The Origin of Christmas - Is it Pagan?

The Origin of Christmas: Is it Pagan & Does this Matter?

When you think about Christmas-time, most people would associate the word ‘Christmas’ with Christianity. But, as you delved deeper into the origin of Christmas you will find some things that may surprise you! Nowadays Christmas is viewed more as a worldwide commercial phenomenon but, no matter where you are in the world, people will still say that Christmas is as a sacred, religious holiday. In fact, it is one of the oldest observed traditions we have (think along the lines 2 millennia!).

Although the origin of Christmas does leave many confused, let’s once and for all clear up any confusion as to where this holiday comes from and why many people from all over the world, love it so much. Also, if you are interested in learning about the origin of Christmas I have written an article, CLICK HERE to read.

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HOW DID THE CELEBRATION OF CHRISTMAS BEGIN?

Mid-winter has long been a time of celebration around the world. This was even the case many centuries before the arrival of Jesus. Ancient Europeans for example, celebrated the light and return of the Sun in the darkest days of winter. This time as we know, is the winter solstice. The winter solstice is when the days slowly begin to get lighter and longer. Its when people start counting down the days to the spring equinox. Now lets take a look at some of the pagan traditions from different cultural points of view, to highlight the origin of the ‘Christmas’ traditions and, to take a look at where and how they came to be what they are today.

CHRISTIAN VIEW POINT OF THE ORIGIN OF CHRISTMAS

Christmas Day for Christians is viewed the anniversary of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth their spiritual leader whose teachings they used to form the basis of their religion. Christian customs include exchanging gifts, decorating Christmas trees, attending church, sharing meals with family and friends and, waiting for Santa Claus to arrive with presents. On Christmas, Christian believers attended church, then celebrate raucously in a festive, party-like atmosphere.

NOTE: The officially recognized days for Christmas are December 24th (Christmas Eve) and December 25th (Christmas Day).

In the early years of Christianity, it was actually Easter which was the main holiday. Christians back then did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. It wasn’t until the 4th century, that church ‘officials’ decided to introduce the birth of Jesus as a holiday.

But, as some of you may already know, the Bible does not mention a date for Jesus’s birth. There is no evidence that Jesus was born in mid-winter. There is, however, some evidence to suggest that his birth may have happened in the spring (as this is when shepherds would be herding their flocks!). So why would they say he was born in the middle of winter i hear you say? Well, it was Pope Julius I who chose December 25th for the date of Jesus’s birth. It is commonly believed that this date was chosen in a big attempt to absorb and ‘adopt’ the pagan traditions which were already established and practiced by Pagans during this time.

The Church thought this was a very clever move. Their idea was to hold Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals. They believed that this would increased their chances of ‘Christmas’ becoming widely accepted and embraced by all. And they were right. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had largely replaced the traditional pagan practices.

NOTE: Initially Christmas was called the ‘Feast of the Nativity’ which spread to Egypt and on to England by the end of the 6th century. 

A Christian View Point of Christmas Jesus

A Christmas similarity to Halloween:

If you remember from my article, The Origin of Trick-Or-Treat, we talked about an activity that is very similar to something that used to be done during Christmas time. Each Christmas, a poor person would be crowned the “Lord of Misrule or Abbot of Unreason” and appointed to be in charge of Christmas partying (think of lots of drunkenness and wild partying). The groups of poor people would then go to the houses of the ‘rich’ and demand their very best food and drink. Not everyone would comply. If they did not give them food and drink, the poor party-ers would terrorize them with mischief.

NORSE VIEW POINT OF THE ORIGIN OF CHRISTMAS

In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21st, which is the date of the winter solstice. Their celebrations carried all the way through January in the acknowledgement that the Sun will return. To celebrate recognition of this, the men of the families would go out and bring home large logs (Yule logs). They would then set the log on fire. Everyone would feast until the log burned out. This could take as long as 12 days.

Because most of their cattle would be slaughtered before the winter began (around Samhain) for many people it was the only time of year when they had the best supply of fresh meat! With the addition of their finally fermented beers and wines, it was the perfect time to hold the greatest feast of good foods and delicious beers and wines which they had been patiently waiting to be ready for drinking. The word ‘Yule’, for example, derives from a Viking festival which was held to encourage optimism and good luck during the depths of winter.

NOTE: The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year which was a big deal back then.

Yule Log Norse View Point of Christmas

The sneaking in of Christianity to replace winter solstice pagan traditions

According to Haakon the Good (the 10th Century King of Norway) he deliberately used the Yule celebrations to sneak in the teachings of the Christian faith. This was because he had been raised as a Christian in England. Haakon practiced Christianity in secret because the Norse lands of Scandinavia of which he returned to, was pagan. What he did to change things was establish laws that stated that the Yule celebration was to happen at the same time as the Christian customs. This saw the beginning of the ‘merge’.

Basically, he (Haakon) turned celebrations from a winter solstice festival into a celebration of Jesus. The Haakon saga goes onto to say that before Yule was celebrated on midwinter night, the King coaxed those who were his nearest and dearest to him into becoming Christians.

The Yule log itself is a relic of those long-lost days. Although today we tend to think of it as a big, delicious cake confectionery, Yule logs were originally real, actual logs. Its origins are uncertain, but we do know it was traditionally burnt on a fire to bring good luck.

Mistletoe and Loki – A Christmas pagan origin tradition

Another symbolic reminder of the pre-Christian pagan tradition is the use of mistletoe. This is a Norse myth involving the infamous trickster god Loki. Here’s how the story goes:

Another god called Baldr was driven to paranoia by visions of his own death. His mother, goddess Frigg, made every earthly object vow never to harm him. And so Baldr became known for his invincibility, until Loki turned up and fashioned a weapon out of mistletoe, the one thing which hadn’t made the vow. Baldr was killed, and Frigg’s tears of woe were caught on the mistletoe’s branches, turning into the white, pearl-like berries, symbolizing her love for him.

NOTE: Mistletoe use was started by the Druids who believe it is an all-powerful healing plant, a gift from the sacred oak tree.

ROMAN VIEW POINT OF THE ORIGIN OF CHRISTMAS

Within the Roman Empire, a holiday in honor of Saturn who is the god of agriculture was celebrated. This is called Saturnalia. Very much like the Christian celebration, they consume lots of food and drinks during this period. It was a time to break peoples daily routines and let go and enjoy themselves. It was a very self indulgent time. Businesses and schools were closed so everyone could join in the festivity. Saturnalia had all the hype and excitement we associate with Christmas today. The festivities also saw houses decked out in evergreen-greenery, the exchanging of gifts, candle lighting, and singing.

Saturnalia is a classic example of a winter solstice festival. The Christmas tree is a descendant of the evergreen used by Romans during Saturnalia, and many other pagan traditions which involved some type of tree worship during winter solstice. This is because the evergreen has always represented new life to all the ancient civilizations that have gone before us, a beacon of hope in the midst of darkness and despair in the winter months.

NOTE: Pagan winter solstice celebrations were created to bring good cheer in the season of long nights and, to mark the sense of renewal and rejuvenation, celebrating the return of the Sun and longer, brighter days.

One celebration that might ring a few bells for Christians is the winter solstice festival called Juvenalia. It was a feat the Romans celebrate in honor of the children of Rome and the birthday of Mithra (Mithra is a Sun God). Mithra is the infant solar god, and celebration of his birthday which is commonly agreed on to be December 25th, was seen as the most sacred day of the year by many. It marked the return of the light.

NOTE: The ancient Romans had their own words for Yule which were: Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. This translates to the birthday of the inconquerable Sun.

AMERICA VIEW POINT OF THE ORIGIN OF CHRISTMAS

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented their own Christmas. They thought that Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday celebrated to bring groups together across the lines of wealth or social status.

NOTE: Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday in America until June 26, 1870.

The story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ sent a powerful message which got across to the importance of charity and good will towards all in the United States and England. It showed people the benefits of celebrating the holiday. As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed as they began to incorporate more and more pagan traditions into their celebrations.

In the following years that came, the American people built a ‘Christmas tradition’ all of their own. They took bits and pieces from other cultures and traditions and customs which included decorating ever-green trees and the giving of gifts and therefore re-inventing a holiday to fill their cultural needs at the time.

WICCA AND WITCHCRAFT VIEW POINT OF THE ORIGIN OF CHRISTMAS

The winter solstice is a very important time in Wicca and for those who practice witchcraft as it is the astronomical alignment of the Sun which entails specific yule based rituals, celebrations and spiritual traditions. The winter solstice usually falls on the 21st or 22nd December.

NOTE: Yule comes from the Old English ‘geol’ which refers to Christmas Day or Christmastide and, 2) the Old Norse ‘jol’ which refers to a heathen feast of 12 days. Yule is an informal term used for Christmas which started in the mid 1800’s, with some believing the word means jolly or joy.

Decima, a Roman goddess of who is believed to have the role of measuring out the life-line of people with the ability to decide what they will get in life (achievements, wealth etc.) and how long they will live. Decima is thought to be the personification of the present real-time death and rebirth nature of what is the winter solstice.

Depending on your specific practices, Yule holds specific mythological cycles associated with deities or the return of the light. Myths and stories about mid-winter have been a common and ever present theme throughout the entire world’s varying cultures and traditions and are the fabric on which a lot of Wiccan and witchcraft practices are based, with it being very ‘Mother centered’ (birthing, giving life etc.). The Saxons used the term Modranicht which translates to ‘Night of the Mothers’ which was a pagan mid-winter celebration which the Saxons later changed to Christmas Eve.

Goddesses associated with this time of year are:

  • Frigg (Norse) – the goddess of winter who is strongly associated with the winter solstice
  • Holda (German) – the goddess of Christmas and bringer of fertility and prosperity
  • Cailleach (Celtic) – the divine old-one/crone who rules the winter from Samhain (Oct 31) till Beltane (May 1)
  • Skadi (Scandinavian) – the goddess of winter who controls the winter weather
  • Alcyone (Greek) – the goddess who appears in the kingfisher form and nests every winter for 2 weeks believed to bring clam to the seas.
  • Bona Dea (Roman) – the winter goddess of abundance and prophecy and fertility

Other notable women who have a special tie to Christmas are St. Lucy, who was a Roman/Greek woman who for unknown reasons became a Christian martyr. She is celebrated on December 13th with her festival considered a festival of lights in mid-winter. Also, not forgetting Befana. Befana is an Italian Witch who gives gifts to children on January 5th.

NOTE: A ‘myth’ is a folkloric term for a story that a culture holds sacred in terms of its origin and is regarded as highly important to be retold and passed down from generation to generation.

Gods associated with this time of year are:

Traditions of a winter King around the winter solstice go back to the ancient celebrations of the sun’s rebirth. The ancients viewed the sun as a male deity, celebrating the birth of the unconquered Sun around the winter solstice.

  • Apollo (Roman) – the reigning solar god
  • Lugh (Irish) – a solar deity shown with solar imagery and celebrations
  • Mithras (Roman/Persian) – a legend born from a rock, a solar deity a.k.a. sol invictus (the unconqured son)
  • Saturn (Roman) – a sun god of agriculture
  • The Green King (Anglo-Saxon) – the archetypal Green Man, the incarnate spirit of winter
  • The Oak King (Celtic) – defeats the Holly King at mid-winter, the battle between the forces of dark and light, a cycle that must be maintained and continued to keep life going

OTHER TRADITIONS THAT LINE UP WITH CHRISTMAS

As you can see the origin of Christmas has clearly come for the pagan celebration of the winter solstice which has been, and still is, celebrated in many cultures and featured in many traditions all over the world. Here are some more notable pagan or otherwise celebrations that happen in the month of December:

  • Festival of Lights
  • Shab-e Yalda festival
  • Dongzhi festival
  • Mi na Nollag
  • Aerra Geola
  • Heilagmanoth

CONCLUSION

It is very interesting to collectively see the various pagan traditions from which the Christian’s worldwide commercial Christmas originated from. You can see the Church changed the concept of the birth of the Sun (as in the Sun in the sky) will return, into the birth of the ‘son’ their Jesus Christ. They merged the notion of the Sun/Son, the bringer of life and light into the world. This is why the birth of Jesus was established in December and not Springtime; because most pagans were already celebrating the return of the light of the world at the winter solstice. It was already an ingrained custom for Pagans to celebrate December 25th as the birthday of the infant Sun God Mithra.

The shared consciousness of our distant pagan ancestors was to celebrate the winter solstice. Christmas is from pagan origin. This doesn’t mean that if you are Christian you cannot take part in your favorite feast. It is good to know where your traditions come from. It can give you a more grounded sense of belonging and being present in the education of where your traditions originate from. We all have our own adapted traditions and rituals. Embrace your pagan ancestry. We have much to learn and thank them for. Blessed be.

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