Some folk may be aware that in recent years I have moved away from my Christian upbringing and become more interested in the natural world around me and developed an interest in esotericism, the occult and paganism. With the annual celebration that is Christmas almost upon us, I thought it was a perfect time to have a look at the origins of this particular Christian festival.
Looking more generally to begin with, there’s little doubt that paganism influenced early Christianity as the Roman Catholic church implemented a system of “Interpretatio Christiana” during the time of Pope Gregory I, whereby the church adopted pre-existing pagan rituals and declared that they were now undertaken in honour of the Christian god. Indeed, there is a school of thought that says the Catholic church used syncretism to incorporate and blend elements of pagan religions and practices into its own belief system and associated practices.
Christianity began to spread into Anglo-Saxon England from the late 6th century, steadily replacing their paganism, a belief system that allowed for many gods rather than the Christian approach of a single god. As well as adopting native pagan practices, the Christian church also used many existing sacred pagan sites to build their own places of worship.
Turning to Christmas, then, where can we find its origins? Let’s take a look at some of the things that we associate with it this time of year…
Christmas tree – trees were sacred in many pre-Christian traditions. In Celtic and Germanic paganism the oak tree was particularly revered. Evergreen trees, garlands and wreaths were symbolic of eternal life and elements of tree worship survived the Christianisation process.
Santa Claus – originally a different figure to that known as Father Christmas, Santa’s appearance owes something to the Norse god Odin – the hooded, cloaked figure with a big white beard who rode through the northern sky on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir.
Yuletide – this is a term used in connection with the Christmas period and comes from a pre-Christian festival held over twelve days from 21 December. Jölfuðr, one of the many names given to the aforementioned Odin (Woden to the old Anglo-Saxons), means Yule father. Obviously the yule log comes from this too.
Mistletoe – the druids had a ceremony in which they used mistletoe to aid fertility and vitality and this seems to have led to its incorporation into Christmas decorations as something for lovers to kiss beneath.
Holly – again this dates from druid times, when it was worn in a wreath upon the head, being connected with the winter solstice. In pre-Christian Roman times it was associated with the sun god Saturn. The Roman festival of Saturnalia, which ran from 17-23 December, was in honour of this deity.
Candles – during Saturnalia candles were used extensively as a symbol of the search for knowledge and truth. The festival led up to “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” (the birthday of the unconquerable sun) on 25 December. It’s worth noting that present giving, drinking, feasting, singing in the streets and general debauchery were essential parts of Saturnalia.
As we can see, there are a fair few elements of the Christian Christmas that have no origin in Christianity at all. Even the date of Christmas Day itself as the birthday of the “son of god” seems to have been appropriated from the birth of the “new sun” of the pagan winter solstice.
It was also the birthday of Mithras, another ancient deity worshipped in the Roman empire. Perhaps it’s understandable, then, that Christmas was banned by the Puritans in the 17th century because of its pagan origins.
For many people today who are embracing modern paganism or druidry, this time of year is a celebration of the winter solstice. Advent (again, pre-dating its Christian connotations) is a time to prepare for the coming of the light. The new sun. From this point on the days will get longer and the earth will get warmer again.
Damh The Bard, a pagan musician and practising druid, wrote a great piece on the question of Christmas vs. Solstice, here, and what he has to say makes a lot of sense to me. I personally feel that the season lost its charm some time ago. Maybe that’s partly the result of growing older, but is I think also a reaction to how materialistic and commercialised the whole thing has become.
Ultimately, whether you celebrate this season in honour of a “sun god”, or in honour of the “son of god” (and maybe that’s just a different spin on the same thing anyway?!), it’s surely better to celebrate it honestly in accordance with your beliefs, with the best of intentions and to enjoy the time with family and friends ahead of the coming year, that’s what I’m fully intending to do…