16 Pagan Christmas Traditions that People Mistakenly Credit to Christianity

16 Pagan Christmas Traditions that People Mistakenly Credit to Christianity

Natasha sheldon - December 16, 2018

16 Pagan Christmas Traditions that People Mistakenly Credit to Christianity
Christmas Candle. Picture Credit: Tomasz Sienicki. Wikimedia Commons. E Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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.

16 Pagan Christmas Traditions that People Mistakenly Credit to Christianity
Christmas gifts. Picture Credit: Sigismund von Dobschütz. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International, 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.

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.

16 Pagan Christmas Traditions that People Mistakenly Credit to Christianity
The Lord of Misrule by Elbridge Streeter Brooks. c1887. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

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.

16 Pagan Christmas Traditions that People Mistakenly Credit to Christianity
Father Christmas as a personification of the Christmas spirit in The Illustrated London News of December 1847. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

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.

16 Pagan Christmas Traditions that People Mistakenly Credit to Christianity
Bust of the god Janus, Vatican museum, Vatican City. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

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.

16 Pagan Christmas Traditions that People Mistakenly Credit to Christianity
Adoration by the shepherds by Bronzino (1503-1572.) Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain


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.

Where Do We Get This stuff? Here are our sources:

Nine Christmas Customs with Pagan Roots, Patti Wigington, Learn Religions, June 18, 2017

Christmas, BBC, June 22, 2009

Lord of Misrule, Encyclopedia Britannica, August 13, 2015

Christmas tree, Encyclopedia Britannica, October 15, 2018

Chambers Dictionary of Beliefs and religions, ed Mark Vernon, Chambers, 2010

Chambers Book of Days, ed R Chambers, Chambers, 2004

Christmas wreaths, Christmas Forest

Stations of the Sun: A history of the Ritual Year in Britain, Ronald Hutton, 1996

Tree worship: why are our trees so sacred? Ed Cumming, The Telegraph, December 19, 2013

The Contest of the Ivy and the Holly, in Songs of the nativity by William Henry Husk, John Camden Hotten.

Ancient mysteries described: especially the English miracle plays, founded on apocryphal New Testament story, extant among the unpublished manuscripts in the British Museum: including notices of ecclesiastical shows. William Hone, London: W. Hone, 1823

Price, S, and Kearns, E. The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion- ed. Oxford University Press, 2003

Did the Romans invent Christmas? BBC: Religion and Ethics, December 17, 2012

St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, Encyclopedia Britannica, March 14, 2018

The Ancient Origins of New Years Celebrations, April Holloway, Ancient Origins, December 30, 2013

Did the Romans Invent Christmas? Matt Salusbury. History Today. 12 December 2009

Christmas Isn’t Christian: The Pagan Roots of The Winter Holiday. Wear Your Voice. Laurel Dickman. Dec 2, 2016

Christmas Wreaths Are a Classic Holiday Decoration with a Surprisingly Deep History. Time Magazine. KAT MOON. DECEMBER 21, 2018

10 Christian Holidays and Beliefs Steeped in Pagan Traditions. Larry Holzwarth. History Collection. July 12, 2018

Pagan Roots? 5 Surprising Facts About Christmas. Stephanie Pappas. Live Science. December 23, 2012

What Is the Significance of the Three Wise Men and Their Gifts? Robert Hampshire. Christianity. 1 December 2020

These Abysmal Christmases in History Make us Grateful for the Cringey Family Gatherings. Tim Flight. History Collection. December 25, 2018