Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Christmas Traditions from Way Back

When we celebrate Christmas, we engage in a number of activities, we seldom think about where these traditions come from.  Most of these activities do not come from Christians, but from much earlier period than Christianity itself.

As I stated in earlier posts, it is easier to convert people to your religion when you adopt many practices they perform. This was in the case of Christianity;  the church adopted many celebrations associated with other so-called pagan holidays to Christmas. In doing so, it was easier to assimilate people into Christianity.

This was not by accident, Pope Gregory the Great (540-605 A.D.), advised his missionaries to not destroy pagan temples by stating: “When this people see that their shrines are not destroyed they shall be able to banish error from their hearts and be more ready to come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognizing and worshipping the true God.”

Here is a list of some of our so-called Christmas Traditions, and the history of them.

Yule Log- We often see fireplaces with a Yule Logs burning in them.  It appears for Christmas purposes it may be relatively new, having only appeared in writings around the 1800’s. However, it can be dated to Norse and Germanic traditions associated with the midwinter festivals.

In these cultures, it was not a log, but an entire tree brought inside, its large part put inside the fire, and then places further and further into it as it burned.  The log itself may have been to guarantee luck in these house for the next year.

Several aspects of how it is burned vary from region to region. Several of these are it cannot be put out until it has completely burned. Others include keeping a small bit of it to be used as kindling to start the fire on the next year’s log.

Mistletoe- Not only from the Roman’s but also the Druids and Norse celebrations.  The Druids has the Ritual of oak and mistletoe. Basically, a boy climbed a sacred oak tree, cut it down, and sacrificed some animals as part of a futility ritual.

In Norse Mythology, Loki tricked a blind god into killing Balder with a dart or arrow made of the plant. One story is that, mistletoe became a plant of peace, to compensate for this treacherous act.

We all know when you stand under mistletoe someone can kiss you. This comes from the Greeks and Romans celebration of Saturnalia, for like the Druids, the Mistletoe was also considered for use in adding fertility. Also, in Roman times it was not unusual for enemies to reconcile under mistletoe.

A note about mistletoe, in Victorian England if a woman did not accept a kiss under the plant; it was assumed no one would bother to ask her for her hand in marriage until the next year. This woman or girl, would then be ridiculed the next year as someone who would end up as an old maid.

The Holy and the Ivy- One of my favorite British Christmas carols (even though it is relatively new dating to the early 19 century). As with many traditions, the Holly and the Ivy were sacred to the Druids, and associated with the winter solstice.

The Christmas Tree- If there was one item I would say was of pagan origin, and certainly went against early Christian teachings; it would be the act of bringing in a tree inside to be decorated.

The Roman’s during Saturnalia, used to decorate their houses with wreaths of evergreen branches.

Tree worship was very common among different pagan religions in Europe. This was changed according to legend when Saint Boniface cut down an evergreen and decorated it.  The triangular shape of an evergreen would represent the trinity of Christianity.

The reason I said this went against Christianity, was due to the words in Jeremiah 10:2-4. Thus says the Lord: Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.”

There are so many more traditions we have adopted to celebrate Christmas that I have not mentioned.  In celebrating Christmas, we all must remember that although our traditions may come from other religions and traditions, it is what we celebrate, not how we do it.

Next Week: A silent night; when the killing stopped.


  1. Glad I was raised with a combo of Santa and Christianity--it made for a colorful household that was full of thanksgiving for all we had. Your histories continue to interest!

  2. Fascinating! I've also heard that the reason Christmas is in December is due to the winter solstice, another pagan celebration. Wonder just how many were appropriated??! And I've always wondered where the Christmas tree came from, now I know...

  3. The original Yule Log fire with a whole tree being shoved into the fireplace reminds me of some of my camping fires. I got a good chuckle out of that.

  4. Thank you William for another informative post!
    Even my friends don't know these details about Christmas, will share with them.

  5. Would be fun to celebrate Saturnalia with the Romans. Provided we were patrician and not plebian, of course. Merry Christmas!

  6. That's a thorough study, I must say! I really was unaware of the history. Thanks for sharing these information.

  7. I had heard some of this, but lots of surprises. It is interesting how traditions evolve. Christians often think Hanukkah is a big holiday for the Jews. But it is really a tiny holiday that just happens to come near Christmas. And once Christmas became commercialized, the Jews wanted to take part in the gift giving. And that is where the tradition of giving 8 nights of gifts comes from and how this tiny holiday started getting so much attention. Jews who are very observant will almost never give gifts on Hanukkah because that really has nothing to do with the celebration. Just another way that holidays adapt and evolve.

  8. Great post, William. We attended a Christmas dinner celebration last evening in which the lady of the house is a practicing Jew and the man of the house is a devout Catholic. That couple equally celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah and I am always encouraged by the fact that as you say, we come together to celebrate in good faith. Whatever that faith may be.

  9. In my city, on one certain channel, a log in a fireplace burns continuously... and this happens only during the Christmas season.

    If you don't have a real fireplace of your own, having this "Yule Log" makes a nice difference! :)