Then and Now: 5 Christmas Traditions with Pagan Roots

“Christmas is really about bringing out your inner pagan”

– Kenneth C. Davis

Though it may sound improbable, Kenneth C. Davis has stated a fact. Christmas has some unexpected yet deeply rooted connections with ancient pagan religions. Way before the advent and rise of Christianity in the early ADs, the pagans had their own varied celebrations. All the pagan religions, including but not limited to the Celts, Romans, Norse, and Druids, celebrated a big festival in December, the time of the winter solstice. It marked the end of harvesting and the beginning of the festive season for the pagans.

As Christianity gradually came to the fore, missionaries started traveling far and wide to spread the message of Christ. Their long and arduous journeys led them to meet people from myriad cultures. Naturally, they were fascinated by a number of their traditions. With time, the Christians picked up some of the pagan traditions and made them a part of Christmas. In fact, you will be surprised by the number of Christmas traditions adopted from the pagans.

From gift-giving to feasting, a lot of today’s Christmas rituals are steeped in pagan traditions. Let us have a look at some of them.

Photo by Nadi Lindsay on


You may ask how Christmas carols can have pagan roots. After all, carols are sung to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Well, caroling, the practice of going to your neighbor’s door to sing, comes from wassailing, a pagan tradition. St. Francis was so inspired by the wassailers that he came up with the tradition of Christmas carols in the 13th century. Once upon a time, wassailers would form groups and go around villages singing songs. Their intention was to banish evil spirits and wish everyone good health.  A traditional drink, made from curdled cream, mucked ale, roasted apples, eggs, spices, and sugar, was their signature.

Photo by Julia Larson on

Exchanging Gifts

We all look forward to exchanging gifts on Christmas. The excitement of taking off the wrappers and finding the presents gifted by our loved ones never wear off, even when we are adults. However, gift-giving is quite a controversial tradition. Many Puritans believe that the consumerism of Christmas shopping contradicts the selfless nature of Christ. Nevertheless, the tradition has been the norm ever since the 19th century. Queen Victoria popularized the tradition. However, the art of exchanging gifts goes way beyond that. In fact, it predates Christianity itself. The ancient Romans had a festival called Saturnalia. During this occasion, they honored Saturn, the God of Agriculture, by feasting, gifting, and making merry between December 17 and December 24. The Romans had the tradition of gifting one gift to one special person in the hope of a great harvest the next year. Today, this has evolved. Now, we have long lists of gifts that are to be given to a plethora of people. However, the joy of gift-giving remains unchanged.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Santa Claus

Though Christmas is a celebration of Jesus Christ’s birthday, Santa Claus is synonymous with it. Have you ever wondered how is he related to Jesus Christ? What is his connection to Christmas? It is believed that the idea of Santa Claus is inspired by St. Nicholas. Also known as Father Christmas, St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children and the downtrodden. He lived in the 4th century and was known for giving generous gifts to the unfortunate. He had a big beard and often wore a long cloak just like the Santa Claus we know today. However, it is noteworthy that way before the time of St. Nicholas, there was a pagan deity named Odin. The bearded old god, Odin, was worshipped by Germanic tribes. He was often depicted with an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir. Odin was said to travel the skies while riding Sleipnir. When winter came, children would fill their boots with carrots and straws, leaving them by the chimney for Sleipnir to feed. It was believed that when Odin few over, he left behind gifts to reward the children. I am sure that this reminds you of Santa riding his sleigh driven by reindeer and leaving presents in Christmas stockings, doesn’t it?

Well, it is no doubt that our imagination of our beloved red-clad Santa Claus is influenced by both St. Nicholas and Odin.

Photo by Craig Adderley on

Decorating the Fir Tree

Decorating Christmas trees is one of the most anticipated activities of Christmas. Everyone in the family comes together to deck their Christmas trees with tinsels, stars, bells, and myriad other ornaments. Many families have a box of decorations saved over generations. Little things like this make Christmas special. However, did you know that decorating trees was an integral part of the pagan culture as well? The early Romans ornamented the trees outside their homes with beautiful metal decorations during Saturnalia. These metal ornaments depicted a god. This could be Saturn or the family’s patron saint. Many Germanic tribes also decorated trees with fruits and candles during the winter solstice. They did this to honor Odin. Christians seem to have adopted the best of both worlds. Today, Christians all over the world decorate Christmas trees with metal ornaments, candles, and fruits.

Photo by Lum3n on

Decking the Halls with Hollies  

Hollies seem to be an age-old Christmas paraphilia. In fact, there is a very interesting history about it. Long long ago, holly was a symbol of Saturnalia. The plant was holy to the Romans. After all, it was related to Saturn, the God of Agriculture.  They made wreaths of holly and exchanged them among one another as a token of good luck. When early Christians slowly started emerging, they were mercilessly prosecuted. They could not practice their religion, let alone celebrate Christmas, openly. Soon, they came up with a truck. As Christmas took place during the same time as Saturnalia, the early Christians started hanging holly wreaths in their homes. This was their camouflage. In the guise of observing Saturnalia, they celebrated Christmas in their own way. As the pagan regions gradually waned, holly became a symbol of Christmas. 


I am pretty sure that you were surprised after coming across the fact that some of our beloved Christmas traditions actually have pagan roots, weren’t you? Well, I was astonished as well. Nevertheless, we all know that December has always been a special month. While once upon a time, it was the time of celebrating the winter solstice and Saturnalia, today it signifies the Birth of Christ. One way or another, it continues to remain the season of joy. Do comment and let us know your favorite Christmas tradition.

Note: All images on our site are in the public domain or are used with WordPress permission, unless stated otherwise.

One thought on “Then and Now: 5 Christmas Traditions with Pagan Roots

  1. I like that our holiday traditions are a blend of different cultures. It makes it much more inclusive, in my opinion, and something that we all can celebrate!

    Liked by 1 person

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