Christmas Trees (and other favorites) are actually Pagan (not Christian)
Christmas is a popular world-wide holiday that is celebrated by 160 countries. In the United States, 90% of citizens (95% of Christians) celebrate Christmas. I can think of dozens of traditions my family did growing up: putting up the Christmas tree and setting up a miniature winter village, baking Christmas cookies all throughout December, sledding with family, getting the perfect presents for everyone, enjoying eggnog. When I was very young we would attend church services throughout Advent and when I was older and no longer practicing Catholicism, if my Aunt was hosting then we would go to their church for midnight mass.
A couple of things never made a lot of sense to me though: what does a tree or Santa have to do with Christ’s birth? Also wasn’t Jesus born in the spring so why do we celebrate it in December?
Long before Christianity celebrated Christmas, early humans were celebrating the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice (celebrated as early as 10,200 BC) marks the beginning of the astronomical calendar and marks the shortest day/longest night of the year. It happens December 21 or 22 in the Northern Hemisphere (or June 21 or 22 in the Southern Hemisphere). There are multiple holidays celebrated around the Winter Solstice from Saturnalia (celebrated with temporarily freedom to slaves, presents to children and poor), to Yule (Mistletoe would be blessed by Druids, representing life in winter and a yule log would be lit to trap evil spirits), to Inti Raymi (celebration of the sun god and marked the beginning of the Incan new year). Basically all of the ancient celebrations marked a new year and the reverence of the sun/light.
The classic yule log is celebrated to this day (Netflix offers 2 different movies that are just for background showing a yule log burning). Yule was meant to celebrate the reappearance of the sun and would be celebrated by burning a log for 12 days. Christmas ties to candles and lights can be traced back to yule when Christians adopted pagan practices into their religion.
The Christmas tree is a major part of Christmas celebration but actually began as a pagan practice as well due to the fact that these are special tress that live even through winter. Romans, Egyptians, Druids and Vikings all celebrated the solstice with evergreens.
So was it luck that Christ was born at the same time as these pagan holidays? For the first 300 years after Christ’s birth, his birthday wasn’t celebrated at all. No one actually knows that date Christ was born. It could have have been in December, as Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus dated the conception of Jesus to March 25. but historians actually posit that he was born in the spring closer to Easter. The story of the nativity actually confused the December celebration due to the presence of shepherds and their flocks, indicating springtime.
One theory is that emperor Constantine instituted the celebration of Christmas in December (starting in the 4th century) as a way to weaken the celebration of Pagan holidays, specifically that of the Romans.
Christmas was actually seen as blasphemy and being too decadent. It wasn’t as important as Easter. The Puritans in the new world thought that the celebrations of Christmas (giving gifts and decorating trees) were too Pagan and therefore were false idols. Religious revival spread through England and sought to get rid of Christmas as it was too decadent. Through the American Revolution, the rebels considered celebrating Christmas as a British custom so they stopped celebrating in spite of them.
Authors Washington Irving and Charles Dickens actually invented Christmas as we know, as a peaceful, gift-centered and family/homely holiday. Once Americans started celebrating Christmas as a family-centric holiday, old traditions and rituals were unearthed in order to honor their family values.
Where does Santa fit into this though? Santa actually comes from a couple of different stories. The first is Father Christmas from England that could actually be referring to All-Father Odin of the ancient Nordic religion. Offerings to Santa Clause such as milk and cookies actually had ancient origins of pagan sacrifice. The other major story that feeds the myth is that of Saint Nicholas in Turkey. He is known for his gift-giving ways when he saved three sisters from prostitution by delivering bags of gold to their indebted father. He was known for his miracles and centuries later had taken on resemblance of Roman and Norse gods that were associated with the winter solstice.