Pagan Roots for Christmas Traditions
Primarily a historic term, “pagan” is a noun referring to anyone who is not a Christian, Jew or Muslim, who followed a polytheistic religion as did the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is also an adjective used pejoratively to refer to the irreligious, hedonistic, and uncivilized. So why are so many Christian traditions in the celebration of the birth of Jesus rooted in pagan traditions? Consider these:
Though grotesquely commercialized today, the day in the Christian religions when the birth of Christ is celebrated, a time of joy, gift giving and family gathering, is a day that evolved from the Roman tradition of Saturnalia, a festival to honor the Roman god of agriculture on the winter solstice. Starting around December 17, the festival lasted about a week. Many ancient polytheistic religions had such a day because harvest time was critical to survival, and they weren’t taking any chances by not flattering a deity. For the Romans, it was a time of unrestrained celebration, veneration and awe for the sun’s light that allowed their crops to grow, so as Christianity came to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the second and third centuries, Roman writers made reference to December 25th and the Christian celebration on that date.
Three wise men came to Bethlehem with gifts of frankincense, gold and Myrrh, but arguably, the tradition of gift giving lies in Pagan beliefs. During Saturnalia, gifts of wax dolls were made for children, representing the human sacrifices that Rome had made to Saturn in the past as payment for bountiful harvests. Also, those harvests were represented by the boughs of certain trees and other plants, seen in Christian traditions in holly and other plants.
Today regarded as an irreverent abbreviation of Christmas and part of the campaign to take “Christ” out of Christmas, it is an abbreviation, but not a modern one. The true origins are in ancient Christianity. “X” represents the Greek letter “Chi,” the first letter of the Greek word for Christ. In fact the name of Jesus has also been abbreviated as “XP,” or chi rho, the first and second letters of the Greek word for Christ, still seen today on the standards or banners in many churches, standing for Christ. The term X-mas has been used since the sixteenth century.
It is commonly understood that Saint Nicholas is the basis for Santa Claus, and the practice of stuffing stockings is traceable to his charitable donations in the fourth century. At a time when most children had to work to support their families, many in deplorable conditions, Nicholas believed that childhood should be enjoyed. He made gifts of food, clothes, and furniture, but it was his gifts of oranges, rare and expensive at the time, that gave rise to the practice of stuffing stockings. He needed to find a place where the children would find the oranges, and seeing a pair of girl’s stockings, he found it. From then on, children would hang stockings in hopes that Saint Nick would visit that night. The practice is also traced back to Pagan practices in Scandinavia, where children left shoes stuffed with carrots, straw and other food for Sleipnir, the god Odin’s eight legged mythical horse. When the horse ate the food, Odin left candy and other treats in its place.
A symbol of power and strength, Roman and Greek kings and emperors often wore laurel wreathes as crowns, borrowing from the practice of the more ancient Etruscans, people who flourished between 800 and 300 BC. The wreath was thought of as a crown embodying the values of Apollo, the sun god. Used in rituals for good harvests, the harvest wreath is the predecessor to our modern decorations. Animism, the belief that things in nature, trees, mountains and the sky have souls or consciousness, that there is a supernatural force that organizes the universe, and that people have spirits that can exist separately from the body, dates back to ancient Europe. In that religion, evergreen was used in wreathes to represent strength and fortitude. Evergreens survive even the harshest of winters. Similarly, wreathes in the Christian faith represent tenacity and everlasting life.
Continuing the theme of immortality and fortitude symbolized by evergreens in pre-Christian winter festivals, the evergreen tree of the time was decorated with things to eat, apples, nuts and the like, as opposed to today’s ornaments and lights. But, the evergreen is known to have represented similar values to other cultures, to include the Egyptians, Chinese and Hebrews. Tree worship was very common to European druids and pagans.
In the Christian December tradition, trees were put up for two purposes, to ward off the Devil and to provide a perching place for whatever birds remained at that time of year. Through the middle ages, evergreens, decorated with apples and wafers, were used in Christmas Eve plays symbolizing the tree from which Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. German craft guilds during the Renaissance, the edibles on the tree were replaced with decorations, and after the Protestant Reformation, evergreens became popular in Protestant households as a counterpart to the Catholic nativity scene.
In fourth century Rome, Christmas carols developed from Christmas hymns, and were sung in Latin for generations, but a more identifiable origin for carols is in thirteenth century France, Germany and Italy. Though composed more for the season and not specifically for Christmas, they were written in the language of the area in which they were composed and sung at community events and festivals. It was later that the music would become associated primarily with Christmas and be the featured music at churches as the date of Christ’s birth approached. Because the Protestant movement of the time encouraged the arts and music more than did the Catholic church, carols in the Protestant churches were more numerous. It is speculated that todays practice of going from one house to the next may have developed from the root word for carol, “carole” or “carula,” both meaning circular dance.
How did kissing and romance become associated with a parasitic plant that feeds on the nutrients found in trees, and causes diarrhea and stomach pain when ingested? Surprisingly, the plant has a largely mythological history from multiple cultures. The ancient Greeks believed that Aeneas, the mythological defender of Troy, carried mistletoe as a golden bough. For the Etruscans, in what is now the Tuscany region of Italy, mistletoe was the only thing capable of killing the evil god Baldur. But more relevant to the question, pre-Christian cultures believed the parasitic plant to carry the male essence, and by extension, characteristics of romance, fertility and vitality. There is a joke in there somewhere.
Commonly hung at Christmas and remaining there until replaced the next year as a decoration, it was believed to protect homes. The popular practice of kissing beneath the mistletoe was first recorded in sixteenth century England.
I mentioned Saint Nicholas earlier, but the Santa Claus we know today is an amalgamation of many other figures, such as the Dutch Sinterklaas, whose appearance closely resembles todays Santa in his red and white suit. He knows if you have been naughty or nice and has elf helpers. But Sinterklaas arrives from Spain on a steamboat and wears a bishop’s hat, and his elf Zwarte Piet is charged with punishing naughty children with “jute bags and willow canes.” Santa’s name comes from the Americanization of “Sinterklaas.”
There is also the influence of Father Christmas, a figure developed in seventeenth century Britain to embody holiday joy and mirth. A pagan inspiration for Santa is Odin, who led the hunting party with other gods on Yule, a German holiday that coincides with Christmas. Is it coincidence that Sleipnirs has eight legs and Santa has eight reindeer?
While some roots of our Christmas traditions in Pagan practices seem odd or in conflict with Christian beliefs, they are not really. That is what traditions are, “the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice,” and it should not be surprising that Christian Christmas traditions were originally modeled after common prevailing practices of the time. And, what difference does it make, as long as we remember to celebrate Jesus, “the reason for the season.” So…grab some egg nog, a Christmas tradition that goes back to the sixteenth century, and go stand under some mistletoe. Maybe you’ll get lucky.
Walt Smith, Broker
Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage
803 622 5210