By Kimberly Ison
Ahh, December. The time when most of us are trimming our tree or filling our stockings with goodies all in the name of Christmas right? Wrong. Most of the beloved traditions we do at Christmas were actually inspired from pagan Winter Solstice celebrations that were happening thousands of years before a man named Jesus came into the mix.
As Christianity began to spread across Europe in the first centuries A.D., they encountered many people living by local religions and worshiping things in nature. Christian missionaries would lump all of these non-Christians under the umbrella term pagan. Christianity was flourishing mostly in urban areas, while outside of town; most people had not converted to this new religion.
The easiest way to get followers? (We should all be pretty adept at this by now) is to incorporate some of their beliefs and traditions into your new religion. The Christmas tree is a 17th-century German invention, but it clearly derives from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter. Father Christmas and his other European variations are modern incarnations of old pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter.
Why the winter solstice?
So why was this mid-winter time so important to pagans? According to historians, it’s a natural time for a feast. In an agricultural society, the harvest work is done for the year, and there’s nothing left to be done in the fields. The dark days that culminate with the shortest day of the year — the winter solstice — could be lightened with feasts and decorations.
However, despite the spread of Christianity, midwinter festivals did not become Christmas for hundreds of years. Early Christian leaders wanted to cement the idea that Christ was a human man and like all human men had a birthday, so decided to appropriate the already rampant winter solstice celebrations usually around December 21.
So next time you hear people arguing over the phrase, “Merry Christmas”, hit them with a Happy Winter Solstice instead!