Spirits of the Season
Pagans lay claim to the ghosts of Christmas past
5.51 p.m. ET (2251 GMT) December 15, 1999 By Michael Y. Park
NEW YORK — Though it's one of Christianity's high holidays, some might be surprised to find out how little some Christmas tradition has to do with Christ.
From the yule log and mistletoe to that jolly old elf and his team of bewitched Bambis, many Christmas traditions are actually a mishmash of pagan rituals and observances that have no connection to Jesus at all.
That title "pagan," as in worshippers of nature or more than one god, can include Wiccans (who sometimes prefer to be called witches), neo-Druids, Native American traditionalists, Shintoists (Japanese nature worshippers) or followers of ancient Egyptian deities. Satan and satanists have nothing to do with it.
"There are a lot of pagan traditions in the decorations you'll see at Walgreens," mused Jeannie Wills Ray, a self-professed pagan from western Pennsylvania. "You see the horned deer that are so popular? They represent the Horned God. Anything with a tree on it, anything really natural-looking, the yule log: all pagan."
In fact, this last Christmas of the 1900s will see plenty of pagans celebrating, along with Christians who won't.
Most civilizations formally observed the gradual change from the winter months to the spring, or from the dark season to the light season. In Persia, it was a celebration of Mithra, the sun god. In early Greece, it was Kronia, for the god Kronos.
Christian's want to put the 'Christ' back in Christmas, though some argue it was never there to begin with.
The Romans borrowed from both when they celebrated Saturn, the god of earth and agriculture. The feasts known generally as Saturnalia started December 17, continued through the winter solstice and ended December 25, with a blow-out they called dies natalis solis invictus — day of the invincible sun.
Perhaps the best known part of Saturnalia was the Bacchanalia, dedicated to the god of wine. Considered a time to cut loose, the Roman feast involved good eatin', plenty of drinking, gift-giving, lacing the house with laurels and a trading of places between master and slave.
In the 4th century A.D., Christian leaders in Rome, worried their solemn — and, frankly, boring — holy days weren't attracting enough attention, proclaimed that Dec. 25 was Christ's birthday. By doing so, they co-opted the local traditions and "purified" them by giving them Christian meanings.
That way, locals got to have their fun while the church hierarchy was satisfied that if the seculars were gorging themselves and having orgies, at least they were doing it for Christ.
Modern-day pagans like Ray like to think of themselves as reaching back to a time when the winter holiday season was less about presents and fraternizing and more about the cycle of nature. Many celebrate their own versions of Saturnalia or its Celtic equivalent, Yule.
"Listen to your neighbors, and they get really cynical: 'Oh, the slush is back again, ice is stuck to the tires,'" Ray said. "Nobody really says, 'Oh, the first snow! It's really beautiful.' If you get really basic, that's how our ancestors viewed the world. If you cut out all the traffic and people bitching about their cars and the slush, it's nice to have something peaceful and almost primitive in your life."
As the centerpiece for their pagan celebration, Ray and her four children will build a small rock cave in their back yard, with a Willendorf-like clay goddess figure holding a baby.
"It could be Mary and Jesus," she said. "I like to think of it as a symbol of the fact that we're carrying and keeping the sun alive until spring."
Lynda Pedersen, of New Jersey, has insisted on having a regular Christmas so her 20-month-old daughter doesn't feel left out of the mainstream. But that doesn't mean she won't put up a huge pentagram made up of flashing Christmas lights on her front lawn.
"My neighbors weren't too happy with that," she conceded. "One, a woman who keeps sending me stuff about how Darwin was wrong, came by and said, 'Oh, look at that. Holiday decorations for pagans. That's nice.'"