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The Heathen Roots of Christmas

Updated on December 26, 2017
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Sometimes, it seems that our lives revolve around the holidays rather than some ordinary job or mundane career that we might have.

Elves Often Appear Around Christmas Time

This elf was spotted in Ogden, Utah, photo by author
This elf was spotted in Ogden, Utah, photo by author

A Mishmash of Holidays

No doubt about it, Christmas is the biggest holiday in the Western world. It is definitely the one where we spend the most money and if you happen to be one of those lucky souls, who can keep the celebration going through the New Year's holiday, it is also our longest holiday.

If you take a closer look at how the holiday evolved, this may not be so surprising, for Christmas is the embodiment of many different traditions, which are employed at the same time that we honor the birth of Jesus of Nazarath.

Christmas Window Displays

Many merchants go all out with their Christmas displays, like this window at Macy's in NYC
Many merchants go all out with their Christmas displays, like this window at Macy's in NYC | Source

That December 25th Thing

Christmas has been celebrated on 25th going back all the way to the fourth century A.D. when Roman Emperor, Julius I, declared the 25th day of December to be the occasion, when all good Romans would celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ of Nazarath. Ever since, this date has been widely observed as the Christian religion has spread around the world.

However, historically speaking is probably not the actual day that Jesus was born, but rather it coincides with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, the winter solstice and most specifically a special Roman holiday, called Die Naturlis Solis, which landed squarely on December 25th. This pagan holiday translates into "birthday of the unconquered sun" and most likely has something to do with the time of year when days begin to grow longer. For the joyous Romans, this was time of celebration with feasting, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. Sounds a lot like our contemporary Christmas, doesn't it?

The Ole Yule Log

In past times, the yule log was supposed to burn for the entire Christmas Season
In past times, the yule log was supposed to burn for the entire Christmas Season

Why Is Christmas Sometimes Called Yuletide?

Traditionally, the Yule Log was a sizable piece of timber that was hauled from the forest to the home and then slowly burned for the twelve days of Christmas. If any portion of the log remained, it was saved until the following year, when it would be used to ignite the next Yule log. Today the Yule log is symbolic, using in the form of a small piece of wood containing candles or at edible log-shaped cake, also containing lighted candles.

And as far as the meaning of this word goes, "yule" appears to originate from the Old Norse, "jol", or the Old English, "geol" . In both cases, the word references a twelve day pagan festival that began around the time of the winter solstice.

The Evolution of Santa Claus

Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas was a real Saint, who lived in what is now Turkey. He was especially known for gift-giving and protecting children from harm's way. Not only is Nicholas, the inspiration for our modern-day Santa Claus, but he is also the patron saint of children, sailors and pawn brokers.

As an early Christian bishop in ancient Greece, Nicolas was thrown in jail, only to be released when Contantine became Emperor of Rome. During medieval times, the legacy of Saint Nicholas spread across of Europe, forming the basis of the ever-popular Santa Claus.

Religious Icon of Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas was a third and fourth century bishop, who is today very much revered in the Orthodox church.
Saint Nicholas was a third and fourth century bishop, who is today very much revered in the Orthodox church. | Source

Those Eight Tiny Reindeer

The eight tiny reindeer from the Clement Clarke Moore's epic poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas, may have been rooted in Viking mythology. According to the Norse, the god, Odin sometimes rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir, who supposedly had shamanic powers of his own. Furthermore, it is believed that at the winter solstice, the god, Odin, would mount his steed and ride at night above the villages of Scandinavia. The fearful god was definitely a terror to behold, but at the same time he would drop presents and candy down chimneys, as gifts for all the children.

Santa Claus Takes Shape

This 1881 Thomas Nast illustration help defined our modern definition of Santa Claus
This 1881 Thomas Nast illustration help defined our modern definition of Santa Claus

Two New Yorkers Create a Modern Day Santa

The modern-day Santa Claus appears to have evolved from a poem by a college professor and a few drawings by a popular illustrator into the overweight man with a white beard that we all know today. In 1830, Clement Moore was an unheralded professor of literature and theology, who liked to write poetry. He was also a widower with seven young children, so much of his writing efforts were destined for their young ears. He is credited with creating the modern Santa in his epic poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas, while another New Yorker, Thomas Nast, put a face on Saint Nick, several decades later during the Civil War.

All Around the Christmas Tree

Today, all kinds of strange critters can appear around a Christmas tree, even cuddly polar bears, photo by author
Today, all kinds of strange critters can appear around a Christmas tree, even cuddly polar bears, photo by author

And Don't Forget Those Evergreen Boughs

And finally, in case you are wondering where the custom of displaying all those evergreen boughs originated, the best answer might be "all over heathen Europe". A quick survey of the continent will reveal that ancient Romans, Barbarians, Vikings and Druids all used the evergreen plant as a symbol of life. It is especially important to note that these cultures brought the greens into their winter homes to celebrate the return of spring and the growing system.

In a way, the origin of the Christmas tree, has its roots in the use of evergreen branches and cuttings in the home. Supposedly, Germany was the first place, where this pagan ritual was fused to Christianity. This began in the 1600s, when German Christian began erecting a cut evergreen tree in the home to celebrate the birth of Christ and the advent of Christianity. The custom was slow to spread across the Atlantic to the US, not really taking hold until the early part of the 20th century.

It's a Wonderful Life

In Conclusion

After looking at the pre-Christian roots of Christmas, the Nordic traditions of Germany and Scandinavia seem to have the greatest influence on the most popular holiday. And this comes without even considering the question of elves, which are also very popular in Germany and Scandinavia as well as the British Isles.

Historians are getting wise to the fact that there is no evidence in the bible to support the birth of Christ on December 25th. Nonetheless, most Christian traditions currently celebrate Christmas in late December or early January as a time to honor the birth of Jesus Christ.

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