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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.


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 (carol1) 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 colours2, 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. Yule festivities are a mixture of customs and beliefs going back thousands of years.

Celebrating the winter solstice was forbidden by the early church, but customs survived anyway and it didn't take much to tempt Christians to join in the solstice feast in honour of the Pagan god Mithra. So the church provided an alternative with a festival in honour of the birth of Christ and celebrations were definitely in order.

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 was moved to 25 December and Pope Julius I declared that Jesus' birthday celebrations would also be on that day3. 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 no historical evidence to prove what date Jesus was born on, or the season4, or even the year. The important thing for Christians is to celebrate the birth of Jesus because that showed God's love for us. It doesn't really matter a hoot when the birth is celebrated; the important thing is to celebrate it. So since the 'why' is much more important than the 'when', 25 December has been good enough for Christians5 ever since. (See Meaning of the Cross.)

Nine months before the birth of Jesus, 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 day was the first day of the calendar year6. 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.

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 Odin7, 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 colours8.

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.

Even though St. Nicholas is 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 is as mythical as Santa himself. See Christmas in Japan.


Then there are those who believe that Santa is an anagram for Satan. You know... breaking into houses late at night, dodgy preference for small children, wearing long kinky boots, and psychotic reindeer with militaristic nicknames. At home in the flaming fireplace; Nicholas = 'Old Nick'. And Santa's little helpers – those 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?

We believe there is no link between Santa (who doesn't exist9), and Satan (who does). So we'll leave that connection theory with the pile of pine needles and head off for Christmas dinner.


Christmas is enjoyed by people all over the world and there's no need for Christians to get upset about some people forgetting what it's all about, since it is, after all, based on many non-Christian customs. 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.

What's the best thing to put into a Christmas cake? Your teeth.

What sort of ball doesn't bounce? A snowball.

How do snowmen travel around? By icicle.

And here's our favourite joke for a snowy evening.

A few popular carols:Silent Night
Joy to the World
O Come all ye Faithful
Angels We Have Heard on High
2: red and green are on opposite sides of a colour wheel

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

Many Orthodox churches in the East 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.)

4: Certainly winter seems unlikely because we read that the shepherds were watching over their flocks, and sheep are brought inside during the winter.
5: But not Jehovah's Witnesses, who point out that Jesus never instructed us to celebrate his birth, and also object to practices with a pagan source. Interestingly, Jesus never instructed us to pay tithes, but Jehovah's Witnesses do, even though they are not Pharisees under Jewish Law. Countless other Kingdom Hall activities are also based on pagan customs.

More Christmas cake available for the rest of us.
6: 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. ('1,339 QI Facts To Make Your Jaw Drop' by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson & James Harkin: Faber & Faber)

7: Odin, whom most people have forgotten, even though we've named Wednesday after him. Odin is associated with Sun worship. See Sun Cross
8: 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 hues of traditional 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.
9: Or 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.

Dear Editor, I am 8 years old.
Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
Papa says, "If you see it in THE SUN, then it is true."
Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O'Hanlon, 115 W 95th Street

Dear Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus? Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.