Some people ask the question: "Is Christmas a pagan holiday?" It is known that official Christianity adopted many features of pre-Christian paganism, such as pagan rituals, places of worship, symbolism and even some pagan deities were merged in the images of many Christian saints. All this indicates to pagan origins of Christmas. Above-mentioned process took place in every part of Christian world. It is relevant for the Eastern branches of Christianity and Western ones too. Major Christian events and celebrations, particularly Christmas and Easter bear the marks of inherited pagan rituals and traditions.
Christmas celebration was pagan event before it was adopted by official Christian churches. It was stated in the the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) that "Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts" - those authors belong to the 3rd century.
Sun worship was the important of principal part of Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, and many other pagan traditions. Because of it, a Sun-day is a holy day in many religions, and this explains the fact that major religious festivals are held at spring (equinox) and at the Solstices. It is logical to conclude that the real meaning of Christmas is a sun worship. Sun worship is one of the earliest and most widespread form of religion, especially in the ancient times. Sun worshippers held their celebrations at the Winter Solstice, marking the victory of the sun's strength over the darkness. Some ancient gods, such as Osiris or Dionysus, represented the sun and was represented by it, as was Jesus, whom the Church father Clement of Alexander called 'The Sun of Righteousness”.
Early Christians, i.e. the Christians of the first few centuries did not know for sure when exactly Jesus was born, even the season of his birth. This fact caused the grief of early Christian leaders. When they did celebrate Christmas, they generally did it at spring - in April and May.
The Bible says nothing about the birth of Jesus on December 25 (a fact that was later used by the Puritans in order to deny the legitimacy of the Christmas celebration). Moreover, there aren't indirect indications in the Bible to suppose that date of Jesus birthday. On the contrary, some places in the New Testament indicate that it did not occur during that season of year. Although, it is interesting that on December 25 there was a celebration of pagan holiday in Roman Empire, which was related to ancient religions. Thus, local followers of pagan cults celebrated their festival on December 25, i.e. on the day of winter solstice. Early Christians felt somehow alienated or endangered by the fact that pagan traditions were still widespread, so they think, “Most people are celebrating this pagan event, and it would be wise if we have our own celebration on this date. But what we can celebrate during winter solstice? Surely it must be the birth of Jesus Christ, which event is most important for us – the incarnation of God.” So it became a time of joyful festivities, celebration and worship of Christian God.
The middle of winter season has been designated as a time of celebration around many parts of the world. Centuries before the formation of Christianity, the early Europeans, for example, Germanic people, celebrated increase of light in the darkest days of winter. For many people it was a joy to look forward to longer days and extended hours of sunlight during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was in the past. In Scandinavia region, the Norse people celebrated pagan tradition Yule from December 21 through January. Men, fathers and sons were bringing large logs from forests, which they were setting in fire, thus celebration the return of the sun. Local people were feasting around bonfire until the logs burned out, which could last up to 12 days. For Norse each spark from the burning log represented a newborn calf of pig during the coming year.
In Germany, local people honored their pagan deity Wotan during the mid-winter celebration. In the ancient Rome winters were not as cold and harsh as those in the northern regions of Europe, and here the Saturnalia was celebrated – a holiday in honor of Saturn, which was the god of agriculture. The Saturnalia was a preparation to the winter solstice event, which is the shortest day of a year, recorded as December 25 in the Julian calendar. Saturnalia was known for its orgiastic nature, because starting from the week of winter solstice and continuing for a full month, normal social order in Rome was turned upside down and food and drink were consumed in excess. During this month of celebration and orgies, slaves were becoming masters and ordinary peasants were in command of great city. People from every social group and occupation were participating in the celebration.
Along with Saturnalia, Romans observed Juvenalia, the festival, which was instituted by Roman emperor Nero in 59 AD. It commemorated the shaving of Nero's beard for the first time, indicating that he had become an adult and no longer a youth. The concept of Juvenalia has stirred up a significant amount of disputes in modern age religion, with the debate between Pagans and Christians about the interpretation of their history. Due to the persecution of Christians during the reign of Nero in 64 A.D., general view of public on Christians at that time was not positive. After Nero accused Christians of setting fire to Rome, the public, looking for someone who can be blamed for this, directed their anger towards Christians instead of Nero. Since that time, there were widespread accusations that Christmas celebration by the Christians was a result of influence by Juvenalia as a pagan festival.
In addition to this, nobles and upper class people in Roman Empire had a habit to celebrate the birthday of Mithra, the god of the sun, on December 25. The Romans adopted the name and some characteristics of Mithra from the Persian (Zoroastrian) sources. In the late Roman Empire, birthday of Mithra was the most sacred day for many citizens.
In the early years and decades of Christianity's existence, Easter was the main religious event not a Christmas; the birth of Jesus was not considered a holiday or a reason for special celebration. Only in the fourth century, the official Christianity decided to introduce the birth of Jesus as a main holiday. Although there were some evidences suggesting that the birth of Jesus may have occurred in the spring, Pope Julius I chose that number i.e. December 25.
It is common belief that an official Christianity chose this date in an attempt to absorb the traditions of various pagan celebrations, for example, a Saturnalia festival. At first called the Feast of the Nativity, the custom spread to Egypt by the beginning of 5th century and to England by the end of the 6th century. By the end of the eighth century, the celebration of Christmas had spread to such distinct regions as Scandinavia. At this time, the Greek and Russian orthodox churches celebrated Christmas 13 days after the 25th. By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional (pagan) winter solstice festivals, Christians increased the chances that Christmas would be embraced by the broad range of social groups. By the Middle Ages, Christianity replaced a pagan religion throughout most parts of Europe. On Christmas, believers attended churches, and then celebrated in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to some pagan orgiastic traditions or today's Mardi Gras.
In the early 17th century, stricter versions of Christianity emerged in Europe. Subsequent wave of religious reform altered the way Christmas was celebrated in this region of world. When Puritans took over England in 1645, they vowed to fight “pagan” and “decadent” traditions of traditional Christianity and, as part of their policy, totally cancelled Christmas. When King Charles II was restored to the throne of Britain, with him came the return of the popular holiday.
The pilgrims, members of various English religious movements that came to America in 1620 and later, were similarly orthodox in their Puritan beliefs. As a result, Christmas was not declared a holiday in America of 17th century. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was not permitted in the city of Boston. Any citizen exhibiting the Christmas symbols was fined five shillings. But in the settlements where the influence of England with restored monarchy was strong, Christmas was enjoyed by most of population and passed without incident.
After the American Revolution in 1776-1783, English customs in the US stopped to be favored by locals, including Christmas. Therefore, it took nearly a century for Christmas to be declared a federal holiday on June 26, 1870. Around this time, famous English writer Charles Dickens created the well-known holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. This story played an important role especially in the United States and England in popularization of Christmas celebration by various social groups of Victorian society in England and American society.
Starting from the late 19th century, many Christmas traditions became popular customs and even the commercial events with huge economic effects. However, we should remember that they have their analogues in the history of pagan world.
Let's list some of them. For example, the Christmas caroling. The tradition of Christmas caroling actually originates from the tradition called wassailing. In the past centuries, some people – the wassailers went from door to door, singing and drinking to the health of their neighbors. The idea of this ritual actually goes back to ancient fertility rites - although in those ceremonies, villagers walked through their fields and orchards in the middle of winter, singing and shouting to drive away any evil spirits and demons that might harm their future crops. Caroling was not actually done in churches until St. Francis, in the 13th century, decided that it might be a good idea.
Of course, Santa Claus is known for everyone, but almost no one knows that he has his roots in the Dutch Sinterklaas mythology, with a few elements of Odin and Saint Nicholas. Moreover, how many people have heard of La Befana, the good-hearted Italian witch who drops off gifts for well-behaved children? Then we have Frau Holle from the German mythology, who gives treats and gifts to women at the time of winter solstice.
Today, Christmas is a huge gift-giving commercial machine for retailers around the world. However, in reality it is a quite new practice, developed only within the last two or three hundred years. Most people who celebrate Christmas think that the practice of gift giving has its roots in the Biblical tale of the three Wise Men who brought gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense to the newborn Jesus. However, this tradition can also be connected to other sources, in particular, the ancient Romans giving gifts during Saturnalia and the Calends. It is interesting that, up until the beginning of 1800s, most people exchanged gifts on New Years' Day, not on Christmas, and it was usually just one present, rather than the massive collection of gifts, which is typical in today's society.
One of the attributes of Christmas is a fruitcake. It should be noted that a fruitcake actually has its origins in an ancient Egypt. There is a tale in the world of culinary that the Egyptians had a tradition to place the cakes made of dried fruit and honey on the tombs of their deceased loved ones. In the later centuries, soldiers of Roman Empire carried these cakes during war campaigns, and they were made from mashed pomegranates and barley. There are also historical records of European soldiers participating in Crusades, carrying honey-laden fruitcakes into the Holy Land with them.
By the way, the ancient Egyptians did not have evergreen trees; instead of it, they used palms for the purpose of celebration. A palm tree was the symbol of resurrection and rebirth for them. Egyptians often brought the fronds (palm leaves) into their homes during the time of the winter solstice. This gradually evolved into the modern tradition of the holiday tree, especially for Christmas.
For those people who emphasize the spiritual aspects of Christmas festival, there is a symbolism in the holly bush. The red berries represent the blood of Christ as he died on the cross, and the leaves with thorns were associated with the crown of thorns, which he wore. However, in pre-Christian traditions of pagan world, the holly was associated with the god of winter – the Holly King, who was fighting his annual battle with the Oak King. Holly was known as a plant that could drive off and suppress evil spirits, so it has an “advantage” during the darker half of the year, when most of the other trees were without leaves and bare.
In conclusion, let's summarize some principal facts about the connection of pagan traditions and Christmas celebration. Several scientists and authors from UK reviewed these topics. According to Ronald Hutton, a historian at Bristol University in the United Kingdom, it's a mistake to think that modern Christmas traditions come directly from pre-Christian paganism. However, he said, it would be equally wrong to believe that Christmas is a modern phenomenon or has a pure Christian roots.
As an official Christianity spread throughout Europe in the first centuries A.D., it undergo an interaction with people and cultures existing in many places of the continent and having a variety of local and regional religious creeds. Christian missionaries and historians labelled all of these people together with the common term "pagan," said Philip Shaw, who studies early Germanic languages and Old English at Leicester University. The term is related to the Latin word meaning "field," according to Shaw. The lingual association has its meaning, because early European Christianity was mainly an urban phenomenon, while paganism persisted longer in rural areas. Early Christians wanted to convert pagans to their religion, Shaw said, but they were also impressed by pagan traditions. "Christians of that period are quite interested in paganism," he said. "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."
Perhaps this can explain why pagan traditions proved to be such tenacious even as Christianity replaced a paganism. The Christmas tree was invented in 17th century's Germany, said Ronald Hutton from the University of Bristol, but it clearly originates from the pagan tradition of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in the middle of winter. The modern Santa Claus is a direct successor of Father Christmas from England, who was not originally a gift-giver. However, this Father Christmas and other European versions of it are the modern variations of pagan beliefs about the spirits travelling the sky in a winter, said he.
But why the idea of partying during the middle of winter was so attractive? Historians think that it was a natural time for a feast in an agricultural society, because the work of crop harvesting is done throughout the year and winter is an “empty” season in this sense. "It's a time when you have some time to devote to your religious life," said Shaw. "But also it's a period when everyone needs cheering up."
Hutton agrees that the dark days of winter, which culminate with the shortest day of the year - the winter solstice - could be animated with feasts and festivities. "If you live in a region in which midwinter is associated with the darkness and cold, then the need to have a celebration at the heart of it, to avoid of falling into the deep depression is very strong," he said.
Stephen Nissenbaum, the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist "The Battle for Christmas" has the same opinion. "Even now when solstice means not all that much because you can get rid of the darkness with the flick of an electric light switch, it's a very powerful season," says he.
Despite the spread of Christianity, for hundreds of years the midwinter festivals did not become a part of Christianity in the form of Christmas. The fact that the Bible does not mention the exact time of Christ's birth, was not a problem for early Christians, according to Nissenbaum. "It never occurred to them that they needed to celebrate his birthday," he said.
With no Biblical directive to do so and no mention in the Gospels of the correct date of birth of Jesus Christ, it did not occur until the 4th century that official Christianity adopted this holiday. At this time, heretical beliefs, according to church's view, had spread among people that Jesus had never existed as a human being, but was a sort of spiritual phenomenon. "If you want to show that Jesus was a real human being just like every other human being, not just somebody who appeared like a hologram, then what is a best way to think of him being born in a normal human way than to celebrate his birth?" Nissenbaum said.
Winter solstice festivals, with their origins in paganism, were already widely celebrated, and the date had a fortunate coincidence with traditions to celebrate the lengthening of daylight after the winter solstice. "O, how wonderfully acted Providence that on that day on which that Sun was born... Christ should be born," one text from Cyprus states.
But if the Catholic and Orthodox Churches gradually came to adopt Christmas, the Protestant Reformation, erupted in 16th century, dealt the holiday a powerful blow. At that time, Christmas became a casualty of this church confrontation, with reformist Protestants considering it almost a remnant of paganism, Nissenbaum said. Perhaps this somehow was caused by the "raucous, rowdy and sometimes bawdy fashion" in which Christmas was celebrated, he added.
And, finally, while practice of gift-giving may be seemed an integral part of Christmas, it used to be associated with the presents on New Year's Day. "They were a good chance for people to make them feel happy at the end of difficult and lengthy year," Hutton said. The shopping fervor of Christmas contradicts, for some people, the religious meaning of celebrating Jesus Christ's birth. In some ways, excessive spending is the modern equivalent of the drunkenness that caused the rage of Puritans. "There's always been a push and pull, and it's taken different forms," Nissenbaum said. "It might have been alcoholic drink at that time, and now it's these glistening toys."