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 (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 (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. (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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