Christmas is most often associated with Christianity and the birth of Jesus Christ. However, the history of Christmas is closely linked to Roman and North European pagan traditions that were then incorporated into Christianity when the Romans and North Europeans first became Christian. Here are some of those pagan traditions that have become associated with Christmas:
- Exchanging Gifts – The Romans celebrated Saturnalia during what then became the Christmas season. As part of Saturnalia, they would exchange gifts for the sake of good luck. The idea was to give a gift in the hope of bringing in a bountiful harvest the next year. Rather than have huge lists of gifts to give, the Romans shared only one gift with one other person.
- Santa – Santa is today considered to be a man with a white beard dressed in red. It is said that there are many similarities to the concept of Santa and the Norse god, Odin. He was traditionally portrayed as an old man with a long, white beard with an 8-legged horse called Sleipnir he would ride through the skies, just like Santa’s reindeer.
- Christmas Stockings – In Norse tradition and during the winter, kids would fill their booties with carrots and straw and leave them by the chimney for Sleipnir to feed on. Odin would fly by and reward the children with little presents in their booties, much like people do with Christmas stockings today.
- Christmas Carols – Anglo-Saxon pagans used to have a tradition called ‘wassailing.’ The rather funny word comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase of ‘waes hael,’ translating to ‘good health.’ Every year, wassailers would roam through their villages in small groups, singing loudly to banish evil spirits and wish good health to those around them. In the 13th century, St. Francis took inspiration from these happy choirs and started the tradition of Christmas carolling.
- Christmas Trees – Besides feasting, drinking, and exchanging gifts during Saturnalia, Romans also hung small metal ornaments on trees outside their homes. Each of these little ornaments represented a god – either Saturn or the family’s personal patron saint. Early Germanic tribes practiced a similar tree decorating tradition with fruits and candles to honor the god Odin throughout winter solstice.