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Christmas and paganism - A history of celebration and its roots

Updated on December 24, 2013

I have read many articles claiming that Christmas celebrations are nothing but continuation of pagan rituals and are truly non-christian in nature. Quite so, some people claim that all Christians are pagans and Christianity would not have survived if church had not adapted the rituals and feasts of the pagan masses. So what now is celebrated was also celebrated centuries ago in the same dates and same seasons of the year. This article speaks about why are Christians called as pro-pagan and followers of ancient beliefs by delving into the roots and speaking about from where and why it had originated.

An 1886 depiction of the long-bearded Germanic god Odin by Georg von Rosen


History of Santa

The short guy in the red suit with white fur lining on the outer is the famous personality who visits more than 24 million people on the earth on a single night delivering gifts and rewarding those with good deeds. This is what most Christians believe (especially kids). But as others would say, its a make belief only to make the eve interesting for kids and something to look forward too on a holiday. From where did this guy come?

He came from 4th century southwest Turkey. He was bishop of Myra and his name was Kris Kringle or as commonly known as Old Saint Nick. His death credited him as a patron of sailors, children and unmarried girls as well as a feasting on 6th day of December. Around the same time, celebration of the birth date of Jesus was stamped to be December 25th by Pope Julius I to serve two purposes - first to give a birthday to Jesus and second to Christianize the pagan midwinter festival. Saint Nicholas became Santa and the tradition of visiting homes and delivering gifts became a fantasy of every child as it gained acceptance in the popular culture. It was rather a move to spread Christianity among the masses who were more accustomed to assigning gods to everything that matter and then feasting on their relationships.

Naming Convention in Christian Calender and their Pagan Ritual Roots

Winter Solstice
Ostara (Spring Equinox)
Valentine's Day
May Day
Tyr's (Tiw's) Day
Woden's (Odin's) Day
Thor's Day
Freya's Day
Saturn's Day
Sun's Day
Moon's day

History of Christmas Tree

Christmas tree was not the cultivation of American culture but German. From 16th century, the tree was decorated with dry fruits and artificial flowers that later replaced by candles to make it for common man.

However, this also has pagan roots with one exception. In pagan culture Oak tree was used where as in popular christian culture, Fir tree is used. But this difference is a mere coincidence of survival. The story goes as: during one of the German pagan celebrations, the oak tree (which was a dedication to Thor) was burnt and with it it burned all the surrounding trees except the Fir. There onwards, it was thought that because Fir survived, it must be the will of God. Hence, the fir. Also, the triangular shape of fir illustrates Christian faith in trinity.

Christmas Tree
Christmas Tree
Christmas Tree decorations
Christmas Tree decorations

A concise account of origin of Christmas and its relative festivities

Stockings by chimeny
Stockings by chimeny

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History of Stockings by the chimeny

Chimney came into light with the publishing of " A Visit from Saint Nichola" in 1823 and later became as one of the important aspect of celebrating Christmas in American culture. Here are a few verses from the poem:

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of sugar plums danc'd in their heads,

by Clement Clarke Moore

Christmas ingredients and pagan manifestations

Pagan Manifestation
Yule celebrated for 12 days from 21st December to 1st January and ends with feast of Frey
Earliest reference is 1820 but has been linked to Saint Nicholas of 4th Century
Filled with food for Odin's flying horse Sleipnir and replaced by gifts
First appeared in 1823 in a poem
First referenced to 1844 term Christmas Gifts
Pagan god Odin flew flying horses
First appeared in 1823 in a poem
Christmas Tree
German pagan to commemorate Thor
16th century when Oak tree was replaced with fir illustrating triangular shape and trinity
Big Feast
Most early cultures celebrated Sun on December 25th and pagan roots to Solstice which is mid-winter festival
4th century by Pope Julius I
Mrs. Claus is the inventor of the tradition back in 1820's (a fictional character to give eminence to Santa)
Reindeer magic
Reindeer magic

History of Santa's Raindeers

Santa's reindeer were also noted first time in Moore's poem and the relevant portion follows:

when, what to to my wondering eyes should appear,
but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
with a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call'd them by name:
"Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer, and Vixen!
"On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donder and Blitzen!

"To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
"Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,

Accordingly, there were 9 reindeer herded by Santa. Similar to Odin's flying horse depiction.

History of Christmas feast

Feasts were common in pagan culture especially the mid winter that starts from late December and ended early January. Many scholars assets that the 12 days from 21st December to 1st january are actually linked to Solstice celebrated by pagans. It was also one of the assimilation tactics adopted by the church.

History of cookies for Santa

Cookies have pure Santa linkage. They are attributed to actually with Mrs. Claus. It was surprisingly fresh to know that something that is popular culture does not have pagan root. In fact, Mrs. Claus first appeared and imagined by James Rees in a short story "A Christmas Legend" published in 1849. She would make cookies and wrap gifts with elves in the story for Santa. So when the idea gained acceptance in the popular culture, a tradition of making cookies for Santa slated, to help poor Mrs. Claus and her elves. No wonder Santa has a fat tummy!

Cookies for Santa
Cookies for Santa
Christmas eve presents a traditional task of giving gifts
Christmas eve presents a traditional task of giving gifts

History of gifts on Christmas eve

This is a whole American tradition dating back to 1954 when the term "Christmas Eve's Gift" was used in Dictionary of American Regional English. The person using this term was supposed to be presented with a small gift of candy or nuts by the person to whom it has been said. However, the roots of this term dates back to 1844 when a similar term "Christmas Gift!" was used but meant the same thing. This is another deviation from paganism.

To conclude.....

Pagan or Christian, it is the dominant culture in Christian occupied parts of the world. People love celebrating them with zest and fervor and this makes them happy. To debate its authenticity must be left to religious scholars and I am not one of them. This article just explores the different aspects of Christmas and the relationship with pagan culture and popular culture.


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