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Christianity's Pagan Roots: Traditions, Practices, and Holidays

Updated on August 4, 2017
kittythedreamer profile image

When Kitty was a little girl she dreamed of being a museum curator or archaeologist. Now she studies and writes all about history.

Ancient well at the Church of the Visitation - most likely was originally a sacred pagan site.
Ancient well at the Church of the Visitation - most likely was originally a sacred pagan site. | Source

Christianity is a Lot Like Paganism

Most people see Christianity and Paganism as two very separate, very different religions. Paganism predates Christianity by thousands to millions of years. Christianity is the largest religion in the world today, boasting over 2 billion in 2012, alongside of Islam with over 1 billion followers in 2012. In the past five years, those numbers have surely increased. The third largest religion statistically speaking is listed as "secular/agnostic/atheist", which depending on the person could also include pagans; however, Neo-paganism ranked as number 18 on the list of largest religions, but followed Hinduism, Buddhism, and Shinto which to some are also a part of the Pagan umbrella.

So what does the world's largest religion have in common with nearly all of the others, including Paganism? Why is the title of this section Christianity is a lot like Paganism? If we do our research and really dive into the often untold origins of Christianity, we will see that much of the Christian religion is in fact pagan at its roots. Many people will bark at this statement and call it heresy, but in this article I will present the facts and show both Christians and Pagans how alike they actually are. How connected we all are, even if we are told that we are different and divided.

Many ancient churches were built on top of ancient pagan holy sites.
Many ancient churches were built on top of ancient pagan holy sites. | Source

What is Paganism? What is Christianity?

Paganism has different definitions, depending on the person or source you ask. Some will say paganism is any religion that isn't one of the Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity, or Judaism), while others will say paganism is a religion that follows a more polytheistic view of deity and seeks to revive the old ways of our ancestors. Paganism is an umbrella term, meaning it covers a wide range of religions and belief systems, including (but not limited to): Wicca, Neo-paganism, Asatru, Voodoo, Indigenous traditions, Hellenic paganism, witchcraft, and more. Still others will say that paganism is equivalent to satanism, which isn't a correct definition, but as I said before it all depends on who you ask.

Christianity is one of the three major world religions and is one of the Abrahamic religions. Its roots are embedded in the Middle East, and its furthest beginnings reach back to the time of Abraham. This religion is based off of the Holy Bible, which is a collection of ancient books selected and compiled by a group of religious officials and Constantine in the 300s AD. Christianity is also an umbrella term in that there are hundreds of branches of Christianity, including but not limited to: Catholicism, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Greek Orthodox, 7th Day Adventist, Mormon, Pentecostal, and more.

What do these two have in common? The roots of Christianity are interlaced with some of the most ancient pagan traditions and elements, mainly because the Church gained power through conversion. In order to convert the people of Europe (and the world) from their pagan beliefs, they either had to turn them against their beliefs by fear or accept and adopt some of their beliefs into the Christian religion. We will dive into these traditions shortly.

The god Mithras feasting at a banquet with the "Sun".
The god Mithras feasting at a banquet with the "Sun". | Source

Questions of Polytheism vs. Monotheism in the Bible

Most people do not realize, but within the Old Testament of the Holy Bible, "God" is called by more than one name. The first name of God revealed in the book of Genesis is "Elohim" and is used the most throughout the Old Testament. Following, God is called "El" which many claim is just a shortened version of Elohim. These are not the only two, as the name YHVH (said to be pronounced Yah-weh) is also found within the pages of the Old Testament. There are those who claim these are just different names for the same God, but if we look at the people who came before Christ from the Old Testament times, we will see that they were nomadic, polytheistic tribes. They had multiple gods, though there were some who tried to eradicate the multiples to focus on the one "true god". For example, the story of Moses presenting the Ten Commandments shows that his Hebrew tribe who'd escaped slavery in Egypt were worshiping a golden calf who has been referred to as the calf of "El". If Moses was upset that his tribe was worshiping a "false idol" by the name of "El", were El and his one true God the same? Logic tells us they weren't the same God.

Let us also examine the mention of the goddess Ashtart (Greek name Astarte), who is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. A few of the Hebrew Kings, namely Solomon, tried to instill a cult of Ashtart with his people, though many resisted there were some who were supportive of these endeavors. So we can see that while some Hebrews were against polytheism, there were still many who followed a polytheistic path...or what we refer to today as paganism.

And what about the Holy Trinity? As a child, it never made sense to me that three gods could be equal to one god. I was told it was an abstract concept and I would understand one day when I grew up. Well, I'm an adult and now I see that multiple gods is multiple gods on a very basic level. When the Council of Nicaea convened in AD 325, one of the main issues they were to decide upon was whether Christ was God and how they would instill belief in him as God. Eventually they settled on calling Christ the "son of God" and other writers outside of the Holy Bible made mention of the "Holy Trinity" being made up of Father God, the Son of God (Jesus), and the Holy Ghost (Spirit). In rabbinic literature, the Holy Spirit was referred to as Shekinah which meant a dwelling or resting place of God (and interestingly was a feminine term). This brings in the question of whether or not a part of God was once thought of as feminine by the Hebrews.

We can say that the things I'm mentioning are dealing mostly with the Old Testament and therefore Judaism, but the fact remains that the Church recognizes the Old Testament as a part of the Holy Bible. Therefore, the Old Testament history is also a part of the history of Christianity.

Today there are many conspiracy theorists (I won't lie) and legitimate scholars who claim that Christianity is a mixture of many ancient belief systems, some that are purely paganism. Three that come to mind are Mithraism, Osiris-worship (ancient egyptian), and Zoroastrianism. Read on to learn more.

Mother Mary and the Holy Child...compare to Isis and Horus below.
Mother Mary and the Holy Child...compare to Isis and Horus below. | Source
Isis nursing the god-child Horus.
Isis nursing the god-child Horus. | Source

Catholicism: Symbols, Holy Water, Mother Mary

Within the Catholic tradition of Christianity, one would be remiss to deny the pagan elements of a Catholic mass. The ritual of taking communion, with the round wafer (or bread), is an ancient practice of worshiping sun gods such as Ba'al and Osiris. The round wafer was a representation of the sun itself. When one ate the round bread or wafer, one was taking the sun into oneself. This tradition seemingly carried over into Christianity as the holy communion and taking the "Son" of God into oneself in celebration of him giving his life. Not to mention the "monstrance" used to hold the blessed sacrament is often gold and resembles the sun itself.

What other symbols are used in mass and in the Catholic church and are seemingly of pre-Christian ancient origins? The fact that the Catholic mass (as well as other branches of Christian services) call Sunday the holy day adds another element to the idea of pre-Christian sun-god worship being a crucial part of Christianity. Why would Sun-day be the holy day of rest? You might say, well the Old Testament says that God took that day as his day of rest after creating the world and man, etc. But God isn't the one who named that day Sunday...is he?

How about Holy Water? Holy Water is water that has been blessed by a priest or other official of the Church. Why is water a part of Christian practice, since nature is so often disregarded and blatantly condemned within many Christian branches? Water is one of the basic natural elements that was often worshiped in pre-Christian pagan times. Pagans believed that water had a "cleansing" power, not just physically but also mentally and spiritually. They would bathe and "cleanse" themselves and their children in sacred springs, rivers, and wells. This practice carried through to Christianity in the form of Holy Water, christenings, and baptisms. Otherwise, wouldn't the presence of the Holy Spirit be enough to cleanse one of his or her sins? An argument to this is "well, the water is symbolic". And where did that symbolism originate? The point is that we were pagans for thousands of years and much longer than we were Christians, and some of these practices and beliefs are too ingrained in our memory and DNA to fully eradicate with any newer religion or lack thereof.

To address the concept of Mother Mary, the Holy Mother, we have to look at the fact that most pagan people before the rise of Christianity worshiped a Mother Goddess (or more). As a main example, and one of which I've provided a pictorial example, is the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis and her son Horus. See their pictures compared to Mother Mary and Jesus above. Horus was a child of a Sun-God in Egypt known as Osiris, and Horus took over the sun-god position after the supposed death of Osiris (sound familiar?). Isis was worshiped as the Mother Goddess for thousands of years. This is just one of the many Mother Goddesses from pre-Christian cults and religions, but one of which the Mother Mary-Holy Child concept seems to mimic. The fact that Catholics put more of an emphasis on Mother Mary than any other Christian branch makes other Christians say that Catholicism is "pagan". Namely the Pentecostals and Baptists.

Let's also not forget that many of the oldest Catholic churches and monasteries in Europe and elsewhere throughout the world were built upon the ancient pagan sites. These were places where the pagan people worshiped their many gods and ancestors, and when the Church took over it was decided to knock down the pagan temples and replace them with Churches. The idea being that it would make it easier for the pagans to convert if they could still worship at their sacred pagan sites. Some of these pagan statues and symbols can still be seen in the oldest of Churches (i.e. Gargoyles, Mermaids, Sheela-na-gig).

An early photo of a revival tent, the start of Pentecostalism, showing people filled with the spirit.
An early photo of a revival tent, the start of Pentecostalism, showing people filled with the spirit. | Source
Pentecostal practices of being filled with the spirit look very similar to some of the Afro-Caribbean religions such as Voodoo.
Pentecostal practices of being filled with the spirit look very similar to some of the Afro-Caribbean religions such as Voodoo. | Source

Pentecostalism: Healing with Hands, Speaking in Tongues, Filled with the Spirit

Growing up in the Pentecostal Church, one hears that any other religion outside of Pentecostalism are made up of people who are going to Hell. At least this is what is taught in many of the Assemblies of God churches. Catholics? Going to Hell. Methodists? Going to Hell. Why is this when Pentecostals are doing the same things and using much of the same symbols as the other branches of Christianity? They do not realize they too carry on pagan elements and traditions of the past, as well as engage in "occult" or "magical" forms of practice which we will examine here.

One of the beliefs of the Pentecostal Church is in Divine Healing. This is the belief that when one is "saved" or "born again" then they will also be granted physical healing through God. When this doesn't happen automatically, there are questions as to why. In addition to the Divine Healing, Pentecostals also believe in the "laying on of hands" or healing by using their hands on another person to allow God's healing power to flow to the necessary ailment or illness. This practice is reflected in numerous healing traditions outside of the Christian tradition dating back thousands of years. A similar, more recent tradition is the Japanese relaxation technique known as Reiki. Reiki is the practice of using one's hands to allow Divine or Universal energy to flow into another person or object in order to aid in relaxation, stress reduction, and to promote healing. Reiki originated before Pentecostalism in the late 1800s. Other "hand healing" techniques and traditions outside of Christianity include: polarity therapy, massage, Qigong, acupressure/shiatsu, and matrix energetics.

One particular practice of the Pentecostals is called speaking in tongues. While evidence doesn't show a strong relation to pagan practices of similar kind, new age traditions demonstrate a similar sounding practice called "light language". The Pentecostals see speaking in tongues as one of the "gifts of the spirit", which means they believe the Holy Spirit "comes upon" them (enters their bodies) and gives them the gift of speaking in another language or in a heavenly language. The connection between the speaking in tongues and light language is uncanny. They sound nearly identical and both claim to be channeling, if you will, higher powers in order to speak in these other "tongues". Are the Pentecostals tapping into the same power as those in the new age movement? Whatever the source, these practices are nearly one and the same.

Another strong relation that can be made between the Pentecostals and what they deem a "pagan" religion is the idea of being "filled with the spirit". Pentecostals believe the spirit of God descends upon them and fills them with its presence, upon which they may dance, laugh, be "drunk in the spirit", speak in tongues, jump up and down, etc. If you were to attend a New Orleans voodoo ceremony/ritual, you will see a comparable practice of the practitioners allowing the Loa to "ride them", meaning they allow the spirits of the Loa (angel spirits of sorts) to enter their bodies, during which they do similar things to the Pentecostals - shake, dance, run around in circles, seemingly speak in other languages or voices, etc. One may say that these two are different because the Pentecostals are allowing the spirit of God to enter their bodies while the voodoo practitioners are allowing something more sinister to enter their bodies, but when the two practices are so alike, how can you tell one from the other?

The point here is that our religions have similar roots and most likely go back to the same place. They are all branches on one gigatic tree. They share the same roots. For one to deny the other or reject the other as being a true religion or practice is absurd when one takes into account the ancient history and origins of these religions.

The tradition of evergreen plants used in Christmas decor is unequivocally pagan.
The tradition of evergreen plants used in Christmas decor is unequivocally pagan. | Source

Christian Holidays with Deep Pagan Influence

An entire book could be written on the Christian holidays that are based on ancient pagan holidays, so I will be brief in this section.

Christmas, celebrated on December 25th, has its roots in ancient pagan holy-days such as Yule (Germanic), the Winter Solstice (which is celebrated in different ways worldwide), Yalda, and more. To make a clear connection between ancient pagan festivals and Christmas, we once again visit the ancient cult of Mithraism where the sun-god Mithras was born on December 25th. There is no historical evidence to confirm Jesus' actual birth in the month of December, and scholars believe it was most likely some time in the summer months rather than the winter.

In addition to the date-match between Mithraism and Christianity for the birth of Christ, we also see numerous pagan traditions being carried over into the Christmas holiday/season. This includes the use of evergreen greenery in decor: holly, mistletoe, spruce/fir trees, ivy, yew, and poinsettias. Evergreens were used by ancient celts and greeks (among others) to remind them Spring was around the corner and of the cycle of life. The tradition of gift-giving, decorating the tree, feasting, caroling, putting on plays, even Christmas lights are all rooted in pagan traditions from ancient European people and beyond.

What about Easter? Yes, Easter is also based on an ancient pagan festival day celebrating the Spring Equinox (the Spring season). The term Easter actually originates from the Germanic goddess known as Eostre who was said to be celebrated at this time of the year. The Easter Bunny and Easter eggs are also pagan traditions as they are both symbols of fertility (new life/Spring).

The fact of the matter is, when the Church rose into power in Europe, the officials decided to adopt many of the pagans' traditions and festivals and make them Christian holidays so that it would make it easier for the pagan people to convert to Christianity. They felt if they were to strip the people of their traditions and beliefs completely, that the people would be less likely to convert. It is also possible that the Church tried to stomp out many of these ancient traditions but the people felt so strongly about them, they continued to be passed on from generation to generation. You can take the person out of paganism, but you can't take paganism out of the person, for lack of a better phrase.

We have been told for centuries that we are different, separate from one another, and to hold to those differences. But in reality, when we examine our roots, our traditions, our most basic beliefs and morals, we see that we are all connected.

— Nicole Canfield

Conclusion - This Must Be Said.

By no means am I trying to degrade or insult any religion or belief by writing this article. On the contrary, I seek to demonstrate just how connected we all are as human beings on this planet. We have been told for centuries that we are different, separate from one another, and to hold to those differences. But in reality, when we examine our roots, our traditions, our most basic beliefs and morals, we see that we are all connected.

Just because I am pointing out the similarities between Christianity and Paganism doesn't mean I believe one or the other is correct or incorrect. I am simply comparing. Many individuals might take offense, but this is not to offend...it is to enlighten and educate. We are not as different as you may have believed.

© 2017 Nicole Canfield

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  • kittythedreamer profile image
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    Nicole Canfield 8 days ago from the Ether

    Don - I couldn't agree more! Very true.

  • dahoglund profile image

    Don A. Hoglund 8 days ago from Wisconsin Rapids

    When I had to take a Latin cours in 9th grade we translated the story of "Pandora" The first thing that popped into my mind was this is the same message as Genisis. Adam and Eve.Later I found that in the ancient world stories were adapted from other people. I don't mean any dis respect for any tradition. The stories were told and written to teach a lesson.

  • Kathleen Cochran profile image

    Kathleen Cochran 3 weeks ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    Your statement about Christians rather "hijacking" pagan holidays to draw converts is something I've often heard. I have a friend who is so devout, she won't celebrate Christmas or Easter anymore. I think she is missing the point. The entire world pays attention to Christmas as Jesus' birth and many pay attention to Easter as marking his death. I don't have a problem with the roots of paganism in my religion when it makes people stop and consider the life of Jesus - at all.

  • limpet profile image

    Ian Stuart Robertson 7 weeks ago from London England

    I've been contemplating the article and it suddenly occurred in our world of communal beliefs we appear to have either cults or sects. It is not for me to decide which is the better of the two as they have been abounding for time immemorial. One coming to mind was one Melkisedik apparently a Priest King of Salem in the times of the first phrophets. Melkisedik (various spellings) influenced the later Essenes who are mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls.

  • phoenix2327 profile image

    Zulma Burgos-Dudgeon 7 weeks ago from United Kingdom

    I've often noticed how more alike than we are different. Why some insist on focusing on the differences, I will never understand. Good hub.

  • heidithorne profile image

    Heidi Thorne 7 weeks ago from Chicago Area

    You are so right! Growing up in a Christian home, the mere suggestion that many of the faith's traditions had roots in pagan practices would have been akin to blasphemy. But when you delve into history, you see how Christianity is truly a melting pot of traditions. Thanks for sharing your insight into how we are all connected. Blessings!

  • Jenifer Chintron profile image

    Jenifer Chintron 7 weeks ago

    The point here is that our religions have similar roots and most likely go back to the same place.

    visit us: http://www.qigongawareness.com/

  • limpet profile image

    Ian Stuart Robertson 7 weeks ago from London England

    I've thoroughly read and re read the article, but i'll await further comments before posting my next reply.