The ancient Near Eastern roots of American Yuletide customs are manifold and fascinating. I will concentrate here on just two major points: that the Christmas tree was originally a symbol of the Canaanite goddess Asherah and that Santa Claus is an avatar of Asherah’s consort, the high god ‘El, who is equivalent to the Israelite Yahweh. I will conclude by showing that the customs of Christmas were brought to America by the Canaanites themselves.
The coniferous Christmas tree, whether real or stylized (made of metal or plastic), is customarily hung with bright votive offerings: tinsel, metallic globes, colored lights, etc. Small figurines of humans and animals may also adorn the shrub. The custom of decorating a Christmas tree is very old, as shown by a second-century C.E. description of Syrian practice:
Of all the festivals I know about…the greatest is the one they hold at the beginning of [winter]. Some call it “Fire-Festival,” others “Lamp Festival.” During the festival they sacrifice like this: They chop down large trees and stand them in the courtyard. Then they drive in goats, sheep and other livestock and hang them alive from the trees. In the trees are also birds, clothes, and gold and silver artifacts. When they have made everything ready, they carry the sacred objects around the trees and throw fire in, and everything is immediately burnt.
Here we find customs still recognizable: selection of a tree, lopping it off at the base and erecting it for a cultic purpose, hanging it with anything valuable, bright or globular—and, finally, burning it as the “Yule log.” Suspending animals, dead or alive, is mercifully no longer customary, although one still finds symbolic reindeer, teddy bears, troll dolls, etc., adorning many a spruce.
Scholars agree that the sacred tree was a symbol of the great ancient Near Eastern Mother Goddess. Many believe that the Israelite God, Yahweh, was no old bachelor, that in fact, he had a consort—the goddess Asherah.
For example, an inscription on a pithos (large storage jar) from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the Negev wilderness reads, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah.”
My own carbon-14 analysis of the ink yields a date in late December 799 B.C.E.! Evidently the text was a seasonal blessing, a sort of Hallmark card. Asherah’s symbol was a tree, upon which one might hang garments (2 Kings 23:7 mentions that women wove hangings for Asherah). The resemblance to a Christmas tree could not be more striking.
Asherah’s mate, the chief of the Canaanite pantheon, was named ’El, or “the God.” As is generally recognized, the Bible’s descriptions of Yahweh, are heavily influenced by ’El.
Even a cursory inspection of the traditions surrounding ’El and Yahweh reveal startling connections to our benevolent Christmas spirit Santa Claus. First, as known from Canaanite-Ugaritic literature and art, ’El is a white-bearded patriarch whose chief epithets are ltpn, “the Compassionate,” and d pid, “Nice Guy.” He is associated with dwarf craftsmen (bn amt, “sons of a cubit”) and with offerings in the night.
Israel’s God is also hoary-haired (Isaiah 40:28; Psalms 102:28; Job 36:26; Daniel 7:9) and kindly (“gracious and merciful,” e.g., Exodus 34:6), coming in the night to offer riches to Solomon (1 Kings 3:4–15; 2 Chronicles 1:3–13).
Like Santa, he is frequently wreathed in smoke (Exodus 19:18; Leviticus 16:2, 13; et al.). Consider, too, the following question, addressed to God: “Who is this coming…dressed in red…why are your garments red, and your clothes like a grapetreader’s?” (Isaiah 63:1–2). Winter in Israel is the somber time, in which, nonetheless, “in all the streets they say, ‘Ho! Ho!’” (Amos 5:16).
Two further features common to ’El/Yahweh and Santa Claus clinch the identification. Both Yahweh and the Canaanite pantheon are said to dwell in yarketey ṣaphon, “the recesses of the North” (Isaiah 14:13; Psalms 48:2).
Second, ’El is depicted as mounted on a chariot/ throne drawn by winged sphinxes—the cherubim. Analogously, Yahweh is known as “he who sits upon the cherubim” (e.g., 1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2) and is sometimes depicted as flying through the air drawn by or riding such creatures (e.g., Ezekiel 1; Psalms 18:10).
Akkadian, the ancient Semitic tongue of Mesopotamia, teaches us the original pronunciation of Hebrew kǝrûb “cherub”: karibu. Thus, by discerning the Canaanite antecedents of Christmas, we can finally understand why Santa’s vehicle should be drawn by caribou! (The names “Donner” and “Blitzen,” German for “thunder” and “lightning,” also betray the reindeer’s origin as minor Canaanite storm deities.)
Lastly, though the text has been somewhat marred in the course of its transmission, we are able to reconstruct a hymn on Santa’s omniscience, that clearly reflects his divine origin:
He knows if you’ve been sleeping, He knows if you’re awake, He knows if you’ve been bad, So be good for goodness’ sake.
Santa Claus, like ’El and Yahweh, is the heavenly judge, meting out rewards and punishments. Every Christmas eve, he goes from house to house, assessing human righteousness and, if a household is found worthy, sliding down the chimney to deposit his gracious gifts beneath the boughs of his beloved Asherah.
A loose end in this analysis, I must admit, is the name “Santa Claus” itself. One thing is clear, however: There is no connection with the fourth-century Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, who was not fat, married or particularly generous. Nor did he associate with craftsmen of any stature. My best guess is that “Santa Claus” is a corruption of Semitic *ŝanta-kulla, “complete year,” or ŝanta-kalat, “the year is over.” Santa’s iconographic rotundity probably symbolizes the “roundness” of a full year.
If these correlations are valid—and I think their cumulative force is undeniable—how did these antique traditions reach our shores? Archaeologists now know that long before Leif Eriksson and Christopher Columbus, teeming multitudes from the Old World had colonized the New, among them Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Canaanites and the Ten “Lost” Tribes of Israel. Apparently these last groups bore with them the traditions of Asherah and ’El/Yahweh: the Christmas tree and Santa Claus.
In fact, the very name of our continent, “America,” bears a Semitic etymology—for, as is well known, the connection with the semimythical Amerigo Vespucci is the product of popular but misguided etymology. Rather, “America” recognizably memorializes the ubiquitous seminomads of the ancient Near East who are ancestral to both the Israelites and the Canaanites: the Amorites, who called themselves the Amurru.
The derivation of “America” from Amurru follows well-known phonological changes: -urru- > -urri- > -irri- > -erri- > eri, whereupon the Latin gentilic suffix -ica, indicating nationality, was added to the end.
So, before decking the halls with holly—and before tacking up the mistletoe—why not teach your family the real meaning of Christmas?
WILLIAM H.C. PROPP is a Professor of Ancient History and Judaic studies at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of Exodus 1–18 (1998) and Exodus 19-40 (2006) in the Anchor Bible commentary series.
Bible Review 14:6, December 1998
Coming soon: "Was Yeshua Conceived During Hanukkah (Chanukah)?
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