Is Christmas pagan?
The thing is, Christmas, as we know it today is kind of like the Bionic Woman of holidays. It’s a mix of lots of customs, some of which are pagan. But there’s no ‘yes or no’ answer to your question. “Is the Bionic Woman a robot?” Well, yes, but only partly.
The word Christmas comes from the Old English for “Christ’s Mass”. The gist is: Jesus Christ was born on December 25 (or thereabouts, no one really knows the exact date) and people who worshipped him decided to start celebrating his birthday (this didn’t start until the 300s). Although, it should be noted that there is nothing in the Bible that specifically states that Christ’s birth should be celebrated, making even the Christian element of Christmas iffy to some Christians. But let’s put it this way: If Christ didn’t exist (literally or figuratively), we wouldn’t have Christmas.
So that’s that Christmas and it’s pretty Christian. It’s safe to say that those specific factors of Christmas are NOT pagan. No.
BUT, the buck didn’t stop there (in fact, today at Christmas, the bucks never stop! Am I right, folks?). December 25 happens to coincide with the Winter Solstice, a time when the sun is at its lowest and the days at their shortest. In pre-Christian eras, the sun was worshipped by many — it was in fact, a kind of God. Celebrations were developed around this time for a number of reasons: the cold weather meant there was less work to do farming-wise, the Sun stuff appealed to those who worshipped the sun and hey, it’s cold and dark, let’s drink and dance to warm up! This stuff was pagan – no Christian religious aspect – just the sun and the dark.
It’s in this crossover here that we start to see a blending of the Christian celebration of Christmas with some of the pagan aspects of the Winter Solstice.
For one, the word “Yule”, which many of us associate with Christmas, has nothing to do with Christ. Yule was a celebration of Northern Europeans before they were Christianized. According to Wikipedia, “Scholars have connected the celebration to the Wild Hunt, the god Odin and the pagan Anglo-Saxon Modranich.”
For two, the Norse god Odin — who had a white beard, a grey horse that flew and who gave gifts – is thought to be one of the inspirations for how people thought of St. Nicholas, or as we call him around here, Santa Claus.
Before we go into number three, it should be noted that this is a jam packed tin of worms. It’s hard to use the term Pagan without asking, “Which Pagans?” German? Scandinavian? Ancient Egyptian? and “Who’s asking?” A Christian? An atheist? “What time period are we discussing?” . . . But if we’re talking in general, Christmas-dinner-conversation terms, then let’s look at number three . . .
Three: During pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice, evergreen trees and plants were brought inside. It was thought that a plant that could live and stay green throughout the winter was a great symbol of life in a time when everything else was dead. This pre-christian tradition eventually led to what we now know to be the Christmas tree. (It’s thought that the Germans were the ones to have passed this tree-dition on to others, and it was Prince Albert (a German) who was the first to bring a Christmas tree into Windsor Castle in the late 1840s.) And you know how red balls are a common X-Mas tree decoration? Well, those are there to represent apples that Christians, once having adopted the C-Tree as a tradition, hung on their trees to symbolize the Garden of Eden.
A Pagan tree with ‘Christian apples’ might be the perfect example of this Bionic Holiday; Christian heart, pagan arms?