Merry Pagan Christmas
The reason for the season? If you ask many a Christian during Christmas about what the reason for all of these lights, decorated trees, Mistletoe, gift-giving and merriment is, they will inevitably say that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” After all, that is what this coming holiday is all about, right? Jesus’ birthday? December 25th?
But the history of this holiday is much murkier than that. Today, I want to trace some of the influences on how we celebrate Christmas by taking a quick look at some of the obvious pagan roots of the holiday while noticing how little it fits in with an image of Christianity.
Briefly, Christmas is the result of the Roman Church, for hundreds of years, trying to incorporate Pagan traditions into their own … in order to more easily bring Pagans into following the Roman brand of Christianity. By melding Pagan traditions and rituals with stories about their Jesus Christ, not only did it calm the Pagans down by allowing them to keep their traditions, but it subsequently created the modern Christmas that is celebrated today, with little of it actually being derived from the Bible itself.
The New Testament is all about Jesus. Jesus did this, that, and some other things and some people wrote about them … at one time or another. One of those things was actually being born (supposedly). And at the time of this being was born, some Magi (Persian Astrologers / Priests) came, bringing gifts, and then …. many years of apparent nothing much going on until before he was much older and wiser - and, apparently, then later became God.
But when did this happen? The bottom line is that we do not know. What we do know is that it DID NOT happen on the date December 25th (or any corollary date of another calendar), not even likely that time of year. Scholars simply do not know, because the records that we have are not clear about when this event would have happened, if it ever did happen. Most guesses seem to think that the Spring was much more likely, and some dates such as March 28th, May 20th, and even September 11th exist as guesses. For astrological reasons, December 25th was chosen for nearly every Godman’s mythological birthday … so why not Jesus as well. The Roman Church picked the date at one of it’s Councils, and it was proclaimed.
Concerning what YEAR Jesus was supposed to be born in, we are not clear on this either. The Catholic Church is even clear that the date probably did not happen in the year 1 CE (or the year 0, for that matter). The bottom line is that nobody is sure of what Jesus’ birthday is, let alone how old he is exactly, or honestly, if he ever was literal and historical.
Back in Roman days, they had their own festivals. Lots of them. Mostly based on either ritual beliefs, astrological events, or seasonal celebrations. For a week at the end of the year, starting on December 17th, the Empire would start their Saturnalia festivities. During this week, and among other activities, Romans would choose an “enemy of the Roman people,” whom they would feed, pleasure, and generally fatten them up…for the kill. Literally. They would murder them at the end of the festivities as the representation of evil or the “Lord of Misrule.” It was sort of like the old scapegoat idea from the ancient Hebrews … only way worse. Now are you starting to see a connection? Not quite?
See, the problem is that when, in the 4th century, the Roman Empire officially accepted and then adopted (and forced) Christianity as the religion of Rome, not everyone was happy about it. See, in addition to the fattening up and killing of some (probably) innocent person, there was also sexual license (sometimes meaning rape) and other merriment going on that week of Saturnalia which people seemed to like. Drunkenness, exorbitant feasting, etc.
Thus, it was decided that in order to keep the Pagan people happy, Christians were permitted to continue celebrating Saturnalia, and to make the last day of the festival, December 25th, as the birthday of Jesus. Never mind that the Roman God Mithra already had a birthday on that date, and that it looked like Jesus had already stolen a bunch of things from this older Pagan God (such as being the mediator between god and man, being the way to obtain immortality, came to save humanity from evil, etc), because Jesus Christ was trendy while Mithra had been around a while. Mithra was also kinda reserved for the hierarchy and not the common people. Speaking of Mithra(s), let’s go to our next section of this article.
See, those Pagans, with their beliefs, had this idea that around the end of December the days suddenly started getting longer. Many stories likened this to the sun dying throughout the year, and for a few days it just seemed to be that the days stopped getting shorter and then, in turn, longer again. This was seen as a cause for celebration that the sun will not die and the next year will come after all. That’s a good thing, according to ancient pagans. Warmer weather, a new harvest of food, etc.
Mithra(s) also has many stories associated with him. His association with the sun is well-known, especially by the ancient Pagans. So one of the important days for those that followed the Mithraic rituals was December 25th, the dies natalis solis invicti, or ‘the birthday of the invincible sun.’ Due to the existing Pagan holiday, and the Roman Church’s desire to incorporate Pagan people into the Christian world, Jesus’ birthday was selected as this date during the 4th century.
Santa And Nicaea
The 4th century was a pivotal time for the development of Christianity among the Holy Roman Universal (Catholic) Church. In 325 CE, after Constantine solidified his control of the Roman Empire at the battle of Milvian Bridge (313 CE), Constantine wanted to make sure that his Empire would have a central and official Church that could be a solidifying force for the people throughout. To do so, he would have to settle the various disputes between the churches. Thus he convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 … and there were representatives, bishops, priests, shamans, presbyters, etc. on hand to participate in this massive project.
Besides voting on which scriptures to include into their new canonical Bible, the Council created the Nicene Creed, which defined the orthodox teachings about who Jesus was, what happened to him, etc. Up for grabs was whether Jesus was a man, the son of God, or God himself. Athanasius’ view won out over others, such as Arius who was considered a heretic afterwards. But, I digress. Let’s move on.
Bishop Nicholas of Myra
One of the senior Bishops who attended this Council was the Bishop of Myra, who was born Nicholas of Parara, Turkey (270–346 CE). He was a popular and influential Bishop who had followers for many centuries after his death. In the 11th century his bones, considered holy relics, were moved to Bari, Italy. During this time the relics, as well as Nicholas’ image and persona, was associated with a Pagan goddess called Pasqua Epiphania, who was known for leaving gifts in children’s stockings according to mouth to ear legends.
Eventually, people would start to give gifts to each other on January 6th, which was the date of Nicholas’ death (also now called Epiphany). This tradition spread to the Germanic and Celtic people later, who further associated the image of Bishop Nicholas with their god Wodon (where we get the word ‘Wednesday’). Wodon had a long white beard and rode a horse through the heavens in autumn, according to Norse mythology.
Eventually, the now Roman Catholic Church, in its continued attempts to integrate Pagans into their Church, adopted the Nicholas cult into official Catholic tradition. They changed the date of the traditions of gift-giving, and so forth - to December 25th - to coincide with the changed accepted date of Jesus’ birth.
During the 19th century Nicholas became “Saint Nicholas.” The imagery of the god Wodon with Saint Nick had already taken root throughout much of Europe. But in 1809, with Washington Irving’s Knicherbocker History, we see a reference to this image of Saint Nicholas as the Wodon-like, flying-horse riding, white-bearded man who was referred to as Santa Claus, which was the Dutch name of this derived image of ST. Nick/Woden.
In 1822, Dr. Clement Moore wrote a poem, partially based upon Irving’s book, called A visit from St. Nicholas which goes something like this:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there; … you know the rest.
It was here that we see the image of Santa Claus appear, with his blending of images from Wodon, Pasqua Epiphania, and other images such as the replacement of Wodon’s horse with eight flying reindeer. This is a poem we still listen to this time of year, but very few of us actually ever knew where the images came from.
Later, with the drawings of Thomas Nast, who invented the ideas of elves, the North Pole, and his list of naughty and nice children, the image comes closer to our own. It was not until 1931, when Coca Cola developed the red suit (to match their red labels), that the Santa we know today come to be. Yup … Coke.
The evolution from influential Bishop to red-suited jolly man with elves took over 1500 years. And it was the efforts of the secular Holiday Marketing and Advertising Industry that sealed it for us. Thus, the images of Santa, the central image of Christmas today in many ways, is entirely based upon mixed pagan folklore and consumerist imagery.
Hebrews and Christmas
Hebrews did not start celebrating Hanukkah as a major holiday until relatively recently. This was probably due, at least in part, to the fact that they had no Christmas to celebrate and wanted a party of their own. Who doesn’t love a party? And they beat out the Roman’s week long celebration of Saturnalia by upping the ante to EiGHT days. Competitive and innovative, the Hebrew people could be quite often.
But Christmas has not always been a time for Hebrews to have a nice day off to do whatever they do on December 25th now. In the past, Hebrews/Jews were often harassed, humiliated, their property destroyed, and in some cases they were even attacked and killed.
In 1466, Pope Paul II made the Hebrews run naked through the town. In the 18th and 19th centuries many forms of anti-Hebrew sentiment prevailed. In 1881 in Warsaw, Poland 12 Hebrews/Jews were killed, many more maimed, and their property destroyed. Christmas was not a festive time of year, but a time of fear throughout much of Europe for Jewish people. Anti-Jewishness runs deep in Christian history, and a lot of it was expressed during the Christmas time of year. After all, many thought it to be the Hebrews/Jews who called for the death of Jesus. In fact, it was the Priests. Much like today, killing the story of Jesus from the pulpit with their substitute literal historical banter. But, that’s a whole ’nother article.
In a post-NAZI era, we often forget that the hatred of Hebrews/Jews was rampant in the Christian world. We forget that ghettos, stereotypes, and false ideas about Hebrews/Jews killing and eating Christian babies were common. And with heightened emotions, pressures, and so forth that still exist around this time of year someone had to be blamed. It was often the Jewish folks who felt the brunt of it all.
What about the Tree
Decorating trees was also a part of Pagan tradition. The Ashiera (Goddess Ashera) cult was known for decorating, painting, and otherwise displaying trees as part of their worship. This was even known to that ancient prophet Jeremiah, who wrote about it in multiple section of the Old Testament.
But in a further attempt to placate the Germanic Pagans, this tradition was largely adopted by Christians and has become part of the celebrations. Some Christians are aware of the verses from Jeremiah quoted in the Bible NOT to do the tree thing, but most either don’t care or claim that Jeremiah is not actually talking about Christmas trees. Well, technically he wasn’t, but he was talking about a similar pagan tradition that did ultimately inspire and become what is now known as Christmas trees. A few devout Christians don’t put up Christmas trees for this very reason.
Some Christians, due to the Pagan influenced nature and origins of this Winter Solstice Holiday, don’t celebrate Christmas at all. In Massachusetts, from 1659–1681 for example, Christmas was banned by the Puritans. So much for the traditional American holiday being part of what America is all about. I guess the Puritans didn’t know anything about traditional America. Of course many Christians celebrated anyway, despite Puritanical views. Thus, this HUGE traditional holiday is still strong, and the retailers LOVE it. Were it not for all the gifts being bought and exchanged, the retailers would fall on very hard times.
So, the next time you are under some Mistletoe, (derived from the Pagan story of Baldar, who was killed by Hoder with a Mistletoe arrow while fighting over the love of Nanna), remember that we kiss under it because of the sexual license of the old Roman Saturnalia. But, remember also, that Mistletoe was a sacrificial poison used by Druids in order to perform human sacrifices. Yeah, there was a lot of that going on way back when also … not just among the Druids, but all over the world. People always trying to appease the Gods with higher and higher sacrifices. If they only knew it was just rain and a thunder storm.
Tradition of Good Times
I know. I get that it is no longer about these old Pagan traditions, at least not for most folks but I also know that for most people it is not about Jesus either. This should make sense since it’s association with Jesus is shaky anyway. It’s the most wonderful time of the year … etc.
I know people like pretty trees, lights (not to mention Yule logs), and good food with people they love. All of this is great, and I would not ask anyone to stop celebrating. I love to celebrate. My personal view is that there is little of meaning in the holiday itself that I want to be a part of. I am all about getting together, eating good food, etc., and so I like the parties and gatherings that happen this time of year. My spiritual beliefs are no longer aligned with the Christian church, simply because of all the years of research I have done about it all. I will say that I am a very spiritual person, but much more like the Ancients and their Inner Mysteries than any literal historical interpretation.
You can tell me “Merry Christmas” and I will respond with something like “have a great Holiday Season” simply because it is not the Christian holiday that I am celebrating but rather life, love, family, and friends … and the festive nature of the Winter Season. I love the lights, but I can no longer celebrate the Holiday as “Christmas” as I once did. For me, it is a time to reflect on the wonderful family and people in my life, and that I’m still here to enjoy them. I have a new granddaughter Sofiah that is my celebration this year.
And for those Christians offended by seeing someone write “X-mas” rather than “Christmas” … I have news for you. The reason is that the “X” is not supposed to take Christ out and make it secular. The “X” is one of the oldest symbols of Christ. The ancient Christians would write the “X”, which is how the Greeks wrote the letter “chi” which Christ starts with in Greek, to symbolize their Christianity. The common symbol of Jesus from early on, which is still used, is the Chi-Rho symbol, which is an expansion of the simple “X” first used.
Thus X-mas is not an atheist or generally secular creation to get Christ out of Christmas. It is a reference to an ancient Christian symbol, and is thus more likely to take the Pagan Santa out of Christmas. But either way, Pagan or Christian, Christmas does not suit me. Even though I am an Ordained Philosopher and Clergy Member, and and Ordained Interfaith Universal Minister, within my organizations we accepts all people from all faith … and no faith at all. I believe Mankind is One with the universe and we are all One with each other. I believe “Jesus” is in every man, and “the Christ” is in every man. It is up to us to find the Divine Spark and go from ego nature, to Christ nature.
I prefer to no longer participate in the rituals and so forth. You do what you like, and enjoy however you do it. I will be more than happy to gather with friends and family, have some coffee, light a fire, smoke a cigar … and celebrate Life among the living. If there’s a tree, fine. If we exchange gifts, fine. If we start singing Jesus songs … I will sit quietly and let everyone enjoy their beliefs. It’s my goal to merely state what I find. I have no interest in changing anyone’s beliefs, or converting anyone … or “saving” anyone. I share what I find, and I believe I have the right to speak my beliefs just like everybody else.
Happy Holidays, and have a safe and prosperous New Year!
Just a thought …
~Justin Taylor, ORDM., OCP., DM.