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Pagan Christmas holly

People are super sensitive when it comes to Christmas, and that’s understandable. Much of the world has been taught that the holiday marks the birth of the Christian savior, Jesus Christ, but that’s simply wrong. Jesus wasn’t white — and he damn sure wasn’t a Capricorn.

Historical evidence suggests that Jesus, the person, was born in the springtime — but that Christian missionaries adopted Yule celebrations in order to appease and convert pagans who were deeply, spiritually attached to their own holidays. Early Christians were also fascinated by the rural, rustic pagan traditions.

“Christians of that period are quite interested in paganism,” says Philip Shaw, a researcher of early Germanic languages and Old English at Leicester University. “It’s obviously something they think is a bad thing, but it’s also something they think is worth remembering. It’s what their ancestors did.”

The two most notable pagan winter holidays were Germanic Yule and Roman Saturnalia. Christian missionaries gave these holidays a makeover and they are now known to us as Christmas.

Saturnalia

Pagan Roman Saturnalia art

Saturnalia was a lawless, drunken time in Rome where literally anything was okay — this was the original Purge, in which laws were suspended for a brief stretch of time.

Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture, liberation and time (and parties!), was celebrated at what is perhaps the most famous of the Roman festivals, the Saturnalia, It was a time of feasting, role reversals, free speech, gift-giving and revelry. (read: gender-bending sex, drinking, telling people off, trading gifts and doing whatever you want).

After solstice, the darkest night of the year, the renewal of light and the coming of the new year was celebrated in the later Roman Empire at the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun,” on December 25.

Yule

Pagan Yule re-enactment.

Actors re-enact a traditional Viking Yule celebration. Photo courtesy Visit Denmark.

Scholars have connected the Germanic and Scandanavian celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Mōdraniht. Yule-tide was traditionally celebrated during the period from mid-November to mid-January.

Nordic countries use Yule to describe their own Christmas with its religious rites, but also for the holidays of this season. Present-day customs such as the Yule log, Yule goat, Yule boar, Yule singing, and others stem from the original pagan Yule, but are used in Christmas celebrations now, especially within Europe.

As leaders were baptized and converted, they shifted their traditional celebrations covertly, as not to upset the chieftans. Yule was traditionally celebrated three days after Midwinter, but shifted to reflect Christian dates.

Modern Wiccans and other neopagan religions often celebrate Yule as well. In most forms of Wicca, it’s celebrated at winter solstice as the rebirth of the Great horned hunter god, who is viewed as the newborn solstice sun. Some celebrate with their covens while others celebrate at home.

Magical Gift-Givers

Everybody’s got someone like Santa Claus. He’s primarily based on St. Nicholas, a Fourth Century Lycian bishop from modern-day Turkey. Ol’ Nicky wasn’t a bad guy. One story says that he met a kind, impoverished man who had three daughters. St. Nick presented all three of them with dowries so that they weren’t forced into a life of prostitution, as dowries were expected to “pay off” families to take on the daughters.

Sinterklaas is the Dutch figure and Odin is the Norse god that Santa resembles. It wasn’t just Santa or men who did the gift-giving in those myths. There’s also the legend of La Befana, a kind Italian woman who leaves treats for children on the “Good” list, and the Germanic Frau Holle, who treats women during Solstice.

Fruitcake

While people rarely show any excitement around the fruit-laden cakes these days, they were a real treat in times of yore. The cakes actually have origins in Egypt, and were later disseminated by the Romans as they conquered parts of Europe.

Those cakes of Egypt were just about as dense and long-lasting as the brandied, fruit-studded cakes of today. Egyptians placed cakes of fermented fruit and honey on the tombs of their deceased loved ones so that they’d have something to munch on in the afterworld. Romans took similar cakes into battle made of mashed pomegranates and barley. Christians went into the crusades with honeycakes.

Related: 6 Tips For Making Bitchcraft and Brujeria Your Own

Fruitcakes are everywhere, no matter how hard you try to avoid them.

Caroling

Caroling actually began as the Germanic and Norse traditions of wassailing. Wassailers went from home to home, drunk off of their asses, singing to their neighbors and celebrating their “good health.” Well, except for the hangovers.

The traditional wassail beverage was a hot mulled cider, spiked with alcohol or fermented.

Mistletoe

Mistletoe was considered a magical plant in Europe, especially among the Druids and Vikings, and holds significance in Native American cultures. Mistletoe is no modern quirk of Christmas — even Romans partook in fertility rituals beneath the mistletoe. Not everyone took it that far. Mistletoe stood as a neutral ground for feuding Norse tribes, who laid down their weapons in order to negotiate beneath the sexy peace plant. The Druids thought it could protect them from thunder and lightning, as well.

Whether you’ve got the urge to make out, hide from a storm or talk it out, beware — mistletoe is super poisonous. The plastic variety is a great substitute, or make it out of paper or fabric to keep your furry and/or small loved ones safe.

Wreaths

Romans loved wreaths and decorated everything with Laurel. Holly, ivy and evergreen are the more popular modern options today, and each one holds significance. Egyptians didn’t have evergreens, so they used palm fronds to celebrate Winter Solstice.

Christians love holly because the red berries symbolize the blood of Christ and the pointy leaves symbolize the crown of thorns. However, the advent of holly decor was around long before Christianity. Pre-Christian pagan groups believed that the Holly King did battle with the Oak King. They also thought holly could drive off evil spirits.

Romans, of course, were into laurel wreaths, but laurel was not easily procured throughout the northern reaches of the empire. Instead of laurel, they used evergreens.

This Christmas, no matter what your beliefs are, smile knowing that it has come from a long line of traditions much older than we have typically been told. Traditions that celebrate bounty, survival, and unwinding. Just make sure you end up on the “Nice” list, unless “Naughty” is your thing. 

Laurel Dickman is an intersectional feminist, plus size model, stylist, and fat activist that can also be found via her blogs, Exile In Dietville and 2 Broke Bitches. She grew up in the south between Florida and North Carolina, migrating to the Portland, OR in 2005. All three places inform her perspective of the world around her a great deal. While in Portland, she worked with the Alley 33 Annual Fashion Show, PudgePDX, PDX Fatshion, Plumplandia, and numerous other projects over the near decade that she was there. In August of 2014, she moved to the Bay area with her partner, David and trusty kitty, Dorian Gray. She continues her body positive and intersectional feminism through various forms of activism, fashion, photography projects, and writing from her home in the East Bay. She can be reached at laurel@wyvmag.com and encourages readers to reach out to her to collaborate!

Comments
  • Anonymous

    Christmas is not pagan anymore, because a long time ago it was and people lived a terrible life, with drinking sex feasting, all things that were no good. Christians know
    that Christmas was pagan once upon a time. Now a tree is decorated in the room,
    beautiful songs are sung, children receive presents. It is not anything like what that paganism was. Many pagans converted to Christianity, I will say through force.
    However I don’t know of any . I think people should have a right to celebrate their own fest, or festival however their like !

    Mar 7, 2021
  • Timothy Leith

    How many lies must we tell about the one who is the way, “the truth,” and the life to propagate his ministry!

    Jan 2, 2021
  • Angelika Dumanski

    I was a pastor, and know Christians put up Christmas trees,,they worship them,,,if you dont have a tree in your church,,well tahts not a good thing. Decorations, and other festivities ,,, if they dont have them,,people will go where there are parties at the chruch. Ive been there,,,Most of the world works this way, becasue thats what they have been taught,,,and Christians dont check things out, and try to find truth about what they have been taught. Pastors will tell you if you tell your people Christmas is pagan they will not come back,,they dont check things out for them selves…dont ask questions..The chruch knows its pagan,,and they do pagan things…Romans told others to live in the way they said how it its going to be,or you may loose your life…So humanity for the most has a pagan religion now,,,and it changes all the time,,more is added,,,and people dont see it…they dont want to,,or things would change for the better…maybe one day they will change for the better…and not follow paganism…

    Dec 22, 2020
  • Anonymous

    Our God would not want us to follow pagan tradions and beliefs and according to bible chronology Jesus would have been born in late October

    Dec 21, 2020
  • Anonymous

    I’m catholic and this article is awesome. So true and well explained. There was only 1% of Pagans because the Christians made many change their religion or they would be killed.

    Nov 8, 2020
  • Ken Wu

    Yep, all true. Try telling a christian that Christmas isn’t christian and they’ll likely smack you, or at least call you names. So totally deceived.

    Dec 27, 2019
  • Agboola

    Definitely, Christmas was originated from ,pagan lure it into religion, even if our jesus knows this now he will never happy with us .
    He has never thought us to do so , why we are doing is not in related to jesus himself.
    Lastly, why chritens did not know all this ,or they are doing it for sake of what they have told them to do by Rome.

    Dec 26, 2019
  • James Macdonald

    Just because Christians adapted traditions from other cultures doesn’t mean that the celebration of Jesus even though he was born in Spring. That’s the time that was chosen to celebrate and many Pagans decided to bring their traditions when they converted. Have you ever celebrated your bday or someone else’s bday on a day other than their actual birth? When i go to a Christian Christmas service it has nothing to do with a yule log, a tree or anything to do with anything but Christ. The rest is just festivities if you think about it. Do you think the Christmas holiday wouldve been a worldwide thing when pagans make up much less than 1% of the world’s population

    Dec 25, 2019
  • Donald Fennell

    I like the truth

    Dec 12, 2019
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