Many people suffer from the misconception that Christmas is a Christian holiday. The earliest history of Christmas is composed of “pagan” (non-Christian) fertility rites and practices which predate Jesus by centuries. The truth is, in short, the real history of Christmas has nothing to do with Christianity. Many of the traditions which we hold dear, such as decorating Christmas trees, singing Christmas carols, and giving Christmas gifts, are rooted in the traditions of non-Christian religions.
We do not observe Christmas on December 25th because it was the date in history when Jesus was born. Nobody knows exactly what that date was, but references in the Bible show it most likely did not take place in winter. Rather it is because this was the date that the Romans historically celebrated the winter solstice. This celebration was about dies natalis solis invicti: the day of the birth of the unconquerable sun, which took place on December 22nd. The winter solstice held the promise of the return of springtime and earthly renewal. In Roman history, this was the time of Saturnalia, honoring the God of Agriculture, for the week before the solstice, and Juvenalia, a feast in honor of the children of Rome, around the same time. On the 25th of the month they celebrated the birth of the sun-god Mithra. Masters and servants traded places temporarily, and everybody had a rollicking good time. It was during Saturnalia that the tradition of exchanging gifts was established. They gave one another Stenae or fruits which were intended to bring good luck. The Romans placed an enormous amount of pressure on the early Christians to rejoice along with them, and around the time of the fourth century, they began to celebrate Christmas around the same time. It was inevitable that Christians should make a connection between the rebirth of the sun and the birth of the Son.
In the Middle Ages, Christmas was a raucous, drunken celebration which resembled a carnival. Poor people would go on a Christmas “trick or treat” around the richer neighborhoods, causing them misery if they didn’t get what they wanted.
Many other pagan traditions have been incorporated into Christmas. Yule was celebrated by the Norse in Scandanavia around the time of the winter solstice by bringing in large logs for the fire, in recognition of the eventual return of the sun. It could take as much as twelve days for the log to burn down. Meanwhile, the Norse would feast. The holiday usually lasted through January.
The Germans did not so much celebrate as honor the winter solstice. They believed that their god, Oden, flew through the sky at night passing judgment on his people. Generally, they would stay indoors during this season. When the Germanic people were converted to Christianity, their winter festival was naturally adopted as a celebration of the birth of Christ.
To the pagans, evergreens served as a symbol of winter’s inability to stop the cycle of renewal. They were important fertility symbols which were highly revered by many cultures, including the Germans and the Celts. They helped to soothe the pagans’ fears that the sun would never return, and that winter would reign eternal.
Contrary to popular belief, the tradition of cutting down a Christmas tree, bringing it into the home and decorating it is not pagan in origin, and did not appear until centuries after Christ’s birth. The Romans decorated their homes and temples with evergreen clippings, but allowed the trees to remain intact, often decorating live trees with religious icons. The Druids tied fruit to the branches of live trees, and baked cakes in the shape of fish, birds and other animals, to offer to their god, Woden. We also inherited the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe from the Druids. The Christmas tree tradition we currently practice had its origins in 16th century Western Germany. “Paradise trees” were cut down to commemorate the Feast of Adam and Eve, which took place on Christmas eve every year.
Many Christians were opposed to the merrymaking and pagan origins of the Christmas festivities, especially the more solemn Christians such as the Puritans. In England in 1645, Christmas was actually canceled. In Boston between 1659 and 1681 Christmas was outlawed, and merrymakers incurred fines for their mirth.
Early carols were sung in a circle dance by European Celts in medieval times, as a part of their fertility rituals, and were later adopted as a way to celebrate Christmas. As a result they became unpopular among Christian authority. Over the ages multiple attempts have been made to ban Christmas carols. Christmas carols enjoyed a revival when St. Francis of Assisi began to favor a more joyous celebration of the Christmas season. Another pagan custom called wassailing, or singing from door to door, also became very popular among Christmas celebrants.
Many people mistakenly state that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” They do so, because they believe people have lost sight of the true meaning of Christmas. It simply isn’t true. Christmas can be celebrated as completely secular because ultimately it is not a Christian holiday. Christmas goes beyond religious and cultural differences, and addresses something universal in all of us. For this reason it has become popular in non-Christian countries such as Japan. The truth is that Christian and pagan traditions have a great deal in common. The real need behind all of these traditions was to find a source of joy, happiness, hope, goodwill and generosity. There was a need to find ways to cope with our fears about the darkness and cold of wintertime, and to celebrate the return of the sun and the longer days of spring.
In fact, Christianity and pre-Christian pagan religion have a great deal in common. Various pagan religions shared the Christian practice of worshiping a god-man who could offer salvation in the form of heaven or condemnation in the form of hell. The concept that a son of God could be born of a mortal woman is seen in many different religions spanning the globe. These concepts are universal, except to those who are extremely divisive and have a tendency to pick nits.
The pagans were smart people who had quite a few good ideas. They respected the earth, and we have benefited greatly from their practices. There is no reason for Christians to fear “pagan” universal and earth-centered traditions. At Christmas, rather than fretting that non-Christians have forgotten about Jesus we should focus on the deeper purpose of the holiday. The main problem is that Christmas has become far too commercial and this has gotten us away from the pagan tradition of connecting with the earth. Instead, we spend the whole holiday trashing the planet with excessive buying, and cutting down millions of Christmas trees which must then be discarded less than a month later. Environmental destruction and consumerism has passed for merrymaking for many years now, but it’s an empty tradition. Celebrating the fertility of the earth is better by far. There is a strong need for a return to the family- and society-centered traditions which were established in Roman times and reestablished in the 19th century. Washington Irving’s writings helped Americans to establish Christmas as a time of giving to those who are most in need, and bridging the gap between the rich and the poor. These traditions had their roots in the practices of the real St. Nicholas, who lived in Myra in the fourth century A.D. He was born rich and inherited a great deal of money on the death of his parents, all of which he gave away. St. Nicholas is said to have thrown bags of gold into the windows of dowerless girls to save them from lives of prostitution or slavery. He was also well know for his love and protection of children. St. Nicholas is the figure behind our modern day Santa Claus myth of a generous man who delivered hand-made toys to children all over the world.
So rather than viewing Christmas as a time to break the bank, we can take advantage of it as a time to help the less fortunate. Many people ask that their friends and loved ones give to charity rather than buy them a gift. This sort of gift giving is popular among yogis who see Christmas as a way to extend their practice.
Fortunately there are many ways to reconnect with the original purpose and meaning of Christmas. Small traditions, such as placing apples or cookies on the tree, or decorating a live tree instead of a cut one, are a good way to get in touch with the way that our ancestors celebrated Christmas. Respecting the planet and understanding its powers and its limitations are important. The pagans were aware of the changing seasons and found earth-centered and social ways to cope with them. They were aware and appreciative of the sun. They exchanged gifts, but their gift exchange was not commercialized. Instead the focus was on bringing good fortune. Giving gifts of fruit has been a common practice throughout history, and is still popular today.
The Christmas holiday season is about unity, not divisiveness. At the holiday season we should forget about our religious differences, abandon commercialism and think about what is best for the planet and for humanity.
- Dennis Bratcher, “The Christmas Season.” The Voice. URL: (http://www.crivoice.org/cyxmas.html)
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- “Christmas – An Ancient Holiday.” History.com. URL: (http://www.history.com/minisites/christmas/viewPage?pageId=1252)
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- Mary Dawson, “Stories Behind the Christmas Carols.” URL: (http://www.musesmuse.com/00001238.html)
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- Greg Kane, “Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth.” URL: (http://www.pocm.info/getting_started_pocm.html)
- Ted Olson, “The Real St. Nicholas.” URL: (http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/christmas/nick.html)
- Royce Carlson, “The Pagan Origins of Christmas.” URL: (http://www.zenzibar.com/articles/christmas.asp)
- “Who is St. Nicholas?” URL: (http://www.stnicholascenter.org/Brix?pageID=38)