Christmas Is Not Yours or Mine: The True Origins of the Holiday Season

My family moved to the small town of Wytheville Virginia when I was in the fifth grade. Until that time, I had lived my entire life in the Midwest. I have fond memories of Wytheville, but it was a rural town and freely mixed religion into the public school curriculum. In the Midwest, school and religion did not mix. Sure we sang Christmas Carols and had holiday parties, but we didn’t read the Bible in class, nor watch fanciful filmstrips full of Christmases that never were.

One of the more memorable of those “fanciful filmstrips” was called The Pilgrim’s First Christmas. I don’t remember a whole lot about it, but I do remember the Pilgrims celebrating Christmas, making small presents for each other, and probably converting a few Native Americans along the way. As a fifth-grader I assumed that this was a true story. After all, they don’t lie to you in school and haven’t people always celebrated Christmas? Wasn’t it all about Jesus at the start with the rest added later?

During my high school years as I became more interested in history I found out that the Pilgrims didn’t celebrate Christmas at all. Not only that, but until the middle of the 19th Century most Americans didn’t either. Christmas as we celebrate it today is a rather “new” holiday. While Christmas has several genuinely old (and often pagan) elements, how we celebrate it today is a rather new development. Christmas is a mishmash of various traditions, both religious and secular.

Sure, by the Fourth Century there were Christians celebrating “Christmas.” It wasn’t so much a celebration of Jesus’ birth but a Christian continuation of the Roman holidays of Saturnalia and the January Kalends. Saturnalia featured many of the things we currently associate with Christmas: large meals, holly, mistletoe, gift giving, and abundance. There was no way anyone was going to convince newly Christianized Romans to give up their holiday celebrations, so they became a part of the new holiday of Christmas, a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

December 25th wasn’t a date picked by chance either, it was the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun, a pagan deity who was very popular with the elite of Rome and those in the army. Other deities who celebrated a birthday that day were the Persian Mithras and the always popular Greek Dionysus. With Jesus’ birthday on the 25th the feasting, drinking, and gift giving was all allowed to continue, and people could all participate while paying a little lip-service to Jesus. December 25th was also the date of the Winter Solstice on the Julian Calendar, the date wasn’t chosen by chance.

As Christianity spread across Europe it “Christianized” other winter festivals, adding their pagan elements to a day allegedly about the birth of Jesus. The Norse Yule was turned into Christmasl and very little else about the holiday changed. Gifts were still given out, branches and small trees continued to decorate homes, and solar imagery still abounded. There was no rush to put up nativity scenes in place of the pagan fir trees and branches, Yule might have been called Christmas by some, but it was celebrated the same way.

In the 16th Century the first real war over Christmas was fought, and it was a battle between Christians. Despite the yelling to the contrary, there has never been a war against Christmas fought by the forces of secular humanism, liberals, and atheists. Generally the war against Christmas has pitted Christian against Christian. The first salvo was fired by the English Puritans who waged such a successful campaign that Christmas was literally a forgotten holiday in most parts of England and North America until the 19th Century.

The Puritans suppressed Christmas because they knew it for what it was, a pagan midwinter holiday. They objected to the pagan imagery, the feasting, drinking, and gluttony. Due to their influence Christmas became a rather localized holiday in the early days of the United States. It was celebrated by the Germans and the Dutch, but was forgotten or seen as a small potatoes by the majority of the population. The United States Congress regularly met on Christmas until 1855, and children in Boston went to school on the 25th up until 1870. The first state to declare Christmas a holiday was Alabama, and that was in 1836!

One of the exceptions to this rule was the former Dutch colony, New York. New York City played a major role in establishing Christmas as a national holiday, and none of that had anything to do with Jesus. The Dutch continued celebrating the midwinter celebration of Christmas long after it had gone out of fashion in England. When the Dutch settled the “New World” they brought their traditions with them. One of those traditions was of a mystical gift-giver related to the Turkish St. Nicholas.

Sinterklaus (later Santa Claus of course) was distantly related to St. Nicholas, but he was also related to the Norse god Odin. St. Nicholas was a gift giver (and lots of other things, as one of the most popular Christian Saints, he’s associated with nearly everything), and was often depicted with a long white beard, but so was Odin, and Odin road a horse, much like the early Sinterklaus. By the time Sinterklaus came to the United States he was no longer like a god or a saint, Clement Moore in “The Night Before Christmas*” described him as a “right jolly old elf.” Eventually the Saint Nick of the poem, and the Sinterklaus of Dutch legend became simply “Santa Claus.”

The Night Before Christmas went on to become the best known poem in the English language, and its popularity helped to spread the celebration of Christmas. If you were a kid and heard that poem, wouldn’t you want to celebrate Christmas? Santa became the reason for the season, and belief in the North Pole’s favorite resident is a major reason for the spread of the holiday. Without Santa Claus, it’s possible that Christmas would have remained a forgotten holiday in the United States.

At the same time the United States was wrestling with Santa and adopting the holiday as its own, Christmas celebrations were on the rebound in Great Britain. The great Christmas re-awakening across the pond can be attributed to two things: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. Albert was German, and celebrated the holiday of Christmas just like he did back home in Germany, with gift giving and trees, much like the Vikings did before the coming of Christianity. As a celebrity, he was copied by many in England, and the United States.

Dickens’ tale, while it didn’t invent the modern Christmas, went a long way towards establishing it as a major holiday. A Christmas Carol makes no references to Jesus, and is strictly a secular take on the holiday. Many of my favorite moments in the story look more like a Saturnalia celebration than the Christmas typically celebrated in Dickens’ day. When you get past the ghosts (one who looks very much like the Roman Bacchus), you have a tale full of gift giving, feasting, family, and drinking. The scene where Scrooge sticks his head out of the window and has a boy run to the butcher shop for him is especially telling. Didn’t it ever strike you as odd that the butcher shop would be open on Christmas? That’s because no one was celebrating it at the time, and if they were, it wasn’t the festival it is today.

Due to Dickens, Albert, and Moore the tradition of a Midwinter holiday was re-established in the 19th Century, but capitalism would play a major role in shaping the holiday. As Christmas grew in popularity, manufacturers began to stress the “gift giving” part of the holiday. The Industrial Revolution provided the Western World with all kinds of goodies that needed to be sold, and Christmas became a prime opportunity to do so. Retailers and advertisers spread the word of Dickens’ Christmas and used Moore’s Santa Claus to sell more toys. The role of capitalism cannot be overstated, Christmas rolled into every nook and cranny of our lives because people wanted to sell things, and then people wanted to get things, and the holiday took off.

Despite the holiday’s initial newness in the United States we have a tendency to romanticize a Christmas past that never was. Christmas can certainly be about faith and family, those are good things, and I’m glad there’s some emphasis on that in the holiday, but it’s never been exclusively about that, and wasn’t designed for it. Christmas is a secular holiday through and through (though dressed in mostly pagan outerwear), and it’s key building blocks almost never reference Jesus or a manger.

There has been a renewed emphasis in some Evangelical and Catholic circles to “Put the Christ back in Christmas,” but the truth is he never was there. The battle has always been to “Put Christ into Christmas.” There is no “back” about it, he’s basically been absent the entire time. The real War on Christmas is being fought by people suffering under the delusion that it’s always been a religious holiday. If there’s a “War on Christmas” it’s being fought by Christians who are trying to rewrite a secular past and replace it with a religious center that never was. The little picture here on the left is telling, it features Jesus inserted into a midwinter setting with the ghost of Odin kneeling beside him. I love that kind of inclusive imagery, but there are many Christians who can’t reconcile themselves to the fact that Christmas is a combination of many things. No one group owns it.

I often find myself straddling a strange fence during the holiday season. I’m certainly not offended when someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” nor do I think that the use of the word Christmas in some way walks over my spiritual beliefs. On the other hand I dislike hearing about Jesus being the sole “reason for the season”, when he’s kind of a late addition to the party. In many ways, Christmas is what you make out of it. If, for you, it’s a celebration of Jesus’ birth, that to me is awesome. Have at it, and I hope your Christmas is spiritual and meaningful. On the other hand if it’s a secular celebration of Midwinter, good for you, that’s what it’s always been. Christmas is not yours, or mine, it simply is, and I kind of like it that way.

*The actual title of Moore’s poem was A Visit From St. Nicholas, but is better known by the other title. There’s also some controversy over Moore’s authorship with some crediting Henry Livingston Jr.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    There are plenty of Pagan festivals around the darkest days of the year, I don’t feel a need for the label ‘Christmas’.

    As you pointed out, modern Christmas is, largely, a capitalist, consumerist holiday. Two ideals I am not overly keen on.

    Until I work out a methodology for spiritually acknowledging the solstice, I shall continue to not celebrate it (or any other festival/event through the year), as I have done for the last 10+ years.

    Of course, that is my personal choice. The Puritans, under Cromwell, actively banned the celebration of Christmas. I prefer to give people the choice, as I have made my own.

    • ombra_x

      And I will continue to celebrate it under any name people want to use, as a time for family, friends and giving. Call it Christmas, call it Yule, call it Saturnalia, I don’t really care, just don’t try and make me think of it as a religious ceremony, because it isn’t.
      As far as I’m concerned, any excuse for a time of peace and harmony is a good excuse. We don’t have enough of that, even in our own families.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Why use that day?

        • ombra_x

          That day already has a head start and a lot of people feeling that way.
          I was a sailor and learned sometimes it’s better to go with the wind, rather than fighting it all the way. I can still celebrate every other day I’m alive, even if all by my lonesome.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Just seems really arbitrary. I will do stuff when I want, not because some arbitrary calendar date tells me to.

            The making a national holiday of it really forces it onto others. I normally work on Tuesdays but will be forced to take it off, either meaning my shifts get mucked around or by making me use holiday time. Which means that I will still have to acknowledge the celebration, even if I don’t participate.

          • Steve

            Part of why I use that day in additional to celebrating the solstice on the solstice is that it is a time for family too. If Christmas is the day the rest of the family uses, I want to celebrate with them, even if I don’t place the religious emphasis on it that they do.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            My stepfather is an Anglican priest. Kinda hard for me to separate the religious angle.

  • http://www.facebook.com/tracy.tiwebemal Tracy Tiwebemal

    great article! so true!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1066316113 Jocelyne Berengaria Houghton

    I really like this post, Jason; there’s a lot of good information here! As a Pagan, I celebrate the Winter Solstice as a way to connect with the tides of the Earth upon which I live. I appreciate all the different flavours brought to the Festive Season: the Yuletide greenery and the revelry of Saturnalia, the lights of Chanukah and Christmas keeping vigil in the Darkness, the Birth of the Sun paralleling the Return of the Sun. I like how you underscore the pluralism at work in the modern celebration of Christmas. Thanks!

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    While I largely agree with your thoughts here, and most (though not all) of your facts, I think you’re missing something: the “secularism” of many aspects of the “holiday season” is only “secular” because they are “non-spiritual” folk customs that have no stake in the “official” Christian religion. However, given that Yule, Saturnalia, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti and the other midwinter festivals were all spiritual in nature and origin, I think it’s important to remember that. If Santa is Odin’s ghost (and also Saturnus’!), we all know Odin is a god, and we tend to revere departed ancestors and “ghosts” and do them reverence in various ways, ergo…! ;)

  • Droops

    Source citations please. It would be nice to be able to look this stuff up. I’ve heard this before, believe it to be true, but would love to be able to confirm it.

    • JasonMankey

      Since I don’t get paid to write this blog I do not footnote things like I should. However I can give you a bibliography . . . .

      1. The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford

      2. Christmas: A Candid HIstory by Bruce David Forbes

      3. The Origins of Christmas by Joseph E. Kelly

      4. Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton

      I’ve read several books on the origins of Santa over the past ten years, I couldn’t for the life of me tell you all the titles. I read holiday-themed books by the cartload, but I do my best to avoid the more speculative Pagan ones.I also recommend watching “The Legends of Santa” currently airing on the Documentary Channel.

  • http://twitter.com/mother_night Kathleen HypatiaRoan

    Nice write-up. Thanks for the even-handed perspective.

  • Ursyl

    When did the Church of Rome establish their Feast of the Nativity, aka Christ’s Mass?

    Seems to me that their fellow has been part of that holiday for a good several centuries, even if only as an attempted co-opting of the older holidays.

    We celebrate the actual Solstice, though also do Christmas with family members as well.

  • http://twitter.com/vogelbeere + Yvonne Aburrow

    Just to add that when Christianity was first imported to Europe, they couldn’t have rushed to put up nativity scenes instead of trees, because they hadn’t been invented yet. The Nativity scene was invented by St Francis of Assisi.

    Also, a lot of the revival of Christmas in the 19th century was due to Unitarians, who didn’t care if it was Biblical or not, and felt that a little kindness and jollity would be a very fine thing. Dickens was very influenced by Unitarianism and attended a Unitarian church for quite a while. Two modern Christmas carols (“Jingle Bells” and “It came upon the midnight clear”) were written by Unitarians.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1634361388 Celestial Elf

    A short film after Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol but inspired by earlier Pagan traditions of the Yuletide.
    With an eye to current world affairs and the rise of Global Corporatism, I have included a protestors scene, with a call to Occupy Christmas as an opportunity to reconsider what the festival may mean now.
    I replaced Dickens’ Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future with a mischievous Jack Skellington as Sandy Claws who finally gets his Christmas mission right, after a fashion and instead of the more usual three visits through time in the life of Ebeneezer Scrooge, my character ‘Scourge’ is given 3 visions instead, to the Three Realms of Celtic mythology.
    Enjoy my pagan Christmas Carol machinima film http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9SBebs3A5I

  • Frank

    Bob Crachit did get a paid day off on Christmas Day in “A Christmas Carol.” Scrooge – “You’ll be wanting the whole day tomorrow, I suppose?” Crachit – “If it’s quite convenient, sir.” Scrooge – “It’s not convenient and it’s not fair. A day’s wages for no work. It’s a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December.”

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Nice piece on how Christianity stole Pagan Holidays, written by a Catholic:

    http://www.opposingviews.com/i/health/how-christianity-hijacked-pagan-holidays

  • Steve

    I didn’t know Moore was a minister at the time he wrote the poem until recently. Supposedly he wrote it for his children and avoided claiming authorship initially because it seemed inappropriate for a church leader to write such a secular treatment. Great piece.

  • Brian

    While I won’t disagree that modern Christmas celebrations are rather pagan in character, the Christian liturgical celebration of the birth of The Lord Jesus on 25 December has a much simpler and more accurate explanation. It is simply 9 months from the celebration of the Annunciation to Mary on 25 March which according to an ancient tradition which predates Saturnalia and Sol Invictus was the date of His crucifixion and death. This reflects an ancient Jewish tradition that a prophet was conceived and died on the same date. If Jesus died on 14 Nisan which was 25 March in the Roman calendar, then according to that tradition he was conceived on 25 March. Fast forward 9 months and voilà! Christmas! But I will grant that any number of pagan practices have invaded the Christian celebration, but the date is not. Besides, it’s what we Christians do, we take what is good and true, baptize it, and make it our own.

    But here’s to your enjoying your winter holidays!

    P.S. I like to get under the Evangelical’s skins by saying “Keep Mass in Christmas”. After all, we Catholics are the only ones who do.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I’m curious as to how the crucifixion could pre-date a festival that is mentioned by writers who died before Yeshua is even supposed to have been born.

      Also, I believe that many Biblical scholars argue that he was born in (what is now) September-October time.

      • Derek_anny

        Not Sept-Oct, but in the early spring. Based on “shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night,” which indicates calving season. Theologically, Christmas isn’t His birth, but the celebration of it.

        That aside, monks are strange folk. Christ was crucified on Passover. (Because of the separation between Christianity and Judiasm, the observed day split and became a set date for Christians.) Because of above mentioned conception-death symbolism His birthday got bumped up, and dodgy, if symbolic, academics became tradition. Much like the myth of the Ancient Matriarchy.

    • caveman664

      I’m pretty sure that non-Puritan protestants celebrate “Mass” on Christmas. They just don’t call it Mass. At least we did when I was younger.

    • JoFro

      I’m sure Saturnalia predates Christmas but I also know, unlike the author of this article, that Saturnalia was over by December 23rd – it lasted seven days, from December 17-23. Sol Invictus does not predate Christmas – rather it is Christmas that predates Sol Invictus by at least 50years or more – St Hippolytus of Rome in 225 AD was already writing that Christians celebrated Christmas on Dec 25th, long before Sol Invictus was dreamt up by Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD, which was also now going to be celebrated on Dec 25th. Sad…I was expecting more from this article…rather what I get is more recycled myths that have long been dismissed about Christmas

      • JasonMankey

        The first mention of Christmas as a Christian holiday was in 336 CE. The earliest known association with December 25th with the birth of Jesus is from a calendar in 354 CE.

  • Portobello

    The Night Before Christmas went on to become the best known poem in the English language, and it’s popularity helped to spread

    it’s = it has or, you know, the other one….

  • Trisha Sander

    Jason, I hope you don’t mind that I linked to this post on my blog (http://paleladywrites.blogspot.com/2012/12/christmas-is-not-yours-or-mine.html) Thanks for sharing your words with us!

  • z00m3r

    We-e-e-ell, now, I’m a comfortably post-Christian Model Agnostic following a Buddhist path myself, and though I like this article for the most part, if we all agree that Christmas doesn’t belong to any one group, then

    “the truth is he never was there”

    …is rather overstating the historical facts at best, isn’t it?. :)

    If we’re extending a gracious hand of mutual understanding, then let’s go all the way, please.

    Christmas does indeed belong to _everyone_ who wishes to celebrate it, each in their own way. Happy Belated Holidays to all! :D

  • Soliwo

    Funny that the Dutch kept celebrating Christmas in the USA, especially as it is not so big in The Netherlands itself. Sinterklaas is bigger than Christmas.

    By the way, if you say that Christmas is mostly secular, and not very Christian, than Sinterklaas cannot be pagan either. It is far more secularised with no references no religions of any sort even if we see small type ‘pagan’ aspects of it.


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