Humans as a species love to take inspiration from different cultures, customs, and traditions, and believe it or not, Christmas is no different. If you thought those cozy traditions you knew and loved were just about celebrating Christmas, think again! Things like kissing under a mistletoe, caroling, wreaths, and even gift-giving were all aspects of pagan holidays that were adapted into Christmas celebrations in the early years.
Decorating trees, feasting with loved ones, hanging up socks by the fireplace, and drinking yourself silly is no different – they’re all a part of pagan history and sacred holidays. In fact, most of the cultural aspects we associate with Christmas are steeped in pagan roots.
Some pagan traditions that have become associated with Christmas:
- The image of Santa Claus,
- Christmas stockings,
- Christmas caroling,
- Decking the halls with holly, and
- Decorating trees.
First things first, what do we mean when we say pagan? This is a sweeping term that encompasses anyone from the Romans to the Norse in Scandinavia. As Christianity spread through Europe in the early ADs, missionaries got to know a lot of different groups of people with varying religious systems and beliefs. All of these people and religions were lumped into the catch-all term of ‘pagan’.
Although Christians had the goal of spreading their religion across Europe, they were still quite fascinated by many of the customs and ways of the pagans. Clearly, they were fascinated enough to pick up a few of those beliefs and traditions and adapt them as part of Christian celebrations!
Keep reading and you’ll find that Christmas is inspired by traditions from the Romans, Celtics, Norse, Druids, and more (all pagan). At the time, all of these different groups shared one big celebration that just happened to fall around Christmas time – the winter solstice. People living in the northern hemisphere celebrate the winter solstice (or the shortest day of the year) smack bang in the middle of December, and this is why Christmas just so happened to fall around the same time as many existing pagan holidays.
The winter solstice was a huge part of pagan life. As they were primarily agricultural people, winter marked the end of the year’s harvest and the chance to enjoy the company of loved ones and rest from toiling the fields. Pagans could stop farming through the winter and instead devoted themselves to worshipping their various gods and celebrating with those around them. As winter in the northern hemisphere tends to be a dark, cold, and hungry period of time, the winter solstice was celebrated to help keep people entertained and enjoy themselves until the sun rolled around again.
So, now that you have an idea of the background, let’s look at some pagan traditions that have become associated with Christmas.
1. GIFT-GIVING AND SATURNALIA
Not only is December a time to celebrate the winter solstice, but between the 17th and 24th of the month, the Romans also celebrated Saturnalia. This was a pagan holiday in honor of the agricultural god, Saturn. Romans would spend the week of Saturnalia much like how we spend Christmas holidays today – feasting, drinking, giving gifts, and being joyful.
These days we fork out lots of money on Christmas gifts, but back then the Romans exchanged small gifts for the sake of good luck. The idea was to give a gift in the hope of bringing in a bountiful harvest the next year. Rather than have huge lists of gifts to give, the Romans also shared only one gift with one other person. Somewhere along the line, giving gifts for luck and prosperity became a multimillion-dollar business… isn’t that funny?
2. SANTA’S IMAGE & CHRISTMAS STOCKINGS
Our current modern-day image of Santa Claus, clad in red fur with a big white beard, was largely developed by Coca-Cola in the 1930s. But the idea of an old man giving gifts to children dates much earlier than that, back to the time of the pagans.
Father Christmas, otherwise known as St. Nicholas, was a patron saint of children, the poor, and prostitutes. Living around the 4th century AD, St. Nicholas was a generous bishop who was known for giving gifts to the poor, sporting a big beard and a long cloak much like the Santa we know and love.
But even before St. Nicholas, there was another bearded old man called Odin. This deity was worshipped by early Germanic pagan tribes, traditionally portrayed as an old man with a long, white beard with an 8-legged horse called Sleipnir who he would ride through the skies (just like Santa’s reindeer). During the winter, kids would fill their booties with carrots and straws and leave them by the chimney for Sleipnir to feed on. Odin would fly by and reward the children with little presents in their booties, much like we do with Christmas stockings today.
The Santa Claus we all imagine in our heads today is a mishmash of the generous St. Nicholas, the god Odin and Sleipnir, and Coca-Cola’s iconic red-dressed character.
3. CHRISTMAS CAROLS
While the carols we sing for Christmas are undeniably Christian, the tradition itself of going door-to-door singing to your neighbors comes from another pagan tradition called wassailing. The rather funny word comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase of ‘waes hael’, translating to ‘good health’. Every year, wassailers would roam through their villages in small groups, singing loudly with the aim of banishing evil spirits and wishing good health to those around them.
No wassailing group was complete without their traditional drink on hand – made from mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, spices, and sugar. In the 13th century, St. Francis took inspiration from these happy choirs and started the tradition of Christmas caroling.
4. KISSING UNDER A MISTLETOE
Ever wondered about the correlation between mistletoe and kissing? Well, funnily enough, the tradition goes all the way back to the pagans. Everyone from the Romans and Celts to the Druids and the Norse had a thing about mistletoe. It was considered to be a highly sacred plant, involved in several pagan rituals.
In the Roman world, mistletoe honoured the god Saturn. To keep him happy, they would perform fertility rituals underneath sprigs of mistletoe – yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like! We’ve certainly toned it down as far as mistletoes are considered, and left it with just a simple kiss – probably a good idea since family is always around.
In the world of the Druids, mistletoe symbolized peace and joy. In times of war, if enemies were to meet underneath woodland mistletoe then they would drop their weapons and form a truce until the next day. In a way, kissing is a form of truce…
5. DECKING THE HALLS WITH HOLLY
Mistletoe wasn’t the only sacred plant for pagans. Holly was another holy plant connected with the god Saturn. During the Saturnalia holiday, Romans made holly wreaths to exchange as gifts for good luck. At the time of Saturnalia, early Christians began to celebrate Christmas, however, they were often persecuted for practicing their new religion. It was lucky that Christmas coincided with Saturnalia as it allowed Christians to harbor a cover for their Christmas celebrations.
To avoid detection and make it look like they were celebrating Saturnalia, Christians started hanging holly wreaths around their homes. This allowed them to recognize other Christians and still do something nice to celebrate their sacred holiday. Eventually, as pagans decreased, holly became a symbol of Christmas instead of Saturnalia.
6. CHRISTMAS TREE DECORATING
We sure have taken a lot of inspiration from the Romans, and tree decorating is just another borrowed tradition! Besides feasting, drinking, and exchanging gifts during Saturnalia, Romans also hung small metal ornaments on trees outside their homes. Each of these little ornaments represented a god, either Saturn or the family’s personal patron saint.
Early Germanic tribes practiced a similar tree decorating tradition, this time with fruits and candles to honour the god Odin throughout winter solstice. Christians seemed to have merged tree decorating with ornaments, candles, and fruits to make Christmas tree decorating one extravagant tradition.
7. THE YULE LOG
Today, people enjoy Yule logs at Christmas as a chocolate dessert. However, in the times before Christmas trees and when an open fire was the only form of heat in winter, a Yule Log burning in the hearth was the centerpiece of the Christmas festivities. Robert Herrick, writing in England in the 1620s or ’30s described how gangs of young men introduced the Yule log to the house with great ceremony. It was hauled indoors, accompanied by song, and toasted as the master of the house lit it with a piece of the previous year’s log as kindling.
None of this sounds very Christian- because it wasn’t. Some believed the Yule log was a hangover from Anglo-Saxon fire ceremonies held at the Winter Solstice. However, the custom of the Yule log wasn’t exclusively Germanic- because it was found all over Europe. No one can say for sure what the symbolism of the Yule log was. Its light and the time of its burning at midwinter suggest it celebrated the returning power of the sun. Its ashes were also usually scattered across the fields, indicating it was believed to protect and enhance fertility for the year ahead. However, the Yule log could also have had a more prosaic purpose. For its sheer size made sure it would burn all day- meaning no one would have to rebuild the fire during the midwinter festivities