report

Twelve Christmas Traditions With Pagan Origins

Which Modern Christmas Traditions Have Their Origins in Pagan Festivals?

Do you celebrate Pagan Christmas traditions? Your first instinct would probably be to say "No!", but I think you might be surprised.

Christmas is a time of year that is steeped in traditions, from the actual day itself to the tree we decorate and the presents we place under it.

Even those people who are not overly religious know that Christmas is a Christian festival, so you would think that it would follow that all the modern Christmas traditions developed as part of early Christian celebrations?

Wrong!

There are lots of Pagan customs in Christianity because early Christians adapted their Pagan customs to fit their new Christian beliefs, hiding their original meanings and giving them new ones.

We can thank the Romans and Celts for most of our modern day Christmas traditions.

The festival of Saturnalia, an ancient pagan holiday which honoured the Roman God Saturn, took place every year between the 17th and 24th December. This was basically a week of eating, drinking and giving presents during the Northern Hemisphere's winter solstice.

Likewise, the Celts celebrated the fact that the winter solstice had arrived and rejoiced at the fact that the nights were once more getting lighter and spring was only just around the corner.

The early Christian church tried very hard to ban Pagan customs and encourage its converts to follow Christ, but the people were not to be convinced. Winter was a dark and depressing time, and they were keen to keep their winter solstice festivities. Eventually the church realised that they were not going to able to ban all festivities, so they provided their followers with an alternative option, a festival which honoured the birth of Jesus Christ and eventually gave us the Pagan Christmas traditions that we celebrate today.

Photo Credit: Stephen the Photofan via photopin cc

Pagan Christmas

Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide
Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide

Available as either a traditional book or a Kindle download, this book is full of information if you wish to find out more about Pagan Christmas traditions.

 

1) Holly Has Pagan Links

Pagan Holly
Pagan Holly

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via photopin cc

In Roman mythology, holly was the sacred plant of the god Saturn, and to honor him at the Saturnalia festival, the Romans gave each other gifts of holly wreaths.

When Christians began to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they risked being persecuted for their new religion, and to avoid detection, they would place holly wreaths in their houses. As far as passers by were concerned they were celebrating Saturnalia, not Christmas.

Gradually, Christian popularity increased, their customs became commonplace, and holly lost its links to Paganism and became a traditional symbol of Christmas.

Over the centuries, holly has become a symbol for peace and joy, and people often settled disputes under a holly tree.

In Germany, a sprig of holly that was used in church decorations is believed to protect homes from lightning, and in England farmers decorated their beehives with holly because they believed that at the first Christmas bees hummed in honor of the baby Jesus.

These beliefs all contributed towards "decking the halls with boughs of holly" being popular at Christmas.

2) Mistletoe Was Used by the Druids

Druid Mistletoe
Druid Mistletoe

Photo Credit: Tatters:) via photopin cc

Mistletoe was revered as a sacred plant by the Celts, the Norse, and the North American Native Americans.

Druids believed that mistletoe could protect against thunder and lightning. Priests would use a golden sickle to cut a piece of mistletoe from an oak tree, catching the branches before they reached the ground. The mistletoe would then be cut into small pieces and distributed amongst the people.

Mistletoe was also a recognized as a druidic symbol of joy and peace. If enemies met each other underneath the woodland mistletoe, they were obliged to put down their weapons and form a truce until the following day.

This is where the custom of hanging sprig ball of mistletoe from the ceiling and kissing under it originates from.

3) The Roman God Bacchus Wore Ivy

Roman Ivy
Roman Ivy

Photo Credit: ronsaunders47 via photopin cc

In Roman times, ivy was the symbol of Bacchus, who was the the god of wine and revelry. He wore it in his crown, and Pagans believed ivy to be a symbol of eternal life.

Because of the pagan connotations surrounding ivy, early Christians did not use ivy to decorate the inside of their churches, preferring to use it as an outdoor decoration.

It also plays an important part in a traditional English Christmas, but is not so popular in the U.S. The popularity of the Christmas hymn "The Holly and the Ivy" has helped ivy to become synonymous with Christmas time.

4) The Roman's Made Laurel Wreaths

Roman Evergreens
Roman Evergreens

Photo Credit: Tobyotter via photopin cc

Laurel or bay leaves were popular with the pagan Romans because the leaves were sacred to Apollo, the sun god.

The ancient Romans used decorative wreaths, made from laurel wreaths as a sign of victory, and it is believed that this is where the seasonal hanging of wreaths on doors came from.

In northern Europe, laurel leaves were not commonplace, and instead evergreen branches were gathered and used to decorate houses at Christmas, either as swags or shaped into wreaths.

Probably the most common evergreen used today is the Christmas tree, whose origins are more Victorian than Pagan, but wreaths and swags still play an important part of our decorating, even though they are nowadays often made from artificial materials.

5) The Pagan God Odin

Father Christmas or Pagan Odin?
Father Christmas or Pagan Odin?

Photo Credit: LadyDragonflyCC <3 via photopin cc

Despite the fact that our modern day image of Father Christmas has largely been shaped by a 1930s Coca-Cola advertising campaign, he most definitely has Pagan roots.

Children all over the world are told that Father Christmas developed from St. Nicholas, but those people that follow Paganism know there is more to the story than that. There was a Pagan god named Odin, often depicted as a chubby old man with a white beard who wore a long flowing cloak.

It is therefore a combination of these two characters, and a liberal sprinkling of Coca Cola advertising that has resulted in who we now call Father Christmas or Santa Claus.

6) The Romans Gave Gifts at Saturnalia

Christmas Gifts or Saturnalia?
Christmas Gifts or Saturnalia?

Photo Credit: ktpupp via photopin cc

The custom of giving presents at Christmas originated from Saturnalia, the Roman feast of Saturn.

The gifts that the Romans gave to each other were small, and given for luck. Charity towards those who were less fortunate was also very popular at this time of year.

The humble beginning of gift giving has developed over the years and is now a multi-million pound business, causing many people to say that the art of gift giving has been replaced by mass consumerism and greed.

7) Anglo Saxon Wassailing

Anglo Saxon Wassailing
Anglo Saxon Wassailing

Photo Credit: JossSmithson via photopin cc

Wassailing is an ancient custom that is not seen very often today.

The word derives from the Anglo-Saxon phrase "waes hael," which translates as "good health."

The wassail drink was originally made from mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, spices, and sugar, and was served from large silver bowls, maybe holding as much as ten gallons.

A modern day alternative to this would be mulled wine, red wine, and spices that is served hot.

8) Pagans Loved Green Leaves and Red Berries

Red and Green Colour Theme
Red and Green Colour Theme

Photo Credit: kevin dooley via photopin cc

The traditional Christmas colors of red and green are complementary colors that represent fertility.

Pagan derived decorations that are still seen at Christmas time include the green leaves and red berries of holly, mistletoe and wreaths.

Red and green are the traditional colors for Christmas tree baubles, but in recent years many more colors have become available, often changing yearly with the latest fashions. In recent years turquoise, pink, purple, and orange have been seen on the best dressed trees.

9) The Pagans Sang at the Winter Solstice

Christmas Carols or Pagan songs?
Christmas Carols or Pagan songs?

Photo Credit: infomatique via photopin cc

Carols have been sung for thousands of years, but they were not originally Christmas carols.

Originally, they were Pagan songs, that were sung at the celebrations surrounding the Winter Solstice festival.

The word "carol" actually means a song or dance of joy and praise! They were written and sung during all four seasons, but it was only the tradition of singing them at Christmas that survived!

10) Europeans Burned a Yule Log

Yule Log
Yule Log

Photo Credit: Rod Troch via photopin cc

The yule log is a reminder of the times when European pagans would have bonfires at the time of the winter solstice, thereby symbolising the return of the sun with the days starting to get longer again.

The Yule log played a major role in the Yule festivities, with a piece of the previous year's log being saved to start the fire the following year.

Traditionally, it was considered unlucky to buy a log and instead it was harvested from the householder's land, or received as a gift.

Once brought into the house and placed ceremoniously in the fireplace it was decorated with greenery, smothered with alcohol, and dusted with flour before being set on fire. The log would then burn all night, before smouldering for twelve days.

Celtic mythology told the stories of the Oak King and Holly King, with the Oak representing the time from the Winter Solstice to Summer Solstice, and the Holly representing the time from the Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice.

Today, yule logs are often represented by a chocolate covered swiss roll cake, sprinkled with icing sugar to represent the flour that was dusted onto the log before burning, and decorated with small plastic sprigs of holly.

11) A Pagan Holiday Adapted to Christianity

Christmas Day
Christmas Day

Photo Credit: Wonderlane via photopin cc

This time around the Winter Solstice was celebrated all over Europe, and as nobody was really sure when Jesus was actually born, early Christians altered their existing Pagan festivities to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.

In December the sun appears to rise at the same point on the horizon for the three consecutive days beginning on the 22nd and then miraculously on the 25th it appears to move.

Our ancient ancestors watched this and celebrated the fact that the days were now beginnig to get longer and the dark nights shorter.

It is hard for us to understand how important sunlight was to our ancestors, and how it affected their quality of life. Typically people would live and work during daylight hours, so the long and dark winter months must have seemed never ending.

Also, they would have been relying on their store of grains and crops from the previous summer to tide them over until the following year and would be eager to plant new crops and receive some fresh food to eat.

12) Candles Were Used During Saturnalia

Roman Candles
Roman Candles

Photo Credit: tillwe via photopin cc

Throughout history, candles have been used to ward off darkness and evil.

The first use of candles in December was during the Roman Saturnalia festival, where tall tapers of wax were offered to Saturn as a symbol of his light and also given as a gift to guests.

The Pagans also used candles during their Yule festivities, with candlelight and bonfires being used to welcome the nights beginning to get lighter.

As Christianity became more widespread, candles were put in the front windows of houses in order to guide Jesus as he went from house to house on Christmas Eve.

Did you realise that Pagan Christmas traditions are still celebrated today? 9 comments

Steph Tietjen profile image

Steph Tietjen 4 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

Yes, you have. I learned many things here; I esp. like wassailing. These origins are extremely interesting--didn't know red and green symbolized fertility (in the context of Christmas. Thanks!


kristalulabelle profile image

kristalulabelle 4 years ago from Wisconsin

Fantastic read! I learned a lot. :)


flycatcherrr profile image

flycatcherrr 4 years ago

Interesting how the pagan beliefs and traditions seemed to work their way into the Christian system in cultures all over the world! I knew about the holly and ivy and whatnot, but the red-and-green bit was new to me. Enjoyed this!


anonymous 4 years ago

Love the traditions that go with Christmas, the mistletoe was a new thing to me, great to have learned about it.


annieangel1 profile image

annieangel1 4 years ago from Yorkshire, England

it is so interesting to see the origins of our traditions, thanks for sharing


BeccaPhoenix profile image

BeccaPhoenix 3 years ago from Toronto, Canada & London, England

Yes, as a Pagan I celebrate Winter Solstice so I know that Christmas takes a lot of Pagan traditions. I think its great that people still keep these old traditions alive even if they don't necessarily realise it.


JohnCumbow profile image

JohnCumbow 3 years ago

I had no idea just how many Pagan traditions had been co-opted by Christianity over the centuries!


ShaSchu 13 months ago

I did not know any of this thing I am new to all this. I am so excited for Christmas/Saturnalia. Every one is going to get a yule log and candles.


BLAMER 2 hours ago

I am a Jehovah's Witness so I new allot of these things, very interesting tho. It is amazing though that some will go ahead and celebrate, knowing it is a pagan holiday---We need to keep ourselves clean and free from paganism -To each his own-

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article

    Menu

    Resources