It is like myths that never die. A common critique made by a number of skeptics, and oddly enough, some Christians, is that some of the most treasured holidays celebrated by Christians actually have pagan roots to them, ranging from Christmas to Easter, and of course, Halloween.
Over the years that I have been writing this blog, I have posted critiques of these memes, but it seems like every year they keep popping up, again and again and again, on various forms of social media. *SIGH*
I finally decided to dig into one of most authoritative works on this topic, to get a scholarly approach to such holidays, instead of being bothered with it every time a holiday rolls around. Ronald E. Hutton is a professor of history at the University of Bristol, in the U.K., and he specializes in the political and religious history of the British Isles, ranging from Christianity to paganism. His 1996 work, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, is regarded among historians as perhaps the most thorough work on the history of British folklore, which includes the celebration of various holidays. Since most of the holidays Americans celebrate have historical roots traced back to Great Britain, Stations of the Son is a great place to dive into such interesting history.
Is Christmas a baptized celebration of the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival? Not really. The early Christians had other reasons for dating for the birth of Christ on December 25, though much of that reasoning today is considered speculative by historians.
Was Easter derived from a pagan fertility festival? No, the date of Easter is tied back to near the Jewish Passover.
Was “All Hallows Eve,” what would become Halloween, stolen from the Druids? No, the eve of All Saints Day had other beginnings, and according to Hutton, the connection with the Samhain festival is uncertain, as we have very little evidence to be able to determine the exact nature of the ancient Samhain festival anyway.
But as with many things like this, there are particular grains of truth in all of the “Christmas is Pagan” and “Easter is Pagan” themes, much of it based on a lot of speculation. As Ronald Hutton describes it, the story is actually fairly complicated, and far more interesting than what you read on most social media postings.
Consider Halloween, for example: All Saints Day originally came out of a Germanic tradition, established on November 1, in about the 9th century. The Germanic practice varied from the original celebration of Christian martyrs, who died under Roman pagan emperors, which is first recorded to have happened on the 13th of May, in 373 C.E. This Germanic tradition should put to bed the often repeated claim that the November 1st day came from the Celts. If anything, the evidence shows that influence is the other way around. Celtic Europe followed the Germanic tradition instead.
According to Hutton, why the Northern Europeans shifted the date from May to November remains somewhat of a mystery. The connection with concerns about the status of the dead came into play in about 998 C.E., when “All Souls Day” started to become instituted on November 2, the day after All Saints Day, as a means of encouraging Christians to pray on behalf of dead friends and relatives. So, at best, it is half truths about All Saints and All Souls Days, along with some anti-Roman Catholic polemic that drives the “Halloween is Pagan” story (see Hutton, p. 364).
Supposed “evidence” for Halloween’s connection with pagan practices does not really pick up any significant traction until hundreds of years later in the 19th century, particular when Sir James Frazer popularized the idea in his The Golden Bough, though most scholars today dismiss a great deal of Frazer’s claims. But since Frazer’s work is in the public domain, Internet websites publish Frazer’s work with great enthusiasm. As a result, assured claims of the “pagan roots” of Halloween have become a type of self-fulfilling prophecy: Halloween has become a pagan holiday because we are constantly reminded that it is pagan, despite the lack of sound historical evidence to back up these claims.
It has become pretty much a losing battle, trying to set the record straight here. I am content to stick with the celebration of Reformation Day, and forgo the Halloween controversy altogether.
All of this is thoroughly documented in Stations of the Sun, but a more succinct presentation of Hutton’s research can be found at the HistoryForAtheists website, as well as in an informative YouTube documentary by the HistoryForAtheists maintainer, Tim O’Neill, or read my summary from a blog post I wrote in 2021. Nevertheless, just about every year, CountryLiving magazine runs the same article over and over again, with a subtitles like, “The history of Halloween dates back to a pagan festival called Samhain,” or some other speculative overstatement. Good grief!
To be frank, Stations of the Son is very detailed and dense, and does not necessarily lend itself to light reading. Hutton’s research is painstaking and precise. I pretty much had to dip in and out of Stations of the Sun, in order to retain some interest over the past year. As an evangelical Protestant, I was disappointed to read Hutton’s description of the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke to be in direct contradiction with one another, right at the beginning of the book, even though a good case can be made to harmonize the differing Gospels’ accounts (Here is my analysis from a previous Veracity blog post).
However, it was fun to learn about the history of the Easter egg. Various anti-Easter memes suggest that Christians were trying to cover up some pagan fertility rite. The more accurate story, that Ronald Hutton describes, goes back to the fact that the Lenten fasts instituted by the medieval church took eggs off the menu for Christians, until the Lenten fast ended at Easter. By then, many Christians had a whole stockpile of eggs, ideally hard-boiled, that could be eaten, but that could be put to use in other ways, such as with Easter egg hunts, and paintings of eggs. Overtime, eggs became less essential foodstuffs for European Christians, but such traditional practices remained, at least among more liturgically oriented Christians.
Now I know a whole lot more about the traditions behind those Easter egg hunts I celebrated as a kid.
Ah, but Christmas is upon us now. Little did I know but the “Twelve Days of Christmas” has a long history:
The tradition of twelve days of celebration following ‘midwinter’ was firmly established by 877, when the law code of Alfred the Great granted freedom from work to all servants during that span (Stations of the Sun, p. 6).
Twelve days off of work? Now I know why the Puritans had such a difficult time justifying the celebration of Christmas, as a lot of people can get into a lot of trouble when they are not working for twelve straight days in a row!
But if there is one definite link to “paganism,” or more properly-speaking, pre-Christian European religion, it would be the association of “Yule” with the name of Christmas.
In the eleventh century Danish rule over England resulted in the introduction of the colloquial Scandinavian term for Christmas, ‘Yule’, which provided an alternative name for it among the English (Stations of the Sun, p. 6).
There is not much Christian about the “Yule log,” as it mostly has an association with some ancient midwinter festival, recognizing that late December is the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. But the popular idea that the majority of today’s Christmas customs were derived from the Yule tradition is just plain bunk, according to most historians today.
Furthermore, the use of mistletoe and dressing up with greens have very little reference to Christian symbolism. But even with mistletoe, its connection with kissing and supposed origins in Druid paganism only became known through the writings of the American author, Washington Irving, in his 1819 short story, “Christmas Day.” Where Washington Irving, more well known today as the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” got his information is a mystery, as mistletoe had become a fashionable part of church decorations since the 17th and 18th centuries, with no established record of its supposed connection to pagan religion (see Hutton, p. 37). Again, read a helpful summary of Hutton’s research in Tim O’Neill’s blog at HistoryForAthiests about “Pagan Christmas.”
So, if you are interested in reading an authoritative history of where many our holiday traditions come from, particularly as they relate to their origins in the British Isles, Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain is the “go-to” academic treatment on the subject. I will be referring to this frequently whenever I hear fantastic claims about the supposed “true” or “secret” meaning of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween alike.
For a quick summary of the most popular “Christmas is Pagan” ideas, versus their most likely origins, click on the following JPEG file to view larger on your own device. Print it out and hand it to your friends, or share it with that Christmas-is-Pagan acquaintance who sends you stuff on social media.