Celebrating with a different kind of holiday star: The unexpectedly pagan side of Christmas

Sharp smells of pine needles and holly, twinkling lights, and heaps of food spread out at parties, are just a few things that come to mind once December hits Canada every year.

Widely known as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, Christmas is one of the biggest North American holidays.

But despite the holiday having primarily Christian roots, a lot about Christmas as we know it today, has unexpectedly pagan origins.

While Christianity emerged as a monotheistic religion during the Roman Empire, experts say many of its holiday customs were influenced by the dominant Western polytheistic pagan religions around them.

And even with the dominance of Christmas’ Christian narrative, some still appreciate and believe in the pre-Christian pagan beliefs behind some Christmas symbols and traditions.

Polytheistic and pagan origin claims

“Christmas at its core is [a celebration] of the birth of Jesus Christ,” Gerry Bowler, a history professor at the University of Manitoba (U of M), said.

Bowler is an expert on Christmas. He has studied it extensively, wrote several books on the topic, and teaches a course called the ëSocial History of Christmasí at the U of M.

Christianity was still a minority faith when Christmas celebrations began, according to Bowler, and polytheists had a variety of festivals at this time.

Christmas became a way for Christians to have their own party, according to Bowler.

The claims are that Dec. 25 was chosen either because people could have a Christian celebration while everyone was celebrating, and it would go unnoticed or because it was a public challenge to paganism.

David Dean, a Carleton University PhD candidate and history instructor, has studied the history of witchcraft in Europe and its relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. Dean said Western paganism existed well into the 18th century, as “they escaped the cultural and political forces of church and state.”

He added that the Church also “absorbed many of the traditions of magic into the Church calendar.”

“It was all about control, to find a way to supervise and manage popular culture and popular beliefs,” Dean said. “So, to appropriate festivals from the pre-Christian cultures was a way of exercising authority and re-calibrating popular behaviour.”

With the rise of New Age spirituality in the 1960s, Dean said there has been a renewed interest in pre-Christian Western pagan traditions.

The truth about Christmas

Then there are the claims that the yuletide traditions, such as the Christmas tree, feasting, and gift-giving, originate from polytheistic holidays.

When it comes to the date, there is actually a good reason for choosing Dec. 25, Bowler said.

While Christmas is generally celebrated on Dec. 25, the Bible does not actually tell us when Jesus was born.

“In the ancient world, it was believed that great men always lived lives in which they were born and died on the same date,” he said.

So if Jesus was born Dec. 25, being a “great man” to Christians, he should have died on Dec. 25.

But, according to Bowler, common consensus is that Jesus died in the spring.

“The Christian church decided that the beginning of the life of Jesus started at the moment of conception, that is dated to March 25,” Bowler said. “So Christmas occurs nine months later. That is calculation theory.”

Bowler said he sees the similarities between Christmas traditions and midwinter polytheist traditions.

“For example, is the Christmas tree of pagan origin? There doesn’t seem to be a clear link there. But . . . it is suggestive of the kind of midwinter greenery that marks all kinds of non-Christian festivals,” he said.

Evergreen trees are commonly embraced in temperate areas because they do not die, according to Bowler. They give a promise that despite winter being the darkest time of the year, life continues.

A similar idea applies to the decorative lights and candles commonly used during the Christmas season: light promises the return of spring.

Saturnalia, an ancient Roman midwinter festival, also included gift-giving like Christmas, and feasting—like the big familial meal many have around Christmas every year—which was extremely common in midwinter polytheistic tradition, according to Bowler.

“This comes out of the fact that, in pre-industrial economies, you can’t preserve food very long,” Bowler said. “The harvest has come in, you’ve slaughtered your livestock because in a lot of primitive conditions you can’t winter them over, the grapes or the barley has been made into beer or wine, [and] you can’t keep it, so you have to consume it.”

However, he said it is more likely that Christians came across these things naturally, rather than stealing them from different pagan religions.

“It would have been quite antithetical to the Christian mind of the time—we’re talking about the 200s and 300s [A.D.]—for Christianity to adopt anything pagan,” he said.

From the coven to the sanctuary

Dale Dalessio, the high priestess of the Firestone Coven, an Ottawa-based pagan group, said in an email that she sees nothing wrong with religions borrowing from each other.

“I know some people take great offense and are all about the fact that the Christians are celebrating a pagan holiday and using pagan decorations and symbolism,” Dalessio said, “but in the end it doesn’t really matter. What is important is that both religions are celebrating the return of the light. One religion bases it on the actual birth of an actual man, and the other religion focuses on the return of the light [of] the Sun.”

Heather Logan, the co-ordinator of the Pagans of Carleton Club, said she sees her polytheistic worship of evergreen trees reflected in the Christmas tree, as well as her coven’s Winter Solstice potluck reflected in the feast tradition.

Dan Byrne, the lead pastor of the Ottawa Chinese Bible Church’s English congregation, said he thinks the pagan origins of Christmas traditions do not make a difference in celebrating Christmas as a Christian. Early Christians observing the culturally pagan holidays during the Roman Empire are no different from how people of all religions observe today’s modern cultural holidays, he said.

“In terms of cultural customs, I don’t think there’s a problem at all,” Byrne said. “We do have debates in Christianity about how to approach culture, and so we’re often approaching culture trying to find out what in the culture is good, what we can affirm in culture.

He added: “We look at what we have to reject from culture, and we look at what can we take from culture and what we can redeem.”

Byrne said modern-day churches’ approaches to Halloween are likely similar to how early Christians approached Saturnalia: a range of different moral convictions—some completely reject Halloween, some allow their children to do trick-or-treating.

He said he sees a similar principle with Christmas traditions.

“There’s nothing in the Bible that says to have a Christmas tree,” Byrne said. “So, at some point, Christians took that from their culture and said, ‘There’s nothing inherently evil about having a tree in your house. Let’s put a star on top of it and let’s celebrate the star of Bethlehem that led us to Christ.’ “

So, while Christmas reflects some polytheistic midwinter festivals and traditions, it likely was not an intentional appropriation of polytheism.

Why does it matter?

“Christmas is the single biggest thing in the world. There is no rock tour or world cup or anything that humans do [bigger than] Christmas,” Bowler said. “It takes up about 10 per cent of the lives of billions of people, [and] billions of dollars are spent on it . . . so we should be thinking about why some people are deadly opposed to it.”

Christians, Bowler said, should center their celebrations around the cradle.

“[But] have a tree by all means—do anything you need to be happy, because celebrating the birth of Jesus should be celebratory.”

Non-Christians, he said, should remember what makes Christmas different from any other holiday: the mythological sense of magic  surrounding Christmas origin stories, like the Nativity story, St. Nicholas, and Santa Claus.

“[Christmas is] a time of year in which we expect others to be better. We don’t have the same attitude toward [any other holiday],” Bowler said.

Graphic by Manoj Thayalan