Popular Christmas Traditions That Are Actually Pagan
It should come as no surprise that Black Friday stampedes, splurging on the latest iPhone, and waiting to see Starbucks's latest lineup of holiday treats has little to do with the actual Christmas holiday. Christmas is selectively celebrated as a religious holiday, with many people adopting the themes of gathering, giving and merrymaking, minus the religious beliefs.
It may come as a surprise, however, that even the most most time-honored Christmas traditions have non-Christian roots. In fact, the earliest Christmas celebrations took place during the fourth century, and may not have had much to do with Christ at all. Plenty of classic Christmas practices were borrowed from early pagan cultures. Think Ancient Romans, Celtics and Druids. Keep reading to learn where your favorite annual holiday traditions were born.
The Image of Santa Claus
Santa Claus as we know him, with his white, fluffy beard and red fur coat, was mostly the work of the advertising team at Coca-Cola in the 1930s. The concept was nothing new, of course. St. Nicholas, who lived around the fourth century, was the patron saint of children and the poor. And also prostitutes, but the storybooks usually leave that bit out. He was described with a similar look to modern day Santa, and generously gave gifts and food to those in need.
St. Nick wasn't the first iteration of Santa, however. Odin, a diety from early Norse pagan societies, was described as an old man with a white beard, who took to the air on the back of an 8-legged horse named Sleipnir. Sounds familiar, no? Santa is basically a mashup between St. Nicholas, Odin, and the minds of a soda company's marketing team.
Stockings were another Norse pagan tradition based on the legend of Odin. As Yule approached, children would fill their shoes with straw and carrots to leave for Sleipnir, which Odin would swap out for small gifts.
No one began leaving coal in stockings until the 16th century in Holland. There, the legend of Krampus, a naughty counterpart to St. Nick, came to life. The demonic-looking creature would put coal in the stockings of bad children while St. Nick doled out new toys.
"Hark, the Harold Angels Sing," is undeniably a Christian carol, but caroling itself wasn't an invention of Christians alone. Many cultures practiced the tradition of singing from door-to-door to spread cheer.
Wassailing was a pagan tradition in which small groups joyfully sang through their villages to scare away bad spirits and bring good luck in the new year. The tradition didn't become a Christian one until St. Francis adopted it in the 13th century.
Brightly colored holly berries have long been used to make Christmas wreaths and other decorations, but how did that tradition really start? Back in the day, paganism was the status quo, and Christianity was the "unconventional" religion of rebels. Ancient Romans celebrated a winter holiday called Saturnalia in honor of the god Saturn. They made holly wreaths to give as good luck gifts.
At the time, early Christians were persecuted. To avoid drawing attention to their own Christmas celebrations, they decorated with holly wreaths to make it seem like they were celebrating Saturnalia. Sneaky.
Kissing under the mistletoe has always seemed like an odd Christmas tradition to us. It's an invasive weed, but Druids believed it had healing powers from the ancient oaks it grew upon. It became a sign of peace, but it wasn't a Christmas thing until much later. Quite the opposite. It was such a strong symbol of pagan beliefs that old English churches forbade hanging mistletoe at all.
Yule logs come in more than one form. There are literal yule logs crackling in the fireplace, or rolled chocolate cakes designed to look like them. Yule logs began as a medieval Scandinavian tradition during the era of Vikings.
In Old Norse, the word yule simply meant "winter." Giant logs were lit in a large hall for everyone to gather around, stay warm, share a meal and tell stories. The Yule log would be relit every morning for 12 days until the start of the new year. Oak was a popular material choice for Yule logs, and some Viking tribes carved images of the Norse gods they believed in before lighting the first fire.
The tradition centered around family and spending quality time together on cold, winter nights, just like Christmas celebrations. It's not hard to see how the Yule log concept transferred over. Religious background or no, we all like a cozy fire to share.
Evergreen trees seem ordinary today, but they carried much more symbolism in medieval times. Back then, winter was a much bigger deal. Central heating wasn't a thing, and making it through dark, snowy nights felt much more like an act of survival than it does now. While most trees and vegetation were bare during winter, evergreen trees remained as green and full of life as ever.
They represented hope and new life, and pre-Christian Europeans used them to decorate their homes all winter long. Ancient Romans also used fir boughs as Saturnalia decor. Early Christians weren't so sure about the pine tree thing, but they eventually warmed up to the idea.
We've already touched on Saturnalia, but it's worth noting that it wasn't some minor, oddball holiday. It was a mainstream celebration for ancient Romans. They spent the entire week leading up to Saturnalia partying with friends and family, and gift giving was part of the experience.
Saturnalia was largely about hope and prosperity. According to folklore, Saturn was the god of agriculture. Celebrating him was said to bring good fortune and a bountiful harvest the following year. Gift giving during this time was much different than it is now. Each present was small, symbolizing good luck and well wishes. No giant Amazon wishlists in sight.
Speaking of things Christians borrowed from the ancient Romans, Romans also were the masterminds behind the tree decorating trend. Ornaments were usually made of metal, shaped after a god, Saturn, or the family's patron saint.
Norse pagan tribes in the region that's now Germany carried out a similar winter solstice tradition, only decorating with candles and fruits in honor of Odin. Christians just squished both traditions together and called it their own.
More than one Christmas song mentions Yule. In pre-Christian times, Yule was celebrated from the end of November through early January. Back then, it was a more practical, if dark, celebration.
Feeding livestock throughout the winter posed a huge challenge. Instead of trying to feed an entire herd of cattle, folks would keep a few and slaughter the rest. The fresh meat was used for mid-winter Yule feasts, a time to slow down from farm work and gather. The timing of Yule inspired future Christmas feasting traditions, but enjoying a family feast is a universal tradition shared by many cultures.
Many Christmas traditions are nothing more than winter traditions. In medieval England, for example, mulled wine and hot cider steeped with cinnamon, cloves and anise were popular treats. At the time, spices were costly and hard to come by, so brewing these beverages was a sign of prosperity.
Wassail was also served as the great grandfather of eggnog. Named after the phrase “waes hael,” meaning good health, wassail was prepared with curdled cream, mulled ale, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, sugar and sometimes roasted apples. The rich beverage was served in big bowls to sip out of.
Even the date of Christmas wasn't originally a Christian thing. Saturnalia was celebrated around winter solstice, the date upon which days begin to grow longer once more. In ancient Rome, it was celebrated on December 25th. The day was celebrated with gift giving, caroling and candles.
Once Christianity took off, it was easy for early Christians to celebrate their own version of Saturnalia on the same day without attracting unwanted attention. December and January was also a common time of year for celebrations in general, especially in the northern hemisphere where people needed a cheerful pick-me-up during the most bitterly cold months. Christmas just happened to fall around the same time as these pre-existing holidays.
If Everything Is Borrowed, Is Christmas Even Real?
Santa wasn't Christian to start with. Nor was caroling or eggnog, so is Christmas magic completely manufactured? Of course not. Borrowing traditions from other cultures and systems of belief has been going on from the dawn of humanity. It's how new ideas take hold and spread. It's not a bad thing unless credit isn't given where credit is due.
Christianity has been the dominant world religion since the early Middle Ages, so it's understandable that we've come to see its traditions as the default. Looking further back, however, fosters cross-cultural appreciation, respect and understanding. Paganism is often portrayed as "evil," when pagan religions were once the default that Christianity is now. In reality, many pagan traditions are almost identical to the Christian ones popularly celebrated today.
That just goes to show that when we set aside our personal beliefs, we're not that different from each other than we think.
I mean, who doesn't like downing a glass of eggnog and opening presents?