People are super sensitive when it comes to Christmas, and that’s understandable. Much of the world has been taught that the holiday marks the birth of the Christian savior, Jesus Christ, but that’s simply wrong.
Historical evidence suggests that Jesus, the person, was born in the springtime — but that Christian missionaries adopted Yule celebrations in order to appease and convert pagans who were deeply, spiritually attached to their own holidays. Early Christians were also fascinated by the rural, rustic pagan traditions.
“Christians of that period are quite interested in paganism,” says Philip Shaw, a researcher of early Germanic languages and Old English at Leicester University. “It’s obviously something they think is a bad thing, but it’s also something they think is worth remembering. It’s what their ancestors did.”
The two most notable pagan winter holidays were Germanic Yule and Roman Saturnalia. Christian missionaries gave these holidays a makeover and they are now known to us as Christmas.
Pagan Roman Saturnalia art
Saturnalia was a lawless, drunken time in Rome where literally anything was okay — this was the original Purge, in which laws were suspended for a brief stretch of time.
Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, liberation and time (and parties!), was celebrated at what is perhaps the most famous of the Roman festivals, the Saturnalia, It was a time of feasting, role reversals, free speech, gift-giving and revelry. (read: gender-bending sex, drinking, telling people off, trading gifts and doing whatever you want).
After solstice, the darkest night of the year, the renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.
Pagan Yule re-enactment.
Scholars have connected the Germanic and Scandanavian celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht. Yule-tide was traditionally celebrated during the period from mid-November to mid-January.
Nordic countries use Yule to describe their own Christmas with its religious rites, but also for the holidays of this season. Present-day customs such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from the original pagan Yule, but are used in Christmas celebrations now, especially within Europe.
As leaders were baptized and converted, they shifted their traditional celebrations covertly, as not to upset the chieftans. Yule was traditionally celebrated three days after Midwinter, but shifted to reflect Christian dates.
Modern Wiccans and other neopagan religions often celebrate Yule as well. In most forms of Wicca, it’s celebrated at winter solstice as the rebirth of the Great horned hunter god, who is viewed as the newborn solstice sun. Some celebrate with their covens while others celebrate at home.
Everybody’s got someone like Santa Claus. He’s primarily based on St. Nicholas, a Fourth Century Lycian bishop from modern-day Turkey. Ol’ Nicky wasn’t a bad guy. One story says that he met a kind, impoverished man who had three daughters. St. Nick presented all three of them with dowries so that they weren’t forced into a life of prostitution, as dowries were expected to “pay off” families to take on the daughters.
Sinterklaas is the Dutch figure and Odin is the Norse god that Santa resembles. It wasn’t just Santa or men who did the gift-giving in those myths. There’s also the legend of La Befana, a kind Italian woman who leaves treats for children on the “Good” list, and the Germanic Frau Holle, who treats women during Solstice.
While people rarely show any excitement around the fruit-laden cakes these days, they were a real treat in times of yore. The cakes actually have origins in Egypt, and were later disseminated by the Romans as they conquered parts of Europe.
Those cakes of Egypt were just about as dense and long-lasting as the brandied, fruit-studded cakes of today.
Egyptians placed cakes of fermented fruit and honey on the tombs of their deceased loved ones so that they’d have something to munch on in the afterworld. Romans took similar cakes into battle made of mashed pomegranates and barley. Christians went into the crusades with honeycakes.
Fruitcakes are everywhere, no matter how hard you try to avoid them.
Caroling actually began as the Germanic and Norse traditions of wassailing. Wassailers went from home to home, drunk off of their asses, singing to their neighbors and celebrating their “good health.” Well, except for the hangovers.
The traditional wassail beverage was a hot mulled cider, spiked with alcohol or fermented.
Mistletoe was considered a magical plant in Europe, especially among the Druids and Vikings, and holds significance in Native American cultures. Mistletoe is no modern quirk of Christmas — even Romans partook in fertility rituals beneath the mistletoe
. Not everyone took it that far. Mistletoe stood as a neutral ground for feuding Norse tribes, who laid down their weapons in order to negotiate beneath the sexy peace plant. The Druids thought it could protect them from thunder and lightning, as well.
Whether you’ve got the urge to make out, hide from a storm or talk it out, beware — mistletoe is super poisonous. The plastic variety is a great substitute, or make it out of paper or fabric to keep your furry and/or small loved ones safe.
Romans loved wreaths and decorated everything with Laurel. Holly, ivy and evergreen are the more popular modern options today, and each one holds significance. Egyptians didn’t have evergreens, so they used palm fronds to celebrate Winter Solstice.
Christians love holly because the red berries symbolize the blood of Christ and the pointy leaves symbolize the crown of thorns. However, the advent of holly decor was around long before Christianity. Pre-Christian pagan groups believed that the Holly King did battle with the Oak King. They also thought holly could drive off evil spirits.
Romans, of course, were into laurel wreaths, but laurel was not easily procured throughout the northern reaches of the empire. Instead of laurel, they used evergreens
This Christmas, no matter what your beliefs are, smile knowing that it has come from a long line of traditions much older than we have typically been told.
Traditions that celebrate bounty, survival, and unwinding. Just make sure you end up on the “Nice” list,
unless “Naughty” is your thing.
John Matthews, The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas (Godsfield Press, 1998).
Saturnalia, Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Did the Romans invent Christmas? BBC News.
Sam Abramson "Why do Christmas carolers walk around the neighborhood singing?" 21 November 2007. HowStuffWorks.com. <https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays-christmas/christmas-caroler.htm> 9 December 2019