Christmas is a Christian holiday, or so they say. Funnily enough, a lot of traditions we find at Christmas time actually have roots and origins in other cultures, not Christianity itself.
Christian tradition says that Jesus was born on Christmas day, but how does this fit in with Santa, gift giving, carolling and all the other festivities? Short answer – it doesn’t, but let’s explore the origins of these festivities and Christmas.
In fact, evidence suggests that Jesus was not born on Christmas day.
In Luke chapter 2, it is clearly said that at the time when Jesus was born, “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night” – this was not customary in December according to the book The Pagan Origins of Christmas Holidays. One of the earliest records of Jesus’ birth by Clement of Alexandria in 200 AD shows that there was confusion over when he was born except that one thing is clear – it certainly wasn’t on Christmas day, but more likely in Spring.
Pagan traditions in Winter
Yule, Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice are Pagan traditions which pre-date Christmas and were celebrated similarly to Christmas today.
The Winter Solstice lasted for three days. Solstice comes from the Latin ‘sol sistere’, meaning sun standing still. This is because the sun appears to set and rise in the same place for three days.
In Druidry, it is believed that Arthur withdrew the sword from the stone during the Winter Solstice, but this occasion has another name, Alban Arthan, which means light of Arthur. This act gave hope to the citizens of Camelot. The Winter Solstice and several other Pagan traditions are essentially a symbol of hope in a time of darkness and a turning point of the year.
Celtic traditions like Druidry also celebrate the fight between the Holly and Oak Kings. The Holly King is a dual aspect of the Green Man, with the Oak King being the other aspect. During the Winter Solstice, the Oak King conquers the Holly King which is marked by the slow change of days getting longer and nights shorter. At the Summer Solstice, the Holly King returns to do battle with the Oak King and wins, this time marked by days starting to become shorter and nights longer.
Saturnalia was a week-long Roman festival starting on 17 December. Key aspects of this festival included feasting, gift-giving, and the reversal of roles between slaves and their masters.
The Romans also celebrated Sol Invictus on 25 December with a big feast to honour the unconquerable or invincible sun Mithras, the God of light. The Roman Emperor Elagabalus took this celebration from Persia. Persians called this holiday Yalda and Mithras was a sun God celebrated at the same time as the Winter Solstice.
Now let’s look at the traditions we celebrate at Christmas and where they come from.
Kissing under the mistletoe
Quite often you’ll find people kissing under the mistletoe during Christmas and New Year, Where did this tradition come from?
Mistletoe was very important to the Druids and Celts who considered it a powerful talisman for healing and fertility, and would bring it into their homes during Winter. Kissing under the mistletoe is linked with fertility and is also a symbol of peace. It is said that if enemies meet each other under a sprig of it, they must lay down arms till the next day.
Mistletoe also appears in Nordic tradition. Legend has it that the Goddess Frigg wanted to protect her son Baldr and prayed on every item to help him in battle, but forgot to pray to mistletoe. Baldr was invincible until another God, Loki, made a weapon out of mistletoe and killed Baldr. The berries of the mistletoe used to be red, but Frigg’s tears over Baldr’s death turned them white.
Christmas trees and wreaths
Bringing trees indoors at Christmas time is certainly not a new idea. The Egyptians decorated their homes with palm trees in Winter to honour the sun God Ra. They believed that palm leaves were symbolic of resurrection and rebirth – a recurring theme within Pagan traditions.
Bringing fir trees indoors has Nordic origins. Evergreen trees were a reminder of resilience during dark times and that Spring would come again. These trees were a symbol of Baldr (who was a sun God) and were often decorated with food and carvings of the Gods in the hope that tree spirits would return to bring Spring back.
Wreaths also come from Pagan traditions. Holly was a sacred plant of the God Saturn, and wreaths made out of holly, as well as laurel and bay, were given as gifts during Saturnalia and hung as a sign of victory. Pagans in Nordic traditions were also known to make wreaths from holly as a reminder that the sun will return.
Santa Claus and giving presents
The idea of Santa Claus and giving gifts to children is not unique to Christianity either. It has a basis in several different traditions and cultures.
Of course, we have St Nicholas who was known for giving gifts and miracles during this time. His feast day in Western Christian cultures is 5 or 6 December. St Nicholas gave rise to Sinterklaas, known in parts of Europe such as the Netherlands for keeping track of children’s behaviour. The name was translated to Santa Claus in the USA, which is what we use today in Western countries.
In Italian tradition, La Befana was a witch that delivered presents on a broomstick – gifts and sweets for good children and a piece of coal for bad children. In Scandinavian tradition, Frau Holle gave gifts to women and children during the Winter Solstice.
As part of Saturnalia and Roman tradition, gift-giving had a dedicated day known as Sigillaria where gifts were given to loved ones and wax offerings known as Sigilla were offered to the sun God Saturn.
In Nordic tradition, Children would leave food out like carrots and sugar in their boots for Sleipner, hoping for gifts in return from Odin. Sleipner is an eight-legged horse that Odin rode during Yule. Odin was often depicted with a white beard and cloak – just like Santa is today!
Carolling and mulled wine
Carolling and drinking hot, spiced alcohol isn’t new either, although it was known as wassailing to Pagans.
People would visit people’s houses singing carols with a bowl of wassail that they would all drink together. Wassail was an alcoholic drink typically made from ale and spices – similar to today’s mulled wine. It was also common to sing in front of crops and pour the wassail onto the crops in hopes that it would bring good fortune with next years’ harvest.
Apparently, Pagans would sing at each of their major festivals throughout the year, but the carolling only survived for Christmas.
No, we’re not talking about the chocolate ones that we know and love today!
Yule logs are Nordic in origin and were an actual piece of wood that was kept burning for 12 days. It was tradition to keep a part of the burnt wood, to burn next year with the new log. This was seen as good luck for the following year and the Yule log was thought to “dispel the darkness of winter”.
We all associate elves with Christmas, but elves actually come from Norse mythology. Funnily enough, they were actually depicted as tall and beautiful – kind of like the elves we see in Lord of the Rings.
These elves were known as ‘alfar’, so where did the short elves with hats come from that are typically associated with Christmas today? We find the answer in Norse mythology again; the ‘nisse’ were gnomes associated with Yule. The ‘nisse’ were short, had a cheeky streak, and red pointy hats –just like the Christmas elves we are familiar with today.
Why are so many Christmas traditions from other cultures?
The Church wanted people to convert to Christianity and needed an incentive. Instead of banning the old festivities, the Church simply adapted them to make conversion more acceptable. I wrote about this in a previous article and it is not just Christmas that Christianity adopted Pagan traditions from, holidays like Easter are also Pagan in origin.
“Pagan temples and shrines were a frequent focus of religious conflict, and bans or interdicts provoked riots and civil unrest. In that climate a complete ban on Pagan worship would be provocative, and allowing some festival practices to continue under a new religious regime would be a way of softening the transition.”– Dr Matthew Nicholls, senior lecturer in Classics at the University of Reading
What’s so important about sun gods?
People understood that the days would start getting longer, and the nights shorter after the Winter Solstice. They worshipped sun gods to ensure Spring would return.
I do find it interesting that a lot of different Pagan and cultural beliefs share similarities revolving around honouring the sun during Winter in hopes that it will return with its light again. It’s almost as if it was universal belief – but what is clear is that we can always be certain that after a period of dark, light is sure to follow.