Merry Christmas, You’re a Pagan: 12 Holiday Traditions and their Pagan Origins
Updated: Dec 24, 2018
The season of celebration and traditions during the Month of December are deeply rooted in Pagan beliefs that predate the birth of our homeboy Jesus. When we say ‘pagan’ we mean it is a person who holds beliefs that are outside of main world religions. The word has a history of being used as a way to label non believers from believers but really, we all have our ‘pagan ways’. The most popular winter traditions we are accustomed to all originated from pagan rituals and beliefs. What we now call Christmas is a great collection of ancient pagan culture and rituals that have since been adopted into ‘Christmas’ ever since Mary had to explain to her husband why she popped out a holy baby and 3 random men came to bring gifts.
1. The Winter Solstice and the Season of Yuletide
The last season to complete our yearly cycle starts with the Winter Solstice. It is the shortest day and longest night of the year and a time that symbolizes death and rebirth. The Winter Solstice is a time that has been celebrated all over the world for centuries, and for us in the West, we know it as Yuletide or Christmas. Yuletide is the celebration of the return of the ‘sun’ and the start of a new year and new cycle. The feasts, gift exchanges, parties, adorning, and honoring/worshiping were (and still are) part of “The Festival of Rebirth and The Return of the Sun”. With the ‘long night’ that comes with the Winter Solstice also comes nightly activities. In European folklore there is this shared story about the ‘wild hunt’ that goes hand in hand with the night of the winter solstice. This is when magical creatures all have the freedom to come out to play, deliver gifts and tricks. Our traditions of lighting candles, logs, creating wreaths and leaving out cookies, all steam from protection rituals to ward off the curious creatures from entering the home who like to play tricks on you, like elves. As Christianity expanded and grew in power, the Winter Solstice celebration was transformed from the welcoming of the SUN to the birth of the ‘Invincible SON’. The date moved to December 25th when Pope Julius 1 said so… no really. Apparently in the beginning the birth of Jesus wasn’t celebrated at all (probably because Mary was in hiding so no one knows the actual day he was born ) but Jan 6th was celebrated, the day the three Wise Men showed up and saw baby Jesus.
2. The Yule log
The Yule log was burnt on the night of the winter Solstice, which is the shortest day and longest night of the year. The log was lit to protect the household during the long night (this is beginning to sound a lot like Game of Thrones) and the spirits who have freedom to roam. The selecting of the Yule log was a ceremony in itself. It was usually selected at the beginning of the Yule Season and left to sit out as a decoration until it was time to burn it. They were decorated with evergreen branches, pine cones, holly sprigs, and candles. Depending on where you lived, the traditional Yule log varied. If you were in England, it was an Oak tree, Scotland was the Birch tree and if you were French it was the sweet Cherry Tree. And if it wasn’t enough that the French selected a fruit tree as their traditional Yule Log, it was also custom to sprinkle a little wine on the log before it is burnt, so it smells nice and sweet when it’s burning. Gotta love the French! The Yule log symbolizes new beginnings and the welcoming of the Sun’s return. Because of that, it was important that the person lighting the log has clean hands and intentions. The Yule log was lit with a small piece of leftover log that had been saved from the previous year. Believing the ashes were mystical, people spread them on fields in the hopes of encouraging fertilization in the spring. And guess what? They were right! Ash from burnt wood contains a lot of 'potash', which helps plants flourish. A small piece of the log was always saved and used to start the fire the following year. Nowadays people commonly know the Yule Log as a deliciously rolled chocolate cake in the shape of a log. And guess who traditionally makes these baked goods? Only the best chocolatiers in the world, France and Belgium.
3. Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Yuletide Tree
We have all seen it on some Christmas movie; the family tradition of picking out the Christmas Tree. Whether its fake or real, for anyone who celebrates with a tree, it is the hallmark tradition to kick off the season (if you don’t believe us, ask Charlie Brown). What we call a Christmas tree today, is originally known as The Yule tree and the ceremony of picking out the perfect Yule Tree was important during the Yuletide season. It is traditionally an Evergreen Tree (or other pine trees) because it is the only tree that stays green….forever. There is a story about the evergreen tree being the only tree that believed in the sun's return to the sky and because of that the sun granted the evergreen tree eternal life, and that is exactly what it symbolizes. Much like the yule log, the yule tree was decorated with pine cones, holly, mistletoe and candles. Wreaths and boughs were made with evergreen branches because they were believed to protect the homes and ward off evil.
4. The Gingerbread
Run, run as fast as you can, you’ll never catch me, I’m the gingerbread man!
What the hell was the gingerbread man running from you ask? Probably all the hungry Pagans during Yuletide. We’ll find Germans making miniature homes out of…..GINGERBREAD during the Winter celebrations. It should be of no surprise that Gingerbread houses originated in Germany seeing it was the Grimm's brothers who wrote about a couple kids getting cooked inside one. When the Crusaders returned from their missions in the Mediterranean, they brought back Gingerbread spice to Western Europe. The Middle Ages were rough. Not only did you have the plague but you had laws on bread. Yeah, BREAD. The common folk had ‘common bread’ and then there was ‘specialty bread’. At the time, there were strict laws regarding specialty breads and what ingredients could be used and when. Gingerbread was not only considered a specialty bread but it was EXTRA special because it was only allowed to be produced during the Holidays. This is how gingerbread is associated with Christmas celebrations.
Fun Facts; folk medicine practitioners would create gingerbread men for young women to help them get the man of their dreams. If she can get him to eat her cookie, then it was believed he would fall madly in love with her. Or, if patience is not a virtue of yours, you can eat a gingerbread husband yourself to help lure him your way.
5. Kissing Under the Mistletoe
Mistletoe is that fun little bushel of leaves and white berries that at one time or another, we all had hoped to meet under with our crush and share a Christmas kiss. For the Nordic pagans, mistletoe represented male fertility, abundance and everlasting life. The druids would harvest the mistletoe from the sacred oak trees and maidens would gather underneath the trees to catch the falling branches, preventing them from falling to the ground; for if this happened, it was believed that all sacred energy in the plant would pour back into the earth. The branches and sprigs were hung over doorways as protection and worn as an amulet for fertility. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe may have originated from an ancient Norse mythology story. The story tells of Baldur, one of the most loved gods who was killed by an arrow made of mistletoe. His mother who was the Goddess Frigg, who upon hearing of her son’s death, cried intensely for her son. As her tears fell on to the arrow, some leaves turned to berries that she placed on his wound and revived him. Frigg, being overjoyed but her sons resurrection, blessed the mistletoe plant with a kiss to all who passed beneath it. The kissing custom actually became a thing when it was published in a book by Washington Irving in 1820.
Fun Fact: Did you know that mistletoe is actually a parasitic plant that grows on trees? There are 3 kinds of butterflies that depend on mistletoe for survival. Though the berries are toxic for humans, they provide food for tons of other animals during the cold scarce winter nights.
6. Holly to my Jolly
Holly, the small berry producing evergreen tree, was once considered sacred and a symbol of protection. Today, it is one of the iconic symbols for Christmas and is used for decoration on wreaths, trees and stockings. Interestingly enough, holly has been used for its diverse powers as protection against unwanted spirits. The Druids regarded holly as a symbol of fertility and eternal life and believed to have magical powers. Ever wonder where holy water comes from? Pagans and Druids use to create water soaked in holly leaves and then left under a full moon overnight for added potency. Babies were sprayed with “holly water” for protection and the plant was also hung in the home for luck. That is why it is used to decorate doors, windows and fireplaces. Holly is sacred to the Germanic underworld goddess, Holle who symbolizes everlasting life, goodwill and potent life energy. Together, mistletoe and holly represent the Sacred Marriage.
7. Santa Claus, the Pagan Gift Giver
The American concept of Santa Claus comes from ‘Sinterklaas’ which was the Dutch name for the real life Saint Nicholas of Myra, a 4th century Greek Bishop. He was known to wear a red cloak and was a patron of children. He was like Batman and Robin Hood all mixed in one. He lost both his parents when he was young and used his wealth to help the poor and sick. After he died he became a patron saint in Russia and Greece. He was loved and honored on his day, St. Nicholas day, December 6th and is when children receive their gifts. In the North, we have Odin in the form of Julnir; master of the Juletide (Yuletide) who appears on the night of the Winter Solstice. This is when Odin and his homeboys roam the sky playing pranks and giving gifts to kids. He rode a white horse with 8 legs and was accompanied by his two ravens Huginn and Muninn. They would perch on the roof of a home, listen in through the chimney and tell Odin who has been good and who deserves punishment. During the Reformation of Europe, (aka the Christianization of Europe) St. Nick wasn’t all that accepted either seeing by this time he had morphed with the Nordic Yule celebration and the British Father Time. One of the only reasons why the story of St. Nick wasn’t lost to tradition was because of dear ‘ol Holland. There, he turned into Sinterklaas; a kind and wise old man, with a white beard and red cloak. He rode an eight legged horse (just like Odin) and delivered gifts to well behaved kids, on his birthday...December 6th.
Have you ever wondered how magical elementals such as elves, become synonymous with St. Nick the Gift Giver? Well according to German folklore, elves are mischievous creatures that play jokes and pranks during the days leading to the Winter Solstice. They have pointy ears with a youthful look and magical powers than can control what you see and experience. German folklore also says that nightmares are caused by elves sitting on top of the sleepers heads... A German word for nightmare is ‘albtraum’ and it means elf dream or elf pressure. They are also said to braid peoples hair while they sleep. people of Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway) believed that leaving a bowl of porridge out for the elves would prevent them from playing tricks on people during the festive season. Therefore you were to treat them kindly and feed them. If you were bad, they played tricks on you. In the 1800s they became associated with Father Christmas as his helpers when Christmas collided with Scandinavian winter traditions.
9. La Befana and the 3 Wise Men
We are all pretty familiar with the three wise men, (aka the 3 kings) who traveled the dessert to meet the son of God and brought the gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense. La Befana is a sweet old lady in italian folklore who rides a broom and delivers gifts to children on January 5th. She is sometimes called the Christmas Witch and suggested to have descended from the Roman Goddess Strenia; who was a Goddess of the New Year, well-being, and purification. Christian legend has it that the three wise men actually met up with her a few days before Jesus was born stating they had seen his star in the sky and asked her for some directions. She offered them food, drink and hospitality and they offered her to accompany them on their journey but she refused stating she was busy with other things. Later, she changed her mind and decided to go out and find them by jumping on her broom and a bag full of treats for the ‘newborn king’. She was unable to find him so instead she left candy to all the children on her way and gave coal to the ones who were mischievous. Sounds familiar?
10. Advent and Winter Spirals
The Winter Spiral is one of the more ‘modern’ tradition of all the other Winter celebrations that has survived over hundreds of years but this may be one of the only traditions that has been created for the season and honors ancient practices and beliefs the most. Winter Spirals are traditionally known to be performed in Waldorf schools, which is an alternative school for kids that focuses on their intellectual, artistic and practical skills in a holistic way. During the winter solstice they have the winter spiral festival, where kids are the main participants of the event. The spiral is associated with the cycle of rebirth, time and seasons, and a spiritual journey in life. So the whole purpose to the festival is to find your inner light. The festival, also called the Advent spiral, is done in the outdoors. They set up a spiral labyrinth made out evergreen branches, fruit, candles, rocks, flowers...anything organic really. There’s one candle lit in the center of the spiral and each kid walks to the middle with their unlit candle. When they get to the center, they meditate on their inner light and discover what personal beauty, strength, insight, and gifts they can offer the world. Then they light their candle and place it along the path of the spiral. After all the kids have gone, the spiral is completely lit. Yes, this ritual is Lit AF!
While the Northerners were celebrating Yule, the South was celebrating Saturnalia. Rome may be the home of Christianity and the Catholic church today, but it was not always that way. Saturnalia was one of the most popular holidays in ancient Roman and took place mid-December honoring the agricultural god Saturn. During Saturnalia everything business and work oriented came to a stop. Schools, courts and work are all postponed during the festivities. People would decorated their homes, give gifts to the people of lower classes, and guilds were treated like men and ladies of the court. Many of the traditions like merrymaking (having a good MF time), exchanging gifts, singing, welcoming the Sun and a new year are all traditions that have been absorbed by the traditions what we now think of as ‘Christmas’.
12. Happy New Year!
A new year is around the corner. We all await this special moment anticipation and high hopes of new beginnings. Have you ever wondered who started the tradition and decided that December 31st was the last day of a year?
A lot of our traditions, common frame of reference and words come from the Romans. The names of the planets, the months, and some of the days of the week, all come from the Romans, so you can guess who is responsible for our Calendar. Most of the credit goes to the infamous Julius Caesar. In 45 B.C. he decided to ignore the moon, keep the 12 months and created his own thing that only Rome would follow. Originally, the first month of the year was Martius (March) and the last month was February which held the least days of the year. He decided to make January the first month, followed by February and March... Caesar's solar cycle was pretty messy and in the 1570’s the calendar would be edited again by (no surprise) the Roman Catholic Church. However January 1st did remain the first day of the year, thanks to the Romans.
These traditions shaped and created the entire Christmas Season as we know it today. So we have to thank our fellow witches and ancestors for influencing and creating the true magic of Christmas. And if you STILL have any doubt... Yuletide goes hand in hand with the New Year. If you count the first day of Yuletide, which is the Winter Solstice December 21st to January 1st, you get…..The days 12 of Christmas.
Happy Yuletide! Merry Christmas & Happiest of all the Holidays!!