In the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations were rowdy and raucous, apparently a lot like today’s Mardi Gras. From 1659 to 1681, Christmas was even outlawed in Boston. (Puritans were not fans of the celebration.) Inevitably, Christmas and its traditions have changed over the years. However, did you know many of those traditions had their roots in ancient Pagan rituals?
So, Uh, What’s a Pagan?
The definition of a pagan is a follower of a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshiping religion. It is also generalized to a person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions. It can include ancient Greeks and Romans or ancient and modern day Druids, Shamans, Sacred Ecologists, Odinists and Heathens, and yes, Wiccans (of interest to me personally because of my YA fantasy novel The Travelers.)
What do Pagans have to do with Christmas?
The early Christians, perhaps in an attempt to convert Pagans or simply because they became comfortable with the traditions over the years, appropriated many Pagan rituals and traditions into their own celebration. (I’ll let the historians continue to battle out the “why” and “how”. Those are just a few reasons they’ve given.) However, looking at Pagan traditions, it’s easy to see the similarities. Here are a few common Christmas traditions that have pagan origins!
Winter celebrations date back millennia. Many Pagans celebrated the winter solstice beginning on December 17 with the feast of Saturn and ending on December 23rd. This is known as Saturnalia, which dates back as 217 BCE. In the ancient Roman world, this holiday consisted of merrymaking and the exchanging of gifts. (Sound familiar?) Some historians speculate that ancient Christians chose December to celebrate Christmas to “offset” the ancient Pagan celebrations or, potentially, to increase the popularity of the Christmas celebrations by coinciding with established traditions. (Again, I’m no historian. Those are just a few reasons given.)
You know that holly with it’s pretty red berries you like to put on your mantle? Well, you can probably thank the Pagans for that. Pagans were traditionally nature-worshiping and often decorated with holly.
Mistletoe was a popular decoration at Roman winter festivals and found its way into Norse mythology. It is also supposedly a sacred plant of the Druids. So, it has various Pagan connections. Like other plants, it’s likely Pagans used it for decorations as well. But, rest assured, the “kissing” aspect is most likely a more modern incarnation coming about in the 1800s. (When you’re talking millennia, the 1800s becomes modern.) Although “fertility rituals” once took place under mistletoe as part of ancient Pagan rituals. And in Norse mythology warriors would lay down their arms under mistletoe. Therefore, it can be seen as an ancient symbol of fertility and/or peace. So maybe some of that influenced the current kissing tradition?
Hold onto your Santa hat because, yep, like other nature-related aspects of Christmas, this one has ancient Pagan roots too. Romans and Greeks decorated their homes with evergreen branches. Romans are also said to have hung metal ornaments on trees (although most likely not ones they cut down and put in their house.) Some believe a Roman mosaic depicting Dionysus shows him with with an early version of the Christmas Tree.
Decorating with Light
Ancient pagans lit bonfires and candles on the winter solstice and the holidays around it to celebrate the return of the light.
It’s possible even caroling has some Pagan underpinnings. Pre-Christian villagers used to travel through their fields and orchards in the middle of winter, singing and shouting to drive away any spirits that might inhibit the growth of future crops.
This is only a handful of Christmas traditions that likely have ancient origins. There’s tons more information on this! If you’d like to learn more about how the Christmas culture has merged and evolved over time, here are some other resources.
Resources if you want to read more: