Christmas is a midwinter festival celebrated on December 25th that is dedicated to the birth of Jesus Christ. Those who mark it celebrate in a variety of ways. Some attend services at church- the traditional services that initially gave the festival its name: “Christ’s mass.” Even those who do not believe in Christ enjoy the attendant festivities, celebrated with family and friends as well as putting up decorations, lighting candles, holding parties, eating and drinking and giving and receiving gifts.
Many of these Christmas traditions seem puzzling when compared to the central message of the Christian Christmas. For they either appear entirely irrelevant to it or else forced to fit. The reason for this is that many Christmas practices are much older than Christ’s Mass itself, dating back to much older religious traditions and gods. Some of these traditions can be easily traced back to their origins, while the exact roots of others have become lost in time. Here are just sixteen of the pagan traditions of Christmas.
16. The Twelve Days of Christmas Originates from the Numerous Pagan Festivals Once celebrated around midwinter.
Nowadays, the Twelve Days of Christmas aren’t kept so carefully as they once were, although people recall them through the famous song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” However, in the Middle Ages, it was commonplace for workers to down tools and relax and celebrate Christ’s birth with masses and revels stretched over almost two weeks. The Council of Tours established the Twelve Days in 567 AD when they announced that the period between Christ’s nativity on December 25thand Epiphany on January 6th should be part of the Christ Mass celebrations. But why was the period so long when Christ’s birth-related to only one day?
The reason was simple. The Roman calendar from mid-December to early January was jam-packed with midwinter festivals. Most famous of all was the Saturnalia, which started on December 17 and by the imperial period, lasted for a week. The Brumalia marked the winter solstice on December 21st and celebrations carried on into January, with January 7thdedicated to Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. Many people continued to celebrate these pagan festivals as the Christian era began. So the Church felt it was necessary to Christianise the festivities by absorbing them into the Christmas celebrations.
15. Christmas Feasting and overindulgence was a Hangover from Pagan Midwinter Celebrations.
During Advent and up until Christmas Eve, Christians would fast as they prepared for the nativity. However, once Christmas day arrived, they made up for frugality with indulgence and excess. By the Middle Ages, it was customary to down tools for the Christmas period and enjoy a surplus of food and drink and riotous entertainment. Mummers and dancing were favorite pastimes as well as all-around rowdy behavior. Many justified this excess by claiming they were celebrating Christ’s birthday in high style. However, this behavior was no medieval degeneration, for it is clear that that partying and pleasure were a part of even the earliest Christmas.
Early Christian leaders were warning against too much pleasure as Christmas as early as the fourth century AD. In 389AD, St Gregory Nazianzen, one of the four fathers of the Greek Church criticized customs of ‘feasting in excess” and “dancing” at Christmas. This criticism arose because these festive excesses were hangovers from the pagan midwinter festivals like Saturnalia when celebrants suspended normal life and pleasure ruled. Saturnalia, in particular, was a time when men remembered a golden age where work was unnecessary by stopping work and making “merry noise on every side,” with “the song and the games. “The Church fathers feared that such pagan relics detracted from the religiosity of Christmas. They were probably right.
14. The Original Christmas Carols were not Christian hymns; they were pagan seasonal songs to drive away Evil.
Today we think of carols as songs of spiritual joy celebrating Christ’s birth, sung by groups of carol singers or church choirs. However, the original carols had nothing to do with the birth of Christ. Indeed, Christmas hymns weren’t part of Christmas church services until the thirteenth century and many of the familiar carols sung today were written in the nineteenth century to revive the caroling tradition. For although in the middle ages groups of people sang carols while going from door to door, much as they did until recently, these medieval songs were a country tradition and firmly pagan in origin.
The origins of carols lie firmly in agricultural superstition. Performed during the summer and at harvest time as well as midwinter, country people sang them as they went about the village, offering good wishes and blessings on individual households in return for food and drink. Often at midwinter, the carolers provided a wassail bowl full of ale in addition to their songs and blessings. Alternatively, carolers sang as they passed through the fields. Whether they sang at households or two the crops, the intention was the same: to drive away evil spirits with their singing.
13. Decking the Halls with Greenery was a Sign of Life during the Dead of Winter.
Christmas decorations these days take the form of tinsel, baubles or a variety of other artificial formats. However, the original Christmas decorations consisted of winter greenery and once again postdated the birth of Christ “Crowning the doors’, a reference to the practice of hanging evergreen vegetation around entrances was another pre-Christian custom that St Gregory Nazianzen warned against and with good reason. For right across Europe, from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean it was customary to ‘deck the halls’ with the boughs of any trees or plants with any semblance of life and color during midwinter. It was a custom that endured in northern Europe well into the early modern period and beyond.
In ancient Rome, December was the time when people decked temples with new foliage- particularly at the time of the month’s festivals. At Saturnalia and Brumalia, they wreathed their homes and public buildings with vines in honor of Bacchus as well as any other perennial greenery. For the ancient Egyptians, such greenery was not readily at hand. So they used palm leaves, a symbol of resurrection and rebirth as a midwinter decoration. The purpose of these evergreen decorations was to remind partygoers that even in the darkest months there was life- and to ward off evil.
12. Christmas Trees were an extension of this tradition of life amidst the death of winter.
One theory about the origin of the Christmas tree is that it has its roots in props from medieval mystery plays. The ‘paradise tree,’ constructed from a fir tree hung with apples, acted as a mock-up of the tree of knowledge in a favorite theatre production of the medieval period featuring Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. By the sixteenth or seventeenth century, similar trees began to appear in the doorways of German houses, decorated with apples or wafers- precursors of the more familiar baubles and cookies or chocolates.
As we have seen, evergreen garlands were traditionally fixed around doorways, to protect the entrances to buildings from evil spirits. In northern Europe, readily available fir boughs were a standard part of this arrangement. The position of early modern Christmas trees in the doorway of houses suggests they were a development of this earlier tradition of midwinter greenery. However, there is a suggestion that the Christmas tree in one form or another may be older still. The ancient Celtic tribes of Europe, as well as the Vikings and Saxons all venerated trees as symbols of life, tying offerings to their boughs.
11. Christmas wreaths are another form of Christmas greenery that celebrates the wheel of life.
Made from fir branches, holly, and ribbons, Christmas wreaths are, at first glance, a relatively late addition to the range of natural Christmas decorations. Surprisingly, they seem to have been introduced by Lutheran Protestants in the sixteenth century, who used the wreath’s circular shape to represent the eternal nature of Christ or the promise of life everlasting. Instead of hanging the wreath as a decoration, the Protestants used the wreath as an instructive symbol of Advent by studding it with candles to mark each week leading up to Christmas day.
So it could be said the modern advent calendar is ultimately a Lutheran invention. However, the materials used to make the Christmas or Advent wreath show it was of a pagan origin. This fact aside, wreaths were an ancient way of celebrating victory or protection long before the Christians. Indeed garlands formed part of the Saturnalia decorations that inform so many Christmas customs. Greenery aside, the circular shape of the wreath was an ancient symbol of protection. Today, Christmas wreaths are often found adorning front doors at Christmas, decorating rather than protecting, as they would have done in ancient times.
10. Holly was the symbol of the Pagan ‘King of Winter’- not the Blood of Christ.
With its spiked, glossy green leaves and bright red berries, Holly was a mainstay of medieval Christmas garlands and remains a perennial symbol of Christmas. To justify its association with the nativity, Christians devised stories that linked the use of holly to Christ. In one legend, a young shepherd boy made the newborn savior the gift of a small holly crown. However, after he placed his somewhat prickly present on the baby’s head, the child felt ashamed at his simplicity and so began to cry. His tears caught on the holly leaves- and when Jesus touched them, they turned into scarlet berries.
In a slightly more grizzly legend, Holly becomes the crown of thorns, with the redness of its berries due to Christ’s blood. This story explains the color of holly berries- but has nothing to do with Christmas. In fact, holly was the symbol of another, pagan king; the holly king who at midwinter battled with the oak king of the fading summer season- and won. Despite being a symbol of winter, the vibrant red and green of holly was also a potent symbol of life, as vivid colors stood out in the darkness of the midwinter season.
9. Ivy was the partnership plant of Holly. However, it was the symbol of death, not life.
At Christmas, Holly and Ivy are synonymous with each other. They regularly appeared together in churchwardens accounts for Christmas decorations from the middle ages onwards and in the nineteenth century were immortalized in the favorite carol “The Holly and the Ivy.” However, the meanings of these two Christmas favorites could not be more different. For, although ivy, like holly, was one of the rare plants that grew in winter, and in Christian symbolism stood as the Virgin Mary, the plant also stood for death, rather than life.
In carols older than “The Holly and the Ivy” Ivy was depicted as sad and female while the holly was vibrant and male. ” Holy and hys mery men, they dawnseyn and they syng, Ivy and hur maydyns, they wepen and they wryng, ” lamented an ancient carol recorded in Hone’s 1823 Ancient Mysteries Described. The qualities of life and death and warmth and cold as epitomized by these rhymes seem to suggest holly and ivy together were an ancient epitome of the fight for survival in the midst of the cold and darkness of winter.
8. Mistletoe was an ancient symbol of peace, reconciliation- and love.
Mistletoe was another plant, which, like holly, fruited in the depths of winter and so became regarded as a symbol of life. So profoundly embedded into Christmas was mistletoe that, even when prohibited, it was hard to dislodge from the Christian celebrations. An unnamed English botanist in the 1650s recorded how, despite Puritan prohibitions against Christmas mistletoe, it was carried many miles to set up in houses around Christmastime when it is adorned with a white glistening berry.
Historians can only date the practice of kissing under the mistletoe to the eighteenth century. However, links between mistletoe and romance are rooted in ancient history. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History records how druids harvested mistletoe from oak trees to brew antidotes to poison- and to aid fertility. Mistletoe was also sacred to the Norse goddess Frigga, the goddess of love. Norse warriors meeting opposing tribes to discuss peace would always lay down their arms under a bough of mistletoe. So even though mistletoe was a most pagan plant, its connotations of peace and love made it the perfect fit for the central Christian message of Christmas.
7. The Yule Log was lit to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun- and to keep fires burning while people partied.
Today, people enjoy Yule logs at Christmas as a chocolate dessert. However, in the times before Christmas trees and when an open fire was the only form of heat in winter, a Yule Log burning in the hearth was the centerpiece of the Christmas festivities. Robert Herrick, writing in England in the 1620s or ’30s described how gangs of young men introduced the Yule log to the house with great ceremony. It was hauled indoors, accompanied by song and toasted as the master of the house lit it with a piece of the previous year’s log as kindling.
None of this sounds very Christian- because it wasn’t. Some believed the Yule log was a hangover from Anglo Saxon fire ceremonies held at the Winter Solstice. However, the custom of the Yule log wasn’t exclusively Germanic- because it was found all over Europe. No one can say for sure what the symbolism of the Yule log was. Its light and the time of its burning at midwinter suggest it celebrated the returning power of the sun. Its ashes were also usually scattered across the fields, indicating it was believed to protect and enhance fertility for the year ahead. However, the Yule log could also have had a more prosaic purpose. For its sheer size made sure it would burn all day- meaning no one would have to rebuild the fire during the midwinter festivities.
6. Candles were lit to imitate the sun and Ward off Evil
Whether they are burned in churches or homes, in the times before electricity, candles were essential if an expensive way of ensuring adequate light in the darker months. Today, candles are still very much an emblem of Christmas and many people still light them as scented, atmospheric decorations-even though they are no longer strictly needed. However, in earlier times and other traditions, candles had an additional significance during Christmas and the midwinter season. Christians customarily lit candles in their windows to symbolically guide Jesus as he went from house to house on Christmas Eve. This candle lighting, however, was borrowed from earlier traditions.
Roman pagans used candles as miniature representatives of the reborn sun. The late fourth-century Christian writer Scriptor Syrus described the custom of the “kindled lights” that people used as part of the festivities for the rebirth of the sun around midwinter. Candles were also part of the Saturnalia when the Romans lit long wax tapers and gave them to guests as gifts or as offerings to Saturn. However, Christianity may not have borrowed all its candle lighting traditions from paganism. Many of the first Christians were Jewish, and midwinter is the time of the eight-day long Jewish festival of Hanukkah when celebrants light a candle every day.
5. The Giving of Gifts at Christmas has nothing to do with the Three Wise Men
Today, the giving of gifts is central to Christmas- and big business to boot. Although this over commerciality is often lamented by those who feel it detracts from the central message of the festival, presents have always been a part of the Christian celebrations-even if people didn’t give them on Christmas day. Up until the 1800s, it was customary to present gifts on New Years Day, close to Epiphany, when the magi presentation the infant Christ with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Those who could afford it used it as an excuse for giving lavish presents, while others gave donations of food and clothing to the poor St Nicholas’s Eve.
However, once again, pagans and present giving at midwinter went hand in hand. On December 23, the Romans held the festival of the Sigillaria, a day when particular markets were set up to sell sigilla, the pottery figures that along with wax candles were made as offerings to Saturn. As time went on, the Saturnalia celebrations absorbed the Sigillaria, and instead, Sigillaria markets became a place to buy Saturnalia gifts for loved ones and patrons. As of today, these gifts gradually became more and more opulent- and expensive, with many Romans spending more than they could afford.
4. The Lord of Misrule was a Popular Figure in the Middle Ages. However, he was a blatant hangover from Saturnalia.
During the Middle Ages, the Lord of Misrule was the King of Christmas. Whether in a manor house or the royal court, the Lord of Misrule dictated all feasts, dances, masquerades, and processions of mummers and musicians. Throughout the festivities, he sat crowned at the head of the table where he received the mock homage of his fellow revelers. Although people sometimes referred to the Lord as the Abbot of misrule’ no one pretended he was part of the Christian traditions of Christmas. For the Lord of Misrule was a blatant leftover from the Roman feast of Saturnalia.
A principal part of the Saturnalia festivities was the overturning of the social norm. Men dressed as women and visa versa. Slaves also received a holiday and swapped places with their owners who waited on them for the day. One of the salves of each household was appointed the Lord of the Feast. The Lord of the Feast acted as a personification of Saturn and as such was responsible for ensuring that everyone ate and drank too much and behaved foolishly. For one day, Rome went back to a golden age of idleness and plenty. It was a custom that was so deeply rooted; the Christian Christmas had to absorb it.
3. Father Christmas or Santa Claus Started Life as a Pagan God
Next to Jesus Christ, Father Christmas takes center stage of the Christmas celebrations. Today, he is celebrated as the central gift giver but in times gone by; he was a distillation of the spirit of Christmas. Christian tradition gives the original Father Christmas a saintly origin. He is St Nicholas, a benign and kindly Christian saint who in the fourth century was the Bishop of Myra in modern Turkey. As bishop, Nicholas gave out gifts to the poor and needy. This charitable act was recalled by the giving of gifts on December 6th, St Nicholas Day. The church commemorated the Bishop with the medieval custom of the boy bishop who was elected to reign over Christmas until December 28th.
However, there are plenty of pagan candidates for the original Father Christmas. The figure of Saturn himself is one, as is the god Odin who was reputed to drive a sleigh drawn by reindeers. The tradition of leaving mince pies and a glass of milk for Santa Claus also has its roots in the Scandinavian custom of making sacrifices to mark the coming of spring. Some of the other candidates are females, such as La Befana, the kindly Italian witch who delivered presents by broomstick or Frau Holle who gave women gifts at the winter solstice. Any or all of these pagan characters influenced the image of Father Christmas we have today.
2. New Year Celebrations were so Pagan that the Council of Tours banned them.
The first of January or New Year’s Day is as much a part of the Christmas festivities as Christmas Day itself. However, it wasn’t always the case. Most early societies- including ancient Rome originally marked the New Year with the beginnings of new life in the spring. The date changed in the Roman Empire when Julius Caesar established January as the start of the New Year. Caesar’s change made good sense. For January was the month of Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. It was also the month that the new political year opened when the new consuls took office and priests took the auspices.
January was also a quiet month agriculturally. Columella noted that farmers did not begin working the land again after the midwinter revels until January 13. However, they did use January 1stas a day for auspiciandi causa- a practical precursor of the New Year’s resolution. January 1st was also sacred to Janus and marked with more merrymaking, and gifts of honey, figs, pastries- and money. However, the Roman New Year was one feast the early church would not countenance. In 567AD, the Council of Tours abolished January 1stas New Year’s Day and named it the Feast of the Circumcision instead. However, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII re-established January 1st New Years’ day – and people have celebrated it ever since.
1. Christmas Day was the date of the Rebirth of the Sun before it was the Birthday of the Son of God.
No one knows when the birth of Jesus Christ took place. For the first two centuries of Christianity, no one cared, as early Christians focused more on the dates of the martyrdom of Christ and the saint. However, in 221AD, Sextus Julius Africanus became the first person to link the birth of Christ to December 25thand in 354AD, the date had become inscribed on the calendar of Philocalus in Rome. Over the next two centuries, the idea spread and Christians across the eastern and western empire began to accept December 25th as Christ’s birthday.
December 25th was chosen as the birthday of the Son of God because it was already the day of the rebirth of the sun. December 25th was the first-day people could appreciate increased light after the ‘sun standing still’ at the winter solstice. So, they marked the day as the birthdate of sun gods such as Mithras or the Sun god Sol Invictus: the victorious sun. So, the early church chose December 25 to ‘absorb’ the festivities surrounding these deities- and refocus them on the birth of Christ. While some Christians regarded this acquisition as a victory, others such as Augustine of Hippo had to keep reminding people it was the Son of God and not the sun they were worshipping.