Planet Earth

The pagan Reformation

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanMar 18, 2008 6:34 PM

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I read Christmas: A Candid History walking home last night. It's a small compact book so walking and reading works well. In any case, there was some surprising information here. The basic outline that Christmas, as we understand it, is in large part a co-opted pagan complex of festivals is there. No surprise. But the author claims that the suppression of St. Nicholas and his festival during the Reformation in northern Europe had the side effect of enabling the resurgence of pagan supernatural folk-heroes! In other words, without St. Nicholas the rural peasantry of German and Scandinavia simply drafted a replacement from their own folk history for their mid-winter celebrations, and that replacement naturally manifested many more pagan elements than St. Nicholas the Christian bishop because it was outside of church control. But St. Nicholas as Santa Claus remains robust in the United States. Why? Turns out that this figure was a creation of the circle around Washingtin Irving in New York during the early 19th century. New York was of course once a Dutch colony, and many of the elite families still proudly declared such antecedents. Iriving's circle simply asserted that the festival of Sinter Klaas had once been very prominent in New Amsterdam despite no evidence to support this, and the rest is history....

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