Gifts, feasting, caroling, lights, decorating evergreens, even charity: all establishing pagan traditions centuries if not millenia before anyone invented christianity.
When you gather around the Christmas or stuff goodies into a stocking, you're taking part in traditions that stretch back thousands of years — long before Christianity entered the mix.But the big pagan source of Christmas - the one most blatantly stolen by Christians - is Saturnalia.
Pagan, or non-Christian, traditions show up in this beloved holiday, a consequence of early church leaders melding Jesus' nativity celebration with pre-existing midwinter festivals. Since then, Christmas traditions have warped over time, arriving at their current state a little more than a century ago.
The Christmas tree is a 17th-century German invention, of Bristol's Hutton told LiveScience, but it clearly derives from the pagan practice of bringing greenery indoors to decorate in midwinter. The modern Santa Claus is a direct descendent of England's Father Christmas, who was not originally a gift-giver. However, Father Christmas and his other European variations are modern incarnations of old pagan ideas about spirits who traveled the sky in midwinter, Hutton said.
But why this fixation on partying in midwinter, anyway? According to historians, it's a natural time for a feast. In an agricultural society, the harvest work is done for the year, and there's nothing left to be done in the fields.
"It's a time when you have some time to devote to your religious life," said Shaw. "But also it's a period when, frankly, everyone needs cheering up."
The dark days that culminate with the shortest day of the year — the winter solstice — could be lightened with feasts and decorations, Hutton said.
It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival.