Although Christmas is the day originally meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus, many of the customs we associate with the holiday originate from pagan traditions meant to celebrate the winter solstice. The winter solstice means the return of longer days as winter comes to an end. It was celebrated by Europeans for years before Jesus was speculated to have been born.
As Christianity became more and more widespread, many of the older traditions stuck, and the two celebrations became merged.
Santa’s image comes from a combination of Father Christmas and Odin. Father Christmas or Saint Nicholas, is the patron saint of children and the poor. He was a bishop known to be generous and giving, with a long beard and cloak. The pagan god Odin outdated Saint Nicholas. According to chefin.com, “Odin was traditionally portrayed as an old man with a long, white beard with an 8-legged horse called Sleipnir who he would ride through the skies (just like Santa’s reindeer). During the winter, kids would fill their booties with carrots and straw and leave them by the chimney for Sleipnir to feed on. Odin would fly by and reward the children with little presents in their booties, much like we do with Christmas stockings today.”
Gift giving comes from the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, pagan celebration of the agricultural god, Saturn. This celebration always came near the time of the winter solstice, and gifts were exchanged for good luck in hope of a bountiful harvest in the coming year.
Singing carols is a common thing done to celebrate the holidays now, but it used to be used as a way to ward away evil spirits; “ Every year, wassailers would roam through their villages in small groups, singing loudly with the aim of banishing evil spirits and wishing good health to those around them.” (chefin.com)
Holly and mistletoe were both sacred plants associated with gods to the pagans, and were often exchanged for good luck. Early Christians would also decorate their homes with holly as a way to avoid detection and make it appear that they were celebrating Saturnalia. It also served as a way to identify other Christians.
One of the most popular modern Christmas customs, decorating a Christmas tree, also has its Pagan origins. According to chefin.com, “During Saturnalia,Romans also hung small metal ornaments on trees outside their homes. Each of these little ornaments represented a god, either Saturn or the family’s personal patron saint.
Early Germanic tribes practiced a similar tree decorating tradition, this time with fruits and candles to honour the god Odin throughout winter solstice. Christians seemed to have merged the tree decorating with ornaments, candles, and fruits to make Christmas tree decorating one extravagant tradition.”