“It’s a mistake to say that our modern Christmas traditions come directly from pre-Christian paganism. you’d be equally wrong to believe that Christmas is a modern phenomenon. As Christians spread their religion into Europe in the first centuries A.D., they ran into people living by a variety of local and regional religious creeds.”
~ Ronald Hutton, Historian at Bristol University in the United Kingdom.
“Christian missionaries lumped all of these people together under the umbrella term pagan.”
~ Philip Shaw, who researches early Germanic languages and Old English at Leicester University in the U.K.
Early Christians wanted to convert pagans, but they were also fascinated by their traditions. Christians of that period are quite interested in paganism. It’s obviously something they think is a bad thing, but it’s also something they think is worth remembering. It’s what their ancestors did. That’s why pagan traditions remained even as Christianity took hold. The Christmas tree is a 17th-century German invention, but it clearly derives from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter. The modern Santa Claus is a direct descendent of England’s Father Christmas, who was not originally a gift-giver. However, Father Christmas and his other European variations are modern incarnations of old pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter.
The two most notable pagan winter holidays were Germanic Yule and Roman Saturnalia. Christian missionaries gave these holidays a makeover and they are now known to us as Christmas:
Saturnalia was a lawless, drunken time in Rome where literally anything was okay. This was the original Purge, in which laws were suspended for a brief stretch of time. Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, liberation and time, was celebrated at what is perhaps the most famous of the Roman festivals, the Saturnalia, It was a time of feasting, role reversals, free speech, gift-giving and revelry. (i.e.: gender-bending sex, drinking, telling people off, trading gifts and doing whatever you want). After solstice, the darkest night of the year, the renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.
Scholars have connected the Germanic and Scandanavian celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht. Yule-tide was traditionally celebrated during the period from mid-November to mid-January. Nordic countries use Yule to describe their own Christmas with its religious rites, but also for the holidays of this season. Present-day customs such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from the original pagan Yule, but are used in Christmas celebrations now, especially within Europe. As leaders were baptized and converted, they shifted their traditional celebrations covertly, as not to upset the Chieftains. Yule was traditionally celebrated three days after midwinter, but shifted to reflect Christian dates. Modern Wiccans and other neopagan religions often celebrate Yule as well. In most forms of Wicca, it’s celebrated at winter solstice as the rebirth of the Great horned hunter god, who is viewed as the newborn solstice sun. Some celebrate with their covens while others celebrate at home.
Why this fixation on partying in midwinter, anyway? According to historians, it’s a natural time for a feast. In an agricultural society, the harvest work is done for the year, and there’s nothing left to be done in the fields. It’s a time when you have some time to devote to your religious life. It’s also a period when, frankly, everyone needs cheering up. The dark days that culminate with the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, could be lightened with feasts and decorations.
“If you happen to live in a region in which midwinter brings striking darkness and cold and hunger, then the urge to have a celebration at the very heart of it to avoid going mad or falling into deep depression is very, very strong.”
~ Ronald Hutton
“Even now when solstice means not all that much because you can get rid of the darkness with the flick of an electric light switch, even now, it’s a very powerful season.”
~ Stephen Nissenbaum, Author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist “The Battle for Christmas”
Without a Biblical directive to celebrate Jesus’s birthday and no mention of it in the Gospels of the correct date, it wasn’t until the fourth century that church leaders in Rome embraced the holiday. At this time many people had turned to a belief the Church found heretical: That Jesus had never existed as a man, but as a sort of spiritual entity. If you want to show that Jesus was a real human being just like every other human being, not just somebody who appeared like a hologram, then what better way to think of him being born in a normal, humble human way than to celebrate his birth?”
Midwinter festivals, with their pagan roots, were already widely celebrated, and the date had a pleasing philosophical fit with festivals celebrating the lengthening days after the winter solstice.
“O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born…Christ should be born.
~ Thaschus Cæcilius Cyprianus (c. 200 – September 14, 258 AD) Bishop of Carthage
In the 16th century, Christmas became a casualty of this church schism, with reformist-minded Protestants considering it little better than paganism. This likely had something to do with the “raucous, rowdy and sometimes bawdy fashion” in which Christmas was celebrated. In England under Oliver Cromwell, Christmas and other saints’ days were banned, and in New England it was illegal to celebrate Christmas for about 25 years in the 1600s. Forget people saying, “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” If you want to look at a real ‘War on Christmas,’ you’ve got to look at the Puritans, they banned it!
While gift-giving may seem inextricably tied to Christmas, it used to be that people looked forward to opening presents on New Year’s Day. They were a blessing for people to make them feel good as the year ends. It wasn’t until the Victorian era of the 1800s that gift-giving shifted to Christmas. According to the Royal Collection, Queen Victoria’s children got Christmas Eve gifts in 1850, including a sword and armor. In 1841, Victoria gave her husband, Prince Albert, a miniature portrait of her as a 7-year-old; in 1859, she gave him a book of poetry by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Let’s take on some of the traditions:
Almost every culture has someone like Santa Claus. He’s primarily based on St. Nicholas, a Fourth Century Lycian bishop from modern-day Turkey. One story says that he met a kind, impoverished man who had three daughters. St. Nick presented all three of them with dowries so that they weren’t forced into a life of prostitution, as dowries were expected to “pay off” families to take on the daughters. Sinterklaas is the Dutch figure and Odin is the Norse god that Santa resembles. It wasn’t just Santa or men who did the gift-giving in those myths. There’s also the legend of La Befana, a kind Italian woman who leaves treats for children on the “Good” list, and the Germanic Frau Holle, who treats women during Solstice.
While people rarely show any excitement around the fruit-laden cakes these days, they were a real treat in times of yore. The cakes actually have origins in Egypt and were later disseminated by the Romans as they conquered parts of Europe. Those cakes of Egypt were just about as dense and long-lasting as the brandied, fruit-studded cakes of today. Egyptians placed cakes of fermented fruit and honey on the tombs of their deceased loved ones so that they’d have something to munch on in the afterlife. Romans took similar cakes into battle made of mashed pomegranates and barley. Christians went into the crusades with honeycakes. Fruitcakes are everywhere, no matter how hard you try to avoid them.
Caroling actually began as the Germanic and Norse traditions of wassailing. Wassailers went from home to home, drunk off of their asses, singing to their neighbors and celebrating their “good health.” The traditional wassail beverage was a hot mulled cider, spiked with alcohol or fermented.
Mistletoe was considered a magical plant in Europe, especially among the Druids and Vikings, and holds significance in Native American cultures. Mistletoe is no modern quirk of Christmas, even Romans partook in fertility rituals beneath the mistletoe. Mistletoe stood as a neutral ground for feuding Norse tribes, who laid down their weapons in order to negotiate beneath the peace plant. The Druids thought it could protect them from thunder and lightning, as well. Whether you’ve got the urge to make out, hide from a storm or talk it out, beware as mistletoe is super poisonous.
Romans loved wreaths and decorated everything with Laurel. Holly, ivy and evergreen are the more popular modern options today, and each one holds significance. Egyptians didn’t have evergreens, so they used palm fronds to celebrate Winter Solstice. Christians love holly because the red berries symbolize the blood of Christ and the pointy leaves symbolize the crown of thorns. However, the advent of holly decor was around long before Christianity. Pre-Christian pagan groups believed that the Holly King did battle with the Oak King. They also thought holly could drive off evil spirits. Romans, of course, were into laurel wreaths, but laurel was not easily procured throughout the northern reaches of the empire. Instead of laurel, they used evergreens.
All of this gift-giving and revelry, along with the secular embrace of Christmas, now has some religious groups upset. The consumerism of Christmas shopping seems, to some, to contradict the religious goal of celebrating Jesus Christ’s birth. In some ways excessive spending is the modern equivalent of the revelry and drunkenness that made the Puritans frown. There’s always been a push and pull, and it’s taken different forms. It might have been alcohol then, and now it’s these glittering toys.