A Holiday Special: The Pagan Roots of Christmas

(Posted 5:00 a.m. Monday, December 21, 2009)

DEAR READERS: It’s that most wonderful time of the year again. And following a tradition started by the late advice columnist Ann Landers in 1956 to republish an updated version of her Christmas column each year, it is with great pleasure that I present the 2009 edition of my annual holiday article, "The Pagan Roots of Christmas." Next Monday, December 28, I will present my third annual ‘Skeeter Bites Awards — "dishonors," in the tradition of the Razzie Awards to the worst films of the year — to the people who in the past year have done more to bring misery to the lives of millions than anyone else. Enjoy this week’s article — and may your holidays be filled with joy, peace and love. Blessed Be and Happy Holidays.

By SKEETER SANDERS
(Original version published December 18, 2005)

Ah, December.

‘Tis the season when most of us are thinking about opening gifts under brightly lighted trees. Of kissing someone special under the mistletoe. Of eating, drinking and making merry. And, above all, of hoping for peace on Earth and goodwill to all.

But in 2009, on what ought to be the most festive time of the year — even in the face of the toughest economic climate in nearly 30 years — "goodwill to all" again appears to be in short supply in America among certain people, who continue to rail against what they perceive as a so-called "War on Christmas" because of what appears to be a lessening in recent years of the Christian symbolism of the holiday.

Once again, Americans appear locked in a conflict pitting Christian conservatives determined to preserve what they say are the use of Christmas symbols and traditions against secularists who argue that for government agencies to do so is a violation of the constitutional ban on government endorsement of any particular religion — in this case, Christianity.

FIGHT ON CAPITOL HILL OVER CHRISTMAS ERUPTS ANEW

And once again, the battle was being waged in the halls of Congress. Representative Henry Brown (R-South Carolina) earlier this month introduced a resolution calling on his House colleagues to express support for the use of Christmas trees, wreaths and other symbols of the holiday and to oppose any attempt to ban them.

"Each year, I could see a diminishing value of the spiritual part of Christmas," Brown said in an interview with CNN. "It would seem like another group would go from the Christmas spirit to the holiday spirit. What I’m afraid of — if we don’t bring some kind of closure to this continuous change, then in 20 years it will almost be completely different from what we see today … and so we would lose the whole emphasis of what the very early beginnings of Christmas was all about."

To date, Brown’s resolution has 73 co-sponsors — all but one of them Republicans. The House has adopted similar resolutions in years past when it was controlled by Republicans, but with the Democrats now in charge, the lawmakers this year departed Washington for their holiday recess without taking it up.

And as far as the Reverend Barry Lynn is concerned, that’s a good thing.

Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the resolution reflects "this bizarre view by some members of Congress that there is a war on Christmas and that they have to be the generals in some responding army."

Lynn told CNN that he doesn’t have a problem with members of Congress promoting religion privately as individuals, but that they shouldn’t violate the First Amendment’s Establishment of Religion Clause by acting in their official capacity on Capitol Hill "trying to ‘help’ the baby Jesus by passing a resolution on his behalf. It is arrogant and ridiculous at the same time."

He lamented that some people feel a "false sense of some kind of attack on Christmas" if a school holds a winter concert instead of a Christmas concert, or if retailers declare "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

O’REILLY STILL RAILING AGAINST SO-CALLED ‘WAR ON CHRISTMAS’

Tell that to Bill O’Reilly. The acerbic Fox News Channel talk-show host has been raising hell about a so-called "War on Christmas" for more than five years.

"All over the country, Christmas is taking flak," O’Reilly said in a Christmas Eve 2004 broadcast of his "O’Reilly Factor" program. "In Denver . . . no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg unveiled the "holiday tree," and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores — that’s Macy’s — have done away with the Christmas greeting "Merry Christmas."

O’Reilly goes on: "Now most people, of course, love Christmas and want to keep its traditions, but the secular movement has influence in the media, among some judges and politicians. Americans will lose their country if they don’t begin to take action. Any assault on Judeo-Christian philosophy should be fought."

Baloney. There is no such assault going on. On the contrary, what is happening is a growing recognition of America’s religious and spiritual diversity.

The thought has apparently never occurred to O’Reilly and other Christian conservatives that there are literally millions of Americans who are not Christian and have December holidays of their own. Why should Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Yule not get the recognition they richly deserve?

Why should those holidays be ignored or subsumed under Christmas? And contrary to what O’Reilly and other Christian conservatives say, Christmas is not a strictly Christian religious holiday in the first place. It’s celebrated by billions of non-Christians around the world and is a public holiday even in countries where Christians are a small minority.

THE HISTORICAL TRUTH ABOUT CHRISTMAS

Christmas has never been — and will never be — a Christian-only celebration and the time has come for Christian conservatives to stop denying the holiday’s true origins, for it didn’t start with the birth of Jesus in a Bethlehem stable. The truth is, the holiday the world celebrates each year on the 25th of December pre-dates the birth of Jesus by tens of thousands of years.

Indeed, it is the most ancient holiday on the planet.

What we now call Christmas is actually the Christian adaptation of the many millennia-old Pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. With the notable exception of the Nativity creche, all of the symbols and decorations that we associate today with Christmas — the tree, the wreath, the holly and the ivy, the lights, the mistletoe, the eggnog, the Yule log, the caroling and even Santa Claus — are of Pagan origin and have nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.

Indeed, the very word "Christmas," with its direct reference to Jesus as "The Christ" — which is derived from the Greek word kristos, or "savior" — is almost exclusive to English-speakers. In only nine other languages — Dutch (Kerstfeest), Farsi (Cristmas-e-shoma), French (Noel), Greek (Kristouyenna), Indonesian (Natal), Italian (Natale), Portugese (Natal), Spanish (Navidad) and Ukranian(Khrystouvym) — does the name of this holiday come even close to referring to the birth of the Christ child.

Many Americans often refer to Christmas as "the Yuletide." And no wonder: Yule is the winter solstice. Most modern Pagans still celebrate Yule. Even most Christians use "Christmas" and "Yule" interchangeably to describe the season without even thinking about its Pagan origins.

Yule — which this year is today (Monday) — celebrates the beginning of the sun’s light and warmth returning to the northern hemisphere after reaching its southernmost point on the Earth at the Tropic of Capricorn on the winter solstice.

It is one of the two very ancient Pagan holidays that are still widely celebrated in the Western world — and beyond — relatively intact. The other is our modern celebration of Halloween.

[In the interest of full disclosure, this writer is obliged to state for the record that I, a former Roman Catholic, am a Pagan; more specifically, a Wiccan. Yule has special significance for me personally, especially this year; today marks the 25th anniversary of my conversion in 1984 to Wicca, the largest and best-known "denomination" of modern Western Paganism.]

THE ORIGIN OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE

If you really want to be historically accurate, then the Christmas tree should rightly be called the Yule tree, for it dates back nearly 5,000 years to the Celtic Druids. They revered evergreens as manifestations of deity because they did not "die" from year to year, but stayed green and alive when other plants appeared dead and bare. The trees represented everlasting life and hope for the return of spring.

Best known today for their celebrations of the summer solstice in June at Stonehenge, the Druids decorated their trees for the winter solstice in December with symbols of prosperity: a fruitful harvest, coins for wealth and various charms such as those for love or fertility.

Scandinavian Pagans, particularly the Norse, became the first to bring their decorated trees indoors, as this provided a warm and welcoming environment for the native fairy folk to join in the festivities.

The Saxons, a Pagan tribe from what is now Germany, were the first to place lights on the their trees in the form of candles (an extremely dangerous fire hazard by today’s standards). For centuries, the ancient Romans decorated their homes with evergreens at the winter solstice festival of Saturnalia — which also marked the Roman New Year — and exchanged evergreen branches with friends as a sign of good luck.

Christians’ use of the tree symbol for the December holidays did not begin until the 16th century, when devout Catholics in what is now Italy brought decorated trees into their homes. The German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, is credited with starting the tradition in England in 1841 when he brought the first Christmas tree into Windsor Castle.

THE EIGHT PAGAN HOLIDAYS

Nature’s cycles of winter, spring, summer and fall (and everything else in between) are so much a part of human life and society on Earth that to acknowledge, celebrate and even sanctify those cycles is a primal need we simply cannot ignore. Just ask any ski-resort operator in winter or swimming-pool operator in summer — or any farmer, for that matter.

Yet those who follow the world’s three great monotheistic religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — have long been reluctant to do so and instead instituted their own rituals, holy days and festivals. The fact that many of the major Christian, Jewish and Muslim holidays — and even some civic and national holidays — often occur in tandem with the eight major Pagan holidays during the course of the year is no accident.

In addition to the winter solstice celebration of Yule on December 20-22 (depending on the actual date of the solstice itself from one year to the next), the other seven Pagan holidays are:

• Imbolg or Candlemas (Groundhog Day, February 2) — also known among Catholics as St. Brigid’s Day;

• Eostre or Ostara (Spring Equinox, March 20-22);

• Beltaine (May Day, May 1);

• Litha (Summer Solstice, June 20-22);

• Lammas or Lughnasadh (Midsummer’s Day, August 1);

• Mabon (Autumn Equinox, September 20-22);

• Samhain (pronounced SOW-en), the Wiccan New Year (Halloween, October 31).

This is why Easter (whose name in English is a derivative of Eostre) always falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. And why Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, almost always falls near the autumn equinox.

Jews transformed the three ancient harvest festivals of the Canaanites into the three festivals of Creation (Tabernacles), Revelation (Pentecost), and Redemption (Passover). Likewise, Christians and Muslims transformed their ancient, Nature-based festivals into celebrations of the singular events in, respectively, the life of Jesus and the career of the Prophet Mohammed.

HOW AN ANCIENT ROMAN HOLIDAY BECAME CHRISTMAS

After Christianity was proclaimed the state religion of the Roman Empire by Emperor Constantine in 312 C.E. (Common Era), the early Christian church — now the Vatican — used the transformation of the ancient holidays and festivals as a tool to convert Pagans to Christianity throughout the empire and beyond.

Yet the church barred Christians from holding any kind of celebration to honor the birth of Jesus, primarily because the actual date of his birth was unknown — and remains unknown to this day, although there is some astronomical and archaeological evidence suggesting that Jesus was actually born in the spring.

The church’s ban was lifted in 350 C.E., when Pope Julius I proclaimed a feast day to celebrate Jesus’ birth — and deliberately chose December 25 as the date to hold "Christ’s Mass" to absorb and Christianize not only Yule, but also Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture.

Saturnalia was celebrated with feasting, gift-giving and role-reversal between men and women and between slaves and their masters. It was also marked by the unabashed enjoyment of sensual and erotic pleasures, which many conservative Christians today strongly condemn as wanton debauchery, but still survives in our time (primarily around New Year’s Eve).

And because Saturnalia also marked the Roman New Year under the Julian calendar, the changeover to the present-day Gregorian calendar in 1582 resulted in the one-week interval between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Upper-class Romans also celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the sun god, on December 25. It was believed that Mithra, an infant god, was born of a rock. For them, Mithra’s birthday was the most sacred day of the year — especially since the daylight from the sun began to lengthen on the 25th, following the winter solstice.

CHRISTIANITY VS. PAGANISM

The current debate in the United States over "Christmas" versus "Holiday" trees, decorations and greetings is part of a much deeper clash of cultures that has gone on for centuries: Christianity vs. Paganism.

Paganism is pantheistic and circular; Christianity is monotheistic and linear. Pagans celebrate the eternal natural cycle of being. Christians venerate the linear concept of progress, from creation to ultimate redemption.

Pagans live in the realm of the eternal recurrence. Pagan rites maintain harmonious relationships among the gods; thus, these rituals guarantee the continuity of Nature’s cycles, which Nature-based human societies depend on for their sustenance.

Christians (as well as Jews and Muslims) worship the God who created all natural things and stands above them. To them, when God intervenes in the world, it is not to create a disruption of natural events, but rather to generate some wonderful new direction in human affairs.

It is at the winter solstice — more so than at any other time of the year — that people of Judeo/Christian/Muslim faith feel most acutely the tension between the origins of their religion in Pagan Nature worship on the one hand and the evolution of their faith into belief in a single God and a linear remembrance of historical events and teachings on the other.

SURVEY REVEALS AMERICA’S GROWING RELIGIOUS DIVERSITY

And for many conservative Christians in particular, that tension could only have grown sharper in recent years as the number of Americans who do not identify themselves as Christian has been growing sharply since 1990, according to data compiled by the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), a private poll conducted by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and funded by the Lilly Endowment and the Posen Foundation.

The U.S. Census Bureau is constitutionally barred from directly compiling data on the religious affiliations of Americans, thus the ARIS survey — the third conducted by Trinity College since 1990 — is considered authoritative.

The latest ARIS survey of more than 54,000 people conducted between February and November of 2008 and released in March of this year showed that the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christians — inclusive of all its denominations — has fallen to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent in 1990.

Those who do call themselves Christian are more frequently describing themselves as "nondenominational" "evangelical" or "born again." Significantly, the ARIS survey found, this increase corresponds strongly with a dramatic decline in the number of Americans who identify themselves as so-called "mainline" Protestants — particularly Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians — which fell from 17 million in 1990 to only five million today.

A SHARP RISE IN ‘SPIRITUAL, BUT NOT RELIGIOUS’ AMERICANS — ESPECIALLY IN NEW ENGLAND

At the same time, the ARIS survey found the proportion of Americans who declined to state any religious affiliation has skyrocketed, from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15 percent today, with the vast majority of this group identifying themselves as "spiritual, but not religious."

This group is most heavily concentrated in northern New England and the Pacific Northwest. Vermont leads all other states in this category by a full nine percentage points, with a record-high 34 percent of its residents identifying themselves as "spiritual, but not religious."

Out of a total U.S. adult population of 175.4 million people who professed a religious or spiritual belief system in the first ARIS poll in 1990, 151.4 million, or roughly 85 percent, identified themselves as Christian.

In the second ARIS survey in 2001, 159.5 million out of a total 207.9 million believers — 76 percent — identified themselves as Christian.

Now, out of a total U.S. adult population of 228 million believers, 173.4 million identified themselves as Christian, unchanged in percentage terms from the 76 percent the ARIS survey found in 2001.

A SHIFT IN ROMAN CATHOLIC POPULATION TO THE SOUTHWEST

The 2009 ARIS survey notes that America’s religious geography — particularly of the nation’s 57.2 million Roman Catholics — has been transformed since 1990. "Religious switching along with Hispanic immigration has significantly changed the religious profile of some states and regions," the survey’s principal authors, Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, reported.

"Between 1990 and 2008, the Catholic population proportion of the New England states fell from 50 percent to 36 percent and in New York state, it fell from 44 percent to 37 percent, while it rose in California from 29 percent to 37 percent and in Texas from 23 percent to 32 percent."

BAPTISTS, MORMONS, MUSLIMS AND PAGANS UP; BUDDHISTS, HINDUS DOWN; JEWS HOLD STEADY

Other key findings in the 2009 ARIS survey:

• Baptists, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, have increased their numbers by two million since 2001, to 36.1 million, but continue to decline as a proportion of the population, from 16.3 percent in 2001 to 15.8 percent today.

• Mormons — members of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — have increased in numbers enough (3.1 million) to hold their own proportionally, at 1.4 percent of the population.

• The number of Muslim Americans continues to grow, from 527,000 in 1990, to 1.3 million today. Immigration accounts for the most of the increase, including Iranian refugees from the 1979 revolution, Bosnians from the 1990s war in the Balkans and Somalians from the still-ongoing violence there.

• Adherents of co-called "new religious movements" — including Wiccans and self-described Pagans — have grown faster this decade than in the 1990s. While there was no census of American Pagans in 1990, the 2001 ARIS survey did report at least 307,000 Americans identifying themselves as such, with 134,000 professing to be Wiccans, 33,000 as Druids and 140,000 as eclectic "neo-Pagans" of a wide spectrum of traditions.

(For the 2009 survey, there was no faith-specific breakdown of adherents in the "new religious movements" category, instead listing 2.8 million such Americans today, compared to 1.7 million in 2001.)

• The number of American adherents of Eastern religions — Buddhism, Shinto and Hinduism — which more than doubled in the 1990s — has declined slightly, from 2.02 million in 1990 to 1.96 million today. However, the number of Buddhists alone edged up slightly from 1.08 million in 2001 to 1.18 million now.

(Buddhists have their own major holiday in December: Bodhi Day –December 8 — which celebrates the story of how the philosopher Siddartha Gautama of India became the Buddha by sitting under a bodhi tree and vowing to remain there until he achieved total enlightenment.)

• In strictly religious terms, Jewish Americans continue to decline numerically, from 3.1 million in 1990 to 2.7 million today — 1.2 percent of the population. However, when defined more broadly as an ethnic group, including those who do not practice the faith, the American Jewish community has remained remarkably stable since 1990.

ATHEISTS, AGNOSTICS ONLY A TINY FRACTION OF U.S. POPULATION; SECULARISTS DROPPED FROM SURVEY

Only a tiny fraction of Americans call themselves atheist or agnostic, the new ARIS survey found. But based on stated beliefs, 1.62 million, or 2.3 percent, are atheist (believe there is no God) and 1.98 million, or 4.3 percent, are agnostic (unsure if God exists or not).

The 2001 ARIS survey counted only 53,000 Americans as identifying themselves as "secular" and even fewer — 43,000 — calling themselves "humanists." There was no accounting of either group in 1991 and they were dropped from the 2009 survey as statistically insignificant.

The truth is, America in the closing days of 2009 is more religiously and spiritually diverse now than it’s ever been before in its more-than-233-year history — and conservative Christian majoritarians are going to have to deal with it, whether they like it or not.

IS IT A PAGAN CHRISTMAS OR A CHRISTIAN YULE?

If they wanted to, today’s Pagans could reclaim the Christmas tree — indeed, all the decorative trappings of Christmas, save for the Nativity creche — as being rightfully theirs, since Pagans created them in the first place.

But modern Pagans are a practical lot, with most viewing Christmas simply as the Christian world celebrating Yule in their own way — albeit, three to five days after the actual winter solstice — and thus see no conflict in celebrating at least the secular aspects of Christmas themselves.

And December isn’t called the holiday season for nothing. There’s also Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day and scores of other holidays and festivals around the world this month — all of which culminate in the ringing in of the new year at midnight on December 31.

Thanks to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar as the universal calendar used worldwide and the global system of 24 time zones, New Year’s Day is our only truly global holiday — which we all got to watch unfold on our TV screens in all its joyful glory a decade ago as we greeted the turn of the millennium (albeit, a year too soon, since there mathematically never was a Year Zero).

So whichever way you celebrate the holidays, may yours be filled with joy, peace and love.

Blessed Be! And Happy Holidays.

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SUGGESTED BOOKS (Available at Amazon.com):

Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals at the Origins of Yuletide by Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling (Paperback – November 4, 2006).

The Origins of Christmas by Joseph F. Kelly (Paperback – August 2004).

Yule: A Celebration of Light and Warmth by Dorothy Morrison (Paperback – September 1, 2000).

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Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.

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