Just how Christian is Christmas? As is the case with many other holidays, Christmas can trace it origins back to ancient Pagan traditions. Although it was named after the Cristes maesse, or Mass of Christ, and is thus primarily associated with Jesus and Christianity, its origin predates their existence by thousands of years.
Similar solstice celebrations have taken place throughout recorded history. Ancient people celebrated the victory of light over darkness from Asia to Africa and from Europe to the Americas. The festival of Christmas is actually an amalgam of Babylonian, Christian, Greek, Jewish, Mithraic, Pagan, Roman, and Zoroastrian religious traditions. In fact, the celebration of nearly all the solar saviors has historically occurred at this time; including the worship of Adonis, Apollo, Attis, Baal, Baldur, Dionysus, Frey, Jesus, Mithras, Osiris, Tammuz, amongst others.
As with nearly everything else in our modern society, the origin of Christmas has its foundations in Babylon with an ancient festival known as Sacaea. It represented the Twelve Days of Chaos, when the new year would rule over the old, summer over winter, good over evil, and order over chaos. The festival itself was only five days and was based on a king-sacrifice concept; whereas, a slave was clothed as the head of each household and a clown would take the part of the king. There was also a human scapegoat who would be given all indulgences until the end of the festival, when he was sacrificed. It is also associated with the Hebrew celebration of Purim, which follows the Fast of Esther, representing the deliverance from an imperiled slaughter in Persia.
About four thousand years ago, ancient Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of the sun at this time of year. They set the length of the festival at 12 days, to reflect the 12 divisions in their sun calendar. They decorated with greenery, using palms with 12 shoots as a symbol of the completed year, since a palm was thought to put forth a shoot each month. Christianity correlates the 12 days of Christmas as the time it took the wise men to arrive in Bethlehem.
In what is today Scotland, in the first millennium B.C.E., the ancient Druids celebrated the Winter Solstice with a vast celebration that marked the death of the old season and the rebirth of the new. Eventually the Persian and Egyptian, Persian, and European customs merged in ancient Rome, in a festival to the ancient god Saturn.
In one of its early Christian forms Christmas was known as Saturnalia, named after the Roman god of seed and sowing, Saturn. Like many other Pagan traditions it marked the changing of the seasons, this particular one marking the eve of the shortest day of the year and the return of the coming spring. The solstice marks the entry of the Sun into the Zodiac sign of Capricorn which is ruled by the planet Saturn.
As the most popular holy-day of the Roman year, it was a time of great merriment, with decorative greenery, gift exchanges, burning Yule logs, the abandonment of social customs, children could head the family, people cross-dressed, transvestitism was common, wars were postponed, grudges forgotten, quarrels disbanded, and businesses, courts, and schools were closed. The week-long Saturnalia festival was celebrated from December 17 to December 23. In the cycle of the ages, the period of Saturn was a time of plenty and equality, and thus Saturnalia was a momentary relapse to a happier time. There is no doubt, even today, that overindulgence, even by Roman standards, held a large place in the festival. It was probably this debauchery that lost favor with the church when Christmas was temporarily abolished by 17th Century English Puritans.
For a week during Saturnalia, servants were granted their freedom, reportedly being allowed to eat meals, drink alcohol, and speak freely with their masters. In an ironic twist, the masters were even said to serve their servants. The idea may have been that slaves would become more compliant if relieved from their cradle to grave existence, if only for a brief time each year.
In the 4th Century, Constantine moved Christ's birthday to December 25, thus merging the traditional festivals of Dies Natalis Sol Invictus (Day of the Birth of the Undefeated Sun) and Saturnalia into Christmas to celebrate the birth of Christ. Even the timing of Saturnalia varied throughout the history of Rome. It began as feast days for Saturn, the god of Agriculture (earlier merged with the Greek Cronos) on December 17 and Ops, the Goddess of Plenty, mother of the Earth (and partner to Saturn and Consus) on December 19. With the advent of the Julian calendar, Saturnalia was held on December 17-18 and Opalia on December 19-20. During later times it was extended to a week from December 17-23. It was also associated with Dies Juvenalis (from Juventas, Goddess of Young Manhood who's related to the Greek Hebe of Youthful Beauty), the Coming of Age for Young Men in mid-December; Consualia (named after Consus, the God of Harvested Grain), the end of sowing season festival on December 15; the Feast of Sol Invicta, set in 274 C.E. on December 25; Brumalia, Winter Solstice of the pre-Julian calendar on December 25; Janus Day (from the God of Beginnings and Gates) and the Beginning of Calendar Year set in 153 B.C.E. and again in 45 B.C.E. on January 1; and Compitalia, the blessing of the fields festival on January 3-5.
It would seem that the holiday functioned as a safety valve for society, a time when people were allowed to blow off steam within the setting of an annual festival. In many respects the analogy of today's holiday season or annual office party to this ancient festival is uncanny. Many of the religious artifacts and rituals that have become associated with Christmas also have a narrative worth mentioning.
Saint Nicholas was said to have been born in Asia Minor in 326 C.E. and has been known for millennia as the patron saint of children. It is claimed that he was fond of giving them surprise gifts. St. Nick's festival was on December 6, but the practice of gift giving followed the Paganistic tradition and was later moved to Christmas. The custom of descending the chimney originates from his being a mystical person who must never touch the ground, thus leaving a pathway to the open sky. Part of the 'Father Christmas' story may date back to the Norse god Odin/Woden who would also give to the poor, and who used to ride across the sky on his sleigh pulled by reindeer. Another Norse deity, Freya, for twelve days after the winter solstice, was said to drive a chariot pulled by stags while giving out presents to the good. Eventually these different traditions were joined into a single entity that we know as Santa Claus.
Santa Claus himself was a Dutch corruption of 'San Nicolaas' when settlers brought the holiday with them to America. In 1822, Clement C. Moore was the first to describe him in modern detail in a poem as a present to his children. Up until that time he took on various descriptions including a skinny elf or Cernunnos dressed in green. In 1931, the Coca Cola company commissioned an artist to draw a jolly old Santa in red and white as their corporate logo. It is probably no coincidence that a powerful red and white hallucinogenic mushroom from northern Europe is the favorite food of reindeer. It was even used in pre-Christian sacraments and was said to emerge from the bits of spittle and blood that fell from the mouth of Odin/Woden's horse as he flew on the Winter Solstice. In the Norse tradition, the reindeer also represented an ancient horned god.
The Christmas Tree was introduced to European culture as the fir of Odin/Woden or the pine of Attis. The pine tree under which the god Attis had been killed was made into a shrine by devotees and was decorated with gold and silver bells and ornaments, hanged with streamers, and consecrated with gifts. Candles or lights on the tree symbolized the Sun, Moon, stars, and the souls of those departed. Christianity adopted the gifts as those of the three Magi and the lights as the symbol of Christ as the Light of the World.
Wreaths were common before the appearance of the Christmas tree. These Kissing Boughs were bound together in a globe or wreath, hung from the ceiling, and adorned with apples, ribbons, and presents.
Gift Giving is reminiscient of the earlier Norse traditions associated with the Christmas tree and the devotional gifts to the gods. Of course, these customs were also a large part of the Roman Saturnalia festival.
Christmas Carols were once banned in Cromwellian England where they were thought of as wanton licentious behavior. Fortunately, they were brought back at the Restoration and with the 19th-Century renaissance of music became seasonal hymns at churches worldwide. Of course, nearly all of the traditional carols are of Pagan origin.
Holly was associated with the old Pagan Holly King, and with the god Saturn, and not a crown of thorns, as many Christians have been taught to believe. Nor did the berries represent the blood of Christ. One long standing tradition asserts that holly was the wood of the cross, hence the magical power of Hollywood.
Mistletoe is an ancient Druid fertility symbol and, rest assured, was analogous with more than just kissing. Decorative greenery also expressed the Celtic belief that life had not died out in winter.
The Yule in northern Europe was named after the Norse god of winter, Ullr. This dates to an old Scandinavian custom, where an oak or pine log was kept burning for 12 days before the midwinter celebration. It was festooned with evergreens (mostly ivy) and bright ribbons as it was brought home ritualistically. Tradition dictated that a piece of the Yule Log was saved to light the following year's log. The ashes of the Yule fire were sometimes strewn in the fields and gardens to promote fertility and the rejuvenative power of fire. In Greece, the season was celebrated by their 12-day festival with alcohol and merrymaking which was oversaw by the god of wine and revelry, Dionysus.
As mentioned above, Christmas was never a celebration of Christ's birth until the middle of the 4th Century when the Church fixed it's date. Instead, it became a way of twisting Paganistic beliefs to Christianity's benefit, converting more disciples for the new religion on the block. Old customs die hard, however, and it is still practiced today in its ancient traditional form in many cultures and Wiccan groups around the world.
SOURCES: The Aquarian Dictionary of Festivals (1990) by J.C. Cooper · Calendar of the Roman Republic (1967) by A. K. Michels · Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic (1981) by H. H. Scullard · Macrobius: The Saturnalia (1969) translated by Percival Vaughan Davies · The Pagan Book of Days (1992) by Nigel Pennick · The Roman Festivals of the Period of the Republic (1899) by W. Warde Fowler · Sacred and Legendary Art (1891) by Anna Jameson · Saturnalia: Winter Solstice in Pagan Rome (1993) by Selena Fox.
Note: This is an excerpt of a pending book entitled "The Hidden History of Holidays." If you would like to be notified when it becomes available fill out the form below.
This book is being written one holiday at a time:
Other book projects include Mystery of America and Secrets We Live By (Pending).
Tédd is an author, lecturer, researcher, videographer, and amongst other interests is writing several books on a variety of topics.