What Star is This? The Pagan Origins of Christmas Symbols

What Star is This? The Pagan Origins of Christmas Symbols


Rooted in the cyclical pagan year, Christmas can be linked back to the celebration of the Winter Solstice around December 21st, a time when the night was at its longest, and the coming of the “light” was celebrated and revered. New hope, the Sacred Fire, the Light of the World, all represented the end point of one natural cycle, and beginning of another. The Solstice may have been the longest and darkest of days and nights, but from that point on, there would be more light and the promise of a coming spring.

Roots in Ancient Tradition

Our traditional ‘Western” Christmas holiday actually has its roots in ancient Celtic and Saxon tradition. The Celts and Saxons celebrated “Yula” or “wheel of the year,” which became our modern Yule. This was often held on the actual day of the Solstice.

Painted Wheel of the Year

Painted Wheel of the Year (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This gala involved the burning of a log that was lit on the eve of the solstice and burned for twelve hours. It signified good luck and a prosperous coming year. Trees were later used instead, with lights placed upon them in the form of small candles—and thus the Christmas tree was born! Usually it was an evergreen, decorated with holly and mistletoe as these two plants were revered as fertility symbols.

Painting of the Yule Log being brought in at Hever Castle, 19th century

Painting of the Yule Log being brought in at Hever Castle, 19th century (Public Domain)

Celts believed that mistletoe was an aphrodisiac, which is the reason why people all over the world now kiss under the hanging mistletoe.

The tradition of the Christmas tree really took off in 16th century Germany when Christians began to use them in their homes, decorating them with candles and later, when the tradition spread into other parts of Europe, with small, sweet treats. The first Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in England in 1841 was covered with candles, fruits and gingerbread, and eventually in the 1850s, the use of small toys and trinkets, often fairies, dolls, horns and bells. 

The biggest part of the Yule celebration was food and drink, mainly the wassail cup, which is mentioned in many a favorite traditional Christmas carol. The word wassail comes from the Old English “wes hal,” literally “be in good health.” Beyond the wassail cup, food has continued to be a staple of holiday celebration, with feasting that might continue for days and of course, the imbibing of spirits to make “merry.”

Mithras, Sun King

But there is another origin myth behind the birth of Christ. Ancient Romans revered the Sun God Mithras, who also allegedly shared a virgin birth origin (born of a virgin in a cave on December 25th) and was called the Sun of God, or Sun King. In fact, many scholars insist the legend of Christ is nothing more than a rewrite of the Mithras story, with the Sun God becoming the Son of God, and the imagery of light that was associated with the Sun now associated with the Christ as the “light of the world.”

Marble relief of a Mithraic tauroctony scene from the Capitol, Rome, Italy, of the Roman cult figure of Mithras sacrificing a bull.

Marble relief of a Mithraic tauroctony scene from the Capitol, Rome, Italy, of the Roman cult figure of Mithras sacrificing a bull. (Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Mithras was related to a Semitic Sun-God, Shamash, and was called “Deus Sol Invictus Mithras” by those who worshipped him.

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Top Image: Deriv; Mithras slaying the bull (CC BY-SA 2.0), ancient star/sun symbol of Shamash, and Adoration of the Magi (Public Domain)

By Marie D. Jones

Comments

Thank you for NOT trying to make it appear like all your current English traditions have ancient Scandinavian roots, like another author on this site.

Thank you for actually mentioning the Angels and Saxons ("Anglo-Saxons"), two distinct clans that together invaded the English Isles in a far more pervasive manner than the Northern Danes (known as "Vikings") did. These two tribes left the Britons (ie their descendants) a lot of their current "yule" customs and a whole lot of their current language as well. And, this is why English Isles and Denmark has special ties - it's not that the Vikings visited: it is that the Angels remained there.

It is worth noting that (although Angels were actually Danes, just living in Angeln (contemporary Germany), just like the contemporary Danish Schleswig minority) had/have traditions of their own, one being the so-called Yule log. By all accounts that particular tradition appers to be a Continental European (Roman) one, not a Scandinavian (Danish) one.

(PS This comment applies only to the preview of this article.)

In my opinion, I always thought that was the origin of the Christmas Tree. Instead of putting a branch by the door the entire tree came inside to ward off evil.

The village where this winter tree ritual took place is named Deuringen, Germany. Deuringen is outside of Augsburg. Augsburg was founded by Caesar Augustus who ruled Rome from 27 BC to 14 AD. Romans founded their cities on pre-existing cities of course.

Deuringen is on a small hill. The talk of the village was "the Hill" is actually a prehistoric burial mound. So this Christmas Tree warding off evil could have very ancient origins indeed.

As a youth, i lived in a small village in Southern Germany. At Christmas time a group of boys would dress Up as Christmas trees. Really primative Christmas trees. They would go into the Forest and cut off shortish branches of pine trees. The branches would be tied to their clothes and hat so you could barely even notice that there was a boy under there. The boys would knock on the villagers doors asking for Christmas money. When you gave them money they would break off a branch and place it in the dirt by the front door. The branch was there to keep the evil spirits away. If you did not pay something really bad would happen. It was so entrenched that it was unthinkable to not pay.

The christmas tree goes back at the very least, 2600 years. It is described in the Book of Jeremiah. It is not a good thing.

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