Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Traditions: Their Pagan Beginnings

I remember growing up and gazing at the lights and decorations on the tree. Oh. And all the presents underneath. It all goes hand-in-hand when Christmas comes around.

The word Christmas comes from the Old English Cristes maesse (Christ's Mass), and was first used in the eleventh century. In German the word is Weihnacht (holy night). Then there are other familiar and not so familiar words, depending upon your upbringing. There is the French Noel. And then there is the word Yule which is from the Anglo-Saxon geol, which means feast, primarily the feast of the winter solstice. Ah, which brings us around to the beginnings of why Christmas is celebrated at this time of year to begin with.

It is impossible to determine the exact date of the birth of Christ. There is no mention of a date, and scholars point to the fact that Jesus was more likely born in the spring, since the shepards were there with the sheep. It is one main reason some do not celebrate Christmas (or birthdays) at all--I need not mention who, do I?

The choice of December 25th came about because the Romans celebrated the Mithraic feast of the Sun-god, and Saturnalia was also celebrated at this time, and the church, in wanting to turn the people away from these pagan observances, turned it into a day of adoration of Christ.

The Tree:
Dancing around the Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree seems to have come from early modern Germany... (where it is today called Weihnachtsbaum orChristbaum) with predecessors that can be traced to the 16th and possibly 15th century, in which devout Danish Christians brought decorated trees into their homes and danced around them.
The Christmas tree has also been known as the Yule-tree. There are numerous speculations as to its origins. Its 16th century beginnings "are sometimes associated with Protestant Christian reformer Martin Luther who is said to have first added lighted candles to an evergreen tree." But many of the 18th and 19th century traditions seem to point mostly to the lower Rhine of Germany.

Britain took it up after Prince Albert, who was German, married his cousin, Victoria, and from their the custom became more widespread.
The trimming and lighting of the Christmas tree seems to have its origin in the medieval German mystery plays, when a tree, the Paradeisbaum (tree of Paradise) was used to symbolize the garden of Eden. Back then it was fruit, nuts and cookies--and eventually candles. But then the plays were suppressed by the church, but somehow the tree was snuck into the houses. It is believed that the Christmas tree is directly from pagan tree worship, which can be traced back to ancient Rome and Egypt. By the nineteenth century the custom had spread from Germany to most of the countries of Northern Europe. Then, was introduced to England in 1841 by Prince Albert of Saxony, husband of Queen Victoria. Later on, German immigrants brought it to the United States. So, yes. The use of evergreens to decorate the house at Christmas times is very pagan to be sure.

Mistletoe, Yule log, Poinsettia:
 Another pagan tradition. The mistletoe was sacred among the British Druids and was believed to have many "miraculous powers".The Romans considered it a symbol of peace, and at some point or another, kissing under the mistletoe became popular custom. According to one legend, Christ's crown of thorns was made of holy leaves, and this is where the Christmas wreath came from.

Poinsettias were discovered in 1828 by a Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, growing in Mexico, where the plant was known as the "flower of the Holy Night". The Aztecs used it to produce red dye and for medication to reduce fever. The claims that the plant is highly toxic is only urban legend, however, if eaten by a small child or animal, they may become very sick, so, remember if you have one in the house, keep it out of reach of small ones.

The Yule Log can be traced back to the German tribes of Northern Europe, and was part of their winter solstice observance. Let's face it, you need a huge log to last a whole night of the longest night of winter! Sometimes the whole trunk of a tree was chosen on Candlemas Day (February 2) and stored to dry out until the next winter solstice. On Christmas Day the Yule log was dragged into the house, and kindled with the unburnt parts of last years log, saved for this purpose.

Gifts & Cards:
The practice of exchanging presents at this time stems from the ancient Roman custom called Strenae. During the Saturnalia Romans used to give "good luck" gifts (strenae), of fruits, nuts, pastry or gold to their friends on New Year's Day.

In England, the feast of St. Stephen, on December 26th, is called Boxing Day. In medieval times, the priests used to open the alms-boxes and distribute the contents to the poor. It later became customary to give Christmas "boxes" to servants and public workers. In Germany these gifts are called Christmas bundles. In some European countries children are told their gifts come from the Christ child. In others St. Nicholas brings them. Today, Santa somehow goes to each home throughout the world and delivers them in one single night. Well, that's the magic of the season I guess.

The first Christmas cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole and illustrated by John Callcott Horsley in London on May 1848. I've read that this could be disputed. But so can the invention of the lightbulb.

However the traditions got started, it's obvious that over the centuries they've been refined and re-defined by those who practice. Does putting up a Christmas tree make you a pagan? No. Not unless you bow down to it. I think it's all the matter of what your belief system is. I love the look of a real tree, hung with ornaments and the lights. Oh, and those specially wrapped presents underneath makes it all the more special!

Here is hoping you have a very Merry Christmas, no matter what your faith, or how you celebrate it.


  1. I think so, William. I checked my facts in two places, including encyclopedia.
    Thanks for stopping by!


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