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Monday, December 4, 2023

Christmas Traditions, Paganism, and Some History

 Every year I see social media absolutely flooded with terrible misinformation about the 'pagan' origins of several Christmas traditions. I wrote about this in 2015, covering some of the main claims at the time but that was 8 years ago and its worth revisiting this one. There is a driving determination to claim that Christians stole absolutely everything from pagans which I think we need to seriously re-assess. History is rarely if ever so simple and as well we, as modern pagans, end up leaning into a victim narrative that is easily disproved and that doesn't help us. There are plenty of things to be legitimately angry with the Christian church(es) for but 'stealing' holidays and traditions from pagans isn't really one of them.

I do want to note before we dive into this and the angry comments begin that there are certainly some practices related to Christmas that do have older pagan roots, so I am not claiming that all things Christmas are not pagan, but on that same hand it doesn't mean that all things Christmas were originally pagan. As with most things its a blend, and that blend by and large occured organically over the centuries as converted people continued their own older traditions. While it is true that in some situations the Church did intentionally and with forethought co-opt pagan things - building churches on the sites of pagan temples being a prime example - in most cases with folk practices it was the people themselves who continued or adapted the traditions for themselves. This is a process called syncretization, which occurs when people try to combine or reconcile various, sometimes antithetical, beliefs or practices. A good example of this would the way that fairies were fit into Christian cosmology as beings who were between angles and demons. Usually the church authorities didn't support these practices or ideas and tried at various points to stamp them out as 'unchristian', efforts which by and large failed as people continued to follow the traditions anyway. 

I think we too often forget that the world we live in today isn't the world of 500, or 1,000, or 1,500 years ago. Christianity wasn't always the dominant religion - it began as a small religious sect in a pagan world, so its logical that pagan influences affected it. I think we also forget that not all practices and beliefs are ancient, humans innovate and create new things and beliefs and traditions. Its the nature of things. 

Now hold onto your butts, history incoming....

Christmas trees - probably the most common claim I see is that Christmas trees were pagan. They were not. There is absolutely no evidence that any European pagan culture cut down trees in the winter and brought them inside to decorate. There is a longstanding practice of bringing in boughs of evergreens, holly, and ivy to represent life overcoming winter but that is a far different practice than Christmas trees, and one that has continued to co-exist alongside Christmas trees even through today. 
     One major argument I see supporting stolen Christmas trees is people citing Jerimiah 10:3 and 10:4:
"3 For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
4They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.
Now on the surface this may seem to possibly support the idea that the old testament (not Christianity btw this would have been written around the 5th century BCE) banned decorating trees brought into a home. However, the passage is being intentionally cherry picked out of context to create this illusion. It is actually banning the creation of idols which is clear if you look at the surrounding lines:
"2 This is what the LORD says: "Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the sky, though the nations are terrified by them.
3For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
4They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.
5Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.
    So if Christmas trees aren't pagan then where did they come from? The answer is 15th century Germany and what were originally called 'paradise trees', trees that were decorated outdoors in conjunction with paradise plays, in honor of the feast day of Adam and Eve on 24 December (Tikkanen, 2023; Waxman, 2020). The trees would be decorated with apples to represent the Tree of Knowledge in the garden of Eden, as part of the retelling of that story; later paradise tree decorations expanded to include tinsel, wafers, gingerbread, nuts, straw, and thread (Waxman, 2020). By the 17th century these paradise trees were being set up inside homes, decorations included candles, and they had come to be known as Weihnachtsbaum [Christmas trees] establishing the tree as we know if now (Tikkanen, 2023; Waxman, 2020). As Germans emigrated out to other places they brought the Christmas tree tradition with them, most notably spreading the practice to England in the late 18th and 19th centuries through the German spouses of King George III and Queen Victoria (Tikkanen, 2023). 
    Christmas trees have a very explicitly Christian backstory which isn't in any way pagan. They were outdoor church decorations celebrating a story from Genesis which eventually was taken indoors in people's homes. Its pretty straightforward. 

December 25th - There are several things that float around claiming that Christians intentionally placed Christmas on the winter solstice to co-opt pagan celebrations. The truth is, as usual, more nuanced than that.
   Basically the dating of Christmas, aka Christ's birth, was based on two key factors: the belief that Jesus died on the same day he was conceived reflecting the idea that his life, like other saints and prophets, was 'perfect', and the idea that he died on the vernal equinox (Henry, 2021). If he died on March 25th, the Roman official equinox date*, then they logic went he must have been born nine months after that date on the solstice, December 25th** (Henry, 2021). This was all established during the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, so fairly long after Jesus' life but also fairly early in Christianity's existence, so while we might side eye the use of equinoxes and solstices to anchor these dates we have to also remember that the Christianity of that period was a product of its time and that solstices and equinoxes weren't understood as 'pagan' holidays but as significant cosmic events. The dating of Jesus birth in December wasn't based on any winter pagan holiday but on this idea that he died and was conceived on March 25th and ergo was born nine months from that date. The fact that it happened to be on the winter solstice just reinforced, for the people doing these calculations, that he was in fact hugely significant and a prophet. To quote Dr Andrew Mark Henry: "Though, rather than outright “stealing” between Christians and pagans, scholars see this as everyone (pagan, Christian, and otherwise) having a vested interest to link their god to a day already considered cosmologically important for half a millennium: the Winter Solstice." (Henry, 2021). 
  In other words, Christians didn't steal the date of Jess birth from pagans but arrived at the idea through their own calculations, however the fact it aligned with the winter solstice was a bonus that reinforced the idea there theory must be correct. 

Mistletoe - it has become absolutely ubiquitous to claim that kissing under the mistletoe is pagan, to the point that even generally reputable sources like the History Channel or Smithsonian include the allegedly Norse myth of Loki trying to kill Baldur with Mistletoe only to have Frigga cry over it, her tears turning to berries and reviving Baldur - which is of course not a Norse myth at all but a Victorian rewriting of the actual myth. In the story's non-Victorian version Baldur is killed when his brother Hodur throws a mistletoe dart at him, and Hel offers to release him if everything in the world cries for him, however one giantess (possibly Loki in disguise) refuses so he stays in Helheim.  A much less romantic mistletoe story to be sure.
  The truth is that kissing under mistletoe as a folk practice began in 18th century England, being noted in print for the first time in 1784 in the lyrics to a song (Moon, 2018). There are no references to the practice prior to this in any text, including those that specifically included superstitions about the plant, nor does it appear in any songs before the 1784 example (Moon, 2018). Exactly how the practice originally began is a mystery but we can be certain of where it started and in what century, and there's no evidence that it was pagan or had any pagan influences. In point of fact it is likely that the later Victorian story of Frigg and the mistletoe was created at that time to explain the existing practice of kissing under it, not the other way around. 

Puritans Banned Christmas Because it Was Pagan - another thing that floats around as 'proof' of Christmas's pagan origins is the fact that puritans in New England banned the celebration in the 18th century. It is true that the puritans, a breakaway protestant sect that emphasized extreme piety, banned Christmas celebrations in 1659 because they said such celebrations distracted people from proper religious discipline and de-emphasized the holiness of every day, however it should also be noted that they banned all holidays, including Easter, for similar reasons (Tourgee, 2021). They didn't believe in celebrating any holiday and saw them as excuses for drunkenness and bad behaviour. In fact they directly called such holiday celebrations superstitions which offended God and related them to the popular Christianity they had left behind in Europe (Tourgee, 2021). It is also likely that the 'pagan' roots of Christmas decried by the sources were actually Catholic, as Catholics were and still are referred to as pagans by some protestant churches and groups who feel that veneration of Mary and saints, in particular, isn't a true Christian practice.
   So basically, puritans did ban Christmas, not because it was pagan but because it was too much fun and might make people forget to seriously focus on God 24/7.  

Let's talk about this:

    Since this particular meme is showing up everywhere this year I also want to note that while people in Western civilization like to assume the Christianity is the dominant force everywhere in everything, that is untrue. It is a major world religion, no doubt, but not the only one. So a meme claiming that Christmas is when 'all faiths' put aside their own beliefs to be pagan is not only grossly inaccurate but also quite frankly offensive to all the other non-Christian faiths out there who don't celebrate Christmas in any way. 

      There are many things we can and should be angry at the various flavours of Christianity for, including current issues from purity culture to abuse to LGBTQ persecution. But stealing traditions that are patently not stolen isn't on that list. Let's focus on fighting against the things we should care about and can do something about, and worry less about trying to create narratives that suggest everything Christians do was stolen from pagans, especially when its clear that these things were not. Maybe its easier to be angry at injustices that supposedly happened hundreds or thousands of years ago but we need to focus on what's happening now.

End Notes
*this wasn't the actual equinox date but the date to was observed by Romans. 
**again not the actual solstice but the official Roman celebration date. This is why we don't use the Julian calendar anymore. 


Henry, M., (2021) Twitter thread Retrieved from Moon, K., (2018) Why We Kiss Under the Mistletoe. Retrieved from 
Bible references sourced from,shapes%20it%20with%20his%20chisel.&text=They%20adorn%20it%20with%20silver,so%20it%20will%20not%20totter. 
Tikkanen, A., (2023) How Did The Tradition of Christmas Trees Start? Retrieved from,day%20of%20Adam%20and%20Eve. 
Waxman, A., (2020) How Christmas Trees Became a Holiday Tradition. Retrieved form 

Folkard, P., (2015)  Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics Embracing the Myths, Traditions, Superstitions, and Folk-Lore of the Plant Kingdom
Tougree, H., (2021) How the Puritans Banned Christmas. Retrieved from 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post! I was misinformed on the origins of many of the traditions you covered. I appreciate your logical approach, all the research you did, and for including the sources.