Sunday, 13 October 2013

Pagan Origins of Christmas

Fundamentalist Christians, especially protestant ones, hate Christmas. Some claim it, like Halloween, is a pagan festival and nothing to do with Christianity. And they are right. Realising this Pagans have sought to reclaim “Their” midwinter festival, ignoring the widespread celebration of the mid winter solstice around this time that means Christmas does not belong to any one group, tribe or religion.

Anti Christmas
Father Christmas riding a goat
In 1652 British Puritans made Christmas Illegal for eight years. They hated the pagan parts for being pagan, the christian parts for being catholic and hated any festival because people enjoyed themselves [1] (around this time they also made smiling an offence). In America at about the same time puritans passed a law levying a fine on anyone celebrating Christmas.

In 1989 a Japanese department store made a huge Father Christmas, but made one mistake: Thy put him on the roof and Crucified him. In 1969 an Editorial in L' Oservatore Romano described Father Christmas as a representing a monstrous substition for the Christ Child and offending the faith.

Around 1988 the Truth Tabernacle in Burlington, North Carolina, considered Christmas the work of the devil and talked of Satan Claus, being an impostor. As with most religious nutters they lacked both the education to know that Santa Claus evolved from St Nicholas, and the sense of humour that would have let them call him “old Nick”. They, like the original Calvinists, allowed no Christmas Presents or trees, and an elder of the church noted that 25th December was the birthday of a pagan god, Tammuz, and claimed Jesus was born in September [2]. Had he claimed Jesus was born on September 11th this would have been a powerful synchronicity. His claim would also have surprised early Christians who celebrated the birth in March [1]. In truth if Jesus ever existed there is no indication anywhere of his birthday.

The stalwart religionists held a mock trial accusing Santa of Child Abuse, by urging parents to buy alcohol not clothes, of falsely claiming to be St Nicholas, maing ministers lie about Christ's Birthday, and making churches practice Baal Religion unknowingly. After this kangaroo court had found him, guilty they hung an eight foot dummy in a Santa suit from a tree.

The Significance of the End of the Year.

Calendar endpoints are psychologically significant. There was a panic in 2000 about the millennium bug, and in 2012 about the alleged end of the Mayan calendar. In AD 1000 there was widespread expectation of the second coming of Christ.

Times of change have also been appropriated by non-christians, as anyone who recalls the hype over the “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius” can testify. There are at least three times of change in the western year, the Spring and Winter Solstice and New Year. The last two have greater cultural impact and for most people the Winter Solstice is more meaningful (Why the new year is not celebrated on the Winter Solstice is another question).

The Winter solstice, in the Norther Hemisphere, is the time when the days stop getting shorter. After that they get longer. It is when Ullr, god of Winter loses his annual battle with Odin and hos power begins to weaken till midsummer. It is a “weird Space” that has become a time of carnival when normal rules are relaxed in order to reinforce them when normality returns on Plough Monday. And is a very good excuse to forget work, perhaps impossible because of the weather and enjoy life for a while.

Festivals of Light

Pennick [1] notes that in the West December 25th has been celebrated as the birthday of divinities of light, citing the Babylonian Queen of Heaven, Oriris from Egypt, Dionysus and Adonis from Greece and from Scandinavia Baldur, ironically killed by Mistletoe. December 25th is the birthday of Mithra, the Persian solar god[5] originally a servant to Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god of goodness [4].

Mithraism, a mystic cult that developed in Armenia from a local late surviving version of Mazdaysnian, blended Mithra, originally an Indo-Iranian god of contracts and broad pastures with the Babylonian sun god, Shamash and god of seasonal regeneration, Tammuz.

After his introduction to Rome this mixed Mithra, and perhaps his December 25 date of celebration, were again blended with Solis indigeni (a Roman sun god derived from the Pelasgean titan of light - Helios. This resulted in a composite being Solis invicta, the invincible sun. Mithra, the god of the regenerating sun was annually reborn on December 25th.

Aurelian eventually proclaimed Mithraism the official religion of the Roman Empire in A.D. 274 and Natalis Solis Invicti (Birthday of the Invincible Sun) became an official holiday. This coincided with the Roman Saturnalia, which flanked the weird space of the solstice, when normal social rules were relaxed and gifts of candles, symbolising lights, were exchanged. There is evidence that a lighting ceremony commemorating the return of light and heat at the winter solstice was transferred to the festival of Mithras.

Christianity took over the Celebrations around the winter solstice, a tactic later to be used in Britain when the incoming missionaries took over pagan temples and places of worship rededicating them to their own religion.

The Wild Hunt
Further north St Nicholas and Odin became confused. Odin is the leader of the Wild Hunt, who travel the autumn skies taking away anyone who gets in their way. Odin is a god with shamanic aspects, riding his horse between worlds. Santa Claus is depicted in a shamanic costume, an animal's hide blooded skin outside and fur inside. Just as Odin leads the wild hunt so Santa drives a reindeer sleigh through the sky. Just as Odin is, in one aspect, the traveller between worlds, Santa is associated with the “weird space” between the worlds of summer and winter just after the solstice.

Of course it is highly unlikely that the people who created the image of Santa Claus for motives ranging from politics to commerce [6] were consciously aware of these correspondences but folk memory lasts a long time and eventually its characters and events border on the archetypal. The Wild Hunt, Odin and the rebirth of the sun in Winter are powerful things, which may have roots going back to the birth of agriculture and beyond. Burned into the collective unconscious these may have surfaced again as Santa Claus.

The Wrap
Christmas as we know it is based on pre-christian traditions from various parts of the world, and these traditions themselves may have been birthed from older traditions and from archetypes of personalities and events in the collective unconscious and collective memory of at least western humanity.


  1. Wierd Space: Pagan Rites of Christmas, Nigel Pennick, Fortean Times 60 December 1991 p.24
  2. Ho Ho Ho A seasonal Portrait: Paul Sieveking, Fortean Times 56, Winter 1990 P.42
  3. Stations of the Sun: Ronald Hutton, +
  4. In search of Zarathustra: Paul Kriwaczek, Weidenfeld and Nocolson 2002
  5. http:// Anerican Christmas Origins
  6. The Politics of Christmas: Coca Cola, Capitalism and Collective Memory

No comments:

Post a Comment