Although Christmas is celebrated throughout the Christian population, it also is celebrated worldwide by many non-Christians as a secular, cultural festival. What many people may not realize is that a number of the Christian traditions around the celebration of the birth of Christ actually have pagan origins.
The second holiest day on the Christian calendar (Easter being the holiest day) bears Christ’s name, but many Christmas practices began hundreds of years before he was born, some going back more than 4,000 years. Winter solstice celebrations such as Saturnalia and Yule eventually gave way to the celebration of Christ’s birth, even though most historians believe Christ was probably born in September. One reason most agree it’s very unlikely that Jesus was born in December is the mention in the Bible of shepherds tending their sheep in the fields that night, which would have been quite unlikely during Judah’s cold winter.
In ancient Babylon, the feast of the Son of Isis (the Goddess of Nature) was celebrated on December 25. This feast involved raucous partying, indulgence in food and drink, and lavish gift-giving. Additionally, in Rome the winter solstice was known as Saturnalia, as it honored Saturn, the god of agriculture. In January, the Romans also observed the Kalends, which celebrated the triumph of life over death. The entire season was known as Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, meaning the Birth of the Unconquered Sun.
In northern Europe, pagans had their own winter solstice celebration, which was known as Yule. This feast commemorated the birth of the pagan sun god, Mithras, and was observed on the shortest day of the year. Huge Yule logs were burned in honor of the sun. The word Yule means “wheel,” which was a pagan symbol for the sun.
The merging of the celebration of Christ’s birth with the winter solstice did not occur until more than 300 years after Christ died, when Pope Julius I declared December 25 as the Christmas holy day. It is believed he was trying to make it easier for the Romans to convert to Christianity by allowing them to preserve some of their favorite feasts. Because of these pagan origins, some devout Christian sects like the Puritans forbade their members from celebrating Christmas, even into the late 1800s.
History of Modern Customs Traditions
Modern customs related to the holiday include gift-giving, religious celebrations, and the display of various decorations – including the Christmas tree, lights, mistletoe, nativity scenes, holly, and of course, stockings.
- In contemporary tradition, Santa Claus and Father Christmas are generally thought of as one and the same character, although they arose out of different traditions. Santa is generally believed to be the result of a blend between the actual St. Nicholas and elements from pagan Nordic and Christian mythology.
- Mistletoe was considered a sacred plant by the Druids, and the custom of kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual.
- The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of the pagan Winter Solstice tradition, which included the use of evergreen cuttings in an adaptation of pagan tree worship. Scandinavians hung apples from evergreen trees at the winter solstice to remind themselves that spring and summer would come again. The modern Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in the 18th century, although some argue that Martin Luther began the tradition in the 16th century.
- The Romans decked their halls with garlands of laurel and placed candles in live trees to decorate for the celebration of Saturnalia.