Pagan Origins of Christmas

Christmas as we know it today has developed from a variety of origins, including pagan ones!  Things like the evergreen tree, mistletoe, Yule Log and even the birth date of Jesus, have come from pagan sources.

The Winter Solstice is celebrated around December 20-23, the shortest day of the year.  Yule celebrates the return of the light as it is the point from which the days grow longer until the Summer Solstice (Midsummer/Litha).

The Roman Festival of Light, Saturnalia, was celebrated around December 17, celebrating Saturn, the God of Agriculture and Plenty.  The Christmas custom of gift giving was thought to have come from this celebration.   Saturnalia was the most popular of the Roman festivals and usually lasting several days.  It was a time of great merrymaking, feasting, gambling, singing, and sometimes dubaucherous activity!

File:Pompeii - Osteria della Via di Mercurio - Dice Players.jpg

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti
The birthday of the popular Roman God, Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”), was celebrated on December 25 as “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti”.  On this date, Romans celebrated the renewal of light, birth of the Sun.

Romans also celebrated the birthday of Mithras, the Persian God of Light (the “Sun”), on December 25.  There is varying opinions on the similarity of Mithras to Jesus, including performing miracles, having twelve followers, was born in a cave to a virgin and attended by shepherds, and was buried and resurrected three days later.  Mithraism was certainly popular in the Roman Empire around the 4th century, and many effigies of Mithras were found in ancient catacombs under Rome.

File:Roman - Fragment of a Mosaic with Mithras - Walters 437.jpg

Christmas Day
Scholars disagree on what date Jesus was born.  However most agree that Jesus was most likely not born in December since the bible mentions shepherds tending their sheep in the fields, which would not have occurred during a cold Judean winter.

The date of December 25 as Christmas Day was first mentioned by the church in the 4th Century.  A variety of Christian sources (including Pope Benedict) have concurred that the modern date of Christmas was based upon previously established Pagan festivals.

Evergreen Tree
The modern day Christmas Tree rose in popularity in the 16th Century with Martin Luther lighting candles on an evergreen tree.  However in ancient times, evergreens were seen as a source of eternal life, and represented a sign of life’s triumph over death.  Egyptians, Romans, and Scandinavians revered the sacred trees, hanging evergreen boughs inside their homes during the winter months as a reminder of the return of the sun.  The Druids saw the evergreen tree as a sacred symbol, and the Norse believed the fir tree was sacred to the God Odin.

Holly, Ivy, Mistletoe
The use of Holly, Ivy, and Mistletoe has been around for centuries.  These evergreen plants were seen as signs of life throughout the cold barren winter.

Mistletoe was seen as a sacred plant, a symbol of the sun, and protector against disease.  It was also seen as an aphrodisiac, where the custom of ‘kissing under the mistletoe’ comes from, most likely a throwback to the wild times of Saturnalia.  Mistletoe is also known to some pagans as the ‘golden bough’.

Holly, with its white flowers and red berries, symbolizes the masculine, while the green vines of Ivy is seen as feminine.  Together they represent fertility.

And of course, the Holly King rules the dark half of the year, from Midsummer to Yule, only to be defeated by the Oak King, who rules until spring.

Yule Log
The Yule Log comes from Germanic and Scandinavian paganism, where burning of the Yule log symbolizes the return of the light, conquering the darkness of winter.  The Yule Log was dragged home from where it was cut, decorated with evergreens, and set alight.  The log-shaped Christmas Cake is also an incarnation of the Yule Log.

Christmas Caroling comes from the pagan tradition of wassailing, where revelers would travel door to door, singing of good cheer, drinking their brew of ‘wassail’.  The term ‘wassail’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon phrase ‘waes hael’, which means ‘good health’.  Another important part of wassailing was visiting orchards, singing and pouring wassail on the roots of trees, to promote a good harvest in the coming year.

File:Georg von Rosen - Oden som vandringsman, 1886 (Odin, the Wanderer).jpg

Santa Claus
The origin of modern day Santa Claus is debated, some saying he came from the kindly 3rd century Bishop of Myra, Saint Nicholas.  Others compare him to the Norse God Odin/Germanic God Woden, with his long white beard, riding his horse through the skies.  Children would leave straw and carrots in their boots and stockings for the horse, in which Odin/Woden would leave gifts in return.


I was surprised to find in doing research is the conflicting views on all sides about Christmas’ “dubious” origins.  Some conservative groups say that Christmas should not be celebrated at all, as it’s based on lies and unholy pagan origins, while some deny Christmas’ pagan origins entirely.

As for me, raised a Catholic and now a practicing Pagan, I feel that as long as everyone respects each other’s views, all kinds of celebrations are worthwhile and valid!  Happy Holidays!

© A Year And A Day (2012)

One thought on “Pagan Origins of Christmas

  1. Pingback: Mithras, Pan, and Cernunnos walk into a bar… « Buddhist Pagan Blog

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