Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite, brought back by holiday demand. It was originally published on December 11, 2012. Enjoy!
My favorite church in Italy is a beauty called the Basilica Santa Maria sopra Minerva, or “Mary on Top of Minerva.” Around 1280 Christians built the church right on top of the site of a temple to Minerva, the pagan goddess of wisdom, medicine — and war. (Important note: Professor Minerva McGonagall of Hogwarts is the goddess’s namesake.)
Maria sopra Minerva illustrates the way religious traditions evolve, taking from other traditions what they like, and also what they need to draw in the followers of those traditions.
You won’t find Christmas trees or Santa Claus in the New Testament — they and other Christmas customs evolved over time, sometimes passively influenced by pagan traditions, and sometimes deliberately co-opting and replacing those traditions. Many other Christmas traditions may come from rituals surrounding the winter solstice, which marks the shortest day and longest night of the year.Enough Christmas traditions arise from the solstice and other pagan sources that some Christian sects have banned the holiday over the years. Some examples of the interplay between solstice and Christmas — and, even earlier, Hannukah:
1. Many believe that Christmas is celebrated on December 25th to muddy the focus of the solstice’s celebration of the sun god, which fell on the same date on the Julian calendar. (In modern times the solstice takes place within a few days of Christmas.) Pagans and Christians would observe similar traditions, making it easy to transition from worshiping pagan forces to venerating Jesus and the Christian God.
2. The cold, dark and death that prevail during the solstice season convinced some people that a screen between our world and one of evil spirits was thinner or more porous at this time of year. Many observances were meant to protect against the bad spirits. “The Holiday Bells, or jingle bells were-are used to drive evil spirits away.” The same goes for mistletoe, which guarded against evil when hung in a doorway.
3. There are competing versions of the history of Christmas trees. One is that they originated in Germany in the 1500s. Another is that they began with paganism. ”Many Pagan cultures” would cut evergreen boughs or other plants (like mistletoe) that were still green and use them to decorate their homes or temples around solstice. At a time of year when the plants were dying and sunshine was in short supply, green vegetation was a reminder that both would return.
4. The Yule log may be the current manifestation of the “Juul” log that pagans burned on the solstice to honor the sun, which was about to start hanging around longer each day. “Fires were lit to symbolize the heat, light and life-giving properties of the returning sun.” Christians changed the symbolism: ”the fire came to represent the light of the Savior instead of the light of the Sun.”
5. Like the Christians absorbed solstice by setting Christmas at the same time, much earlier in history Jews may have used Hanukkah the same way. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah celebrates the ancient Jews’ rededication of their Temple after the Syrian Greeks occupied and defiled it. The Jews may have been “capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially [paganized] Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.”
Religions and holidays evolve over time, but it is interesting how certain elements of an observance — like fire and green vegetation in the winter — can stay the same for thousands of years.
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