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5 Ways Christmas and Hanukkah Co-Opted Paganism

5 Ways Christmas and Hanukkah Co-Opted Paganism

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.


Related Stories:

Eco-Parenting and Winter Solstice Traditions

Happy Easter! 4 Traditional Ways to Celebrate

5 Ways to Celebrate the Summer Solstice 2012


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11:36AM PDT on Apr 20, 2014

Horsefeathers! Hanukkah was never a pagan holiday! It celebrates the victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus and the lights (candles) stand for the number of days the oil (which remained in the destroyed temple) lasted. Read the story and get your facts right..
There may have been paganism centuries earlier, but not at that time.

2:30PM PST on Feb 26, 2014

all this stealing from good ol' Christians might lead one to think that (gasp) their whole religion is stolen :o they just hijacked from pagans and made up a new religion. Whoopty do, it's all craziness. If one person hears voices they are crazy, if a whole group hears voices its religion. Blah

5:59AM PST on Jan 23, 2014

Aww Stacey, you are like me and many others, in that we expect too much of people. Maybe one day when the nasty ones can get a free lobotomy on the NHS. x

3:28AM PST on Jan 23, 2014

Can't we all just get along

3:53PM PST on Jan 20, 2014

It's amazing how many so-called Christians around the world have know idea where some of their beliefs and rituals originated. ps If they did they would be quite surprised and/or appalled.

1:38AM PST on Jan 5, 2014

I know.

11:39AM PST on Jan 4, 2014

@ Lone W.. you really need to get you're history straight. The Druids, The Ancient Egyptians, The Mesopotamian's, Romans and many other ancient peoples, all celebrated the 25th December, thousands of year before Christ was born. Consider that Yehoshua was actually born in the Spring, as the shepherds were out at that time, would indicate Christianity incorporated pagan religions, in order to appease the indigenous and make the transition to Christianity easier. This is what Emperor Constantine actually did...on record.
They were far more than customs as you put it. We still use most of the customs today, including Easter.
I'm sorry but it sounds like it is you who sounds threatened by our beliefs. I am not Christian but I follow the teachings of Yehoshua. As far as I can account, no-one has diminished anyone's beliefs. Just one last thing Christmas in not based on Jesus of Nazareth. There has never been a place called Nazareth according to archaeologists, but Christmas is based on Jesus of Bethlehem.
I was asked once who I would most want to meet if I could. My answer was Jesus but added I would have to bring him to the 21st century. What he would think about today's Christians I don't know, but would imagine He would have a conniption fit.

10:15AM PST on Jan 4, 2014

#1 is false, because Christmas is based on the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth.

#2, #3 and #4 Have nothing to do with Christmas itself, but rather represent incorporation of nice popular customs to the celebratiosn AROUND Christmas.

#5, like #1 is wrong in its resoning.

There is a tendency among atheists to try to rob significance to Cristmas or Hanukkah. This is so sad. Why would people feel so threatened? If someone does not want to believe in a Judeo-Christian religion, fine. It is their right. But to feel that they have to disminish the beliefs of others in order to find meaning in their own lives is ridiculous.

11:14AM PST on Jan 3, 2014

@ Meridith G. I totally agree. In fact Mithras is responsible for influencing the Celts before they arrived in Britain. I think it is safe to say the Zietgeist of it all is the 25th is an astrological point where the Sun is at it's lowest and the northern hemisphere, of course. The 3 stars (kings/wise-men) of Orions belt, with a line drawn through them, points to the point on the horizon where the Sun is on the 24th December.

10:02AM PST on Jan 3, 2014

December 25th is the birthday of Mithras, a bull-headed god whose cult rivaled Christianity in Rome. It was co-opted as the birthday of Jesus, which I've never believed has any basis in reality (no lambs during winter).

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