Christmas itself is a pagan tradition, which has been given a Christian makeover. For thousand of years we’ve celebrated the Winter Solstice, which occurs on or around 21 December. It’s the time when the sun reaches its most southerly point in the sky and the daylight hours are at their shortest, and we celebrate it because it symbolises the return of the sun and the lengthening of each day until we reach the Summer Solstice. The Romans celebrated it with a festival called Saturnalia, which involved several days of revelry, then when Christianity began to take root in Rome in the 4th century AD it became the festival of the birth of Christ.
"There’s a clear correlation between Odin's flying eight-legged horse and Rudolph and his other seven reindeer"
Father Christmas may also have pagan origins. In Norse mythology, the god Odin was said to have a long flowing beard and a long cloak, and he flew through the sky on an eight-legged horse called Sleipnir and would leave gifts in children’s shoes. There’s a clear correlation between this flying eight-legged horse and Rudolph and his other seven reindeer.
There are plenty of other pagan traditions that have been drawn in. When you eat a chocolate roulade that’s been decorated to look like a log, you’re taking part in an ancient pagan custom. The cake is called a Yule log, and it’s the modern equivalent of the oak log that the Norsemen used to burn in honour of their god Thor each winter solstice. When Christianity arrived in Europe this old tradition was given a Christian slant: it was said that the Yule log had to be cut from an ash tree because when the baby Jesus had his first bath it was filled with water that had been heated with logs of ash, which is the only wood that will burn well when it’s unseasoned.
"When you eat a chocolate roulade that’s been decorated to look like a log, you’re taking part in an ancient pagan custom" (Photo: Aaron Jacobs)
Holly is another pagan tradition. The Romans would exchange sprigs of holly at Saturnalia as a token of friendship, and the Druids also placed enormous value on it, possibly because it burns when it’s green. When Christianity arrived in Europe, holly became a symbol of Christ, the white flowers symbolizing the virgin birth and the red berries representing his death on the cross.
The tradition of taking down decorations on Twelfth Night is pagan, too. It was thought that when we brought the plants indoors, we would also bring in the fairies and sprites that lived on the plants. Normally these creatures and humans were at war but there was a truce from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night. That was why it was so important to clear everything away when the truce ended, because then they would be in your house and would cause mischief again. Rather horribly, the idea was to take the greenery outside and burn it – and with it all the creatures.