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  • Writer's pictureAlanna Grayce

Episode 35: Christian Holidays and Pagan Dates


Ok so y’all remember our history of halloween episode, right? Where we talked about Halloween’s pagan beginnings, and how so many of those traditions flow through time into how we celebrate today. A lot of our modern holidays actually have deep pagan roots, if you didn’t know- and today, we are going to discuss whyyyyyy that is important.

SoOoO I'm going to begin with some examples:

First: Valentine’s Day has a very muddled history. The earliest version of what we celebrate now as Valentine’s Day was the pagan holiday Lupercalia, occurring in mid February and celebrating fertility. This holiday, and its rituals, were still celebrated over a century after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire- but a Pope declared that it should be put to an end. Not long after, the Catholic Church declared the day Feb 14 (mid February) to be a holiday in celebration of the martyr, Saint Valentine. Historians theorize that this feast day was meant to replace the kind of weird, definitely immodest rituals of Lupercalia- making it easier to accept in a way. So for a while, Valentine’s Feast Day had nothing to do with romance. Historians suggest that Chaucer, followed by a handful of other poets, including Shakespeare, created the romantic connotations around Valentine’s Day that we hold today just by chance, essentially. Funny how it came back full circle though, yeah?

Even the celebration of the New Year carries with it thousands of years of traditions. Typically, festivals in celebration of the new year have historically been linked to astronomical or agricultural events. In Egypt, it began with the annual flooding of the Nile, which wildly always coincided with the star Sirius rising in the night sky. The Chinese New Year is lunar, as many of us know because that’s a huge one- it occurs with the second new moon after the winter solstice. The Gregorian calendar that most of the world uses today is based on ancient Roman calendars, specifically the Julian calendar, which started the new year on January 1st. This was done in part to honor the Roman god Janus, god of change and beginnings. Wow, I got some cold chills on that one. How POETIC! Romans would celebrate this day with sacrifices and exchanging well wishes and small gifts of figs and honey, in an attempt to set a positive tone for the year. In the Middle Ages, this was actually abolished because it was associated with paganism and seen as un-Christlike, and kind of celebrated whenever, sometime between Dec 25 and March. But in the 1500s it was re-established as January first with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar. Funny enough, I actually found a ton of “Christian” websites talking about why Christians shouldn’t celebrate the New Year because it is pagan.

Love that lol. I’ve got news for them:

Christmas as we know it today is heavily steeped in ancient pagan traditions from many different cultures. Of course, this is the Christian celebration of the birth of baby Jesus. But the thing is- based on the stories given to us in the book of Luke, it’s most likely that Jesus was born in the spring. So why do we celebrate it in December? Because it was SIGNIFICANTLY easier for the Christian conquerors to get these “savage” people to convert to Christianity if they were able to keep remnants of their old religions. So combining the celebration of the birth of Christ with other major existing holidays was wayyyy easier than trying to introduce a whole new holiday and probably having people not vibe with it.

The winter solstice was a major major major situation in most pagan traditions. We get most of these traditions from the Norse and the Celts, who largely relied on agriculture for their sustenance. Thus, the winter marked the end of the year’s hard work and harvest, and gave the people a chance to enjoy rest and celebrate their family, their life and their gods. Plus, the fact that winter for agricultural peoples tended to be dark and scary, often unsure if the food stores would last them through, this was a needed distraction from the fear that the cold brought.

Additionally, the Romans celebrate Saturnalia around this same time- another holiday celebrated in honor of the agricultural god, Saturn. They gave small gifts for the sake of good luck (typically only one gift with one other person) and they feasted and drank. Very similar to our holiday celebrations now, no?

So it makes a lot of sense that these MAJOR celebrations were combined with this new holiday that the Christian conquerors were trying to introduce. And it explains why today, so many of our traditions can be traced back to our pagan ancestors. Mistletoe, for example, was sacred across cultures. For the Romans, it was a symbol of fertility. For the Celts, it symbolized peace and joy, and was also a symbol of a truce- like a white flag or olive branch. Holly was super sacred, and was often made into a wreath by the Romans to exchange as the good luck present during Saturnalia. This actually served as a cover for Christians who were facing persecution in Rome- they would hang up holly wreaths around the house to make it look like they were celebrating Saturnalia, when in reality they weren’t. Thus holly became a symbol of Christmas over time.

Decorating Christmas trees even came from the Romans and early Germanic tribes- both of whom would place small ornaments, fruits and candles on the trees outside their homes to honor patron gods.

And- perhaps my favorite fact of them all- the Santa Claus that we know today is a blend of several different incarnations of the same idea. The original, more or less, was actually the god Odin. The Norse head-deity, father of Thor; he was typically portrayed as an old man with a long white beard. During the winter, he would ride through the sky (ahem, reindeer?) on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir. Children would fill their little boots with snacks for Sleipnir and leave them by the fireplace so he could grab a bite during his ride- STOCKINGS, anyone? Then, we have St Nicholas- the patron saint of children, the poor and prostitutes. He was a real dude, and lived around the 4th century AD. he was known for his big long beard, a long cloak, and his generosity. So stir those up in a pot and throw in a dash of Coca Cola’s marketing team in the 1930s and what do we have? Santa Claus.

But like you’re probably thinking- ok, Alanna, this is interesting and stuff, but why is all of this important? I’ll tell you why. Because this is a part of our culture, especially if you’re of European or Mediterranean descent. This is a way for you to connect to your ancestors.

So many cultures have these deep rooted customs that harken back thousands of years. Latin cultures have Dia de los Muertos where they spend time connecting to and honoring their ancestors, for example. Asian countries, African countries, Native Americans, Aborigines, THEY ALL HAVE THESE TRADITIONS THAT CONNECT THEM TO THOSE WHO CAME BEFORE THEM.

As an American, specifically- our culture doesn’t value that recognition of where traditions came from. I would bargain to guess that most American Christians aren’t placing a holly wreath on the door and thinking to themselves: “wow, my ancestors did this to camouflage themselves amidst persecution. Here I am continuing this tradition they started.” They just put the holly wreath on the door because it’s pretty. It’s sad- how much is lost to time just because we don’t take the time or effort to care about why we do things. This is why I find it of the utmost importance that we do step back and recognize where traditions began.

The culture that we live in today- worldwide- it’s so fast, there’s so much modern technology and we are always looking at a screen. This year has been good for us in a lot of ways I think in that it has started an awakening- obviously, it’s been a horrible year for a lot of people. Loss, disease, financial struggles. But if we allow this to awaken us to what we’ve been too busy looking at Instagram to notice- there is this incredible world with all kinds of magic and history to experience and learn from. Celebrating these holidays- if you want it to, it can just be a capitalist holiday, marred with consumerism and want. But if you take the time to learn about them and let it be this for you- it can be a connection to your ancestors. I toast to my family with a glass of wine, and I think of my Celtic ancestors, celebrating the rest that comes after all the harvest has been brought in. I kiss Adam under a mistletoe and I am reminded of traditions of peace and fertility. I celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th, knowing that he actually wasn’t born in the winter at all, but that this is a point in time sacred to my ancestors, so I get to share this with them.

If we took the time to try to connect to our ancestors by learning how they’re still a part of our lives today, I wonder how differently we would all act. Perhaps we would be more respectful of those who came before us and what they did for us. Perhaps we would be more cognizant of how our actions now affect lives generations in the future. And, just perhaps we would be more respectful of one another, today.

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