Christmas's Pagan & Folk Traditions (I)

Read also about Pagan Traditions of Spring and Summer in Poland; Midsummer
Christianity was not the first system of values and beliefs in Europe and in the world. The change from one system of values to the other is never easy. When the Church could not replace the old system of values completely it tried to embrace and modify it in the Christian tradition. The example of a feast that had pagan roots but was embraced by the church is summer solstice. First, the Catholic Church was against it. The monks were even organizing the processions against it and people who took parts in the ceremonies (called also Sobótka) were threaten with blasphemy. Later the Church shifted the celebration 2-3 days later into the night of St. John and the pagan cult of fire was transformed into the celebration of the light of the bible.

Christmas happens to be celebrated around the time when the days are the shortest and there is a lot of pagan tradition involved in this feast.

In the future I will try to expand the topic of pagan tradition in Polish culture and write more about it. For now, let me focus on the introduction to the pagan tradition of Christmas.
Majority of theologians and church history scholars agree that Jesus Christ's birth probably did not happen around 25th of December. So, there is no early Christian tradition to celebrate God's Birth about the winter solstice time. Western Church tradition is also in disagreement with Eastern Church (Armenian, Orthodox) which celebrates God's birth and baptism on the January 6th or 7th.

In pagan Rome, 300 years after God's birth, "Saturnalia" were celebrated.

This yearly feast was to honor the Roman's god Saturn. The time of celebration was always situated around the December 17th - 23rd time frame. On the 25th of December, Romans were beginning the new feast of "The birthday of the unconquerable Sun" (Natalis Solis Invicti) since the days were becoming longer again. This was also a time of birth of some pagan gods like Persian/Iranian mystery god Mithras which was also popular deity in Roman Empire.

So, probably the beginnings of celebrating of the God's birth during winter solstice was affected by the earlier pagan traditions not only in the capital of early Christian Church, Rome, but also by the local traditions in many regions of Europe. In the past the early winter was a time to prepare for coming cold weather and also a time for rest after the harvest. It was usually cold and dark (and no electricity yet), so the amount of time outdoors was limited. In the past people were dependent on the nature much more than now. Women used to meet together stuffing pillows and mattresses with feathers, spinning the wool or flax into the thread for winter cloaks. This was also time for weddings and other celebrations - since there was no any urgent work to be done outdoors (except cleaning from snow). There was still enough food in the storage from Fall harvest. Not like in the early Spring when reservoirs of food were being exhausted (thus we have the Lent time, read more about Lent traditions). So placing Christmas in winter is convenient from many reasons, not only religious but also social-economical.

Which Christmas habits or rituals have pagan or non-Christian roots?

Even now housewives clean the houses before Christmas. Now nobody remembers that the tradition of such general cleaning was to dust out any bad spirits and evil things. It is also believed that if the house remains dirty during Christmas Eve it would stay dirty all the next year.

There are plenty of folk proverbs that are connected with Christmas. Christmas takes place close to the end of the year so it is believed that it marks the near future and the next year. There is a saying "As goes Christmas Day, goes the whole Year". Read more about weather-forecasting and other pagan and folk traditions during Polish Christmas in the II part of the article.

written by Jagoda Urban-Klaehn, 16 December 2002 (article #72)

Very popular among our readers is a book about Polish pagan traditions written by babcia Okana Singing Back The Sun: A Dictionary of Old Polish Customs and Beliefs

Check Polish customs' book written by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab, Mary Anne Knab (Illustrator). It is entitled Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore

The SITE MAP contains all articles classified according to topic.