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The Pagan Origins of Christmas

Updated on December 8, 2017
kittythedreamer profile image

Kitty has extensively studied the history, traditions, and celebration of ancient and modern holidays.

Christmas has its roots in ancient pagan holidays like the winter solstice, still celebrated by druids at stonehenge to this day.
Christmas has its roots in ancient pagan holidays like the winter solstice, still celebrated by druids at stonehenge to this day. | Source

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.

Winter was a dark and scary time for our ancient ancestors, so celebrating the sun's return was a must to keep spirits and hopes high.
Winter was a dark and scary time for our ancient ancestors, so celebrating the sun's return was a must to keep spirits and hopes high. | Source

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.

The tradition of Santa Claus is a mixture of ancient customs and newer Christian customs.
The tradition of Santa Claus is a mixture of ancient customs and newer Christian customs. | Source
Odin is a pagan norse god who rode a white horse through the skies and closely resembles Santa Claus.
Odin is a pagan norse god who rode a white horse through the skies and closely resembles Santa Claus. | Source

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 be thankful for what we have and for those we love.

© 2010 Kitty Fields


Submit a Comment

  • IphisIanthe profile image


    4 years ago from Indiana

    By far it is the kindest background story I have read so far. Thank you.

  • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

    Kitty Fields 

    7 years ago from Summerland

    Hey, fluffy77! I must have missed this comment from you. Christmas beginnings is a special and well-hidden secret to many! Most people don't know that the trees used to be decorated by Pagans, long before Christians and modern peoples placed ornaments and lights on them! Thanks for commenting. You rock!

  • Fluffy77 profile image


    7 years ago from Enterprise, OR

    Very true, many people are totally unaware of some of these facts. I only knew of them from my Grandparents first, then research online. This, is great info. to share. We should all try to become more enlightened people, were at all possible these days.

  • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

    Kitty Fields 

    8 years ago from Summerland

    hey, beachfinn. you rock....thanks for the info. and for the vote up! :) Have a blasty blast in Aruba.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    Very nice write up!

    The tree comes from Celtic and Scandinavian pagan rites of hanging evergreens indoors during Solstice/Jul. BTW solstice in Julian calendar is on the 25th in the Gregorian calendar; hence the connection to 25th :)

    Merry Zagmuk/Saturnalia/Poseidia/Larentian/Bruma to all....

  • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

    Kitty Fields 

    8 years ago from Summerland

    Hmm...that's interesting, I'll have to look further into the history of the Christmas Tree! Thanks, Dolores! Also, thanks for voting my hub it seems some have been voting it down. :(

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    8 years ago from East Coast, United States

    Voted up! Great Christmas background. One religion or another, these holidays have meant something special to people for a long time. I have read that the Christmas tree was first introduced to Christianity by Martin Luther, then popularized by Prince Albert who was German.

  • kittythedreamer profile imageAUTHOR

    Kitty Fields 

    8 years ago from Summerland

    well, thank you Nell Rose! Can't wait to read some more of your hubs, as well. :)

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 

    8 years ago from England

    Hi, Great explanation of the Christmas traditions, there are so many pagan /Christianity traditions that we just automatically think of them as Christian. but of course you are right, especially the Christmas tree! really interesting thanks nell


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