Christmas, the ‘traditional’ holiday filled with gingerbread, stockings, warm fires, and family gatherings, has been so deeply rooted as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, that it can be hard to believe that it originated from Pagan roots. But like most major holidays we celebrate, Christmas is much more deeply rooted in other religions than most people realize. Though we may want to desperately believe the claymation classic tale Santa Claus is Coming to Town, I’m sorry to tell you that isn’t the real origin story of Christmas. Today, we’re going to discuss the origins of Christmas and where some of our favorite holiday traditions actually came from-spoiler alert, most came from occult origins. So, I give you the occult origins of Christmas. Enjoy!
Most historians believe that the roots of Christmas can be traced back as far as the 4th century. Its traces can be found in many cultures, all celebrating the winter solstice, a time when the longest days of winter were officially behind the people of the land, and they looked toward a happy and bright future.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21st through early January. Family members would bring back large logs that they would light, and celebrations would last until the fire went out. Many Scandinavians of this time believed that each spark of the Yule Log’s fire represented new livestock that would be born throughout the coming year as the weather warmed. The festival was meant to bring in light, brightness, and warmth on the road ahead, celebrating a happy and festive new year. Cattle were generally slaughtered at this time so they wouldn’t have to be fed throughout the remaining winter days, so meat was bountiful, and the celebration was filled with meaty dishes and the wine and beer that would finally finish fermenting around this time of the year.
Further South in Europe, the Ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia on December 25th, a festival to honor Saturn, the God of Agriculture. Despite honoring different Gods than the Norse, the tradition was still celebrated to bring the light and warmth of the coming seasons into their lives, happy that the longest days of winter were behind them. In fact, during this time, it was common for slaves to be treated as equals, as they were allowed to join in the celebration and neglect their duties, with businesses and schools closing so any and all could celebrate.
The Early Christmas Trees
While not surprising, it’s important to point out that Christmas trees specifically came from Pagan celebrations. To early Pagans, the Evergreen or Fir trees represented the idea of the return of life and light, so they were embraced and decorated as a part of their solstice celebrations to harbor in a warm and bountiful spring. Unlike our modern ornaments, however, pagans hung apples on their trees. While different, the idea of a bright red ball being hung on an evergreen tree paints a very familiar picture, doesn’t it? Early European pagans would bring pieces of these trees into their homes, as well, to dress up and celebrate the end of the longest day of winter and the beginning of the new cycle.
Flash forward several centuries, and as Christianity grew and thrived into the 1600s, Christmas trees became popular, particularly in Germany. In the 1840s and 50s, they were popularized even more by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who insisted they bring Christmas trees into the royal palace. Naturally, this had Christmas trees spreading throughout English nobility and then throughout other royal courts like wildfire. Since the history of Christmas trees are so deeply tied to German roots, it’s said that Queen Victoria’s ties to Germany are why they were so adamant to celebrate the holiday with a Christmas tree and therefore, popularized them in England.
Mistletoe and Druids
What about the tradition of hanging a mistletoe? Well, you have early Druids to thank for that. For druids, the oak tree was a sacred tree that contained all-powerful healing properties. So, if you met someone in the forest, to signify peace, you would give them a sign under the mistletoe of an oak. This gesture spread and hanging mistletoe above the entrance-way to one’s home became a traditional sign of peace for many cultures. However, as the Christian Church rose to power, they recognized this, specifically, as a sign of paganism and therefore, banned it outright. Somehow, after years of being banned, the tradition reemerged as part of modern Christmas celebrations and took on a more romantic edge to its symbolism.
More Modern Christmas Origins
Because the shepherds were mentioned to be herding in the bible at the time of Jesus’s birth, many believe Jesus was born in the spring, though his birth date is never specifically mentioned. In fact, early Christians celebrated Easter and his resurrection but not his birth, as they did not deem it relevant. Because of this, it is commonly believed the church chose December 25th to adopt and absorb the celebrations of Saturnalia and all other solstice celebrations that were associated with it. By picking a pre-established pagan holiday, they would hopefully erase the pagan roots of the celebration and also help it spread throughout the world as a holy Christian day. First called the ‘Feast of the Nativity’, Christmas started in Rome and then spread to Egypt in 432 and to England later in the 6th century.
While the adaption of Saturnalia may have been overlooked by Christians for centuries, the Puritans recognized the pagan signs of the Christmas Tree, the mistletoe, and the other aspects of the celebration of Christmas, so much so that they banned Christmas in the US (specifically in Boston though Jamestown still enjoyed it) for nearly 20 years. In England, Oliver Cromwell also vowed to rid England of Christmas in the 17th century and attempted to do so only until Charles II was restored to the throne. As Charles II reemerged as ruler, so, too, did Christmas return.
After the American Revolution, Christmas appeared to go out of style. It wasn’t as popular as it once was, as it was seem as an ‘English’ tradition, and the new country of America wanted to establish its own traditions. It wasn’t until Washington Irving wrote a book with Christmas tales in 1819 that Christmas came back to life in America. Yet, it came back in its own way, a more family-celebrated religion than was previously seen in Europe.
Even still, Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday in the United States until 1870.
Finally, I couldn’t finish an article on the history of Christmas without briefly discussing Rudolph. Everyone’s favorite reindeer actually emerged from a department store campaign in 1939. Montgomery Ward used to give away free books to children on Christmas, so an aspiring writer who worked for the store, Robert L. May, wrote Rudolph as one of those characters to give away to children for the department store. They originally printed 2 million copies, and May realized how successful his character was when he began getting letters from children, teachers, and store managers across the country. And just like that, it was even turned into a song with the help of Gene Autry, and Rudolph became an iconic piece of our modern Christmas.
From the solstice celebrations across the old world, it’s interesting to realize that Christmas hasn’t changed much as it evolved into the modern holiday that we celebrate today. However you like to celebrate, and whether or not you like to believe in one religion or another, I hope you still get to enjoy a season filled with love, laughter, and friends each year as we experience solstice and Christmas. I personally, believe that any chance to celebrate, have a good time, and be with the ones we love, is worth it. And I hope you find joy this holiday season- whatever that means to you.