“Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is the secret of great creative people”, Leo Burnett once said. I agree, and can proudly say that curiosity is my motive for writing this project. The purpose of this project is pure research. I want to gain knowledge about the subject of my choice and also improve my writing and planning skills. I chose this topic after watching a National Geographic program concerning Mithraism in ancient Rome. I became very curious about Religious customs, Christian in particular. My main form of research was the Internet. I read University studies and encyclopedia articles. Finally I ended up with 3 research questions. I wanted to find out the true origins of the 3 major Christian holidays: Christmas, Easter and Halloween. Where their (sometimes strange) traditions came from, if other cultures celebrated similar holidays in the past and how they came to be the Christian holidays we know today.
1. What are the true origins of Christmas?
The dictionary definition of “Christmas” is: The annual festival of the Christian church commemorating the birth of Jesus.
It is basically a feast in which Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the most prominent figure in Christian belief, making this their most cherished holiday. Christmas is celebrated on December 25 (or January 7 in eastern orthodox churches, due to incompatibility between the Julian and Gregorian calendars). Popular customs of the holiday include gift-giving, music, church celebrations, a special meal, and decorations like Christmas trees, lights, garlands, mistletoe, nativity scenes, and holly. Today, Christmas is celebrated in many places around the world by Christians and an increasing amount of non-Christians, but few people know the true pagan roots of this holiday.
First and foremost, the early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ. There were two reasons for it: The first was the simple truth that no one knew the exact day of Christ’s birth. Today, most historians believe, according to the biblical description, that his birth took place around September (approx. six months after Passover). One thing is sure though, that it is very unlikely that Jesus was born in December. The biblical story tells us there were shepherds tending their sheep in the fields that night. This is quite unlikely to have happened during a cold winter. The second reason came further in the church’s development. During the first three hundred years of the religion the church in Rome discouraged celebrating the birth of Christ, not wanting it to seem more like a pagan ritual than a Christian holiday. So why is Christ’s birth celebrated on the 25th of December?
The Answer is simple: Christianization, or the conversion of native pagan culture to Christian use. Church officials developed different methods of conversion to Christianity, and the main one was based on the belief that conversions were easier if people were allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditions, while claiming that the traditions were in honor of the Christian God. Basically, the traditions and practices themselves were kept, but the reasoning behind them was altered.
Many pagan societies held celebrations around the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year, which occurs between the 21st and the 25th of December) with the prevailing theme being the welcoming of the sun and the joy in the rebirth of the world. There are also many stories of children of wonder being born on or near the winter solstice, like Mithras, Attis, Dionysus or Apollo, who are all savior deities sent in manifestation at the darkest time of the year. The oldest winter solstice celebration known to us took place in ancient Egypt over 4000 years ago. Large parties were held to celebrate the rebirth of the sun god Horus. The held a 12-day festival that mirrored their 12 month calendar, which revolved around Horus. This Egyptian idea of a 12 day celebration was also the first of its kind.
Local countries adopted these ideas from the Egyptians (perhaps wanting to share in Egypt’s success). A prominent celebration was the Babylonian “Zagmuk” honoring the creator-sun god Marduk. The Babylonians believed that while Marduk had created the world peaceful and beautiful he has to battle the monsters of chaos to keep it so. Every year as the weather grows colder the monsters regain their strength and Marduk has to fight them off, but he needs the help of the people. This battle lasted for 12 days and it was the duty of the people to cheer Marduk on and help him win the war. Only then peace would be restored, the earth’s beauty renewed and the people would be safe for another year. As we move east we reach the Persian “Sacaea”, a celebration honoring the return of the sun. The Sacaea was also celebrated by the Greek in honor of Zeus’s defeat of Kronos and the Titans. These celebrations consisted mainly of feasting, partying and lighting of large bonfires.
The Roman holiday season lasted a week and was called Dies Natalis Invicti Solis, the Birth of the Unconquered Sun. It began on the 25th of December with the Saturnalia, the holiday honoring Saturn (the God of agriculture) and ended with the Kalends of January (the roman new year’s), which represented the triumph of life over death. This holiday was celebrated in honor of Sol Invictus (the invincible sun), The official Roman Sun God (whose day of rest was Sunday). Mithraism was also a common cult in the Roman Empire, and many celebrated the birth of Mithras on this date as well. This festival was marked by much feasting, gift giving and merrymaking in general.
The Pagans of northern Europe also celebrated the winter solstice, with a festival called “Yule”. Yule has many names for the different tribes: For the Celts it was “Nodlaig”, for the Saxons “Gehul”, and for the Welsh is was “Hal”. More names were Juul, Oel, Heol and many more. The word Yule is derived from the Norse word Iul, meaning wheel. The wheel was a pagan symbol for the sun and for the cycle of life. The Yule celebration lasted for a number of days and involved feasting, fires, and sacrifices.
Bonfires blazed in honor of the sun’s struggle against, and eventual triumph over, the darkness and cold of winter. One of the most prominent symbols of Yule was the evergreen tree. The evergreens seemed to have magic powers enabling them to resist the short and cold days. Evergreen trees would often be brought into home and evergreen boughs were carried as luck totems (especially Holly, which was considered the food of the gods). Sacred ceremonies were held by druids surrounding and worshiping these trees. More traditions included kissing under the mistletoe (a fertility ritual) and gift giving. Even the idea of Santa Clause can be found in many Yule celebrations.
The Pagans viewed these celebrations of the return of the sun as the fact that good will prevail over evil, which made it easy to adapt them to Christianity, seeing how Jesus was born to save the world (according to the belief). Jesus has often been referred to as the “light of the world” and it only seemed fitting that his birth would be celebrated with the rebirth of the sun.
So, in the year 350, Pope Julius the first and the roman emperor Constantine declared that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25. There is little doubt that he was trying to make it as painless as possible for the pagan Romans (who remained a majority at that time) to convert to Christianity. The new religion went down a bit easier, knowing that their feasts would not be taken away from them. However, some experts believe it went the other way around. They say the early Christians were tempted by the partying and feasting, so the Christian leaders quickly decided to give the holiday a Christian reasoning so as not to lose their followers.
2. What are the true origins of Easter?
Easter is the second major holiday in the Christian liturgical year. According to the New Testament, Jesus rose from the dead 3 days after his crucifixion. Easter Day is the celebration of his resurrection, also called Resurrection Sunday. Prior to Easter Day come a 40 day period called Lent. This is a time for fasting, praying and penance.
The last week of Lent is called Holy week and it contains Good Friday, which honors the crucifixion of Christ. After Resurrection Sunday comes a 50 day period called Eastertide, ending with Pentecost Sunday. This is a time for rejoicing and growth. Easter is not fixed in the civil calendar because it is a lunar holiday. Easter Sunday occurs on the first Sunday after the full moon proceeding the vernal (spring) equinox, which occurs on March 21. Easter customs and symbols include a large feast (with ham as the main course), a sunrise worship service, egg hunting and decorating, hot cross buns, flowers, the Easter bunny and outdoor activities. The thing is, none of the customs and symbols, or even the name of this holiday, has anything to do with Christianity.
The word Easter is actually the name of the pagan goddess of fertility, also named Ostare, Oestre, Ostara, Ishtar, Ashtoreth, and Asthart in different cultures. Many pagan cultures held vernal festivals in honor of this goddess, celebrating the arrival of spring and the awakening of life. The oldest of these festivals was held in ancient Babylon, Phrygia (modern day Turkey), Canaan and Phoenicia. The Phoenicians were a civilization of traders who brought the Easter customs to Greece, Rome and the northern countries of Great Britain.
The legend of this spring festival begins with Nimrod. Nimrod is, according to the book of Genesis the son of Cush, grandson of Ham and great grandson of Noah. Nimrod was a powerful leader who formed the first empire in the world, Babylon, by conquering the “Land of the Seven Cities” (the Persian gulf). In his rule he made the people rebel against God and join in his own mystery religion, in which he figured prominently. When Nimrod eventually died, his mystery religion continued on.
His wife Queen Semiramis saw to that. Once he was dead, she deified him as the Sun-god. In various cultures he later became known as Baal, the Great Life Giver, the god of fire, Baalim, Bel, Molech, etc. Queen Semiramis continued developing her mystery religion. She set herself as a goddess as well, proclaiming to have hatched from an egg that fell down from the moon on the first full moon after the spring equinox (she taught that the moon went through a 28 day cycle and ovulated when full). She became known as the goddess of fertility and the moon, mother of all life. She later became known as Ishtar, or Easter.
Semiramis soon became pregnant, claiming that is the rays of the sun god Baal which caused her to conceive. She gave birth to Tammuz, who was the supposed savior, the son of God. Tammuz was a hunter, and was one day killed by a wild boar. He was sent to the underworld, but through his mother’s weeping he was resurrected and allowed to ascend to be with his father Baal.
Another version tells that Semiramis (or Ishtar) was so grief stricken that she followed Tammuz to the underworld. With her gone, the world became a cold and barren place. Ea, the Babylonian God of water and wisdom, sprinkled them both with the water of life, allowing them to return to the world for 6 months of the year. The remaining part of the year Tammuz was to return to the underworld, causing Ishtar to follow him and the cycle to continue. This is how the people explained to themselves the miracle of spring that happened every year. Each year a spring festival was held to celebrate Tammuz’s resurrection from the underworld on the first Sunday after the full moon of the spring equinox, Ishtar Sunday.
All of the common Easter traditions originate from this belief. Ham was to be eaten as a reminder of Tammuz’s death. The sunrise worship service is a common pagan practice honoring the Sun God. The egg is probably the oldest symbol of fertility and new life in pagan worship. Then there is the story of Ishtar’s hatching from the moon egg, known as the Ishatr, or Easter egg. The hare too, is an old fertility symbol, due to its rapid rate of reproduction. The story of the Easter bunny brings us back to Ishtar, or Ostara as she was called in northern Europe. The Goddes Ostara arrived late from the underworld one spring and found a little bird whose wings had frozen from the snow. Full of pity for the creature she made him her pet and turned him into a snow white hare (which would then become her symbol).
She also gave him the gift of being able to run with incredible speed. In remembrance of his earlier form as abird, the hare had the ability to lay eggs, which were rainbow colored, but only on one day of the year (guess which?). The Hare eventually managed to annoy the goddess, and she put in the sky as the constellation Lepus (the hare). He was allowed to return to the earth once each year on Easter Sunday to lay his eggs. It became an Easter tradition to seek out the Easter hare’s rainbow colored eggs. Also, in Celtic culture, it was forbidden to eat hare meat except on Beltane (the 1st of May) when a ceremonial hare hunt was held (Beltane is the Celtic name for Easter – Bel meaning the same as Baal). The hare remains a symbol of luck and fertility even today.
The Act of fasting in preparation for a great occasion can be found in many lands. The Babylonians and their neighbors fasted for 40 days in preparation for the annual celebration of Tammuz’s resurrection. This is probably the direct source of the Christian Lent, but a pennence period like this can be found in many other societies as well. Pagans in Mexico and the Andes mountains practiced a 40 day fast in honor of the sun around this time of year. The Egyptians fasted for 40 days to honor Adonis and Osiris. The lighting of fires was also a common pagan ritual. Fire was the symbol of Baal and the fires were used in ceremonies and even for human sacrifices.
The New Testament says nothing about sunrise ceremonies, lent, colored eggs or bunnies. These are all classic examples of Christianization. The Christian leaders wanted to convert the pagans to Christianity, so they decided to adopt their rituals and give them Christian significance in order to make the transition easier. But perhaps there is another, more primitive reason. People enjoy celebrations and festivities, and do not care for the most part who or what the celebration honors. The pagans probably did not care what name was given to their festival, as long as they could continue feasting and rejoicing.
3. What are the true origins of Halloween?
The name Halloween is actually a Scottish shortening of the name “All Hallows Evening” or “All Hallows Eve”. It is celebrated on October 31st and it is so named because it comes before All Saints Day (or All Hallows day) which occurs on the first of November. According to Christian tradition, the souls of dead roam the earth until All Saints Day, when the prayers of the people free them from purgatory and allow them to reach heaven.
Halloween is the last night the dead spend on earth and their last chance of gaining vengeance on their enemies before moving on to the next life. To avoid being recognized by a soul, Christians would wear masks and costumes to disguise themselves. This is where the custom of dressing up and “trick or treating” came from. More traditions of Halloween include costume parties, carving jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions and playing pranks. In these traditions we can see the pagan origins of Halloween crystal clear.
The Celts of Northern Europe celebrated their New Year on the evening of October 31st and the first of November (the Celts followed a lunar calendar and their days began at sunset). This holiday was named “Samhain” in Ireland, Galan Gaeaf in Wales and Allantide in Cornwall, and is Celtic for “summer’s end”. They believed that the New Year starts with the death of the sun god in winter. It was also believed that the veils of the world were thinnest as the old year waned into the new and that troublesome spirits, ghosts of the dead, fairies, and demons were free to roam about, scaring people and damaging crops. Traditionally, Samhain was time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would need to be slaughtered in order for the people and livestock to survive the winter. The reason for this was that the meat could keep since the cold months have come and also since summer grass is gone and free foraging is no longer possible.
Large fires played a large part in the festivities. They were called Bonfires because the bones of the slaughtered cattle were thrown in as sacrifices to the sun and spirits. Often two bonfires would be built side by side, and the people would walk between the fires as a ritual of purification. The druids (celtic priests) performed ceremonies around these fires including divination concerning marriage, luck, health and death. Since the barrier to the otherworld was so thin this was the best time for these rites. Each family in the village would extinguish the fire in their home, and then relight their hearth from the common flame. This ritual was said to bond the village together and protect each family from the spirits roaming about. More attempts to ward off spirits included wearing costumes and masks and carving candle lanterns from turnips. Large turnips were hollowed out, carved with face and placed in windows.
Samhain was also a night of mischief and confusion. The spirits were impersonated by young men with masked, veiled or blackened faces, dressed in white or disguises of straw. These young men would go from house to house “trick or treating” as a form of bribery. The family would give the “spirits” fruits or nuts to keep them from damaging their crops. Mischievous pranks were played on the ungenerous including moving farm equipment and livestock and bombarding their houses with cabbages pulled at random from gardens. Other than these young men people usually preferred to stay indoors on Samhain night.
During the Roman rule in Britain (43-410 AD) aspects of Roman religion were incorporated into Samhain. Candied apples and bobbing for apples became associated with this holiday because of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit trees and gardens, whose symbol was the apple. Traditions often involve fruit centerpieces and decorations. Furthermore, the Romans observed the holiday of Feralia, intended to give rest and peace to the departed. Sacrifices were made in honor of the dead and prayers were offered as well.
The jack – o – lantern is perhaps the most famous Halloween symbol. It is named after the phenomenon of strange light flickering over peat bogs, also known as will –o –the wisp, representing the scary spirits roaming about. Furthermore, the Celtic folklore tells about a fellow named Stingy Jack, a thief that managed to trick and trap the devil. In order to be set free, the devil had to promise never to takes Jack’s soul. When the day came and Jack died, he wasn’t allowed to enter Heaven because of all the bad deeds he had committed in his life. He was sent to Hell, but the Devil kept his promise and wouldn’t take Jack in. Jack was condemned to roam the earth with only a burning ember in a turnip lamp to light his way. This is where the tradition of carving vegetable lamps came from. When the first English immigrants came to North America they traded the turnip for the larger native pumpkin, which was larger and readily available. This pumpkin lantern is the jack- o –lantern known to us today.
Another important holiday honoring the dead belonged to the ancient Aztecs. It was named “The Day of The Dead” (El Día de los Muertos) and is still celebrated in Mexico, South America and around the world. Originally it fell on the ninth month of the Aztec calendar, symbolizing the nine stops the dead must pass on their way to heaven, and was celebrated for an entire month. Sacrifices were made to the lady of the dead, Mictecacihuatl.
Today, “The Day of The Dead” is celebrated on the 1-2 of November, probably due to the Catholic Spanish conquering which led to the merge of the Day of The Dead with All Saints Day. Traditions of this holiday include a family meal with emphasis on remembering deceased family members, decorating graves and family altars, and prayer. These are the basic traditions, but in different cultures activities may vary, from kite-flying in Guatemala to skull decorating in Bolivia. The essence of this day is celebrating the lives of those who are gone and helping them on their way.
The early Christians also had a day celebrating the remembrance of all the church’s martyrs. It was established by Pope Boniface the 4th and was set on May 13. Later, it was Pope Gregory the 3rd that changed the date to November 1st, and renamed it “All Saints day”, so it would correspond with the existing pagan holidays. Christianity continued to spread throughout the world, and pagan holidays were either Christianized or forgotten. Samhain and The Day of The Dead were absorbed into Halloween. Their traditions and rituals were preserved and incorporated into the new holiday, but their names were omitted. However, now, despite all of the Christian efforts, people essentially enjoy the aspects of the holiday that derive from pagan origins. The Halloween celebrated by the great majority of people today is just a fun holiday, and has lost its religious signifance for most people.
To summarize everything, I believe it can be safely said that Christian holidays rarely mean and originate where they seemed to at first. Christianization can be found throughout history in many different cultures and aspects, from major holidays to minor superstitions. Celebrations of the winter solstice were common around the world, and Christmas was just the latest addition. The early Christians merely replaced the birth of the sun with the birth of the son, but kept the rituals and traditions of the pagan festivals.
The Easter holiday even managed to keep its pagan name. The festival of the earth’s rebirth is recycled today as the day honoring the resurrection of Jesus, and celebrated in the same way the Babylonians did 3000 years ago. Even Halloween is just a pagan holiday dipped in holy water. It’s as pagan as you can get, honoring ghosts, spirits and the like, but it got Christianized nonetheless. In my personal opinion, there is nothing religious about these holidays anymore. They merely represent how far ideas can travel when you take advantage of human nature. The early Christians understood that people are just simple beings who like to have a good time, and don’t really care in whose honor. Christianization was a smart idea, but I believe it breaks a few copyright laws.
Working on this project I improved my research and writing skills, and also my time management. If I had been given the chance I would have written more about the Christianization of sacred places, like the pantheon and Celtic sacred groves. All in all, I learned a lot during the entire process and am satisfied with the result.
1. Julia A. Gengenbach, “Is Christmas Christian”, Prism University of Wisonsin- Eau Claire Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, 2002
2. Prof. Bettina Arnold, “Halloween Customs in the Celtic World”, Center of Celtic Studies, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, 2001
3. Donna-Lynn Riley, “Christian Feast Days and their Relationship to Pagan Holidays” , Introduction to World Religions, 2003