The Pagan Roots of Christmas

Christmas tree F_Krüger_Vorweihnacht
1857 painting of a Christmas tree being harvested in the forest, by Franz Krüger


As a child growing up in the Anglican church in the East Coast of America, I distinctly remember my father, the pastor, explaining how Christmas came to be a Christian holiday, for over the ages this important festival was more closely related to the Winter Solstice than it was to the birth of Christ. First of all, evidence from the bible, places the birth of Christ around September  not December. The selection of December 25 for Christ’s birthday was done to usurp the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which does occur for a week that ends on December 25.

Also inherent in his monologue was the difference in the solar and lunar calendar; which according to my father created (for the pagans of northern Europe a twelve day period when the world was plunged into darkness). To compensate for this uncertainty, people built huge bonfires to light up the night and purify the soul. These practices eventually evolved into the 12 days of Christmas and various celebrations of light, such as burning a yule log. So now many years later, this Christmas holiday has me wondering how much of this is really true.

Saturn Cutting Off the Wings of Cupid, 1802 painting by Ivan Akimov


The Roman part holds together fairly well, for the Roman God of agriculture, called Saturn, was celebrated in late December with feasts, partying and mischief. This is well documented via many sources and seems instrumental in the selection of December 25th as the Christmas holiday.

Happy Christmas, painted by Johansen Viggo in 1891

Northern Europe

However, sorting out the pagan traditions of Northern Europe and how they relate to our modern-day Christmas is much more complex, mainly because so many different traditions co-exist. From the cutting of greens, the use of symbolic evergreens, the burning of yuletide logs to the making gingerbread men and special Christmas cookies, the traditions are wide and varied. However, nowhere in my research could I find any mention of the difference in the solar and lunar calendar resulting in the twelve days of Christmas.

Merry Christmas by H. Koppdelaney
Merry Christmas by H. Koppdelaney

Merry Christmas

So how does all this research affect our current holiday. Very little I hope. The shortest days of the year are a wonderful time to celebrate the accomplishments of the past year and express hopes for the future, no matter what our particular religious beliefs actually are. It is also a fine opportunity for Christians to rejoice in the birth and life of Christ, even if the historical facts are not a perfect fit. After all, Life is full of imperfections.