The Pagan Origins of Christmas
Hidden Beginnings of Christmas
Christmas. 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 from all over the world.
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 brand of paganism. 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 which is the vernal equinox, 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 and elsewhere.
The Son is Born and the Sun is Reborn
If we examine what Christianity calls the birthday of Jesus and compare to ancient pagan beliefs, we notice a pattern. The Winter Solstice is the longest night of the year, but following this long darkness comes the sunlight. The days start to become longer and longer following the darkest night, and the sun is reborn. This is something the ancient pagans celebrated - the rebirth of the sun. The Church knew this very well and sought to transform this belief into a Christian belief in the "birth of the Son" (Sun). Can you see the clear correlation?
Pagan gods that were thought to be born near/during the Winter Solstice include: Mithra, Baldur, Horus, Osiris, Attis, Heracles, Dionysus, Adonis, and more. Some of these "sun" gods whose birthdays fall near or directly on the Winter Solstice were born to earth goddesses, some who were even thought to be virgins.
The sun has been at the center of human cults and traditions since the beginning of time. It was warming. Life-giving. Bright. Mysterious and awe-inspiring to the ancients. These pagan gods were merely a humanization of the sun itself. Isn't it funny how in Christianity Jesus is referred to as the Son of God, and these pagan gods were Sun gods? Perhaps this is no coincidence but a reflection of older, pagan customs that we as human beings can't erase from our identities. Something we carry in our DNA from our most primal, ancient ancestors.
Pagan Origins of the Christmas Tree, Yule Log, and More
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. Caroling has its roots in mumming, a tradition in which people would go from house to house and bless the inhabitants with their voices and sometimes dramatic acts. These customs were also performed to keep away the evil spirits in the next year and bring abundance and joy to the household.
Santa Claus' Origins: Saint Nicholas, the Wild Hunt, and a Christmas Witch
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, 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 of which did not condone the reverence 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.
There are also correlations to ancient pagan gods and goddesses who would "fly" over households during the Christmas season in a folkloric belief called the Wild Hunt. Odin and his trusty steed, Sleipnir, are thought to be one of the preliminaries to the Santa Claus tradition. Odin, a norse pagan god, even resembles Santa Claus with white hair and long white beard. The Germanic people would leave offerings on the rooftops for one of the Wild Hunt's leaders - Odin, Berchta, Berchtold, and Holda. Berchta and Holda were female spirits said to determine whether someone had been good or bad and bless or punish depending on. A similar belief in Italy known as the Christmas witch La Befana echoes ancient origins of Santa Claus. This witch is said to fly around on Christmas, delivering presents to good children and coal or sticks to the bad children.
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 what we have and for those we love.
© 2010 Kitty Fields