A traditional advent wreath
Many modern Christmas traditions are borrowed from ancient pagan ones.

With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, many Americans are now excitedly preparing for the holiday season. Millions of Christians know this season as Advent (from the Latin word meaning "arrival"), where they spend the weeks leading up to Christmas preparing for the Nativity of Christ.

Wreaths, trees, candles, advent calendars… these are all symbols intertwined with Christmas even to non-Christian observers. But did you know they actually have ancient symbolic meanings that go beyond Christianity?

In fact, many of these symbols are, ahem, “borrowed,” and you’ll never guess who from.

Okay, you got it. Pagans. It’s always the pagans.

A Very Pagan Christmas

You might recall that Christmas itself has some distinctly pagan origins, and that many of the modern Christmas traditions can be traced back to ancient Nordic cultures.

Long, long before Christianity, pagans were celebrating the winter solstice and the end of the harvest season. This was called Yule, and many ancient Yule traditions – singing, bonfires, feasting – are still celebrated today. Still, some, like dousing oneself in the blood of sacrificed animals, didn’t make it to the 21st century. 

When you think about it, it makes sense that many Advent traditions are lifted from ancient pagan customs. After all, wreaths, trees, and candles make a lot more sense in a pagan context than in a Christian one.

Centuries-Old Symbols

Mistletoe is a great example of this. For centuries, mistletoe was closely associated with the Norse love goddess Frigga. As a gesture of peace, Nordic warriors used to hang a bough of mistletoe and lay down their weapons underneath of it when they came together for peace talks. As you're surely familiar, we do something slightly different under the mistletoe now - but the core idea lingers!

Many historians also believe the classic Yule log could have some Pagan connections. It's unclear exactly when or where the tradition was started, but research has shown that prior to the Yule log being brought into the house and burned by German Christians, yule logs were often burned around the solstice as a symbol of the sun's warmth, and the ashes scattered across fields as the pagan people believed it would increase the abundance of their next harvest.

A traditional advent wreath
A traditional Advent wreath

Another example is the Advent wreath. An iconic Christmas decoration made of fir branches, decorative ribbons, and holly strung together in a circular shape.

Believers place candles on the wreath and light them throughout Advent, symbolizing Christ’s endless and everlasting grace and love.

While Christians have been making wreaths and lighting candles for centuries, this tradition actually traces back to paganism. In the dark, unforgiving Scandinavian winter, pagans would light candles and place them around a wheel in an appeal to the gods for warmer days ahead, particularly around the winter solstice as a plea for the sun to return.

And long before the circle of the wreath came to symbolize Christian eternal life, it was embraced by many pagan people as a symbol of protection. Some historians even believe hung on doors.

So Advent wreaths and Advent candles (available in our catalog, by the way) are taken from ancient pagan traditions. But what about the season's most recognizable decoration?

An Evergreen Holiday

Sorry, even the iconic Christmas tree isn’t a Christian original. Evergreen trees were used as a winter solstice decoration thousands of years before Christianity, and ancient pagans decorated their temples with fir branches and their homes with fir trees.

Why? Fir trees represented fertility (of both human and earth) to many ancient European cultures, as did the first ‘Christmas tree decorations’ – flowers, nuts, and fruits.

In fact, when you boil it down to the essentials, just about everything was about sex, warmth, or food. Maybe some things never change.

As it turns out, Christmas trees as we know them now didn’t really exist until the 16th century, when German nobility started decorating royal courts with them, complete with a golden leaf on top.

As late as the 1800s, Christmas trees were viewed as a pagan custom by some cultures – including by many people in the United States. That, of course, has changed. 

It turns out even gift-giving could have a connection to some ancient faiths! While many link the annual giving of gifts at Christmas to the story of the 3 Wise Men bringing gifts to the infant Jesus, historians have made an even older link with the ancient Roman festival of Siggilaria.

While the festival was originally set up so that people could visit the market to buy small pieces of pottery with candles in them (called sigilla) as an offering to the god Saturn, over time the festival grew and as the Romans became more wealthy they started buying and selling gifts for one another at the Siggilaria market.

Old Gods and the New

And of course, the entire Advent season culminates in Christmas on December 25th. By now, you surely aren't surprised to learn that even that particular date has some Pagan connections!

December 25th, history teaches us, was initially selected as the date for Christmas each year because it was also the date that many ancient people had for generations celebrated the re-birth of the god of the sun, Sol.

The early Catholic church figured that by sliding in the birth of the Son of God on the same day as the birth of the God of the sun, it would be a cinch to get people to start celebrating the newer Christian holiday. It took a few years and some occasional chastising from early popes, but eventually, most people got the message and transitioned over.

So this Advent season, as you’re hanging the wreath, lighting the candles, and decorating the tree, take a moment to acknowledge how holiday traditions have evolved. These customs we hold so dear grow, change, and even merge with one another over time.

Much has changed during the past millennium, but by the same token, much has also stayed the same – it's simply been repackaged. 

28 comments

  1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

    If you know your Christian history, Christmas was really celebrated by Christians until the 12th century. In the 12th century it was a Priest who created the first nativity scene to "sell" and promote the Christian religion and bring in more money for the church. Year after year the story gets embellished and more elaborate so the church can profit even more. Christmas has become so commercialized it's Pegan roots have been almost forgotten.

    If you celebrate Christmas this year just remember the nativity scene is a good story based loosely of false stories and fake events. Today the sprit of Christmas is to get you to spend as much money as you can including giving a lot of money to the church. The nativity scenes are big sellers making a lot of money for the people in China who make them.

    Capitalisms and spending money is the true meaning of Christmas.

    1. Dr. Zerpersande's Avatar Dr. Zerpersande

      “ Capitalisms and spending money is the true meaning of Christmas” For me? Long vacation. But then, what do most people do on vacation???

    2. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

      Fine. Then make sure you show up for work on the 24th and 25th and New years day. I mean they are all paid holidays for most people and if you dislike Christmas that much then the very least you can do is go to work.

      1. Tom's Avatar Tom

        Douglas didn't say he disliked Christmas, Daniel, and what does getting New Years Day off have to do with Christmas?

        1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

          Its a religious holiday, even if its a pagen religion. So if he dislikes religious holidays that much then again show up for work on that day and dont expect it off.

          1. Ann Vise Nunes's Avatar Ann Vise Nunes

            Rather than sit home with nothing to do on Dec 25, I'd like to have a day off for one of my own religious festivals. For example, I'd like to work on Dec 25th and be free on the FIRST day of Sukkot in October, when we live in a decorated sukkah (a hut with leafy greens for a "roof"), where we invite guests for meals every lunch & dinner for one week after we go to daily services. The hut (sukkah), usually translated "tabernacle," signifies that our real home & our only security is G-d. (The hyphen signifies the letter O. We leave out the O so as not to take the sacred title in vain.)

            1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

              And you should be able to do that. All you need do is schedule that day off with your employers.

      2. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

        @Daniel Gray Who said I dislike Christmas and New Years? The true meaning of Christmas is to get people to spend, spend, spend, and then spend a bit more. Christians encourage it especially the giving to the Church. Getting paid for not working on holidays is part of capitalisms.

        1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

          @Daniel Gray @ Tom Daniel is forgetting Priests, Ministers and Pastors all work and get paid to do so on Christmas. I think that is one of the days they never get off.

          1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

            They are religious leaders who are teaching the tenants of their religion. They do this voluntary as there is nothing that says they have to actually do it. So your point is what exactly?

            1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

              @Daniel Gray I have never heard of a pastor or minister of a congregation not getting paid. It’s my understanding they can be very paid and Christmas services bring in a lot of money to the church.

              If these people are volunteers as you say how do they live so well? Are they stealing money from the church?

        2. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

          No they dont "encourage" it...getting this day off is a recent thing. Nice try though

  1. Richmond Clay Tabor's Avatar Richmond Clay Tabor

    It is completely pagan! The Sun of god dies on the 21st, the sun quits is 1 degree decline in the sky and holds for 3 days (dead) then on the 25 it begins a 1 degree incline or resurrects. Purely astrotheological in nature. Also the festival was actually called Saturnalia.

    1. Douglas Robert Spindler's Avatar Douglas Robert Spindler

      Yes, and while must people call this the middle of winter it’s actually the last day of fall followed by the first day of winter.

  1. Kathryn Darcy Smith's Avatar Kathryn Darcy Smith

    STOLEN. Not "borrowed".

  1. P. Keith Benefiel's Avatar P. Keith Benefiel

    Hark! The herald angels sing. Advertising wondrous things.

  1. Bridget Connors's Avatar Bridget Connors

    ALL Christian symbols have been taken from pagan rituals!

    From the "Easter" bunny, to the "virgin" birth, to rising from the dead after a set amount of days, they are all taken from previous/older religions and beliefs.

  1. Lyle Roy Gleason's Avatar Lyle Roy Gleason

    Here's a little history lesson for all you Right-Wing Evangelicals out there. Let us begin with some traditions surrounding a certain middle-eastern Messiah. (Please withhold your guess as to whom I'm talking about till after I've finished.) Born on December 25th, (Julian calendar!) Born in a grotto. Born of a virgin mother. His birth was foretold by a convergence of planets, what the astronomers of that time interpreted as a very bright star. His birth was attended by 3 holy men from the East, bearing gifts. His followers would drink sips of wine, and eat bits of bread, representing his body and blood. And, most importantly, HE WAS BORN OVER 2,000 YEARS B.C.!!! This last fact means that I'm NOT talking about "J.C. Superstar", but rather, the ancient Persian messiah MITHRUS, who was the primary deity worshipped by the Roman Legionnaires serving in what was then known as Asia Minor. To try to get their 'new' religion a jump-start, the early Christians simply co-opted all the old Mithric traditions, and even tore down Mithric temples, and built their new churches on those old sites.

    And as for that other matter of just exactly WHEN Christ was born, it was most certainly NOT on Dec 25th!!! Even the old Christmas Carols we all used to sing in Grade School allude to this fact. "On the first Noel, the Angel's did say, was to certain poor shepherds in the fields where they lay." I've got news for you, there would NOT have been any shepherds laying outside in the Holy Land in December!! It can get down to freezing at night there! When the shepherds WOULD be outside to protect their flocks, would be the lambing season, which is in the SPRING! So I hope that settles the question of what day Christ was NOT born on. Do the research, I already have!

    Here endeth the lesson.

    The Rev. L. Roy Gleason

  1. William Pavey Meskan's Avatar William Pavey Meskan

    Test your knowledge of this Christmas Tradition: "There were three Wise Men. They followed the Star from the East to Bethlehem. They found Jesus in a manger (an old word for a feeding trough), in a stable." Right? Or is it?!?! The Christmas story is told only in the books of Matthew & Luke. The Three Wise Men: Nowhere does the Bible say that there were three of them. In fact, St. Augustine was of the opinion that there were 12. Most people assume 3 gifts, 3 Men. They did not follow the Star directly to Bethlehem, they stopped in Jerusalem to get directions: "...there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him". Matt. 2:1-2. Herod's "Priests and Scribes" told Herod that Bethlehem was the place and Herod told the Wise Men. The book of Luke doesn't even mention Wise Men. When they left Herod, "...they departed: and, lo, the star went before them..." (again).Matt' 2:9. Stable? Matt 2:11 says that when they arrived, "And when they were come into the HOUSE, they saw the young child with Mary, His Mother"..." Luke 2:16 tells us that the SHEPERDS found him in the manger. An Old Testament prophecy suggests that the Messiah will be born an a stable, with farm animals. Look at Isaiah 1 for this reference..

    1. Charles Thomas Norkus's Avatar Charles Thomas Norkus

      To your points: Nebuchadnezzar placed the Jew Daniel in charge of all the magi over 500 years before Jesus was born; maybe that’s how they learned about the coming Messiah. When those magi finally showed up, Jesus could have been as much as 2 years old, hence the reference to a house, and also why Herod ordered the male infants in Bethlehem up to 2 yrs old be killed.

  1. CB Cuff's Avatar CB Cuff

    Excellent article, very informative.

    1. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

      And sadly close to 99% of it is completely wrong

      1. Bridget Connors's Avatar Bridget Connors

        Care to point out the errors?

        1. Tom's Avatar Tom

          I doubt it.

        2. Daniel Gray's Avatar Daniel Gray

          Yep the first Christmas celebration was in Roman calendar from AD 336. The jews used wreaths and candles in their celebrations as far back as 800 years BC. So do either you Bridget or You Tom care to refute historical fact?

  1. Alexander Arends's Avatar Alexander Arends

    Informative article but I think I will stick to what I learned as a child. It has more meaning. And oh yes, I still believe in Saint Nicolas, aka Santa Claus.

    1. Joe Stutler's Avatar Joe Stutler

      Yeah, let's not let those pesky facts get in the way of your delusions.....🙄

  1. Rafael DelCastillo's Avatar Rafael DelCastillo

    There is nothing in the New Testament about celebrating the birth of Christ. Something Christianity started as pointed out by others. That said, nobody I know that celebrates it really cares about anything thing talked about here.

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