Have Christians vacationed from Gentiles

Longing for "a world before modernity"

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Speaker of the Evangelical Center for Weltanschauung questions about neo-pagan customs at the turn of the year

Kai Funkschmidt in conversation with Ralf Bei der Kellen

Did pagan winter solstice celebrations affect the Christian festival? (Company way)

Kai Funkschmidt thinks that the pagan winter solstice festival is a forerunner of our Christmas festival is a dubious assumption. In any case, the revival of neo-pagan customs is more of a "minority story".

Ralf bei der Kellen: This year winter begins in the northern hemisphere on December 22nd. On this day, the so-called winter solstice, the sun is lowest on the horizon, which is why it is the day with the shortest light phase. Many people are looking forward to the fact that the days are getting longer again, even if the cold season is still to come. In the religious ideas of earlier times, the sun often played a central role. In ancient cultures, the winter solstice was often celebrated with a festival. The greater the discrepancy between day and night, the greater the difference between warm summer and hard winter, the more important this festival, which marked the rebirth of the sun, was. In the cultures of Scandinavia, the winter solstice is called Yule Festival. Even today, Christmas is still called Jul. And in English, in addition to the word Christmas, there is also the term Yule or Yuletide. Today the Yule Festival is celebrated again by many neo-pagan and esoteric groups, so to speak as the original form of Christmas.

Before the show, I spoke to Dr. Kai Funkschmidt, advisor at the Evangelical Center for Weltanschauungsfragen, EZW, spoke in Berlin and wanted to know to what extent pagan winter solstice celebrations had an influence on the Christian festival?

Kai Funkschmidt: The question already contains an assumption, namely that there was a pagan winter solstice festival and that this was the forerunner of our Christmas festival. This assumption is widely made today, but it is doubtful. You really have to go back further. One has to go back to why Christians celebrate Christmas at all and why on this date of all times. And then you basically only come to a standstill with the Romans, i.e. in very early Christian times, long before today's what we call pagans, i.e. to which the new pagans still refer, even come into the light of history have stepped. The first question, which is exciting, is why do Christians celebrate a birthday at all - because otherwise the church actually always celebrates the days of death, there are very few saints who celebrate the birthday, Christmas, Jesus is one of them, the other is John the Anabaptists - that dates from around the fourth century. And there are two hypotheses as to why that is on December 25th. One is the so-called calculation hypothesis, according to which the world was created on March 25th, the beginning of spring, that is obvious, when everything becomes new, that is a Jewish tradition. In addition, there is a second Jewish tradition that people, great people, die on the same day on which they were born, i.e. the date of death and birthday have the same date. So one would come to March 25th for Jesus, that would be obvious. The problem is, we don't celebrate our birthday on March 25th, but on December 25th. There is the auxiliary hypothesis that it is said that it is not about the birth, but about when Jesus was created in the body of Mary, that is, by the Holy Spirit, not created but was begotten. And then nine months later it comes to Christmas and so we have that date. This also has the special charm that we know from the Bible that John the Baptist was born six months before, and that falls exactly on the summer solstice. That is the one hypothesis that is widespread among researchers today, especially in the Anglo-Saxon area. The other hypothesis - and that is the one that actually plays more into what you have asked now - is the religious-scientific one, according to which Christianity was based on another religion. And then think of the cult of Sol Invictus, the undefeated sun god of the Romans. And it does in fact celebrate the birth of the sun god. And there is the assumption that as a counterbalance for their own believers, to keep them from attending these celebrations, the Christians put Christmas on December 25th - that is the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar, so that is slightly postponed - and that practically a counter-movement to an old or a different religion will set Christmas Day on December 25th. have laid.

At the trowel: And what traces of the pagan festival, that is, this pagan festival or other pagan festivals, can we still find today in Christmas and its customs?

Funkschmidt: What is usually said that it is still preserved during Christmas are not Roman traces, but rather Germanic tradition. And there is the problem that we have almost no historical knowledge about these pre-Christian Teutons because they have left almost no written sources, and the North Germanic sources all come from Christian times. That means there is a lot of later reconstruction. The references to the solstice itself go back far in pre-pagan, including pre-Roman times; we already have archaeological sources from the Bronze Age. In other words, it can be assumed that people always knew when the summer and winter solstices would be. From our present day festive customs, it is sometimes said that some of these things are of pagan origin: Well, the Christmas tree is popular, it should then be a modification of the Thor or Donar oak or an old fertility symbol; I found that the Advent wreath was said to have been an old Germanic ring spell. The problem is, this is all completely without evidence and you have to honestly say that with these examples, at least very clearly, this is pure fantasy. Because we know of all of these traditions that they date back to the 19th century. There are some smaller traditions that go back to pre-Christian times, for example the idea that one could look into the future during this time. The idea behind this is that at the summer and winter solstice the sun stands still for a moment because it changes direction. And when the sun stands still, time stands still and that allows us to look into the future. One might wonder whether, for example, the custom that is celebrated on New Year's Eve, of pouring lead, whether that is a remnant of it. The Yule goat points a little more in the direction of what you asked. This is something that we don't have, but in Scandinavia. And sometimes with us too, because Ikea sold it here, at least a few years ago, I don't know if it will be on sale this year. The Yule goat is a stripped figure, a billy goat, under or on which gifts are presented in Scandinavia. And there is the assumption that points back to the draft animals from the chariot of Thor or Donar. That is one thing that is perhaps the most specific. What doesn't exist anymore, the original July night in Scandinavia, that was a pretty ecstatic festival with feasts, drinks and the intoxication was part of it. There are sources from the 17th century in Great Britain, in England, that forbade that to Christians. So that means drinking and wild partying, which was specifically forbidden at Christmas at that time. Whether that was a survival of an old Germanic tradition or just a degeneration of the Christian Christmas festival, I'll leave that open here.

At the trowel: How do the neo-pagan and neo-pagan cults that exist today, and also other esoteric groups, celebrate the winter solstice festival these days?

Funkschmidt: May I first ask, where does the fascination for this Germanic past as it is practiced in neo-pagan groups come from, i.e. the motivation? Then we also see how this is done. It seems to me that the popularity of this is the longing for a world before modernity. This is a response to an extremely complex and confusing contemporary world in which we live. The technical world makes everything on the one hand manageable and on the other hand difficult to understand. There is a certain longing for a world that was still simple and integrated. The second part is, I believe, a longing for enchantment. The same thing already existed in the 19th century as a reaction to the Enlightenment, which has already demystified everything. Romanticism, for example, was a reaction that tried to enchant the world again. That is the longing, I believe, that is behind the neo-pagan traditions. Indeed, the so-called Yule Festival, celebrated at the winter solstice, is the highest festival in many of these neo-pagan groups. Historically, it can be said that it is doubtful that there was such a pre-Christian solstice festival. We don't know that, we can only assume that. The customs that are practiced there today are partly those that have to do with jewelry, so you decorate your house with evergreen branches as a symbol of fertility with boxwood and yew and juniper branches. And where the groups are organized, where they really meet, they gather at so-called places of power. Sometimes that is also a secret, especially these new-Germanic, German-tinkling groups that do not announce this beforehand. Sometimes these are places like the Externsteine ​​in the Teutoburg Forest. There is a lot that has to do with fire customs, that is, there is a big fire lit, then there is a dance around the fire, sometimes there is a so-called fire jump. It goes straight back to the Nazis, you have to say, where people jump through the fire and thus symbolize a new beginning, sometimes couples hand in hand. Runic oracles are something that's been popular lately, it looks like you draw runes on stones or cards and then draw them, and then three runes together become an oracle because each rune stands for a specific oracle, for there is a certain prophecy. This should make the next year recognizable. And there is a so-called rune yoga, which is very interesting, it looks like you, the small group of people who are there - these are mostly small assemblies -, set up in certain forms so that they form a rune. And that is supposed to transfer what is spiritually associated with this rune to these people as a force. So, trying a symbol magic by placing a symbol with people to transfer the power of that symbol to them.

At the trowel: What do you think, what is expressed in this apparently ever stronger reflection on these perhaps only supposed pre-Christian spiritual roots?

Funkschmidt: First of all, I want to answer with a poem by Emanuel Geibel, that is the man who wrote the song "May has come". He wrote: "Faith that fails the door climbs into the window as superstition. When the gods chase you away, the ghosts come!" Or to put it very briefly: when belief goes, superstition comes. So you could say it briefly and a bit pointedly, also a bit polemically. In addition, one has to say that as popular as this is for public attention, also for the media and as exciting as it is, all of these neo-pagan customs are a very small minority story. This is really all manageable and takes place in the range of maybe a few thousand people in Germany. Most people still celebrate Christmas in a relatively traditional way. However, I see other changes at Christmas that are much more striking: It is like this, some customs arise, some customs disappear. And just a short time ago, for example, the Roman Catholic Church did not celebrate four Sundays in Advent, but six. It was like this before 1965 and has only now gone to four and no one remembers that it used to be six. Personally, I have little concern now, although I also see that there is a detachment of the Christmas celebration in society from its religious roots, that an already strong de-Christianized or post-Christian society is still celebrating Christmas, but basically no longer really knows which one Content that has. As a Christian, however, I also see it relatively calmly, because the Church has now repeatedly gone through crises in its history and because I trust that it does not now depend on what we do and what we do that Christmas will continue to be celebrated. Because ultimately the substance goes beyond what we as a society and we as a church can do and say about it. In this respect, I have confidence that Christmas will be stronger than the current dechurchification and also the commercialization of the whole thing.

Statements by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandradio does not adopt the statements of its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.

You might also be interested in

Discover Deutschlandfunk culture