5 Fast Facts about Christmas Traditions and Paganism

Image by VinnyCiro from Pixabay
Credit: Pixabay / VinnyCiro/ Creative Commons

World — Did you decorate your home this season with a lighted tree? Is your church or social group going caroling? Are you exchanging gifts? If you answered yes to any of these, you’re celebrating Christmas with ancient pagan traditions.

Yes, as your family gathers around the Christmas tree, sings Christmas songs, and exchanges presents, whether you like it or not you’re taking part in customs that extend back long before Christianity was even founded.

And in reality, Christians owe debts of gratitude to Roman, Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and Celtic pagans — among others — for many of their winter holiday practices. Numerous pagan customs are part of the Christmas holiday. This is because early church leaders mixed the celebration of Jesus’s birth with existing non-Christian midwinter festivals and practices as a way of winning over pagans reluctant to give up their popular winter holidays. So are Christmas traditions based on paganism? Yes!

Here are 5 Fast Facts you should know:

1Caroling Derives from Pagan “Wassailing”

The recipe for the drink in this modern “wassail bowl” is: 7 pints of brown ale, 1 bottle of dry sherry, a cinnamon stick, ground ginger, ground nutmeg, and lemon slices. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Jeremy Tarling

The practice of caroling — going from door to door and singing songs that celebrate Christ’s birth — is based on the pagan custom of “wassailing”. The word “wassail” comes from the Anglo-Saxon greeting “Wais thu hail” meaning “be thou hale” or “be in good health”. During winter it was customary for Anglo-Saxon singers, or “wassailers” to go from door to door singing and drinking to the health of their neighbors. The concept dates to pre-Christian fertility rites.

Farm families went into their fields and orchards, which were of course lying fallow in winter, on December 22 at the Winter Solstice. The people would shout and sing to drive out evil spirits so the crops would grow well and deliver a bountiful harvest in the coming year. This evolved into house-visiting and singing or “wassailing”. Villagers went door-to-door singing and wishing good health to those who were housebound due to illness, old age, or having newborn children.

Wassailers were typically thanked with mulled wine or spiced ale from a “wassail bowl”. Sometimes the drink would be “posset” a hot milk beverage that evolved into modern-day hot chocolate. Posset, which might be also be curdled with wine or ale and flavored with spices, was a popular cold and flu remedy, so it stands to reason that the sick, the elderly, and new mothers would have posset on hand. Sometimes the posset included eggs — the precursor of modern eggnog.

2Gift Giving Dates Back to the Pagan Roman Holiday of “Saturnalia”

Engraving showing a drunken reveler on Saturnalia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / John Reinhard Weguelin

Holiday gift giving is nothing new. In fact, winter gift giving dates back to the popular ancient Roman holiday, Saturnalia, that honored the pagan god Saturn. Saturnalia was celebrated between December 17 and 23, so it coincides roughly with the date of the Christian holiday. Early church leaders established Christ’s official birth date in the winter to coincide with Saturnalia, even though Christ was actually born “when shepherds were with their flocks in the fields” which would have been in the spring.

Saturnalia included a sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn, a public banquet, and celebrating and gift-giving in private homes. It was a week of partying, and a carnival atmosphere prevailed that caused the Roman poet Catullus to refer to it as “the best of days”.

3Mistletoe Was Sacred to Pagan Celts and Vikings, and Romans Kissed Under It

A young man steals a kiss under the mistletoe. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Making of America

Mistletoe was a sacred and magical plant for pagans throughout Europe, including the Romans, Celts, and Vikings. Pagan Romans staged fertility rites under mistletoe to honor their god Saturn, who, as mentioned above, is associated with Christmas through the date of his holiday. Kissing is a tamer version of what went on during these rituals, which sometimes acted out copulation.

Ancient Viking stories or sagas relate how warring rivals would meet and lay down their arms under mistletoe — although they may not have taken things to the next level of exchanging soul kisses. In Norse or Viking mythology, the mistletoe plant is associated with Frigga, the Love Goddess, which also explains the kissing tradition.

4The Christmas Tree is Based on Pagan Customs among Vikings, Saxons, Celts, Romans, and Others

Christmas trees for sale in Northern Europe. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Vask

As an evergreen, the Christmas tree symbolizes eternal life, an important concept in Christianity. Vikings, Saxons, and Celts valued and even worshipped trees, especially the evergreen ones, because these symbolize a triumph over the death suggested by deciduous plants that die and lose their leaves in autumn. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica,

“The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil, and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime”.

Decorating the insides of homes with evergreen branches was also common during the pagan Roman Saturnalia celebration.

5Bright Lights and Winter Fun

A modern home lit up with Christmas lights. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Achim Raschka

For pagan peoples in central and northern Europe, the cold dark days of winter were a dreary and depressing time. They chose the darkest, shortest day of the year—the Winter Solstice—as a time for lights and fun festivities, according to Ronald Hutton, a historian at England’s Bristol University. After the December 22 solstice, ancient pagans celebrated the lengthening of days and the “return of the sun” by lighting bonfires and candles. The Germans and Anglo Saxons burned an ivy-wrapped log called a “Yule” — a tradition commemorated today with the tasty “Yule log” Christmas dessert.

The Roman god Sol Invictus or “The Unconquered Sun” was also celebrated at Midwinter with symbolic lights. As Hutton puts it,

“If you happen to live in a region in which midwinter brings striking darkness and cold and hunger, then the urge to have a celebration at the very heart of it to avoid going mad or falling into deep depression is very, very strong”.

Pulitzer nominee and author of “The Battle for Christmas” Stephen Nissenbaum, agrees with Hutton. He says,

“Even now when solstice means not all that much because you can get rid of the darkness with the flick of an electric light switch, even now, it’s a very powerful season”.

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