These days, Christmas is pretty strongly associated with Christianity ("Christ" is right there in the name, after all). But the roots of the season go back to a very different tradition. Many pagan cultures used to hold a major celebration around the winter solstice, sometime between December 20th and 23rd, and according to some scholars, much of modern-day Christmas grew out of those traditions.
How do we know that Christmas can be traced back to pagan religions? Well, by examining a lot of the objects that are most strongly associated with Christmas, it becomes clear that their origins are older than the holiday itself.
Long before Christianity began, plants and trees that remained green all year 'round had a special meaning for followers of pagan religions - including the early Romans. In ancient Rome, the festival of Saturnalia was held to mark the winter solstice, and evergreen trees were brought into temples and homes. The reasoning? The trees seemed to have magical powers that allowed them to survive the life-threatening powers of darkness and cold. That magical protection was thought to be shared with the spaces where they were displayed, hence the tradition of displaying them inside.
The sound of chiming bells is often associated with the Christmas season; nowadays, church bells are rung on Christmas Eve and Day to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But before the holiday existed, the people of Northern Europe feared the spirits that lurked in the dark, especially as the days got shorter around the winter solstice. During solstice festivals, bells were rung to make noise, which was thought to scare away those spirits.
Germany started the modern Christmas tree tradition in the 16th century, and it is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, was the first to add lighted candles to a tree. He was inspired by the sight of stars in the winter sky. But long before Martin came along, candles were part of the Roman Saturnalia festival. Like the sound of bells, the flame was thought to ward off evil spirits, while the light of the candles was meant to urge the sun to return. So maybe that string of Christmas lights - which have replaced candles on most people's trees - will encourage an earlier spring.
Kissing under the mistletoe has Christmas written all over it - that's where we all saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night, after all. But like so many other symbols of the season, the custom dates back to a pagan tradition. The Celtic people saw mistletoe as an object of fertility and abundance, as well as a way of protecting against evil if it was hung over a doorway. As for the kissing part, that was a Norse addition. They believed that kissing under the plant conveyed Freyja's blessings of luck, love, fertility and protection from disease.
Okay: we all know that Santa Claus is Christmas incarnate. The plump, bearded man in a red suit who brings gifts down the chimney is one of the most recognizable symbols of the modern Christmas holiday. The figure we know today was derived from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas, a gift giver, and St. Nicholas, a 4th-century saint and Greek Bishop of Myra. But before Santa, there was an ancient, pagan god who had a lot of parallels with Mr. Claus: Odin, a major god amongst the Germanic peoples. Like Santa, Odin travels through the sky. He has a long beard. And he brings gifts to children who leave their boots by the hearth. Sounds like Santa Claus borrowed some of his moves from an earlier tradition.
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