Friday, December 10, 2010

The Pagan Roots of Christmas, part 1

For a few years now, I have been very interested in pagan religions, as well as pre-Christian and early Christian Europe. I love knowing where things - ideas, traditions, symbols - come from. This is one of the reasons for why Pagan Europe is one of my themes for the One, Two, Theme! challenge I'm co-hosting with Alex.

Some of those who have already signed up for this challenge have asked if they could start reading early, before the start of 2011, and we said 'sure'. So I started with reading The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas by John Matthews. I've only read two chapters so far, but there is so much in that I want to talk about already that I decided to write several posts, as I gather interesting tidbits to share with you.

I already knew that Christmas celebrations are loosely based on the Roman feast of Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to Saturn, God of agriculture, which lasted from 17 to 24 December. Masters and slaves switched places, schools were closed and everyone ate and drank themselves silly for the duration. One of the Saturnalia traditions was gift-giving, which is where our own tradition comes from.

I did not know, however, that Saturnalia was followed by the Kalends festival, in which the gaiety continued with people in masks (including animal masks) went around singing and dancing. This tradition is still alive and kicking in many countries, including in mine, Poland, where (in certain regions) when Christmas is over youngsters dress up and go around singing and dancing, hoping to collect coins from their grateful audience. The young Poles who do this are called kolędnicy, a name which is too similar to Kalends to ignore the connection.

I also knew that lots of our Christmas traditions come from paganism - this makes sense of course, since Christianity was built on what was already there. John Matthews' book is giving me a lot more detail though and since it all fascinates me, I wanted to share some of that detail with you.

Loads of traditions all over the world have a story of a wonder, miracle child being born. In ancient Rome, it was Apollo's birthday that was celebrated on December 25th and this came from a celebration of the Sun on the same date. Apparently, the Church didn't make December 25th Jesus' birthday until the 4th century...

After Apollo, it was an Iranian/Persian deity called Mithras who celebrated on December 25th. Mithras dates back to the 6th century BC and was very popular in Rome. Some of the parallels between his life and that of Jesus are incredible, including that when he died he didn't really die, he ascended to heaven and will come back at the end of time to participate in judgement.

Emperor Constantine, who is credited with making Christianity the state Roman religion, was himself a follower of Mithras before he converted. Even after, he kept links to paganism, especially to sun worship.

(Constantine was not only the first Christian Roman Emperor, he was the one who transformed the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium into Constantinople.)

The story of Egyptian God Osiris also has similarities to Jesus' story. Osiris was murdered by his brother Set, who dismembered him and hid the pieces all over Egypt. His consort Isis restored him to life on December 25th.

I'd tell you about some of the others, but then I would just be copying the whole book out here and that wouldn't really be an efficient use of my time. :-)

Enough rambling for one post, I think - except to say again how much I love to read about where our traditions come from. Like the 12 days of Christmas, which start on December 25th and end on January 5th. Here in Belgium, on January 6th they have cakes with a hidden ring in each - whoever finds the ring wears a crown for the day, similarly to the master/slave reversal that was part of the original Saturnalia festival in ancient Rome.

These old traditions are alive all over the world - just the other day raidergirl was explaining how attached people on Prince Edward Island are to Old Christmas, on January 5th. I think it wonderful that communities like hers are keeping tradition alive.


Ana S. said...

Oooh - I've been looking for a book on this topic for years! I think you might have found it for me :P

Anonymous said...

The pagan roots of things are always fascinating to me. There's a few childrens books that I've read to my kids about The Winter Solstice but it's hard to find books on the subject that don't make Pagan cultures sound quaint & unenlightened.

gregasola said...

Thanks for your stimulating "ramblings." After Saturn, most of the gods you mention with birthdays on the 25th were Sun related. Sun is 'born' because though days stop getting shorter on the 21st, they don't begin to lengthen til the 25th.

But I think we overlook something important whilst debating dates and changes. Those ancients viewed the Sun as divine, which is why they honoured the date. Science never disproved this; the Church simply banned it. Remember that our life force is energy, not flesh.

It might sound crazy to us but made sense throughout the ancient world. Google 'sunofgod' to shed more light.

joanna said...

Nymeth - I looked for a long time too and there aren't many... So far I like this one.

jupiter - or just hippy-ish... hate when pagan religions are oversimplified to nature-love. If you have any kids books you can recommend I'd love to have the titles - we'd like to introduce our son to a variety of cultures too...

gregchaos - yes, the Sun connection is of course key. I hope to talk about that in a later post. Thanks for your thoughts!

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

Sounds like an incredibly fascinating read! As someone who isn't religious I find the parallels between Christianity and the other religions and belief systems so interesting--especially how many of the christian traditions are so deeply entwined with the Pagan roots.

Hope you do more rambling on this topic!

gregasola said...

Thanks Trish, there's a just released GoldRing radio interview with me rambling on the subject at