Monday, December 22, 2008

The Pagan Roots of Christmas, 2008 Edition

The Holiday the World Celebrates Each Year on the 25th of December Is Actually Tens of Thousands of Years Older Than Christianity Itself -- So Why Does There Continue To Be So Much Controversy Over This Day?

When we think of Christmas, images of Santa Claus, Christmas trees and wrapped-up gifts often come to mind. For devout Christians, the Nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus comes first. But the truth is that the celebration of Jesus' birth is a relatively recent addition to this late-December holiday, which is actually tens of thousands of years old -- and remains one of the two very ancient Pagan holidays that are still widely celebrated in the Western world (and beyond) relatively intact. The other is Halloween. (Image courtesy

(Posted 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 22, 2008)

DEAR READERS: It's that most wonderful time of the year again. And following a tradition started by the late advice columnist Ann Landers in 1956 to republish an updated version of her Christmas column each year, it is with great pleasure that I present the 2008 edition of my annual holiday article, "The Pagan Roots of Christmas."

Holiday Publishing Schedule: With both Christmas Day and New Year's Day falling on Thursdays this year, there will be no Thursday editions of The 'Skeeter Bites Report until January 8. Next Monday, December 29, I will present my second annual 'Skeeter Bites Awards -- "dishonors," in the tradition of the Razzie Awards to the worst films of the year -- to the people who in the past year have done more to bring misery to the lives of millions than anyone else.

Enjoy this week's article -- and may your holidays be filled with joy, peace and love. Blessed Be and Happy Holidays.

* * *

(Original version posted December 18, 2005)

Ah, December.

'Tis the season when most of us are thinking about opening gifts under brightly lighted trees. Of kissing someone special under the mistletoe. Of eating, drinking and making merry. And, above all, of hoping for peace on Earth and goodwill to all.

But in 2008, on what ought to be the most festive time of the year -- even in the face of the toughest economic climate in almost 30 years -- "goodwill to all" again appears to be in short supply in America among certain people, who continue to rail against what they perceive as a so-called "War on Christmas" because of what appears to be a lessening in recent years of the Christian symbolism of the holiday.


And once again this year, Washington state -- specifically, its capital city -- lies at the epicenter of the holiday controversy.

Last year, a Bremerton, Washington man decided to make a statement by nailing an effigy of Santa Claus to a 15-foot-tall cross and hoisting the crucified Santa in his front yard.

Art Conrad said he had an issue with the commercialism of Christmas, and acknowledged in an interview with the Associated Press that his protest had gone way beyond just shunning the malls or turning off his television. "Santa has been perverted from who he started out to be," Conrad said. "Now he's the person being used by corporations to get us to buy more stuff."

A photo of the crucified Santa adorned his Christmas cards, with the message "Santa died for your MasterCard."

But the display was also Conrad's way of expressing his displeasure at what he believed was "political correctness" in the increasing secularization and de-emphasis of the Christian aspects of the holiday. He said Christians weren't expressing their true feelings "because they're afraid of what other people might think."

Conrad's neighbors, however, weren't afraid to express their feelings about the crucified Santa. Some were offended and others were concerned about its impact on young children. But most were just curious.

"I don't really know what to think," neighbor Jake Tally told the local newspaper, the Kitsap Sun. "I know it's about God, but Santa has nothing to do with it."


This year's holiday tempest in a teapot can be found on the third floor of the Washington state Capitol building in Olympia.

A highly controversial and virulently anti-gay Kansas cult -- notorious for staging protests at the funerals of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and blaming American casualties on the country's tolerance for gay people -- has asked the state for permission to erect a sign stating that "Santa Claus will take you to hell."

According to Monica Guzman's blog on the Web site of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the sign by the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church would join a Christian Nativity set, three signs mocking atheism, and the one that started it all -- the sign from the atheist group Freedom From Religion whose message that "religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds" that has since sparked a furious nationwide debate over the nature of atheism and the boundaries between church and state.

The text of Westboro's message -- a twist on the familiar holiday song, "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," would read, according to the Spokesman-Review of Spokane:

You'd better watch out,
Get ready to cry,
You'd better go hide,
I'm telling you why
'Cuz Santa Claus will take you to Hell.

He is your favorite idol,
You worship at his feet,
But when you stand before your God
He won't help you take the heat.

So get this fact straight,
You're feeling God's hate,
Santa's to blame for the economy's fate,
Santa Claus will take you to Hell!

The state is also reviewing requests for a display depicting "The Spaghetti Monster," a fictional figure often cited in philosophical debates about the existence of God, a "Festivus" pole, which refers to a mock holiday from a "Seinfeld" episode and a sign from a Christian woman in Bellevue, Washington who wants to offer blessings on all people, Guzman reports.


Not surprisingly, a Roman Catholic group is furious with Westboro, which it considers to be as virulently anti-Catholic as it is anti-gay. In a statement issued by its president, William Donohue, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights blames Governor Christine Gregoire for allowing the controversy over holiday displays at the state Capitol to snowball.

"Having first acceded to the requests of atheists to attack Christmas, she [Gregoire] is now confronted with the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church, a viciously anti-American, anti-Catholic and anti-gay group," Donohue writes. "There is a way to deal with this situation in a manner that is legally acceptable and morally defensible, but neither the Washington governor, nor her lawyers, have figured it out...

"Governor Gregoire should have allowed the atheist group to display its sign in a different location, or at a different time, but not directly next to the Nativity scene at Christmastime," Donohue continued. "Had she done so, she would be able to treat the Westboro Baptist bigots the same way."


Westboro -- whose membership is made up exclusively of relatives and in-laws of its iron-fisted leader, Reverend Fred Phelps -- isn't the only source of holiday controversy in Olympia. The atheist display that drew Westboro's wrath has also come under fire from a local church pastor who's fiercely outspoken in his own right.

The Reverend Ken Hutcherson, the voluble pastor of the Antioch Bible Church of Kirkland, Washington, says that as a result of Gregoire's decision to allow the atheist display, "our state stinks."

"You have led the state of Washington to be the armpit of America," Hutcherson said at a rally of several hundred people who gathered in Olympia to protest the display of the atheist sign in the Capitol rotunda. "And I'm afraid that our governor is the one adding the offensive odor to the armpit."

The rally was sparked by Fox News talk-show host Bill O'Reilly, who made the atheist sign an issue on his top-rated cable program. The arch-conservative O'Reilly, a devout Catholic, considers the sign part of a "War on Christmas" by secularists that he's been railing against on his program every December for the past five years.

Freedom From Religion's message, aimed at staking its own claim on the holiday season, proclaims the atheist reliance on reason, rejects common religious beliefs and asserts the independence of the natural world:

At this season of the winter solstice, may reason prevail. 
There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. 
There is only our natural world. 
Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

It's difficult not to read that last sentence in the atheists' statement as an attack on both religion and its followers. As one who is neither a Christian nor an atheist, this blogger is certainly not enamored of that last sentence, either, for it brings up a fundamental flaw in the belief system of atheists: An inability to explain the origin of the Universe -- not to mention the origin of life.

Atheists have never been able to adequately explain the origin of the Universe and of everything in it, because no matter how hard they try, their explanations cannot square with the immutable law of cause and effect.

What caused the Universe to come into existence? What caused life to begin here on Earth? Atheists can explain the effect, but they cannot explain the cause. Every time they try to explain that A caused B, the question inevitably comes up, "If A caused B, then what caused A in the first place?" They simply cannot answer that question.

But that's a subject for a separate article.


In any case, contrary to the long-expressed assertions of both Christian conservatives and their atheist adversaries, Christmas is not for Christians only. It never has been and it never will be.

And for a very good reason. Both sides in this perennial debate are in stubborn, bullheaded denial of a fact of history that won't go away: The holiday the world celebrates on the 25th of December is actually tens of thousands of years older than Christianity itself.

The historical truth is that Christmas is the Christian adaptation of the many ancient Pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. With the notable exception of the Nativity creche, nearly all of the symbols and decorations that we associate today with Christmas -- the tree, the wreath, the holly and the ivy, the lights, the mistletoe, the eggnog, the yule log, the caroling and even Santa Claus -- are of Pagan origin.

Many Americans, in fact, often refer to Christmas as "the Yuletide." And no wonder: Yule is the winter solstice. Most modern Pagans still celebrate Yule. Even most Christians use "Christmas" and "Yule" interchangeably to describe the season without even thinking about its Pagan origins.

Yule -- which this year came and went on Sunday -- celebrates the beginning of the sun's light and warmth returning to the northern hemisphere after reaching its southernmost point on the Earth at the Tropic of Capricorn on the winter solstice.

It is one of the two very ancient Pagan holidays that are still widely celebrated in the Western world -- and beyond -- relatively intact. The other is our modern celebration of Halloween.

[In the interest of full disclosure, this blogger is obliged to state for the record that I, a former Roman Catholic, am a Pagan; more specifically, a Wiccan. Yule also has special significance for me personally; it's the anniversary of my conversion in 1984 to Wicca, the largest and best-known "denomination" of modern Western Paganism.]


If you really want to be historically accurate, then the Christmas tree should rightly be called the Yule tree, for it dates back nearly 5,000 years to the Celtic Druids. They revered evergreens as manifestations of deity because they did not "die" from year to year, but stayed green and alive when other plants appeared dead and bare. The trees represented everlasting life and hope for the return of spring.

Best known today for their celebrations of the summer solstice in June at Stonehenge, the Druids decorated their trees for the winter solstice in December with symbols of prosperity: a fruitful harvest, coins for wealth and various charms such as those for love or fertility. 

Scandinavian Pagans, particularly the Norse, became the first to bring their decorated trees indoors, as this provided a warm and welcoming environment for the native fairy folk to join in the festivities.

The Saxons, a Pagan tribe from what is now Germany, were the first to place lights on the their trees in the form of candles (an extremely dangerous fire hazard by today's standards). For centuries, the ancient Romans decorated their homes with evergreens at the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia -- which also marked the Roman New Year -- and exchanged evergreen branches with friends as a sign of good luck.

Christians' use of the tree symbol for the December holidays did not begin until the 16th century, when devout Catholics in what is now Italy brought decorated trees into their homes. The German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, is credited with starting the tradition in England in 1841 when he brought the first Christmas tree into Windsor Castle.


Nature's cycles of winter, spring, summer and fall (and everything else in between) are so much a part of human life and society on Earth that to acknowledge, celebrate and even sanctify those cycles is a primal need we simply cannot ignore. Just ask any ski-resort operator in winter or swimming-pool operator in summer -- or any farmer, for that matter.

Yet those who follow the world's three great monotheistic religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- have long been reluctant to do so and instead instituted their own rituals, holy days and festivals. The fact that many of the major Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays -- and even some civic and national holidays -- often occur in tandem with the eight major Pagan holidays during the course of the year is no accident.

In addition to the winter solstice celebration of Yule on December 20-22 (depending on the actual date of the solstice itself from one year to the next), the other seven Pagan holidays are:

# Imbolg or Candlemas (Groundhog Day, February 2) -- also known among Catholics as St. Brigid's Day;

# Eostre or Ostara (Spring Equinox, March 20-22);

# Beltaine (May Day, May 1);

Litha (Summer Solstice, June 20-22);

Lammas or Lughnasadh (Midsummer's Day, August 1);

# Mabon (Autumn Equinox, September 20-22);

Samhain (pronounced SOW-en), the Wiccan New Year (Halloween, October 31).

This is why Easter (whose name in English is a derivative of Eostre) always falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. And why Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, almost always falls near the autumn equinox.

Jews transformed the three ancient harvest festivals of the Canaanites into the three festivals of Creation (Tabernacles), Revelation (Pentecost), and Redemption (Passover). Likewise, Christians and Muslims transformed their ancient, Nature-based festivals into celebrations of the singular events in, respectively, the life of Jesus and the career of the Prophet Mohammed.


After Christianity was proclaimed the state religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine in 312 C.E., the early Christian church -- now the Vatican -- used the transformation of the ancient holidays and festivals as a tool to convert Pagans to Christianity throughout the empire and beyond.

Yet the church barred Christians from holding any kind of celebration to honor the birth of Jesus, primarily because the actual date of his birth was unknown -- and remains unknown to this day, although there is some astronomical and archaeological evidence suggesting that Jesus was actually born in the spring.

The church's ban was lifted in 350 C.E., when Pope Julius I proclaimed a feast day to celebrate Jesus' birth -- and deliberately chose December 25 as the date to hold "Christ's Mass" to absorb and Christianize not only Yule, but also Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.

Saturnalia was celebrated with feasting, gift-giving and role-reversal between men and women and between slaves and their masters. It was also marked by the unabashed enjoyment of sensual and erotic pleasures, which many conservative Christians today strongly condemn as wanton debauchery, but still survives in our time (primarily around New Year's Eve).

And because Saturnalia also marked the Roman New Year under the Julian calendar, the changeover to the present-day Gregorian calendar in 1582 resulted in the one-week interval between Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

Upper-class Romans also celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the sun god, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For them, Mithra's birthday was the most sacred day of the year -- especially since the daylight from the sun began to lengthen on the 25th, following the winter solstice.


The current debate in the United States over "Christmas" versus "Holiday" trees, decorations and greetings is part of a much deeper clash of cultures that has gone on for centuries: Christianity vs. Paganism. 

Christianity is monotheistic and linear; Paganism is pantheistic and circular.  Pagans celebrate the eternal natural cycle of being. Christians venerate the linear concept of progress, from creation to ultimate redemption.

Pagans live in the realm of the eternal recurrence. Pagan rites maintain harmonious relationships among the gods; thus, these rituals guarantee the continuity of Nature's cycles, which Nature-based human societies depend on for their sustenance.

Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims) worship the God who created all natural things and stands above them. To them, when God intervenes in the world, it is not to create a disruption of natural events, but rather to generate some wonderful new direction in human affairs.

It is at the winter solstice -- more so than at any other time of the year -- that people of Judeo/Christian/Muslim faith feel most acutely the tension between the origins of their religion in Pagan Nature worship on the one hand and the evolution of their faith into belief in a single God and a linear remembrance of historical events and teachings on the other.


And for many conservative Christians in particular, that tension could only have grown sharper in recent years as the number of Americans who do not identify themselves as Christian has been growing exponentially since 1990, according to data compiled by the dicennial American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), commissioned by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Out of a total U.S. adult population of 207.9 million people who professed a religious or spiritual belief system in 2001 -- the most recent ARIS data available -- 159.5 million, or roughly 75 percent, identified themselves as Christian (inclusive of all of its denominations).

By comparison, out of a total U.S. adult population of 175.4 million believers in 1991, 151.4 million, or roughly 85 percent, identified themselves as Christian.

The number of Americans who do not identify themselves as Christian grew from 20.1 million (15 percent) in 1991 to 37.1 million (25 percent) in 2001, according to the ARIS data, with particularly sharp increases recorded in the number of adherents to Islam and Buddhism.

America's Muslim population has more than doubled, from 527,000 in 1991 to 1.1 million in 2001. The nation's Buddhist community grew even faster, according to ARIS, from 401,000 in 1991 to 1.08 million in 2001.

Buddhists have their own major holiday in December: Bodhi Day (December 8), which celebrates the story of how the philosopher Siddartha Gautama of India became the Buddha by sitting under a bodhi tree and vowing to remain there until he achieved total enlightenment.

While there was no census of American Pagans in 1991, the ARIS survey did report at least 307,000 Americans identifying themselves as such in 2001, with 134,000 professing to be Wiccans, 33,000 as Druids and 140,000 as eclectic "neo-Pagans" of a wide spectrum of traditions.

Interestingly, the ARIS survey counted only 53,000 Americans in 2001 as identifying themselves as "secular" and even fewer -- 43,000 -- calling themselves "humanists." There was no accounting of either group in 1991.

The next taking of America's religious and spiritual pulse by ARIS will be conducted in 2011 -- and that next survey is likely to show a further increase in the country's diversity of faith and a further shrinkage of America's Christian majority.

The truth is, America in the closing days of 2008 is more religiously and spiritually diverse now than it's ever been before in its more-than-234-year history -- and conservative Christian majoritarians are going to have to deal with it, whether they like it or not.


If they wanted to, today's Pagans could reclaim the Christmas tree -- indeed, all the decorative trappings of Christmas, save for the Nativity creche -- as being rightfully theirs, since Pagans created them in the first place. But modern Pagans are a practical lot, with most viewing Christmas simply as the Christian world celebrating Yule in their own way -- albeit, three to five days after the actual winter solstice -- and thus see no conflict in celebrating at least the secular aspects of Christmas themselves.

And December isn't called the holiday season for nothing. There's also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day and scores of other holidays and festivals around the world this month -- all of which culminate in the ringing in of the new year at midnight on December 31.

Thanks to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar as the universal calendar used worldwide and the global system of 24 time zones, New Year's Day is our only truly global holiday -- which we all got to watch unfold on our TV screens in all its joyful glory as we greeted the turn of the millennium in 2000 (albeit, a year too soon, since there mathematically never was a Year Zero).

So whichever way you celebrate the holidays, may yours be filled with joy, peace and love.

Blessed Be! And Happy Holidays.


FOOTNOTE TO READERS: The initials "C.E." used in this article refers to "Common Era," which I am using here in place of "A.D." ("Anno Domini, the Year of Our Lord") to reflect dates under the now-universally-used Gregorian calendar.



Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide by Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling (Paperback - November 4, 2006)

The Origins of Christmas by Joseph F. Kelly (Paperback - August 2004)

Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth
by Dorothy Morrison (Paperback - September 1, 2000)


Volume III, Number 84
Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved. 


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Greg M. said...

As an Atheist, I am horrified, though not surprised, at how little you understand Atheism. You stated that "a fundamental flaw in the belief system of atheists: An inability to explain the origin of the Universe -- not to mention the origin of life. Atheists have never been able to adequately explain the origin of the Universe and of everything in it, because no matter how hard they try, their explanations cannot square with the immutable law of cause and effect." This line of thinking is a mess.
First of all, Atheism is not a belief system. Christianity is a belief system, as is Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Atheism is the opposite: no system of beliefs (beliefs implying faith, which can be defined as 'certitude when there is no evidence of proof.' For Atheists, the absence of evidence concerning diving beings leads to the reasoned conclusion that there is evidence of absence.
As for the inability to explain the beginnings of the universe, science is attempting to do that now. As for the evolution of life on earth, the body of archaeological and biological evidence grows each year, further explaining how life came about and how we evolved. Yes, evolved. It's a theory, but a theory is not a's based on evidence. Gravity is a theory too, but you and everyone else keeps sticking to the planet.
As for your numbers, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a study in 2007 and released in 2008 (link can be found at US Census Bureau website about the religious landscape of the U.S. The study showed the following percentages of the U.S. population as being:
Baptist: 51.3%
Catholic: 23.9%
Jewish: 1.7%
Muslim: 0.6%
Hindu: 0.4%
Unaffiliated: 16.1%*
Note: Unaffiliated in this study was defined as "Atheist, agnostic, and nothing in particular."

As you can see, this is vastly different from your stated numbers. Atheism, agnosticism and general free thought is on the rise.

As for your diatribe about cause and effect, regarding the beginnings of the universe, you state that "They simply cannot answer that question." That is correct. Neither can you. However, Atheists don't believe that it was caused by someone's imaginary friend; there is a reason, but it has not yet been discovered. That is how Atheists look at the issue. Your methodology is quite similar to the approach used by the Catholic church in the middle ages when confronted with the science of Galileo and Copernicus, e.g. there must be some divine influence in things we don't understand. When Copernicus disproved the 'Earth as center of the Universe' theory, the religious uproar was considerable. I'd venture that that same will happen when scientists finally figure out what caused the current universe to exist the way it does.

Enjoy your holiday.

Miss Jocelyn said...

Thank you for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. Your post was very intriguing, and this stuck out to me "But modern Pagans are a practical lot, with most viewing Christmas simply as the Christian world celebrating Yule in their own way".

The reasons that Christians feel "christmas" is being de-Christianized is simply because they've brought up with only the knowledge that it is a christian holiday. They don't know why they practices all the little traditions (gift-giving, christmas trees, etc) it's just a part of the holiday. They're brainwashed, and everyone - whether it be tradition or religion - is in someway brainwashed.

Also, I am not happy with the "santa clause will take you to hell" mimic. Wonder why people don't take Christians seriously? A large majority makes the rest of us look like fools or goes along with the tide.