Christmas traditions “borrowed” from pagans:
- Gift-giving and the holiday of Saturnalia
- The image of Santa Claus & Xmas stockings
- Christmas carolling
- Deck the halls with holly
- Christmas tree decorating
Thought mistletoe, carolling, wreaths, and gift-giving were for celebrating Christmas only? Think again! A lot of our traditional Christmas celebrations and activities were actually influenced by the practices of Pagans. From decorating trees to feasting, drinking, and hanging up stockings by the fireplace – a lot of our favourite Chrissy traditions are steeped in Pagan roots.
Who are the Pagans?
Pagan is a sweeping term that could mean anyone from Romans to Celts and the Norse. When Christianity was spreading through Europe in the early centuries, missionaries were coming across several groups of people following different religious beliefs. These people and religions are referred to as ‘Pagan’.
Despite wanting to spread Christianity throughout the continent, there was a lot about the Pagans that intrigued and interested Christians, and that could be part of the reason why we’ve adopted so many of their customs and beliefs today.
Celebrating winter solstice
Read this article to the end and you’ll find that Christmas borrows traditions from Romans, Celts, Norse, Druids, and more. How does it just so happen to coincide with special Pagan festivities and celebrations? Well if you’re in the northern hemisphere then December is the time of winter solstice or the shortest day of the year. For the primarily agricultural Pagans, this time usually calls for a celebration.
Winter marked the end of harvesting work for the year and an opportunity to take a break from the fields and enjoy yourself. The time off farming work meant Pagans could devote themselves to their Gods and enjoy the company of those around them, and hence it became an important time for celebration. Winter in the northern hemisphere can also be cold, dark, and hungry, so big celebrations were a great way to stave off depression and enjoy the good stuff.
Here are just some of the Christmas traditions have developed from Pagan roots.
1. Gift-giving and the holiday of Saturnalia
Between the 17th and 24th of December, Romans would celebrate Saturnalia, a Pagan holiday honouring the god of agriculture, Saturn. This week would be spent much like Chrissy is today – with lots of eating, drinking, gift-giving, and merriment.
Rather than spending hundreds of dollars on gifts as we do, though, Romans only exchanged small gifts for good luck, hoping to bring in a bountiful harvest in the next year. They’d also skip the huge list and exchange gifts only with one other person. Somewhere along the line, exchanging gifts for luck and prosperity transformed into a multimillion-dollar business – whoops!
2. The image of Santa Claus & Xmas stockings
You might already know that our modern day image of a bearded Santa Claus dressed in red was shaped by a 1930s Coca-Cola advertising campaign, but did you know the figure himself also has Pagan roots?
Before Santa, we had the notion of Father Christmas, otherwise known as St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, the poor, and (funnily enough) prostitutes. St. Nicholas was a generous bishop who lived in the 4th century and was known for giving gifts to the poor. He’s generally portrayed as a friendly old man with a big beard and long cloak, much like our beloved Santa.
Even before that, though, was Odin, a deity worshipped by early Germanic Pagan tribes. Odin was another old man with a long, white beard, often portrayed riding his 8 legged horse Sleipnir through the skies (just like Santa’s reindeer). During the winter, kids would leave their booties by the chimney for Sleipnir, filling them with carrots and straw as gifts. Odin would fly by and reward the children with little presents in their boots (just like Christmas stockings).
Our modern-day Santa Claus is inspired by a fusion of St. Nicholas, Odin and Coca-Cola’s brilliant character dressed in red.
3. Christmas carolling
Going from door to door singing Christmas carols developed from the Pagan tradition of wassailing. The term itself comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, which translates to ‘good health’. Wassailers would travel through their villages and fields in small groups, singing together to banish evil spirits and wish good health to those around them.
They’d accompany their wassailing with drinks made from mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted apples, eggs, spices, and sugar (sounds yum!) Carolling was adopted by churches in the 13th century by St. Francis, becoming the much-loved event we see today.
4. Kissing under the mistletoe
What’s so special about mistletoe, and why is there a Christmas tradition of kissing underneath a sprig hanging from the ceiling? Well, it turns out that the Pagans had quite a thing for mistletoe. Everyone from the Celts and Romans to the Norse and Druids considered mistletoe to be a sacred plant, and it was involved in several rituals.
For the Romans, mistletoe honoured the god Saturn. To keep him happy, they would perform fertility rituals underneath sprigs of mistletoe – yep, that’s exactly what it sounds like. We don’t go that far under the mistletoe these days, and that’s probably a good thing considering most of the family tends to be around.
For the Druids, mistletoe was a symbol of joy and peace. It’s said that if enemies met underneath a woodland mistletoe during times of war, then they had to drop their weapons and form a truce until the following day. We’ve swapped out the truce for a kiss, which makes sense since most of us aren’t participating in wars.
5. Deck the halls with holly
Another sacred plant of the Pagans, holly was revered by the Romans as a plant of the god Saturn. During Saturnalia, Romans would make holly wreaths and give them as gifts (remember the small gifts we mentioned earlier?) During early periods of Christianity, followers of the religion were persecuted for their new belief system, so they had to keep their Christmas celebrations a secret.
Luckily Christmas coincides with Saturnalia, so Christians would hang holly wreaths around their homes so as to avoid detection and make it seem like they’re celebrating Saturnalia. Gradually, holly’s links with the celebration of Saturnalia faded – along with Pagan religions – and it became a huge symbol of Christmas time instead.
6. Christmas tree decorating
You can’t argue that the Romans had a huge impact on the way we celebrate Christmas today, and this is just one more Christmas tradition inspired by Saturnalia. During this holiday period, as well as drinking, eating, and exchanging gifts, Romans would also hang small metal ornaments on the trees outside their homes. Each of these ornaments was designed to represent a god (either Saturn or the family’s own patron deity).
Early Germanic tribes also practised a similar Christmas tradition, decorating their trees with fruits and candles in honour of the god Odin during winter solstice. It seems we merged the tree decorating, ornaments, candles, and fruits to make Christmas tree decorating one hell of an extravagant tradition!