Enough! If I read about or hear another benighted teabagger-type grousing about "Christ being the reason for the season," I'm going to blow a gasket! So just treat this as my primal howl against the falsification of the Western Tradition.
One of the most fascinating aspects about pagan antiquity in the West remains its enduring legacy for our modern civilization. Some areas of influence, most notably the political legacy of Roman Law and the Roman “Constitution” which so influenced the Founders of our republic, are well known.
Others are less widely recognized, especially in the realm of religion, where all of the Abrahamic religions, especially Islam and Christianity, have preserved or consciously adopted entire festivals, rituals, and iconographies from the Pagan cultures they ultimately supplanted by force.
“‘Tis the Season,” so let’s look at that “most Christian” of holidays, Christmas. Many will be shocked to learn that Christmas is almost entirely Pagan in its accoutrements, rituals, and ideology. Before Christianity established itself as the official religion of the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th Century CE, people had an almost bewildering choice of religious experiences, from the established worship of the 12 Olympians, to more local deities, to Emperor worship. But most influential were the so-called mystery cults surrounding Demeter, Dionysos, Isis, Adonis, and the Persian Mithras, associated with the Sun, son of the Great Virgin Goddess Astarte.
The birth of Mithras was celebrated on the 25th of December, which on the Julian calendar was reckoned as the winter solstice. The ritual will be familiar - celebrants gathered within the temple holding candles near midnight on the 24th - at midnight, from within the lighted sanctuary a collective voice rang out - “The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing!”
Now originally the ancient Christians celebrated their Nativity on the sixth of January, but in the Western Empire by the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century CE, the Church established the 25th as the Nativity - why? Luckily we don’t have to guess; an ancient Syrian Christian tells us: “The reason the fathers transferred the celebration of the 6th of January to the 25th of December was this: it was a custom of the heathen to celebrate, on the same 25th of December, the nativity of the Sun (i.e. Mithras), at which they kindled lights…In these solemnities Christians took part. Therefore, when the teachers of the Church learned that Christians had a leaning to the festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on the 25th and that Epiphany should be celebrated on the 6th.”
So, the origins of the ecclesiastical season of Christmas are revealed to be part of a appropriation of a popular Pagan festival.
Other “Christmas” customs, e.g. giving gifts, derive not from the Christian mythology of the 3 kings, but from the Roman festival of Saturn, Saturnalia, which featured the giving of gifts, special shopping, and “good will toward all” even slaves, who were treated as equals during the festival, from the 17th to the 23rd of December. The modern English tradition of wearing paper hats on Christmas probably derives from the Saturnalia custom of everyone wearing the cap of a freedman in token of their seasonally recognized human brotherhood.
More could be said - the yule log, Evergreen wreaths, the Christmas tree, etc. all derive from Northern European pagan winter solstice traditions that joyously recognized the promise of continued life and light, even in the depths of winter’s darkest, deadly chill.
Christmas is not alone among supposedly unimpeachably Christian festivals which are actually blatant usurpations of Pagan festivals. The other Christian biggie, Easter, in its timing, ritual, and trappings clearly derives from the festival of Adonis, Aphrodite's lover who died and was resurrected...but that is another primal howl altogether.
Anyone interested in further reading along these lines should take up Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough, to which I am indebted for much of my knowledge on this subject.