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Authors: Christian Rätsch

Pagan Christmas

BOOK: Pagan Christmas
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The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide

Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling

Translated from the German by Katja Lueders and Rafael Lorenzo

Inner Traditions

Rochester, Vermont


The Ethnobotany of Christmas

Traditions, Rituals, and Customs

Christmas Songs of the Hard Winter

A Pagan Feast

Red and White: Colors of Christmas

The Darkness of Midwinter

Sacred Nights, Smudging Nights, and Incense

Wotan and the Wild Hunt

From the Shamanic World Tree to the Christmas Tree

Christmas Trees

Holy Trees

St. Nicholas and His Little Helper, Ruprecht

Baccy Claus: The Smoking Christmas Man

Father Christmas: An Anthropomorphic Fly Agaric Mushroom?

Christmas Tree Decorations

The Golden Apples

Miracle Blossoms for the Winter Solstice

St. Barbara’s Boughs

Christ Rose or Hellebore

Christmas Roses

Christmas Stars

Exotic Christmas Flowers

Christmas Greens

The Old Ones of the Woods

Mistletoe: Winter Woods Green

Holly: Frau Holle’s Holy Tree

Laurel: The Sun God’s Plant

Ivy: Tendrils of the Maenads

The Aromas of Christmas: A Shower of Pheromones

Incense for the Holy Nights

Incense Under the Christmas Tree

Incense Recipes for the Smudging Nights

Christmas Intoxications and Other Delights

Yule Drinking

Love on Christmas Eve?

Chocolate Father Christmas: Ritual Christmas Cannibalism

Mugwort, the Sacrificial Goose, and the Christmas Roast

Rosemary and the Yule Boar

Merry Christmas from Mother Coca, Coca-Cola, and Santa Claus

Christmas Spices and Christmas Baking

Anise and St. Andrew’s Night

Saffron: Red Gold for Christmas

Christmas Baking

The Rebirth of the Sun

Sun Gods: Apollo, Mithras, and Jesus

Mystery Cults

Kyphi: Incense for the Smudging Nights

Saturn, the God of Incense

The Erotic Bean Feast

New Year’s Eve: The Wild Feast of Sylvester

Protection and Fertility Rites

Lucky Plants

Happy New Year

Thunder and Witch Flour

From Incense to Fireworks

Lucky Mushrooms and Chimney Sweeps

New Year’s Day

Magical, Shamanic Clover

The Night of Befana, the Christmas Witch

Holy Bushes that Protect Against Witches

Paradise Plant

Devil’s Dirt and Witches’ Smoke

Three Kings Day: The End of the Christmas Season

The Pagan Magi from the East

Frankincense, the Secret of Old Arabia



Also by Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling

About the Author

About Inner Traditions

Books of Related Interest




We celebrate Christmas in the middle of winter, when the trees are bare and nothing in our gloomy, gray and white surroundings reminds us of the vivid green landscape of summer. Each year at Christmastime, we participate in a kind of ritual “summerfest” involving evergreen branches and winter-blooming plants, during the heart of the cold, dark winter season. Why? The simple answer is because it is exactly at this time of year that we yearn most strongly for green plants, blossoms, and the light of the sun. During the harsh winters of the past, our ancestors felt the same longing.

This book is about the ethnobotany of Christmas—a study of Christmas plants and their symbolic uses and meanings throughout the centuries. Looking at it in the glowing light of the candles in the Advent wreath and the festively lit Christmas tree, it is easy to see that plants contribute much to this feast season. During the dark time of Advent, we especially appreciate having a green fir tree and blooming plants in the house, such as poinsettia and Christmas cactus. We hang mistletoe and decorate our doors with wreaths made from fir, ivy, and holly. For roasts and baking, we use exotic spices from trees, shrubs, and plants of tropical regions. The children wait excitedly for St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, for whom they put out shoes, stockings, and gift plates, expecting marzipan, chocolate, apples, tangerines, and nuts in return. Many of these delights come from trees in warm, faraway regions from which we import their fruits.

Christmas is the most culturally pervasive and successful feast of all time. But what is behind our treasured Christmas traditions and customs? Why do green fir branches, flowers that bloom in the middle of the winter, Christmas spices, and incense still play such a central role in Christmas celebrations around the world? What are the symbolic meanings behind the use of these plants, and how have the old customs survived into the present computer age?

We discover amazing answers hidden in the darkness of history. A multilayered background of symbolic meaning has made these plants a central part of Christmas rituals all over the world. The use of the plants that play such an important role at Christmastime originates not only where we most expect it—in the customs surrounding the Christian feast of the birth of Jesus—but also in ancient, pre-Christian, pagan traditions.

The symbolic meanings of these plants have roots in the distant past, when our ancestors were more intimately connected with the passage of the seasons. They were much more dependent than contemporary city people on the return of the sun and the plants after the long, dark winter nights. Depending on their values and beliefs, some modern people may choose to ignore or reject the history within which our well-known Christmas customs are rooted. Some react with interest to events and beliefs of days past; others feel that the historical sources contradict their religious beliefs or are otherwise irrelevant to our current Christmas customs. We can either profit from the traditions, beliefs, philosophies, and realities of life of other cultures, societies, and times—or we can ignore, refute, or fight them. We have the freedom to choose.

As individuals, contemporaries of a particular generation, or part of a given cultural, religious, or national tradition, we all have a past. How prepared we are to take a long, hard look at our own life, at our personal childhood and past, and beyond that, at our cultural, religious, and historical heritage, is entirely a matter of individual choice. But none can deny the essential role plants have played and continue to play in the midwinter celebration that we call Christmas.



Why a Book About Christmas Plants?

Fir trees, mistletoe, holly, golden oranges, red apples, ripe nuts, exotic spices, straw stars, cinnamon stars, mugwort roast, witches’ houses made from gingerbread, and currant loaf (Christstollen): It’s Christmas all around!

Christmas is part of the cultural heritage of the world, a global syncretism, a potpourri and conglomeration of elements that manifests itself finally, and most significantly, in the uses of flora from all over the world. From the familiar to the exotic, Christmas involves teas and shrubs from East and West, spices from the Orient and the New World, incenses from Eastern as well as Nordic sources. There are northern and southern fruits, herbs, and other plants to use and enjoy, including tobacco, magic mushrooms, and ingredients for special brews. There are flowers and other decorative plants from the rain forest, the desert, and the mountains—from all ecological zones and from all cultures.

Our Christmas ethnobotany explores the use of plants from all over the world that have become and remain a central part of the global Christmas ritual. Every plant comes with its own story with which to enrich the feast. Every plant’s history hangs like a treasured ornament from the world tree that gives us a home in the universe. At Christmastime, the middle-class living room becomes the setting for shamanic rituals with deep roots in ancient traditions. Thus this book is not only about Christmas plants and customs, but also about the origins and historical background of the traditions that continue to inspire us and delight our senses.

For who doesn’t like Christmas? Even Friedrich Nietzsche liked the feast: “You can’t believe how much I am looking forward to Christmas, wonderful Christmas!” the philosopher wrote to his mother, Franziska, and his sister, Elisabeth, on December 5, 1861. “Christmas makes everything good!”1




Our ancestors are the worldly essences: water, salt, and acid. They live within us, and yet, at the same time, they are always leaving us. And then, time after time, they come seeking us out again. Through the plants they remind us of a state of timelessness, where human heritage is just a breath of wind on a lake’s surface. Human history is also plant history.

SCHENK 1960, 7

Christmas is a Christian feast infiltrated by ancient pagan customs. On the other hand, it is also a pagan feast over layered with Catholic liturgical and folk rituals. It is the feast of the birth of the savior Jesus Christ and of the sun’s rebirth; it is the time of midwinter “smudging nights” during which people smudged with herbs to cleanse their homes and stables and protect themselves against evil influences. This time, when the old year gives way to the new, is a time of gods and spirits, veritable orgies of gift giving, and rituals intended to ward off danger and ensure the fertility of the fields in the coming year.

Throughout the season runs evidence of a very rich Christmas ethnobotany, with ancient traces we will follow to their roots in this book. During this excursion into the past, we will learn much about Christmas trees and Christmas greens; about Christmas spices, scents, and incense; about protective rituals that have survived until modern times. The mythology of plants leads us to the origins of the culture of shamanism and the sacred botany (hierobotany) of ancient times—into medieval customs involving witches’ magic, the warding off of demons, fertility rites, and rites of sacrifice.

The symbolic meaning of Christmas plants opens up to us a new perspective on cultures and customs of times long past: the mythical wild hunt of Germanic and Nordic origin, the Julbock and the feast of lights from the north of Scandinavia, the celebration of Saturnalia from the Mediterranean, ancient rituals commemorating the rebirth of the sun, and a tradition of protection against witchcraft from early Christian times (fifteenth and sixteenth centuries). It teaches us about folk perchtenwalks, nighttime processions of people dressed to represent the devil in archaic wooden goat masks and fur coats, and about biblical feasts to honor the birth of the Christ child, the holy three kings, the holy Barbara, and the holy Nicholas.

As with many other rituals, Christmas has a magic that is difficult to grasp and even more difficult to explain. The Christmas feast might be the most successful example of a mass ritual that has overstepped every international, ethnic, religious, cultural, and political border. It is popular with people all over the world. Each culture has interpreted, incorporated, and applied the elements of Christmas in its own way into its own rituals and celebrations.

Christmas plants on Christmas and New Year’s cards: rowan berries, incense ball, fir cones, holly branches, mistletoe, box tree and spruce branches, sloe, ivy, and lantern flowers. (Coos Storm, ©Paperclip International, 1999)

In short, Christmas is the most pervasively syncretic ritual of modern Europe and North America. It brings together traditions, ideas, and customs from all over the world and from all times. Christmas is no mere traditional folk ritual. It expresses itself as a constantly developing collage of diverse elements, all of which have their own history and legends. Whether you are interested in the true background of Christmas or not, the way in which it is celebrated today clearly takes meaning from the larger concept of a “feast of love” celebrated not only by the early Christians, but also by the pagan ancients.

Plants play an important but so far neglected role in our understanding of the roots of Christmas. The triumph of the Christmas tree started in Germany and the Swiss Alps. Mistletoe and holly came from the British Isles into the neighboring European countries and over the “great lake” to the New World. The poinsettia comes from Central America. The rose of Jericho hails from the deserts of the Near East. The Christmas cactus lives on trees in Rio de Janeiro in faraway Brazil.

In this book we will explore the symbolic meanings behind Christmas and the triumphant spread of Christmas ethnobotany—including Christmas greens and blossoms, the Christmas tree, and plants used for Christmas incense, ornaments, foods, and beverages—throughout the world. We will also explore the shamanic and pagan roots of Christmas customs many of us take for granted, including the origins of Santa Claus’s traditional red and white garb and his yearly flight through the winter night sky in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

BOOK: Pagan Christmas
7.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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