The Pagan Customs at Christmas

How pagan rituals influenced our religious holiday traditions


Heather Sandefur, Op/Ed Editor

It was the dead of winter and the great conquerors had come. The night drew near and the Roman soldiers set up camp on the eve of battle. Sentries sat around their campfires and pulled out their meal: pomegranates, barley, and fruit cakes. Yes, they had fruit cake, the fabled terror of the holidays.  The pagan Romans have inspired many a Christmas tradition, along with other pagan and polytheistic peoples.

Saturnalia was a celebration on Dec. 17 to honor the Roman god, Saturn. People would decorate their homes with ivy, vines, and anything green (like a Christmas tree).  Furthermore, they would decorate the trees outside and make laurel wreaths. People would give gifts to each other.

Mistletoe was used in ‘fertility rituals’ in the eyes of Saturn.  However, mistletoe hasn’t been considered a magical plant by just the Romans.  It is a plant of peace of the Norse Eddy’s and one of love for Frigga, the goddess of love in Norse myths.  The beliefs of the Nordic peoples have also led to the creation of Santa Claus and his reindeer.  Odin would lead a hunting party in the sky while riding his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir.  Not only that, but from this myth comes the tradition of leaving cookies and milk for Santa because children would leave their boots by the chimney with carrots inside for Sleipnir.  The Dutch myths had a hand in the creation of Santa Claus as well. However, Santa Claus is not the only gift-bearing person.  La Befana is an elderly Italian woman who brings gifts and leaves them in children’s shoes.

Around the same time as La Befana in the 13th century, St. Francis introduced caroling into the Christmas tradition.  Caroling started out as wassailing which was a custom where people went around singing and offering drink from the wassail bowl to others. Wassail is apple cider and this ritual was to ensure a good apple harvest by scaring away spirits in the orchards by singing.  St. Francis simply took the idea and incorporated it into Christmas.

These things—Santa, caroling, fruit cake, gift-giving, etc.—have been characterized by the holiday season.  However, they’ve merely been incorporated into it. Each of these traditions and many others have their own history and their own cultures behind them.