customary for family members to step out of the house and re-enter using their right foot. The person who enters immediately after the first footer smashes the pomegranate with force onto the door. The number of seeds that get scattered are proportional to amount of good luck the family will be blessed with over the coming year. Since ancient times, pomegranates are considered to be symbols of fertility and rebirth, after all. Now this is a custom I would love to rivive!

Modern day Christas is a conglomoration of ancient Hellenic, Roman and Norse customs, adapted by Christianity and then marketing to get where we are now. At it's roots, it was always a time of cheer and good omens, a time to spend with family, to give gifts, and to get a little tipsy. So enjoy the festivities and raise a glass to Dionysos!