Christmas. That jolly time of the year! To devour without the slightest remorse, mince pies, turkey, sweets, and down a few gallons of wine and ale. Unfortunately, for those with little imagination for giving presents (like the author) it’s also the time of the year for Secret Santa. If you care little about the religious nature of Christmas then might be a bad person who deserves a lot of coal from Santa. But maybe there’s still hope for you, maybe you’ve heard about the godly baby (not Superman), born in a stable between donkeys and taking offers by three suspicious sorcerers.

From this perspective, Christmas seems to have more to do with heathen magic than with Christ’s Nativity. This is outrageous! You’re probably shouting with your mouth full of Christmas pudding. That’s why I researched and brought to you, these 10 Xmas facts that have their origins in pagan celebrations.

1# Christmas day and Tthe day of Sol Invictus

Back in the days of the Roman Empire, when Christianity wasn’t yet the big religion bully, Christians weren’t sure what day Christ was born. The earliest mention for a date came from the calendar of Philocalus, in 354. Long has been suspected that the reason of choosing the 25th December, was because the Romans already celebrated a big festival then.

In 274, Emperor Aurelian declared the 25th of December the worshipping day of Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun), and early Christianswho had already a leaning towards cultural appropriationadopt it as a day of their own. I guess the commandment, Thou shalt not steal, has been and will always be open to interpretation. On the 25th the Romans used to celebrate the slow coming back of the sun, the resurrection and triumph of light over darkness, happening after the winter solstice.  

Man with a toga and a halo with the shape of sun beams
Disc of Sol Invictus. 3rd century. Photographer: Jastrow (2007). British Museum Collection. Source

2# Christmas carols and Saturnalia

Ancient Romans were a festive people with many gods, and December happened to host another important celebration, taking place from the 17th to 23rd. The Saturnalia, a festive period to honour Saturn, god of agriculture and wealth.

The Romans offered sacrifices, met for banquets, got drunk, gambled and sang songs. It was a tradition during the Saturnalia, that masters served the slaves, and gifts were exchanged, usually wax and pottery figurines. There’s a strong reason to suspect than the merry-making of Christmas derived from the Saturnalia gatherings. Some would point it’s a pity the orgies haven’t been preserved.

Romans gambling, drinking and feasting

Saturnalia. Or at least, the intepretation made by Antoine Callet, in 1783. Photographer. Source

3. Christmas dinner and Yule

The third jolly pagan festivity shaping Xmas, is the Yule, a celebration with Germanic origins. The word Yule is speculated to derive from wheel, symbolizing renewal and resurrection. It was celebrated on the 21st of December, during the winter solstice. The Vikings exported it during the Viking Age, influencing specially the Christmas celebrated in northern Europe.

During Yule, the shortest night of the year, the people offered sacrifices to the Germanic/Norse gods, praying for a benevolent winter. Most of the cattle was slaughtered, since they wouldn’t be able to feed them properly during the hard-core winter months, and for the last time until spring, families and friends feasted in abundance and got drunk.

Recently abandoned the tradition of burning the Yule log, people switched to eating this mouth-watering dessert called Yule Log, known as Bûche de Noël in France. Author: Jebulon. Source

4. Santa’s flying sleigh and the Wild Hunt

Folk believed the longest night of the year was a most propitious time for evil spirits, demons like fascists, racists, and other malefic creatures to wander around. During the Yule, to go out alone it was considered a death sentence, because the Wild Hunt thundered above in the dark sky.

The Wild Hunt is a ghostly procession of huntsmen accompanied by demonic hounds and demons themselves. They are doomed souls, usually knights slain in battle seeking for penitence, or hunters who ignored the Mass, and now belong to the perpetual hunt.

Half-naked woman leading a massive host of shadows galloping on black horses.

Asgårdsreien, painted by Peter Nicolai Arbo in 1872. It depicts Odin and other Germanic/Norse gods during the Wild Hunt. Photographer. Source

The Germanic variant it was led by Wotan (Odin), although Diana and local figures are commonly found. It was first associated with Christmas among German speakers, in the 16th century Holy Roman Empire. In the other hand, Scandinavia folk believed the Wild Hunt was a brief comeback of the old gods led by Odin, making war on the Christian God.

The ghostly parade galloping the skies was a bad omen, and disasters were sure to befall on any direct witness. The demonic riders would often drag careless observers to hell, their bellies too weighted with Yule dinner to be able to escape.

5. Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas

Saint Nicholas lived in Asia Minor, between the third and fourth century, and he was the inspiration for Santa. He famously tossed three bags of coins through the window of a house, of an impoverished but devout man. In order to pay their dowries, the three daughters were about to become prostitutes, but Nicholas heard and anonymously provided. Reminds you of some famous present-bringer?

Later Middle-Ages tradition depicted him resurrecting three butchered children by a mad butcher, who intended to make ham with them. Painting him accompanied with the three naked children in stained glass windows, tapestries and panels became common, and that’s why he came to be known as the patron of children. 

Saint Nicholas depicted as a bishop with the three resurrected children
Saint Nicolas Heures d’Anne de Bretagne. Painting dated from XV century. Author unknown. Source

6. Christmas presents and Sinterklaas

St Nicholas’ day, known as Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and Belgium, is celebrated on the night of 5th December. The children leave their shoes in front of the doors and Sinterklass fill them with presents and sweets. During the Reformation, saints were resented like charlatans who abused of God’s benevolence, but the Protestants wanted to preserve the gift-giving tradition of St Nicholas, and thus attached it to Christmas, paving the way for the future Santa Claus.

Sinterklaas. Notice the similarity of his clothes and beard with Santa Claus. Author: Sander van der Wel. Source

The name Santa Claus derives from Sinterklaas, and its tradition was exported to America via New Amsterdam (modern New York). Sinterklaas went to take a long nap during the 17th and 18th century, but it was reanimated in the 19th century.

7. Santa’s dress

The unfashionable red dressing gown and unhealthy belly of Santa, was the product of the American caricaturist Thomas Nast, who depicted him for the first time in his well-known attributes in 1881.

Thomas Nast’s caricature. 1881. The first modern depiction of Santa Claus. The red colour would be added later. Source

His stealthy approach of descending into chimneys, rather than using the door like normal people, was first seen in an 1823 anonymous poem called, A visit from St Nicholas (disputed authorship). The flying sleigh pulled by reindeers and the bag of presents, also made their first appearance then, in all likelihood inspired by the Wild Hunt.    

8. Christmas Tree, the Yggdrasil

The most iconic Christmas decoration is unquestionably the Christmas Tree, an evergreen tree which allows us to guess traces of nature-worship and renewal symbolism in its tradition. Germanic, Norse, and Saxon paganism had believed in a giant tree as the centre of their universe, called Yggdrasil.

The Yggdrasil branches hold the world

The Ash Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, 1886. Source

During the Renaissance, Christmas trees were mentioned for the first time in modern-day North Germany, and Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia). The custom spread in the German states during the 18th and 19th century, and with the surge of German emigration in the last two centuries, it proliferated in the rest of Europe and U.S. 

9. Christmas mistletoe and wreaths. Loki, Baldr and the mistletoe arrow

Nobody really kissed me this Xmas under the mistletoe, but maybe you’ll be luckier so let me give you a hint about its origins. Let’s go back to the Saturnalia, when the Romans hanged evergreen wreaths in their doors, and the same happened in northern Europe during Yule, because evergreen symbolized the triumph of life over death.

Ancient Celtic people believed it to possess healing qualities, but the most famous tale related to the mistletoe comes from Norse mythology. Baldr, son of Odin, was made invulnerable to everything in the world, except the mistletoe. Loki, a precursor of modern scientist, decided to test the hypothesis and deceived Baldr’s blind brother, Höðr, to shoot Baldr with an arrow or spear made of mistletoe, killing Baldr. DON’T try shooting mistletoe at anybody this Christmas, please.    

Each arrow overshot his head by Elmer Boyd Smith, 1902. Notice Loki whispering to the blind Höðr in the foreground, giving him the mistletoe arrow. Source

10. Christmas log from Catalonia, the Cagatió

And last but not least, a tradition from my native Catalonia. Our Christmas Eve revolves around a decorated log, which we have been feeding since the 8th of December, with orange peels and stuff you’d give only to your prisoner. We call it Cagatió (Shitting log or Poo log) or Tió de Nadal (Christmas Log).

Literally logs with smiley faces and Catalan red hats

They come in all shapes and sizes, and are a common purchase in Christmas markets in Catalonia. Author: Kathryn Greenhill. Source

The children of the house are locked away in a bedroom while the Cagatió warms-up. When they return, they grab a stick and beat, literally, the shit out of the log. Chanting a special song that varies in every household, they demand presents, and the Cagatió lay them down within the box underneath him. The young-ones keep repeating the routine until the Cagatió runs out of magical poo.

Caga tió
Tió de Nadal
Caga torró
D'avellanes i pinyó
Si tió no vols cagar
Al cul t'haurem de picar!                 

Shit log
Christmas log
Shit nougat
Of hazelnuts and pine nuts
If you don't want to shit
We’ll beat your ass!

Traditionally, in the Catalan homes the Cagatió brought small gifts like sweets and Torró (a typical Christmas dessert), but nowadays has improved his intestinal capacity and brings larger and more expensive gifts like PlayStations and laptops.

The Cagatió is part of the European tradition of the Yule log, and years ago, it used to be burnt as well, after exhausting the presents. If you think I made it up, that is impossible that your country lacks such a cool Xmas custom, and that you must resign yourself to the fat guy breaking illegally into your home; watch this demonstration and start celebrating Xmas in style like the Catalans:

For further information on the Cagatió check this interesting article
Hope you enjoyed, don’t forget to subscribe and comment! Have a most wonderful non-pagan, pagan, or secular Christmas, notwithstanding your faith, because gathering with your beloved ones is what it truly counts!