Top 10 Winter Holidays that Christmas Copied
As with Easter, Christmas is one of the key celebrations in the Christian Calendar. In the lead up to December 25 Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, a divine savior born from a human mother.
Many Christians might, however, be surprised to learn that the early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ (Easter was the main religious celebration). As the religion spread over the Roman Empire (and elsewhere), they ran into many different pagan celebrations tied to the Winter Solstice. The missionary Christians were both fascinated by these festivals and pragmatic enough to know that they were of great importance to the people they wanted to convert and so they decided to incorporate elements of those celebrations into their own religious observance of the birth of Christ.
It is no wonder that the Western World, with our overwhelmingly Christian heritage, should celebrate Christmas as our main solstice holiday. In recent years, however, many western societies have become more tolerant of other religions (or the absence of religion) and interested in exploring the other celebrations that are common around this time. And there are many. For societies in the Northern Hemisphere the Winter Solstice marks a turning point – the time when winter is at its peak and when things start to get lighter and better. For that reason it is no wonder that almost every culture has established a celebration around that event. Other (non Pagan) world religions also hold key celebrations at this time of year.
Here is our list of 10 of the most interesting non-Christian holidays that you can celebrate at this time of the year.
The Return Of The Wandering Goddess – Ancient Egypt Celebrates the Solstice
Ancient Egypt had a fascinating, complex and polytheistic religion. Two of the gods (Osiris who rose from the dead and Horus his son who was born of a virgin, had his birth announced by a star and was visited by shepherds and three gods) have strong parallels with the story of Christ. Most of the gods and goddesses had their own celebration and their feast days would have been an important and much looked forward to break from routine for the ordinary ancient Egyptian.
For the purposes of this article the goddess we are most interested in is Hathor a goddess who was associated with the Milky Way which was seen as heavenly milk flowing from the udder of a sacred cow. She is often depicted either as a cow or with the attributes of one. She was associated with beauty, fertility, sexuality, power and (occasionally and in the form known as Sekhmet) destruction. She is one of the most powerful goddesses in the Egyptian Pantheon. Her celebration (sometimes known as the Return of the Wandering Goddess) is in late December.
The story goes that Hathor (as Sekhmet) was sent by her father, Ra to punish some people but became too enthusiastic and started to destroy humanity. She was tricked into a drunken coma and when she awoke was mortified at both her behavior and the trick that was played on her. She exiled herself and took the eye of Ra (the sun) with her. The festival marks her decision to return and bring with her the sun and warmer days.
The celebration was revived some years ago and there are now new followers of this ancient and complex religion who call themselves Kemetic Revivalists or Kemetic Orthodox.
Yalda – A Very Iranian Celebration
When we hear mention of Iran today we think of its people as being very strict Muslims. Prior to Islam, however, many Persians were followers of the Zoroastrian tradition. Zoroastrians considered the Winter Solstice to be the darkest (both literally and figuratively) night of the year. People would stay at home, indoors to protect themselves. They would have to stay awake all night in order to protect themselves from any evil that might befall them and in order to make the night pass more easily would gather in large groups of family and friends and share any summer fruits or good food that was left over. Watermelons and pomegranates are particularly important fruits that form part of the celebration as watermelon is believed to protect the consumer from becoming hot in the summer and pomegranate will protect from insect bites. The original religious celebration was closely linked to Mithra.
Originally known as Sada the festival of Yalda got its modern name from the Syriac Christian name for Christmas (Yalda means birth in their language). Much in the same way that Christmas has been adopted as a cultural holiday and celebrated by many atheists and non-Christians Yalda is seen as an important celebration in Iran even though its religious origins are lost.
Sol Invictus – Because The Sun Never Gives Up
This is a controversial entry on the list because the Roman celebrations of Sol Invictus do not predate Christianity as such but there is debate as to whether the decision to celebrate Christmas on 25 December was made because it tied in with the popular Sol Invictus celebrations. As mentioned above the early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Christ. The nativity/Christmas appears to have been celebrated for the first time sometime in the 4th or 5th Centuries AD.
The worship of Sol Invictus, the Roman Sun God, was made official by the Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD. Many people believe that Sol Invictus and Mithras were one and the same but although Mithras was often described as Sol Invictus they were two separate gods. In the 18th and 19th Centuries it was thought that the modern Christmas celebration was placed on December 25 in order to fit in with the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti although that view is challenged with others saying that Christmas was the inspiration for the Sol Invictis celebration.
This is yet another celebration that is Zoroastrian in origin. When set in the seasonal calendar (as opposed to the old Zoroastrian solar/lunar calendar) it is celebrated/commemorated on December 26. Zoroaster (also knowns as Zarathustra) was born in Iran some years (between 600 and 1500) before the birth of Christ. He was a priest but following a divine vision he rejected the religion of the time and instead preached a monotheistic religion with a god Ahura Mazda and his evil opponent Ahriman. He preached that human life was a struggle between the truth and lies with humans having free will to choose their path. The religion soon gained ground and became dominant in the area until the foundation and rapid spread of Islam. The philosophy of the Zoroastrian religion has permeated the thinking and teachings of many philosophers and commentators of the Abrahamic faiths. Zoroaster died a martyr, executed by a rival priest while praying at an altar.
Unlike the other festivals on this list Zartosht No-Diso is a day of mourning not celebration and is passed in prayer, attendance at temple and commemoration of the life of the prophet Zoroaster.
Soyal – A Hopi Solstice Celebration
December is a very important time for the Hopi tribe – originally from Arizona. They celebrate the Winter Solstice in a ceremony known as Soyal (which means Establishing Life Anew For All The World). The solstice is seen as the day when the Kachinas or Hopi spirit messengers come down from the San Francisco Peaks (where they live) to return the sun to the world after its period of absence. They then dance at the Soyal ceremony.
In order to prepare for the arrival of the kachinas the faithful will make prayer sticks which they call Pahos which are used to bless homes, animals etc. Children get beautiful replicas of the many different kachinas so they can learn the significance of each one. Before the ceremony the chief kachina will stumble into the village where he will perform a dance and a sacred song in a voice so quiet that no one can hear (it is too holy for ordinary people to listen to).
The ceremony and celebrations can last for up to 16 days and druing that time prayers are said to ensure the sun turns back to the world and sacred ceremonies are performed in kivas (underground holy places). Children may expect to receive some gifts from the kachinas and the elders of the tribe will tell stories that teach important moral lessons. The details of the ceremonies are not widely known although they are understood to involve a symbolic attack on anything which might prevent the sun from returning (such as darkness, cold etc).
It is not certain whether this festival predates the celebration of Christmas but it is pretty cool to think the North American continent had its very own solstice celebration before it was discovered and Christianity was brought to its shores.
Deepavali (aka Diwali) – The Festival Of Lights
Although not strictly a pagan festival, or even one of the key December religious celebrations around the world Deepavali is both fascinating and important and is celebrated (in different forms) not only by Hindus but also by Skihs and Jains. Much like many of the key solstice festivals on this list it celebrates the triumph of light over dark and the subjugation of despair by hope. The celebrations include a ritual ‘spring’ clean of the home, making beautiful decorations in intricate patterns from colored rice at the entrance of the home, buying new clothes, giving gifts telling stories, lighting oil lamps and setting off fireworks. Prayers are generally offered to Lakshmi the goddess of wealth and prosperity. The celebrations last 5 days although some countries that celebrate it as a national holiday will only give one day off work.
The background and beliefs that are celebrated at Diwali vary between the three religions. Hindus celebrate the return from a 14 year exile of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, the modern day lights being a remembrance of when villagers lit lights in relief at the return. The celebration is also linked to the birth of Lakshmi from the churning of the ocean of milk and her subsequent marriage to Vishnu.
Jains celebrate Diwali as the day that Lord Mahavira attained Nirvana in 527 BC. The celebration for Sikhs significantly post dates Christmas, however, celebrating the day in 1612, when their 6th Guru, guru Hargobind Sahib Ji was released from captivity in the Gwalior Fort.
Yule – Norse ‘Christmas’
Yule was the word for the Scandinavian and Germanic Winter Solstice festival. Many of the traditions were adopted by Christians and now form an intrinsic, even vital part of a traditional Christmas celebration. Yule and Christmas were synchronized when King Haakon I of Norway, a Christian, decreed that yule celebrations should be held on 25 December to coincide with Christmas, as opposed to the traditional day – that of the Winter Solstice.
As a result of this Yule traditions will seem very familiar to many Christians. The yule log would traditionally be brought into the house and lit from the remains of the previous year’s log. The fire that burns from the log is symbolic of the warmth and life given by the returning sun. Ashes from the log would be used as fertilizer for the fields.
Although the tradition of Christmas trees only originated (in Germany) relatively recently it had long been a European tradition to celebrate Christmas with decorations of greenery (hence the phrase ‘deck the halls with boughs of holly’). This dates back to an old pagan yule tradition which celebrates the battle between the Holly King and the Oak King. It is uncertain whether these two ‘kings’ are different aspects of the same god or whether they are separate entities but they battle with each other throughout the year with the Oak King being at his most powerful during the Summer Solstice and the Holly King during the Winter Solstice. The Holly King is often dressed in red and is pulled along by a team of 8 stags.
Wassail (as referred to in the carol ‘Here we come a wassailing’) was a popular Yuletide drink of ale mulled with fruit and spices. It is also known as Lambs Wool and is still popular in the UK today although the greeting ‘waes hael’ or ‘good health’ is now long forgotten.
Mistletoe was seen by the Celtic druids as being one of the most holy of plants, sprigs were cut from the oak trees after Yule and distributed as a protective charm to the faithful, amongst its many powers it was believed to grant fertility. The Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe comes from the Norse legend of the death of Balder. He was shot by a mistletoe arrow and when his mother cried over the boy her tears became the berries. He was restored to life and his mother made the plant a symbol of love in gratitude.
Although the two celebrations, Christmas and Yule, became combined over the years, yule as a standalone celebration is enjoying a revival and many modern day neopagans celebrate it as an alternative to Christmas.
Bodhi Day – A Celebration Of The Enlightenment Of Buddha
Zen Buddhists have their own, ancient, celebration that falls over the December period. Although it is not a pagan celebration it is an interesting festival that has many parallels with Christmas. More properly known as Rohatsu it was originally a movable holiday (much like Easter) and generally fell sometime in January. When the Japanese adopted the Gregorian Calendar they decided to fix many public holidays including Bodhi Day.
The day celebrates the moment when Buddha, previously the prince Siddhartha Gautama, finally achieved enlightenment. Buddhists believe that his search for peace had proved fruitless for many years, finally he seated himself under a fig (Bodhi) tree and meditated. During his period of meditation Siddhartha Gautama was tempted by a demon to give up his quest. Siddhartha Gautama withstood all temptations including seduction by beautiful maidens and an attack by an army of demons. When asked by the demon who would speak for him as to his right to claim enlightenment Siddhartha Gautama touched the earth with his right hand and the earth answered ‘I bear witness’. Siddhartha Gautama saw the morning star and it was at this moment that he became enlightened and so became Buddha.
Most of the faithful will celebrate the day through meditation and sometimes a prayer retreat in the lead up to the day itself. Many will also chant sacred texts and make sure to perform acts of particular kindness, some will even decorate a fig tree with ornaments and lights. The traditional meal for this day is tea and cake.
Hanukah – Not Pagan But Definitely Pre-Dating Christmas
While not pagan this is a thoroughly non-Christian celebration and pre-dates Christmas by some time. It has been popularized in the US as a ‘Jewish Christmas’ an alternative holiday celebration for Jews but to call it this is to diminish the spiritual significance of the celebration which is important in its own right.
Hanukah is the Jewish festival of lights, a celebration to commemorate the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem following the Maccabean revolt over 100 years before the birth of Christ (the temple had been profaned by the invaders with pigs being sacrificed before the alters and the building being dedicated to the worship of Zeus). At the time of the Maccabean rededication only enough sacred oil remained in the temple to light the lamps for one day but the lamps burned for eight days. As a result the celebration lasts 8 days and during that time candles are lit in a Menorah. Children will also play specific games and people will celebrate by eating oil rich food.
Saturnalia – The Roman Celebration
Saturnalia is one of the best known of all the ancient Roman holidays. Originally a harvest festival to honor Saturn, the god of Agriculture, it gradually moved later and later in the year until it was celebrated from around December 17. 17 December and the following days were public holidays during which the courts and schools were shut and no declarations of war could be made. The festivities started with a ritual sacrifice at the Temple of Saturn in Rome followed by a public banquet at which a statue or image of a god would be placed on a couch to join the meal and people would greet each other with the ritual salutation Io Saturnalia.
Over the following days families would gather together to enjoy a traditional meal of suckling pig and exchanging gifts. Sometimes masters would serve the Saturnalia meal to their slaves. Gambling became socially acceptable and slaves were allowed more freedoms than normal and significant volumes of alcohol were consumed there was even a king of the Saturnalia – someone not unlike the mediaeval concept of the Lord of Misrule who could command people to do the most absurd of things. It was a time when people could go that little bit crazy safe in the knowledge that the period of excess was contained and that all would return to normal after a few days.
Although there were attempts to replace it with Sol Invictus celebrations (see above) Saturnalia continued to be popular long after Christianity became the official religion of the empire although it gradually fell out of favor.
So there we have it – a list of 10 fascinating religious celebrations that occur around the same time as Christmas.
Whether you observe Christmas from a Christian or from a purely social standpoint it is fascinating to see what practices have influenced the way we celebrate Christmas today and the days and events that are every bit as important to people elsewhere in the world.
Whether you celebrate the birth of Christ, the Enlightenment of Buddha, the return of the Holy Cow Hathor, the Return of the Sun, the Solstice or a Festival of Lights there is something for you. For many people past and present December truly is a holy month and as such ‘Happy Holidays’.