Christmas pagan origins have become a popular, if controversial topic in modern times. These theories have been often rejected by Christians, but are extremely popular topics of conversation none-the-less. So what are the true roots of the biggest festival on the Christian Calendar? Has it been as simple a matter as substituting the name of one religion or practice with another? What, if any, are the pagan origins of Christmas?
One thing is a simple matter. We celebrate Christmas on 25th December all over the Christian world. But belief in this being the actual day that Jesus Christ was born has waned and has been replaced with a curiosity as to why this day should have been chosen. After all, it isn’t the exactly the nicest time of year!
It seems that this date wasn’t randomly chosen at all, but in fact comes from the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Known to the Romans as Saturnalia, it was held on the 25th of December to mark the end of the long, dark nights of winter and look forward to longer, brighter days. It was considered to be the ‘rebirth of the sun’ – the sun having conquered throughout the hardships of winter.
To the Germanic people, this was known as Yule (and in old English probably geol) which was originally celebrated from late December to early January. When the Julian calendar was introduced, this then became standardised as the 25th of December. A log was burned on this day to honour the return of the sun. There is a theory that states that this tradition was carried out for 12 nights and that this is behind the tradition of the 12 days of Christmas, although a more plausible theory suggests that there was a 12 day gap between the 2 halves (or tides) of the year in the Anglo Saxon calendar.
Also worth considering, is that 25th December comes exactly 9 months after 25th March. At this time spring is celebrated and the land once again becomes rich, abundant and fertile. Christians know this date as Annunciation, the day that Mary was visited and told that she would soon be bearing Jesus. Similarities here hardly need stating!
So, how did these pagan traditions get absorbed into Christmas? Frankly, because the people were not prepared to them go. After many unsuccessful attempts to outlaw the festivities, the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to amalgamate the 2 traditions in the hope that the Christian stories would eventually prevail.
However, it hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride for the myriad Christmas pagan origins we’ve seen so far. Some Christians have taken issue with the ‘heathen’ origins of the Christmas tree – the symbol that has become synonymous with Christmas itself. The story has it that pagans brought evergreen trees into their homes to represent the fact that life would return to the land again soon. The fir tree was known throughout Northern Europe as the World Tree and was highly revered, featuring in stories and lore of the time. It is likely that this is behind the incorporation of the Christmas tree to our modern celebrations.
Some dispute this, believing it unlikely that the pagans would have participated in something as destructive as this. However, it is certain that the tradition of bringing in greenery, such as holly and mistletoe, to decorate the home was popular over most of Europe.
Such decorations may actually be the crossing over of 2 traditions of pagan origin. It was actually New Year that was known for being celebrated by decorating the home with greenery and also the exchanging of gifts so it’s possible that this was just ‘brought forward’ a bit to cater for Christmas Day.
One Christmas tradition of pagan origins that hardly anybody would dispute though is mistletoe – it bears all the right hallmarks! Representing fertility, the tradition of kissing under a sprig has changed hardly at all, but it is oddly considered entirely harmless in modern times and has managed to escape being given an alternative story.
Believing Christmas to have pagan origins isn’t an entirely modern phenomena either. The English puritans banned it in 1647, for this very reason. But riots ensued, such was its popularity, and the people carried on with their traditional celebrations regardless.
So, what remains of the original pagan tradition around this time of year? How would you celebrate if you were to go back to the original roots of the celebrations? It was customary to decorate the fir tree with quartz crystals, dried apples and cranberries as well as to gather family and friends for a feast. For anyone tempted to over-indulge on the mince pies, I will leave you with one final Christmas tradition of pagan origins. It is good luck to eat one a day over the 12 days of Christmas, but sadly more will cancel the good luck out!
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FrancescaTags: christianity, Christmas, origins, pagan, wicca, wiccan