Most Christians who celebrate Easter and Christmas readily admit that some traditions of the holidays were co-opted from earlier pagan rituals. For some Christians, the association with earlier religions is a reason not to celebrate the holidays. Others merely admit that the old associations are not particularly important because the sacred nature of these holidays (holy days) now preempts what people may have thought or done before.
Christians were doing nothing new by incorporating pagan rituals into religions with new interpretations. It is easier to convert people to a new religion by allowing them the traditions of the past. For example, some converted Jews who grew up celebrating Christmas may still have a Hanukkah bush at Christmas time because this is a comforting ritual that reminds them of past time spent in joyful company with family and friends.
Some may actually point to the rituals to argue that a Christmas tree has very little to do with Christianity, and thus is not a violation of Judaism. This of course depends on who one talks to. Some disapprove of using any other religions in the worship of the one God.
The following are some of the major symbols taken from pagan rituals observed at Christmas:
- The Christmas tree was meant to honor Odin, the Norse God. It would have been hung with the sacrifice of nine animals. The tradition of the tree was co-opted by Marin Luther, and later brought to the New World.
- Kissing under the mistletoe was one of the pagan rituals observed around the winter solstice. Mistletoe is associated with peace and love.
- Holly and ivy are symbols of rebirth and the promise of spring. Decking the halls with boughs of holly is now interpreted as the coming of Christ’s birth, and the spring of Christianity.
- Santa Claus may have once been Odin or Thor, who was thought to visit once a year and leave presents for good children, in their shoes. However, the exchange of gifts at Christmas is also closely tied to the visit of the kings. In some countries, Epiphany, or Three Kings Day on the sixth of January remains the traditional time for exchanging gifts.
At the time of the birth of Christ, there were several active mystery religions, which celebrated the resurrection of the gods. Chief among these is the rebirth of Dionysus, and the Dionysian rituals observed in spring. Prior to that, Babylonian rituals, and those of other religions may have influenced the very name of Easter. Easter is supposedly named after the goddess, Oestre, an Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility.
The egg of course is the ultimate symbol of potential fertility. Decorating eggs existed long before Christianity and thus can be considered one of the pagan rituals. However, if we go farther we must extend the idea of the death and resurrection of Christ as the observation of pagan rituals. The abundance of mystery religions at the time sheds doubt on Christ’s resurrection. Most Christians care naught for the fact that these rituals worship similar things because they firmly believe in the resurrection of Christ as set down in the Bible.
The Easter bunny, however, appears not to be a borrowing from pagan rituals. Mention of the Easter Hare is first found in Germany in the 1500s. So it may be considered a wholly post-Christian conception. However, hiding the eggs reconnects us back to the pagan traditions regarding the coloring of eggs.
Most Christians who celebrate these holidays are less concerned with origins that bear no significance to them, as these pagan rituals are made new by the coming of Christ. Many are more concerned with the increased commercialization surrounding holidays, particularly Christmas. The more emphasis on gifts, the less on Christ’s birth. Especially young children may be more concerned about the presents and miss the importance of the Savior’s birth, which as many Christians know, did not occur in December.