Pagan background of Christmas

Paganism has a wider influence on our lives than we might care to think, including one of the biggest events on the Christian calendar; Christmas.

Pagan Christmas traditions

Yule festivities are a mixture of customs and beliefs going back many years before Jesus was born.

Saturnalia was a festival held between 17 and 24 December, which began in the days of the Roman Empire. This was a week of feasting, gift-giving and an excuse for an orgy during the Northern Hemisphere's winter solstice. The objective of the debauchery and dancing around (carol was to give the sun a nudge and send a message to Mother Earth to begin reproducing for the spring. This seemed to work quite well because sure enough, in spring things started growing again.

Which burns longer; a green candle or a red candle?
Christmas Candles
Neither. They both burn shorter!

The traditional Christmas colours of red and green, being complementary colours, represent male and female, fertility and incubation. Pagan decorations still seen around Christmas include the red berries and green leaves of holly, mistletoe and wreaths.

Christian adaptation

Celebrating the winter solstice was in honour of the Pagan god Mithra, and therefore forbidden by the Early Church. But customs survived anyway and it didn't take much to tempt Christians to join others enjoying the solstice feast.

This no doubt prompted the Church to provide an alternative festival in honour of the birth of Christ, where celebrations were definitely in order, and happily the date chosen by the Church more or less coincided with the existing feast, which lessened the temptation for Christians to backslide.

In the 2nd century, the winter solstice was 6 January and Christians celebrated both the birth and the appearance of God's Son on that day, Epiphany Day.

By the 4th century, the date for the winter solstice had moved to 25 December and Pope Julius I declared that Jesus' birthday celebrations would also be on that day. This effectively transformed the Pagan occasion into a Christian holy day (holiday).

This was not, however, merely a convenient way to 'Christianize' a Pagan celebration. There is nothing to prove what date Jesus was born on, or the season, or even the year, but the Church, after immense deliberation over the available evidence, decided on 25 December. 

Santa Claus

Children are taught that Santa Claus evolved from the good Saint Nicholas, and most people are happy to leave the story there. But followers of Paganism know a bit more about our Jolly Santa.

A tough old Pagan god named Odin was imagined as a paunchy white-bearded old man in a long cloak. A mixture of the characterisations of both St. Nicholas and Odin is thought to result in Father Christmas, whom for the past eighty years or so has sported the Coca Cola colours. 

When we are young children, we are told about Santa's existence. Later, when we're about seven years old (or maybe seventeen!) we find out that he's really just a fictional character. And then we learn that, OK, he doesn't exist now, but he used to. Childhood can be very confusing.


There are those who believe that Santa is an anagram for Satan. You know... breaking into houses late at night wearing long kinky boots, his dodgy preference for small children, and psychotic reindeer with militaristic nicknames. At home in the flaming fireplace; Nicholas = 'Old Nick'. And Santa's little helpers, the elves. They must be fallen angels in green tights and Spock-ears. Elves. Evil. Devil. See the connection?

Well, we agree that the Devil is a master of disguise, but come on... Why the devil should he appear as a paunchy geriatric troll with a raucous laugh? Hardly blends in with the crowd, now does he?

Children might look forward to Christmas, not because it's a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but because Christmas is the time that Santa brings new toys. It could be argued that anyone who replaces Jesus Christ is the Antichrist. The same argument has been levied against the pope, televangelists, and anyone else on whom an importance is placed higher than Jesus Christ.

We believe there is no connection between Santa (who doesn't exist, ) and Satan (who does). So we'll leave the connection theory with the pile of pine needles and head off for Christmas dinner.


Critics love to bash Christmas and say it's entirely based on Pagan traditions, but that is not so.

First, the date.

  • Yes, Saturnalia was celebrated around that time.

    If we look at today's Church calendar, Islamic calendar, etc., we'll realise that religion loves having festivals and commemorations throughout the year – so many in fact that some overlap.

    The old Pagan religion was no different, meaning that there'd be a clash whichever date was chosen. (Jews, for example, celebrate the Festival of Lights (Hanukkah) at that time.)

  • Then there are the official records - no, not a birth certificate, something better!

    Caesar Augustus wanted money to support his empire's army and decreed that the entire world should be registered so he could collect taxes. Why were Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem if it wasn't to register? Why was there "no room at the inn" if it wasn't because so many people were in Bethlehem to register? (Luke 2:1-7)

    In those days, agriculture was the main industry. Winter was the quiet season for work, so it makes sense to use that time for the census. Interrupting the work in spring, summer or autumn would have adversely affected production and consequently wealth, and that would have yielded lower tax income for greedy Augustus.

  • And we mustn't forget the shepherds, watching their flocks in the fields at night.

    Critics say that sheep are brought inside when it's cold, so if they were in the fields then it couldn't have been winter.

    Yet we read in Gen. 31:40 of Jacob suffering from frost whilst looking after his uncle's sheep at night.

    Actually winter is the time that sheep would be in the fields. Israel is not that cold, especially for sheep with thick woolly coats. But the grass on the mountains would not be sufficient in winter so shepherds would drive their sheep to the open fields near Bethlehem, as written in Luke 2:8.

If you prefer to believe that Jesus was born in June, then fine. But for God's sake, please celebrate his birth!

The Christmas tree

Superstitions state that...

To be on the safe side, the tree should not be brought in and decorated before Christmas Eve, otherwise bad luck will befall* the home.

*Superstitions are more likely believed if they include old-fashioned words such as "befall".

Remove the decorations and take your tree down before the bells toll at midnight on New Year's Eve, otherwise ...

Wait! No, you must leave the tree until the twelfth night, and then burn it to chase away the mischievous spirits.

Or better, don't have a Christmas tree at all, so the mischievous spirits won't be there to chase away!

Were trees used by ancient Pagans? No doubt they were, but not Christmas trees; so those superstitions are not ancient. In fact they've been made up quite recently, as we now show:

In the Bible (Jer. 10:2-4) Jeremiah condemned the ancient custom of bringing trees into the home and decorating them for heathen worship.

In Europe also, about 1,200 years ago, an English missionary named Winfrid (Saint Boniface) was travelling in northern Germany. To the east of Dusseldorf, in Geismar forest, he came across a group of heathens who were preparing to sacrifice Prince Asulf at an oak tree, a symbol of the god Thor.

Winfrid stopped the sacrifice, cut down the oak and in its place a young fir tree appeared. Winfrid said this fir should be revered as the Tree of Life (Gen. 2:9), a symbol of Christ. (World Book Encyclopedia, vol. 3, 1968, p. 415)

In the later Middle Ages, fir trees were used in church mystery plays to represent the Tree of Life. But other than that, cutting down trees and bringing them inside as decoration was not seen in Christian homes until relatively recently. The first record of the Christmas tree was in 1605 at Strasburg, and in 1840 introduced by Princess Helena of Mecklenburg into France and by the Prince Consort to England. To the homes of royalty and landed gentry first, and later to the homes of commoners.

Such trees were decorated with one or more apples, representing the forbidden fruit. Today we decorate our trees with similar shiny red balls made of thin glass or plastic, which we are also forbidden from eating!

The Christmas tree therefore refers to Biblical metaphors teaching us to not succumb to sin. Nothing Pagan about it at all.


Q: What's the best thing to put into a Christmas cake?

A: Your teeth!

Christmas is enjoyed by people all over the world (see for example Christmas in Japan) and there's no need for you to be upset over the ignorance of others. Jesus was born in the humblest of settings; indeed his whole life showed us the importance of humility. He taught us not to be judgmental. He taught us now to love.

So enjoy Christmas, wherever you are, whoever you are and whatever your beliefs.

It's understood that the old French word for pretty, jolif (now joli), was used to name the ancient midwinter Norse feast jol, which later morphed into yule. A further transformation led to jolly, as in Jolly Santa.

colour wheel red and green are
on opposite sides
of a colour wheel

The appearance of Jesus to the Magi continued to be celebrated on 6 January.

With the exception of Armenia, many Eastern Churches continue to use the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, which differs by 13 days. On the Julian calendar 25 December is 7 January on the Gregorian calendar. So whichever calendar you use, Christmas is still celebrated on 25 December. (Epiphany is celebrated on 6 January. The Julian 6 January is the same as the Gregorian 19 January.)

This is the basis for other dates in the Christian calendar.

For example, nine months before, Christians acknowledge the Feast of the Annunciation (the conception of Jesus) and this is set as 25 March. Consequently, this day is known as Lady Day (after the Blessed Virgin Mary) and until 1752 in England, this was the first day of the calendar year.

When the Julian Calendar changed to the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, 1 January was recognised as New Year's Day. The difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars was 10 days and has increased by three days since then.

Most people don't need to know that, but ignoring the fact did cause embarrassment for the Russian team, who arrived 12 days late for the 1908 London Olympics.*

Lady Day, or the date adjusted for days lost due to a subsequent calendar change, 6 April, was the traditional day for starting new work contracts or tenancies. For this reason, the fiscal year began on 6 April and is still the start of the tax year in the UK.

The work schedule of today's UK accountants was largely determined in the 4th century by Pope Julius.

* 1,339 QI Facts To Make Your Jaw Drop by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson & James Harkin: Faber & Faber

In the West, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on 25 December, but not Jehovah's Witnesses, who do not celebrate the birth of Jesus at all, pointing out that Jesus never instructed us to celebrate his birth. Interestingly, Jesus never instructed us to pay tithes, but Jehovah's Witnesses do, even though they are not Pharisees under Jewish Law.

Their main objection is towards practices that they consider to have a pagan source; yet countless other Kingdom Hall activities are also based on pagan customs.

More Christmas cake available for the rest of us.

Although St. Nicholas may be our inspiration for creating Santa Claus, the St. Nicholas Cross is not known as Santa's Cross.

The closest we might find to a Santa Cross is in a story from Japan; a story that's as mythical as Santa himself. See Christmas in Japan.

The Coca-Cola company claims credit for the modern-day image of Santa, but states clearly that he was depicted in red and white before their advertising campaign (see The colours are widely thought to derive from the original Saint Nicholas, who was the Bishop of Myra in the 4th Century. Red and white were the traditional hues of bishop robes, although some historians argue that he originally dressed in different colours.

We must write a letter to Santa and ask for a time-travel machine to find out the truth.

Does Santa exist? And if he doesn't, how can we prove he doesn't?

An oft-quoted story is of eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon, who wrote to The New York Sun in 1897. Here is her letter, and the editor's reply.


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