Christmas is usually considered a Christian festival, but it’s probably the most syncretized holiday on the calendar. The Puritans banned it in England during Cromwell’s dictatorship, from 1647 to 1660, but also in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The Puritans recognized (albeit sourly) that Christmas was about as Christian as a pentacle. This is one major reason why the Christmas season is so long, as it incorporates traditions that go back centuries before Christ. In fact, Christmas wasn’t even incorporated into Christianity until nearly four centuries after Christ’s death and, before that, it was pagan.
The current season that we call “Christmas” or “Yuletide” includes ongoing holidays from at least two major religions, Christianity and Judaism, and pagan traditions from Africa (Kwanzaa) and Europe (winter solstice celebrations).
Advent, the forty days before Christmas, was called “the forty Days of St. Martin” during the early Middle Ages and the Epiphany, on January 6, was actually a more important feast than Christmas itself until later in the medieval period. Thus, the real Christmas season is nearly two months long.
Needless to say that a very large number of legends surrounds Christmas.
The Christian holiday of “Christ’s Mass” is currently the biggest celebration of the season. The actual day of Christmas is supposed to be Christ’s birthday and the entire season is laid out according to stories from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, early Christians didn’t celebrate this holiday in December. The Christian feast on the 25th didn’t even appear in historical records until the fourth century and was not officially incorporated into the calendar until the eighth century. Before the fourth century, Christ’s birth was celebrated anywhere from January to May.
When it was first incorporated, Christmas appears to have been intended to supplant a pagan Roman festival celebrating the birthday of Sol Invictus, a collective god consisting of at least three sun deities, including the Roman soldier-god Mithras. Considering that Christ was considered the “Light of the World” by Christians, this was actually a pretty logical substitution.
Also the Twelve Days of Christmas between December 25 and January 6 are similar to the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia, a week-long festival between December 17 and 23 dedicated to Saturn, where people feasted and society turned upside down, with masters serving slaves. A possible precursor to Saturnalia was the Babylonian Zagmuk Festival, which lasted 12 days and celebrated the sun god Marduk.
It’s difficult to say at this point how deliberately the Christian holiday was overlaid on the older pagan festivals, which supplanted each other, as well. But as Christianity spread, the festival definitely borrowed and syncretized other winter festivals from December and January. For istance, the Yule log and mistletoe come from Scandinavia, the Christmas tree from Germany, holly and ivy from Celtic druidic traditions, but these are other stories, included in the 2020 version of our advent calendar.
St. Nicholas is a very early Eastern saint who may be apocryphal, but his modern incarnation as Santa Claus is essentially Dutch in origin and he may incorporate some traditions from the Norse god Odin.
But not forget the “Companions of St Nicholas”, demons who have been tamed by the Saint and forced to do his bidding, usually involving scaring the Hell out of bad kids.
If you want an eye-opener on how medieval Europe literally demonized them, check out Zarte Piet/Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) from the Netherlands. This creepy figure is a sort of Moor (a medieval Spanish or North African Muslim), including dark skin. There’s nothing really non-human about him, but his appearance was enough to mark him as a demon to medieval Europeans.
In the dark side of Christmas (yes, Christmas actually has a dark side), there is also the Swedish pagan tradition of Midvinterblot (midwinter-sacrifice), which was phased out around 1200, and involved human and animal sacrifice intended to reduce the grip of winter.
And lest we believe that all Christmas demons were male, the “Lucia” of St. Lucia’s Day (December 13) was originally a demon called a “Lussi” or “Lucia die dunkle” who targeted lazy kids who didn’t do their chores. She’d have an amazing day in the new millennium.
Hanukkah (the Festival of Lights) is another December holiday whose celebration commemorates a much earlier series of events, this time recorded in the two Apocryphal books of the Maccabees. According to the story, when Judah Maccabee, leader of the Jewish revolt against Seleucid occupation, and his brothers drove the Seleucid king Antiochus IV out of Israel in 165 BCE, they also reclaimed and cleansed the Temple of Solomon. Unfortunately, there was only enough oil left to light the menorah for one day. However, during the eight days that it took to press and consecrate more oil, the menorah miraculously continued to burn.
Hanukkah may also represent the martyrdom of a woman named Hannah and her sons for refusing to abandon their faith under Seleucid rule. In any case, the holiday is celebrated for eight days after the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev (late November or early December).
In any case, neopagan (New Age) traditions all tend to center around the winter solstice on December 21 or end-of-year celebrations, and there are really a lot of historical precedent in many cultures for such traditions. The last five days of the Mayan calendar, for example, were nameless and considered extremely dangerous along the lines of the Celtic festival Samhain, which was later incorporated into Christianity as Halloween. During this period, no barriers existed between mortals and gods, leaving gods free to indulge in some serious destruction.
A pre-Zoroastrian festival from the 2nd millennium BCE, Shabe Chelle, celebrated the Winter Solstice as a victory of light over darkness, and the birth of Mithras the sun god. It survives to this day in Iran as the festival of Yalda.
In neopagan traditions, Wiccans and Ásatrú (Germanic and Icelandic neopagans) both celebrate Yule. Wiccans observe the single day as a Sabbat commemorating the rebirth of the sun, while the Ásatrú observe a 12-day festival beginning with the solstice.
On the other hand, the Lithuanian Romuva have revived the Latvian festival of Ziemassvetki, dedicated to the birth of the Latvian creator or sky god, Dievs. They celebrate this on December 23, 24 and 25 while the two weeks leading up to the original festival (December 25) were known as the season of ghosts.
In Celtic neopagan traditions, the solstice holds significance as the major festival after Samhain and, since the 18th century, neo-druids have revived and celebrated it as “Alban Arthan”.
A much older festival, the so-called Wren Day celebrated on December 26 in Celtic areas like Wales, Ireland and the Isle of Man, may reflect some actual original druidic traditions. On that day, “Wrenboys” would kill a wren and wander from house to house with musicians, singing and asking for donations.
In conclusion, the origins of Christmas are decidedly tangled. Some Christians have tried to make the holiday more “Christian”, while others have rejected it as a pagan festival. Meanwhile, the neopagans have embraced it as a solstice celebration and emphasized those pagan origins. But either way, Christmas is probably the only religious festival that we can truly say is for everyone…