With the holiday approaching, I thought it would be fitting to write a little something about the traditions of Christmas and their roots in paganism. Now, before I continue, I just want to say that this is not a stab at Christmas and Christianity. It is merely an observation and educational opportunity. Please do not go around to those who celebrate Christmas with these traditions and tell them that they are a “secret pagan” or that they need to stick to their own traditions.
Roots in Saturnalia - Holly, Gift-Giving, and Frivolity
Holly is the sacred plant of Saturn, and the Romans used holly not only for decoration but as a gift given to others during Saturnalia. They did this to mark friendship and good fortune in the year ahead.
People decorated their homes with wreaths and other greenery, and shed their traditional togas in favor of colorful clothes known as synthesis . Even slaves did not have to work during Saturnalia, but were allowed to participate in the festivities; in some cases, they sat at the head of the table while their masters served them. (1)
Many of the Christmas traditions are derived from the ancient Saturnalia festival, including giving gifts, singing carols, and even the day that Christmas is celebrated on. Saturnalia was traditionally celebrated from December 17 through December 23, but on the Roman calendar, it ended on December 25 (2).
It is interesting to note that during Saturnalia, the Romans would loosen the ties that bound their Cult Statue of Saturn to represent His liberation, and then each household would choose a mock king to be the King of Misrule. This person would then go around and it was their mission to be rude to guests, chase people around, and cause all around mischief (2).
The jolly man we know as Santa is based on a real person named St. Nicholas through Sinterklaas. St. Nicholas was the patron saint of children, and he was known for his secret gift-giving across the land. The feast of Sinterklaas is still celebrated in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and many others. Sinterklaas is one of the main sources for our legend of Santa (3).
There is also another theory out there that Santa is loosely based on the Norse God Odin. It is said that Odin would fly across the sky with all the Gods on one night in winter, bestowing gifts upon those who were in His good favor, and causing mischief for those that were not. It is also interesting to note that Santa has eight reindeer (nine counting Rudolph), and Odin rides on an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir (4).
The origin of Christmas carols is two-fold and goes back to England in the 1700s - wassailing the neighbors and wassailing the crops. Both involved singing to someone or something else, and they both involved wishing goodwill upon the recipient for the new year. However, the tradition of wassailing your neighbors does not have such an innocent past.
The tradition of wassailing your neighbors came about as a way for the peasant class to beg their more wealthy neighbors for gifts and good cheer without it being deemed as begging. In the Here We Come A-Wassailing, we can see how this is demonstrated in the lyrics (5).
We are not daily beggars that beg from door to door
But we are friendly neighbors whom you have seen before.
Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you
a Happy New Year
An older tradition was that of wassailing the crops in orchard-producing England to encourage good growth and a prosperous new year. I do not think this tradition happens anymore on a large scale, but it would not be uncommon for it to still be practiced.
This tradition of singing to your neighbors has changed from one of disguised begging to one of a true blessing. It is not practiced much here in my area where people go door to door, but I have seen it down in common public places like parks and public events. It is always nice to see and brings a smile to everyone’s face.
Celtic Origins and Winter Solstice
The last things I want to talk about here are mistletoe, the Yule log, and Christmas trees. These three traditions have most of their roots in the Celtic practices surrounding Druidry and the Winter Solstice celebration. We cannot deny the influence that the ancient Celts had on the Romans and their feast day of Saturnalia. We know that the Celtic people also liked to dance, sing, and have a grand time during the Winter Solstice as a way of bringing the sun back to our side of the world.
Mistletoe has become a staple during the holiday season, but did you know that it has its roots in the mystical belief of the Druids? The Druids believe that mistletoe protects from thunder, lightning, and evil spirits. It is also said that we kiss under the mistletoe because, in ancient times when enemies would meet under the mistletoe, they would be compelled to lay down their weapons and call a truce! Mistletoe, for being so pretty, is believed to have healing powers due to its hardiness. It is technically a parasitic plant that grows on trees, oftentimes from nothing!
There is also the burning of the Yule log. To this day we still call it the Yule log and not the Christmas log or the holiday log. This is a testament to how the old tradition has survived all this time. The burning of the Yule log today is a small reminder of the ancient bonfires that were held to welcome the sun back to our side of the world. Fire from the Winter Solstice bonfire would be taken back to every home, and the hearth fires would be relit with the new fire of the Solstice.
Lastly, and most recognizable, is the Christmas tree. Evergreens are known for being hardy plants that do not die out in the colder months of the year. The Celtic people revered the evergreen trees for this reason and they are associated with life, abundance, health, and rebirth. These trees were decorated during Saturnalia and Winter Solstice, and that tradition has carried over into the modern age.
Does it really matter?
Unless you are a historian, archeologist, or anthropologist, I do not think the Pagan origins of Christmas are all that important in the grand scheme of things. It is good to know why we do the things we do, but that is about it. There are a lot of reasons why these pagan traditions made their way into a Christian holiday. Some of those reasons are simple while some of them are more complex. The pagans who converted - either willingly or forced - grew up with these traditions, and traditions die hard. These traditions might have been brought over from paganism willingly and innocently. However, we also need to acknowledge the acts of the church during this time and their quest to convert everyone around them. The church is not innocent in this, but we also do not live in ancient times anymore. The best thing we can do at this point is to learn from our history, enjoy the traditions we enjoy, and create new ones.
Enjoy the holiday season with your family, friends, and loved ones. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Yule, Winter Solstice, Jul, Saturnalia, or one of the many other winter celebrations, we can all acknowledge that it is a magickal time of the year full of happiness, friendship, and mystery. Keep that mindset about you as you do your shopping and celebrating. Shop small and local when possible, and do not get stuck in the capitalistic trap of holiday shopping.
Let love and the return of longer days be the reason for everyone’s season!
What traditions are your favorite around this time of year? Do you celebrate Christmas, Yule, or any other winter holiday? I’d love to hear your experience.
My favorite tradition is the making of sugar cookies with my Nana during Christmastime. I grew up Christian, so we celebrated Christmas both secularly and religiously. I haven’t made cookies with my Nana in many years since we live apart, but I continue the tradition with my own daughter. This year, they will be Yule cookies for the Winter Solstice and the return of the Sun!
Sources and Further Reading
(4) Sons of Vikings