Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday? Yuletide Traditions With Ancient Origins
Ever heard someone say, keep Christ in Christmas? Well, pagans like to say keep Christmas…pagan! Which begs us to question, is Christmas a pagan holiday or a Christian holiday? In this article, we’ll take a look at some of our most beloved Christmas traditions, meals and legendary figures and see just how ancient and pagan they truly are.
7 Reasons Christmas May Be A Pagan Holiday
There are many reasons why Christmas is indeed a pagan holiday, but we’ll start with saying that it was once called Yule by the Norse and Germanic peoples (modern pagans continue the ancient ways by calling it Yule). But truly, nearly every ancient pagan peoples had their own Winter festivals and celebrations. The old Twelve Days of Christmas tradition began on the Winter Solstice and extended to New Years Eve…a tradition that originated with the ancient Norse and Germanic people. Prior to Christianization. When the Church sought to convert the “heathens”, they found it easier to allow them to keep their Yule celebrations rather than stamping it out completely. They just called it Christmas and changed the celebration of the old gods to that of the new one – Jesus Christ. And called it Christ-mass.
1. The Christmas Tree and Wreath
Does it seem likely the Church thought up the custom of decorating an evergreen tree? It’s not likely, because this is an inherently pagan tradition. Decorating trees, particularly evergreen trees, with ribbons and charms predates the Church by thousands of years. We believe the ribbons and decorations were originally used as offerings to the evergreen trees’ spirits. And to honor the life-death-rebirth cycle so apparent during the Winter season. Interestingly, the word Yule, taken from the word Jol, may have originally meant wheel. And so, theory goes that the Christmas wreath is actually a symbol for the Wheel of the Year, signifying the changing of the seasons and the life-death-rebirth cycle.
2. Feasting and Parties at Christmas-time
In ancient times, our ancestors had no refrigerator. No freezer. No electricity. Which also means no central heating. Winter was a harsh time, and quite a few people lost their lives to disease, hunger, and the cold. So, at the Winter Solstice, the true beginning of the Winter months, people would lighten the mood and celebrate with a great feast. It was also a necessity to slaughter the livestock for preservation and religious purposes. Which meant – feasting was required! Today we often have a ham at Christmas time. This may be a tradition reminiscent of the sacrificial yule boar that was once offered to the Norse god Freyr at Yule. In addition, meads and ales were typically ready for drinking at this time.
3. Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday? Let’s Look at Santa Claus a Little Closer
Santa Claus is one of the most well-known mythical figures in the world. He is particularly popular in the United States and in slightly different guises throughout Europe. Folks today might think Santa Claus has always been around. But he’s a fairly modern version of ancient divine Wintry figures. Christianity claims that Santa Claus originates in the story of Saint Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian bishop of Greece who gave his time to the poor and disadvantaged. However, modern pagans see Santa Claus’ as a continuation of the old gods of Yule, namely Jolnir (translates to the Yule One)…better known as Odin. Let’s compare the two:
|Odin “Yule One”
|White hair, long beard
|Gray/white hair, long beard
|Drives Sleigh with 8 Reindeer
|Rides Sleipnir, eight-legged flying steed
|Flies the skies on Christmas Eve
|Leads the Wild Hunt – a procession that flies the sky in Winter
|We leave cookies & milk for Santa
|We sacrificed livestock and gave offerings to Odin on Yule
|Brings presents to the children and fills stockings with candy/treats
|Children left food out for Sleipnir; Odin would reward those children and leave them treats
Ded Moroz (Morozko) is the Slavic Santa
But Odin isn’t the only Winter deity that seems eerily similar to our modern Santa Claus. Let’s look at the Slavic mythical figure known as Ded Moroz. His name translates to “Grandpa Frost”. Look up a picture of Ded Moroz and you’ll mistake him immediately for our jolly ol’ Saint Nick. In fact, Ded Moroz brings presents to well-behaved children in Russia and some Eastern European countries throughout the Winter season, namely on New Years Eve. He is sometimes accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka, the Winter Maiden. Scholars believe he was once considered a Snow Demon in ancient times, keeping in mind the term “demon” originally meant an immortal spirit, rather than an evil minion of the Christian devil’s.
The tradition of giving gifts during the Winter season is ancient and spans cultures. In Ancient Rome, Saturnalia was an ancient Winter festival that celebrated the god Saturn during the month of December. The Romans gave each other gifts during this time. This tradition is reflected in the story of the three wise-men and the gifts they bring to the newborn Jesus. But gift-giving isn’t limited to the Romans or to baby Jesus, as the ancient Germanic peoples also gave gifts to one another. This was a transfer of blessings for health and abundance.
5. The Pagan Yule Log
While this isn’t as common a tradition as it once was, the yule log is still around. The yule log custom requires a family to select a specific log to be burnt little by little each of the twelve nights of Christmas. This is yet another Christmas tradition believed to have ancient pre-Christian Germanic origins. The yule log was a form of sympathetic magic, in that it represented and welcomed the return of the sun. Additionally, the yule log warded off illness, evil spirits, lightning strikes to the home and fires. In modern times, folks still burn a yule log and spread the ashes over the garden or property to welcome good luck in the coming new year.
6. Yule Singing, Wassailing and Caroling
Caroling, choirs, and concerts at Christmas-time are some of our favorite Winter holiday events. But where did they come from? I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I say, caroling is an ancient solstice custom. Yule singing, also called caroling, originates in the Wassailing tradition made most popular in England. The term wassail comes from the Old Norse word ves heill which means good health. So the idea of singing to people, or in the orchard wassailing custom to sing to the orchards, meant to bless the people or property at the receiving end of the song. While caroling claims to be a Christian invention, and may very well be, singing to others (and to orchard trees) during the Winter season is pagan and precedes Christianity.
7. Christmas Lights
I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite Christmas traditions was driving around looking at Christmas lights. My family and I still keep this tradition alive. I also see this as a pagan Christmas tradition. Hoping for the return of the sun, ancient people lit bonfires, burnt yule logs, and candles as a form of sympathetic magic. While I can’t prove this, I believe our tradition of Christmas lights also reflects this ancient Yuletide practice. Sympathetic magic means like draws the like. So light = light.
8. Christmas was outlawed?
There was a lot of rumors circulating a few years ago that Christmas was once considered illegal in the United States and England. Then there was a counteract movement of folks putting out information stating Christmas had never been banned. So which is true? Apparently Christmas was indeed illegal in England, according to Historic England, from 1644 to 1660.
And Massachusetts outlawed Christmas in 1659, literally called the “Penalty for Keeping Christmas”. Because festivals were considered a “great dishonor of God and offence of others.” They believed mid-Winter should be a time of praying and piety, not frivolity. This information was procured from Mass.gov, the state government of Massachusetts. So yes, Christmas was indeed illegal in England and in the U.S. during the seventeenth century. Luckily, not for long though!
So, Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?
Now we answer the question is Christmas a pagan holiday? To be fair and accurate, Christmas isn’t just a pagan holiday. It’s a combination of Christian customs and secular traditions with ancient pagan roots. Just like the majority of our holidays including Easter, New Years, and even Valentine’s Day. No matter if you’re a pagan, Christian or otherwise, Christmas, Yule and the Winter holidays are fun to celebrate. So there’s no point in arguing over who owns the rights to it! You can keep Odin, Morozko, Santa and Jesus in Christmas, if you want.
More Christmas and Yuletide Fun:
- Yule Cookies: 10 Cookie Recipes for a Sweet & Magical Winter Solstice
- Winter Gods & Goddesses: Berchta, Odin, Cailleach and More
- Yule Recipes: 13 Traditional & Modern Winter Solstice Meals and Beverages