Paganism Influences Christmas Tradition

Annette Ungermann, Opinion Editor

Christmas has evolved over centuries into the holiday we know today. As we string up lights, decorate trees, and wrap presents, we may give little thought about the origins of these traditions.

Though at the holiday’s root is Christian mythology, its more secular aspects now dominate the celebration for a large portion of Western society.  Many of the most recognizable traditions of the season have pagan beginnings.

Here are 5 surprising facts about the origins of Christmas tradition:

1. Gift giving: Pagans in Europe and the Middle East gave presents at several winter festivals, including one called Saturnalia, which was a Roman celebration in honor of the god Saturn, which began on Dec. 17. During this weeklong holiday, pagans would drink to excess and give one another gifts. People greeted one another with “Io Saturnalia!” – which was the ancient Roman equivalent of “Merry Christmas!” Though the Puritan founders of our nation frowned on the pagan nature of gift giving and excessive celebration, Christmas was formally adopted as a holiday in the 1680s.

2. The date: In order to supplant winter pagan festivals, Christian leaders encouraged the celebration of Christ’s birth close to the winter solstice. Though Jesus is speculated to have actually been born in the springtime according to some historians, the holiday remains fixed on December 25.

3. Santa Claus: This figure can be traced back to a real person of the 4th century –a Byzantine monk named St. Nicholas of Myra who handed out bags of money to the poor. The U.S. was introduced to this figure thanks to an 1823 poem known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore. This transformed St. Nick into the jolly gift-giver that we know today. In the 1890s, department store “Santas” made it onto the scene, taking the name from the Dutch translation of St. Nicholas: Sinterklaas. Santa’s status as the figurehead for Christmas was cemented in the 1930s when Coca-Cola put his bearded face all over their advertisements.

4. The tree: Fir trees at Christmas time also have their roots in paganism, as pagans believed they kept witches and evil spirits away. However, Germany takes the credit for the first decorated Christmas tree. In the 16th century, famous Protestant theologist Martin Luther placed lit candles on a tree. Though many Germans rejected the idea of illuminating the tree because it was associated with Protestant customs, by the early 1800s the tradition was common throughout the country and spread to the rest of the world within a century.

5. Wreaths: This tradition was adopted by Christians, who stored the evergreen branches during frozen winters, and Romans, who gave branches as New Year gifts to wish others good health and happiness. Eventually, the branches were molded into a circle and became associated with the Christian holiday, as the circular shape represented the crown of thorns that Christ wore on the cross.