Ho, ho, ho! It’s Christmas! Our households are decorated, delicious mouth-wearing food is ready. The religious atmosphere is overwhelming, right? No way! Now your house is full of pagan symbols and traditions. Don’t worry, it is the same in every place on Earth. People around the world believe that Christmas traditions are purely Christian. The truth is completely different. Most Christmas customs are, in fact, based on old pagan festivals. Christians adopted these during the earliest period of Church history. The Church, however, has given this recognition and incorporates it into the Church year without too many misgivings.
If you are curious about the examples, here are a few of them:
1. Christmas tree
We all love this twinkling decoration of our houses, right? It is an invention from the 17th century but has roots in the pagan times. Previously decoration of the tree was related to the traditional belief that in this period of a year the spirits of our ancestors visited our households and stayed hidden in the trees. The Indo-European tribes used to do this in honor of Gods during the solstice.
2. Santa Claus
Oh yes, an old man with a huge beard who brings gifts to our homes. I have to disappoint you: he was created in the 16th century as a personification of Christmas. Even the Catholic Church agrees that this vision of old big man in red clothes has nothing in common with the real Saint Nicolaus. Most of Slavic countries call Santa Claus as “Ded Moroz / Djed Mraz” meaning “Grandfather Frost”. The origins of the character of Ded Moroz predates Christianity as a Slavic wizard of winter, in some books he is a son of Slavic pagan gods Veles and Mara.
3. Christmas Carols
Singing the special songs in this period of a year was a pagan custom. It was related to the fertility rites. The ceremonies when villagers traveled through their fields singing and shouting to drive away all the spirits that might interrupt the growth of the future crops.
4. Kissing under the Mistletoe
In the ancient times, it was a magical plant well known by Slavs, Celts, Romans, Vikings, etc. Romans used it to honor the god Saturn. In Norse Eddas, we may fight a description of the warriors from the opposing tribes, who met under the mistletoe and lied down their arms. It seems that it was a plant of peace. Yep, this tradition is practically unknown to both modern and ancient Slavs.
5. Christmas gifts
In Ancient Rome people gave gifts between Saturnalia and the Kalends, later during the Middle Ages, nuns from France started to give food and clothing to the poor on St Nicholas’ Eve. With time it became a tradition of modern (marketing) Christmas. Most Slavs used to practice gift giving to children during St. Nicholas Eve, but with time it became mainstream during Christmas. In older folk tales people made stories about “Ded Moroz” and his assistant “Snegurochka” fighting off the wicked witch, Baba Yaga, who wanted to steal gifts from children.
Very popular in our houses fruitcake has its roots in even more surprising place: in ancient Egypt. According to the researchers, ancient Egyptians placed cakes made of honey and fermented fruit on the tombs of beloved ones who passed away. Later Roman soldiers carried fruitcake to the battlefield. It was a simple and nourishing meal they could consume in the hard times. This tradition was continued by the knights and soldiers of Crusades. Byzantines too accepted this practice from West Roman Empire and there it is, how it spread over both Catholic and Orthodox Slavs too. The fruitcake came to our tables from the battles in the Holy Land.
Romans loved good parties, Slavs are exactly the same in this case. Good drinks, good food, good music and fantastic company made perfect Saturnalia. Romans celebrated their Saturnalia exactly in the same way as typical Slavs celebrate Christmas. After two thousand years, humans are still the same.