Christendom, like other religions before it, assimilated former religions to forge its own traditions. This is very much the rule rather than the exception when a new religion begins to dominate an older one. It is easier to get people to come to your point of view if do not change things too much.
There are a number of pagan traditions that were assimilated into the Christmas tradition, and not all of them were done simultaneously. For example, the Yule log is much more recent than celebrating Christmas on 25 December (and that date is not universal, by the way). Let us look as some of our customs that are not Christian at all.
Since this is Christmas, how about a little Christmas music first? What could be better than "Christmas" from Tommy by The Who from 1969?
First is the date itself. This is suspiciously close to the winter solstice (the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere) and many cultures celebrated the winter solstice long before Christianity began. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the festival of the winter solstice, and many Germanic cultures had similar festivals. Since the actual date of the birth of Jesus is not known, it is an easy fit to make it what is probably the most important celebration in pagan cultures, the reawakening of the sun, correspond to the second most important date in the Christian calendar. By the way, Easter, the most important Christian date, roughly corresponds to the vernal equinox.
The Christmas tree is a bit more problematic. Whilst there is a pagan tradition of the Yule log, and perhaps by extension the Yule tree, the first recorded use of an actual tree for Christmas dates around to 1441 in Europe, long after Christianity was established. The season of Yule was a pagan celebration of the solstice, but I am not positive that the actual Christmas tree can be attributed to a pagan tradition. If you have better information, please let me know. There is one legend that is interesting.
When Saint Boniface was trying to convert the Germans he chopped down an oak tree that was sacred to the god Donor (we know this deity better as the Scandinavian Thor) whilst daring Donor to strike him dead. When he was not struck dead, the Germans converted to Christianity. Legend further states that Boniface then admonished them to abandon worshiping oak trees (the oak was sacred to a number of Germanic and Celtic peoples) and instead honor Christ with evergreen trees because, since they do not "die" in the winter, they represent the everlasting life promised by Christ. Thus, if this legend be true, the Christmas tree was actually anti-pagan.
Holly definitely has pagan connexions, because the Romans used it, along with laurel, in Saturnalia celebrations. When Christianity became vogue, the custom was readily transferred because the thorny nature of the leaves were easily identified with the crown of thorns, and the red berries with the blood of Christ. One would think that those associations would be more in keeping with Easter, but since many other attractive plants are available at that time of year, and since holly is one of the few colorful plants available in winter, holly became associated with Christmas instead, in addition to already being traditional.
Mistletoe is very interesting. It was sacred to the Druids, so definitely has pagan roots. (That is a pun, since mistletoe is not rooted in the ground). It seems to have some connexion with male virility, and some speculate that is because of the resemblance of the fruit pulp to semen. I am not really that convinced, but it is as good as an explanation as any. By the way, that is connected with the European variety, Viscum album. The North American variety, Phoradendron serotinum, strongly resembles the European kind, but there are some subtle differences. Viscum album is strongly involved in pre-Christian legend, and is probably the Golden Bough in The Aeneid. It also figures strongly in Norse mythology, being the wood used for the missile that killed the god Baldr. The goddess Frigg then made mistletoe swear an oath never to do harm again, and thus it became the symbol of love. Now we kiss under the mistletoe, whether Viscum or Phoradendron, a custom that evidently dates back to the 16th century in England. Of course is was Viscum in England, but the custom passed to North America and the similar Phoradendron. I understand that there was a mistletoe shortage this year due to the drought in Texas, but there is plenty of it here in the Bluegrass. The best way that I have found to harvest it is to use a shotgun, right on the limb on which it is growing.
Gifts are way too common to attribute to either pagan or Christian tradition. People have given gifts to each other since time immemorial, so I do not think that gift giving can be categorized. Certainly there is the tradition of The Magi bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the infant Jesus, but I think that it would be a stretch to say that the tradition of Christmas gift giving is from pagan roots. On the other hand, one could argue that it is. I just think that the issue is too muddy to say anything with certainty.
How about Santa Claus? When I was little, I asked my grandmum if Santa really existed (I have been a lover of facts since early childhood), and she, being a very good Christian (in the best sense of the term) would not lie to me. She explained to me that there is a "giving spirit", to use her exact phrase. She never told me that Santa was real, but hedged pretty well.
I like that explanation. There really IS a giving spirit, but it resides inside us rather than in some old elf. Besides, some think that elves are nothing but "cleaned up" demons. I must admit that I perpetuated the myth with my own children, going so far as to fashion a tool that would leave reindeer hoof marks on the snow, or more often, being from the south, on the ground. When Eldest Son asked where the sled tracks were, I had to think fast and told him that the sled itself, because of its huge load, had an antigravity device installed so that it could fly. Then he asked why the reindeer did not have one, and I told him that they had to land so that they could graze, browse, and get a drink of water whilst Santa was leaving gifts. It is a slippery slope when one lies to kids, or anyone for that matter. I should have left it with Ma's explanation.
In any event, Santa is mostly sort of recent, but then there is that pesky story about Odin, the supreme Norse god. According to Norse legend, he loved to go hunting with his fellow gods, riding his horse Sleipnir. Of course, Sleipnir would get hungry doing the hunting thing, so little children would put hay and grain in their boots and leave them near the chimney to feed the horse. Odin would miraculously transform the remnants of the horse feed to candy and other treats for the kids. This goes way, way back, so I do think that Santa has some pagan roots.
Our modern idea of Santa is sort of a gemisch of several characters, most of them except for Odin, from the Christian tradition. The first on of those was Saint Nickolaus, who flourished around forth century BCE in Turkey. His gift was to pay the dowries for the three daughters of a broke but faithful fellow so that the girls would not have to resort to whoredom. To this day we often refer to Saint Nickolaus as Santa.
Now about the "naughty and nice" list. That is fairly recent. That comes from a fairly recent Dutch tale about another Saint Nick, coming by steamboat from Spain of all places, named Sinterklaas. He holds the naughty and nice list, and doles out gifts accordingly. In this tradition he is very gaunt and serious, not anything like the jolly old elf.
The British version is Father Christmas, and dates to around the mid 1400s. He was closer to Santa than the others, being large, bearded, and jolly. However, in most accounts he wears a green coat rather than a red one.
In the United States, all of these traditions were combined and then they morphed due mainly to the cartoonist Thomas Nast, famous for his political cartoons lampooning Tammany Hall, the corrupt political machine in New York City. It was Nast who first portrayed what is essentially now the modern Santa Claus, based largely on the word picture given in the poem that we now know as "The Night Before Christmas". The poem came out in 1821 and Nast's first cartoon in 1863 (Santa was wearing a US flag because of the war effort), and refined in 1866 to pretty much the image that we have now. The Coca-Cola Company is responsible for the modern image that we now have because of the artwork that they commissioned for adverts during the Depression.
So, is Santa a pagan tradition? Except for the Odin thing, I think that he is predominately a Christian tradition, especially since we still refer to his as Saint Nickolaus. However, remember that the Odin tradition is very similar to the current practice of handing stockings near the fireplace.
Candy canes are often hung on Christmas trees, and this seems to be strictly a Christian tradition. One story, possibly apocryphal, is that in 1670 the choirmaster in Cologne had them made to keep his singers occupied during the long services. He had them crooked to remind the children of the shepherds' staffs during the Christmas story.
There are lots more Christmas traditions, and many in different parts of the world are quite different than the ones that we observe in the US and in slightly different form, in Europe and the Commonwealth nations. I thought that a brief survey would be both Geeky and Christmasey at the same time. Please feel free to add any of your own traditions and their origins!
Instead of closing with the usual political joke this year, for this last Pique the Geek for 2011, I instead want to wish everyone reading a very Happy Christmas! Above all, this is the time of the season to remember friends and family, because after everything is said and done, they are what is really important. If you have not contacted distant family members, do so now. Just a short telephone call costs little and can make a big difference in someone's day, especially if they might be feeling a little down. Do not be afraid to tell them that you love them, because you may not get another chance to do so.
Once again, best wishes for the Holiday Season and for the year coming. I hope to see each of you back next year, starting on the evening of New Year's Day.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith