The Pagan Origins of Christmas
The Untold Beginnings of Christmas
Christmas. It is a holiday that many families in America look forward to every year. And every year, immediately following Thanksgiving, one can hear Christmas music blowing up the radiowaves, see a plethora of Christmas movies on the tube, enjoy driving by houses lit up like the fourth of July, and partake in the gift-giving and receiving that quite often overtakes this holiday’s original meanings. Christmas as we know it today has obvious roots in Christianity, as well as lesser known roots in pre-Christian paganism and ancient cultures.
First, let us examine the root of the word Christmas . It is obvious that this word is Christian, the first syllable being Christ and the second being mas (mas means Mass, which was originally a Catholic celebration of the Eucharist). The United States officially celebrates Christmas on December 25th, which most churches claim to be the birth date of Christ; however, this is merely a speculation. The true birthday of Christ has been debated for many years, with scholars claiming Christ’s birth occurred in September and others arguing that his birth was most likely in the early summer months. One date is for certain, the year of 354 AD, the year that the Western world began to celebrate December 25th as a Christian holiday…Christmas. What most do not realize is that December 25th teeters very closely to the date of the pre-Christian Pagan holidays celebrating the Winter Solstice. Modern day pagans celebrate this holiday as Yule, Jul, Midwinter, or Saturnalia depending on which type of paganism is followed. A theory that explains why Christmas is celebrated on December 25th is that the Christians set this date to ease the transition of conversion of the pagans to the Christian ways. Interestingly, this exact pagan conversion process can be researched and linked with other holidays, including Easter and All Saints Day. (Easter being close to a pagan holiday called Ostara and All Saints Day immediately following Samhain or All Hallows Eve).
Although Christmas is predominantly considered a christian holiday, some of the pagan traditions are unknowingly still kept alive in every Christmas celebrating home and business across the United States.
How Christmas Came to Be What It Is Today
The Christmas tree is one element of Christmas that actually bears its roots in pre-christian beliefs. In the times of the Celts, particularly in the British Isles and Ireland, live trees were decorated with ribbons and other talismans in celebration of the Winter Solstice (which signified the rebirth of the Sun). It was not until the mid 19th century that an inside christmas tree was erected and decorated by a christian man. That christian man was actually Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland Ohio. Without shame or fear, Pastor Schwan erected a christmas tree within his church and was condemned by many elders of the church...but to no avail because now a large number of christian and non-christian homes all across the US and other countries set up and embellish christmas trees annually as a symbol of the christmas spirit. Alternatively, Christians could argue that the Christmas tree has its roots in early Christianity, as it has been documented that early christians would hang evergreen boughs in and around their homes to symbolize everlasting life.
Other traditions with origins in "paganism" include the yule log, yule fire, and yule singing. The yule log and yule fire burned to symbolize the sun's ever-awaited return after many nights of cold, increasing darkness.
And how about Santa Claus? Where the heck did that jolly, old fat man come from? Santa Claus is actually a highly stretched (literally in one sense of the word) derivative of Bishop or "Saint" Nicholas. The very first Europeans that came to the New World, more notedly the later-Catholic Vikings and Columbus, brought Saint Nicholas to America for a short period in time. Saint Nicholas had some difficulty sticking around during the colonization of the New World, as most of the colonies were puritan or protestant colonies and these two types of religion did not carry the belief of saints as this was generally a Catholic rite.
Saint Nicholas was brought back to the public's ears and eyes by the Dutch in New Amsterdam (now New York), specific documentation can be found in John Pintard's Knickerbocker's History of New York written in 1851. A "jolly St. Nicholas character" was mentioned in this work, and also in the most famous "The Night Before Christmas". These melancholy and bright works assisted in the evolution of Saint Nicholas into today's Santa Claus. Where did the more well-known name of Santa Claus come from? Santa Claus is the Dutch's "Sinterklaas", which generally means the good saint. Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of children, so you can draw a conclusion as to how the story of Santa Claus all ties together.
Behind the majority of our holiday traditions, there is a truly collective and intriguing story to be told...especially in the country of the United States. The United States is considered a melting pot and Christmas is just another example of how people from different walks of life can come together and unknowingly make one holiday a union of beliefs and traditions. Stuck in a raucous of fancy gadgets and baubles, loud toys and travelers, and pointless media coverage...let us not forget the real meaning of this holiday season...to be thankful for this country and for those that we love.