The Roots of Christmas Traditions: From Pagan or Not From Pagan?

I heard the term solitise tree a few weeks before Christmas and irked me. Soon afterwards I fell into conversation with a few co-workers about the holiday. What really got me was the consensus of the group that was chit-chatting agreed with the idea that most, if not all, Christmas traditions were originally pagan. I, too, had heard of this but I had never given it much thought until this interaction. 

pagan-idol

Well, this happened.

So, is Christmas itself pagan? Did we try to hijack the winter holiday away from them?

To answer this let us go over some of the more common claims/accusations/theories/what-have-you one by one. And since it’s still the Christmas Season I’m gonna do it!

It is surprisingly often believed that Christmas on the 25th of December started in the 4th century after the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious tolerance in the Roman Empire thus legalizing Christianity when the Christians tried to hijack the pagan celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Unconquered Sun). This hijacking was supposedly done to gain new converts to the newly legal faith. But wait, the Edict of Milan happened shortly after end of the latest bout of persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian. So why would the Church attach one of their holy days to one belonging to the people who persecuted them? Remember, early Christians were killed for not observing the Roman holidays. It does not make much sense for them to suddenly hijack a feast day devoted to a Roman god.

As far as I can tell this idea came about sometime in the late seventeenth/early eighteenth century when it was fashionable in non-Catholic countries to be anti-Catholic, especially towards the ritual aspects of the Church. I’m looking at you iconoclastic English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians. We can mostly blame Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant preacher of the time, who wanted to demonstrate how the Catholic Church had been corrupted since the time of the apostles.

Would you believe, however, that it’s really the other way around?

Aurelian, Emperor of Rome wanted to put some pzazz, or mostly new life into his empire that was slowly but visibly dying from internal unrest economic decay, rebellion in the outliers, and attacks from the pesky German tribes from the north. So he invented a new holiday – Birth of the Unconquered Sun. Let’s take a quick look at the Latin Dies Natalis, in English ‘day of birth’. Ponder that for a moment. Aurelian was attempting to upstage the already existing celebration of the birthday of Jesus, a.k.a. the light of the world, with a birthday for the sun. Most scholars view this as nothing more than a political statement and an attempt to give a pagan significance to a day already important to Christians. Also, there is no solid historical evidence that supports the idea that Aurelian’s feast day predates Christmas.

Another thing that stood out to me during my research and conversations is sheep. Yes, you read that correctly – sheep. In Scripture, we are told that the shepherds are out tending to their flocks of sheep. Anyone who has been out at night in December knows that it’s quite cold. Too cold to let any flock out, thus pushing the actual even of Christmas to warmer months like September or March. And that would be true … for Europe and North America. But the winters in the Middle East range between 50° and 60° Fahrenheit; I think the sheep will be fine in such conditions and not too far into the realm of fantasy to believe that shepherds were out the night in question.

Next, the Christmas tree. I grew up having a real Christmas tree in the house and I have some rather fond memories when my family lived in upstate New York going to a Christmas tree farm looking for the perfect tree. Hot chocolate, and hot apple cider were involved; good times. I vaguely knew in the back of my mind about possible pagan origins of this tradition but I never gave it much thought until a co-worker of mind said he was going to decorate his solstice tree (FYI, said co-worker is a proud atheist). So, is the Christmas tree something from pagan Germany? While I don’t deny that tree worship is a thing in pagan beliefs I gotta tell you that St, Boniface, a.k.a. Apostle of the Germans, is not amused. I could tell you how awesome this guy is but, the Pope Emeritus beat me to it at one of his general audiences which you can read in this cleverly crafted link.

When traveling in Hesse he came across a community that would make a human

st_boniface_christmas_tree

Epic Saint in Action

sacrifice mid-winter to the Norse god Thor (not the Marvel variety) as the base of a mighty oak tree that was held sacred to the thunder god. There are many various of what happened, but the general gist is that St. Boniface stopped the sacrifice and cut down the oak tree. To the surprise of everyone except St. Boniface and his gang, no lighting clashed down the displeasure of Thor. Nearby the stump of the oak tree there was small fir tree growing and St. Boniface took the opportunity to evangelize. Using the attributes of the fir tree he described God – the triangular shape representing the Trinity, and the evergreen color representing God’s eternal love for us, for example. With the remains of the oak tree he built a chapel and through the rest of the winter months the fir tree was kept inside of it to act as a reminder of those truths.

But it is Martin Luther who we thank for the modern Christmas tree. He took St. Boniface’s winter tree and added candle lights in an attempt to recreate the effect of seeing starlight shining through trees in a forest at night. Christmas trees became a popular tradition in Europe and also became popular in North America once the Puritan influence began to decline. Overall I suppose one could say that there is a slight pagan influence in so far of seeing the divine in nature, which in of itself is not bad.

Mistletoe is guilty of killing Baldur and is another item changed of being a pagan influence on Christmas traditions. It’s a cute little tradition, kissing under a hanging sprig of mistletoe. This is a rather modern practice having nothing to do with ancient pagan beliefs.  When I say modern I mean circa mid-18th century and it was mostly a party game for Christmas. The party game pretty much unchanged to today. The pagans associated the mistletoe with fertility since it bloomed during coldest time of the year when everything else did not. It was actually consumed to help with fertility. In reality, eating the mistletoe has the opposite affect since its an abortifacient. So, yeah . . . not pagan just a party game.

There is another claim that Santa Claus is really Odin, the Norse Allfather. Yeah . . . I’ll save that for a future post. Spoilers: he’s not.

To summarize:

  • December 25th was used by Christians before the Roman pagans.
  • It is not unbelievable for sheep to be out getting a midnight snack in winter in the Middle East.
  • Christmas tree, German – Yes, pagan -No
  • Mistletoe = Christmas party game.

This is only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s several strong points to use next time someone says to you Christmas is really pagan.

So at the end of this year’s Twelvetide, a.k.a. Twevle Days of Christmas, I bid you a Merry Christmas!

About Olivia Bushey

A (Jedi) Master of Library and Information Studies, who creeps along in dusty archives learning about the past and making sure things are not lost to time and neglect. A cradle Catholic who geeks out over her faith, sci-fi, fantasy, and meeting other people who do the same.
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One Response to The Roots of Christmas Traditions: From Pagan or Not From Pagan?

  1. Foxfier says:

    About the sheep angle– it gets better.

    Not only do the sheep from that region lamb in December, that is when the Passover Lambs would have been born.

    https://aleteia.org/2017/12/10/biological-evidence-that-jesus-actually-was-born-in-december/

    There’s also the cool note that, being for sacrifice, you’d want the lambs to be spotless– so there would’ve been shelters for the sheepherds to take them into, if need be. Cloths to wrap them in, mangers of hay.

    Makes even the whole “house of bread” thing look like Himself has a heck of a sense of humor, huh?

    ***********
    The thing that probably attracted the pagans’ attention to mistletoe is most likely what got attention to it for the party game– it’s a pretty, bright colored little thing in the middle of winter that you don’t really MIND if it’s killed.

    Like

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