Holidays have always played an important role in human culture, but what do you know about their origins? Many of the most popular holidays celebrate events that have extremely pagan and/or otherwise religious origins, which may be surprising to modern Americans who celebrate Christmas and Easter without thinking too much about where these holidays came from. Whether you’re interested in the religious roots of our modern celebrations or just want to learn something new.
Here are 25 popular holidays with surprisingly pagan origins.
Out of all the holiday traditions with pagan roots represented on this list, this is probably the most well-known. In an attempt to keep followers from celebrating pagan traditions, Christians “re-purposed” many of the traditions surrounding this time of year.
While there is some debate, many historians tell that pagans celebrating the winter solstice would decorate their houses with evergreen trees and mistletoe.
Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, even though scholars will tell you he probably wasn’t born around this time. However, pagans celebrated the sun god, Odin, during this time. The celebrations in honor of Odin were easy to transfer and refocus on the birth of Jesus.
Also, while Santa Claus isn’t focused on in many Christian circles, it’s interesting to note that Odin is often shown as a big chubby dude with a white beard and flowing coat. Sound familiar?
The colors green and red along with the singing were also part of pagan traditions.
As you’ll soon start to see, many pagan festivals revolved around nature and the changing of seasons. The spring equinox is a time when the amount of darkness and the amount of daylight balance out and become more equal. Pagan festivals during this time celebrated new life and the end of winter. This isn’t a surprising theme for anything spring related. It wasn’t too long before Christians took this reflection of new life and the end of death (like during winter) and connected it to the celebration of the resurrection of Christ.
There’s also the story of Queen Semiramis and her son Tammus. Well get to that when we talk about Lent (Number 10).
Feast of Annuciation
Another springtime Christian tradition, this celebrates the announcement of the angel Gabriel to the virgin Mary that she would give birth to the son of God. Celebrated on March 25th, this feast usually happens around the time of Good Friday and Holy Week, which includes Easter.
Basically the date of this holiday was advantageous to early Christians as it provided another opportunity to add Christian theology to a time of pagan rituals and celebration.
This holiday actually started out as the celebration of Samhain. It was the end of the harvest season and was a recognition of death and the start of the darkest part of the year. Many Celtic pagans also believed that spirits roamed the earth at this time and that the spirits of ancestors returned home. Costumes were to keep the spirits from recognizing the living; bonfires and sacrifices were to please the spirits and guarantee a good harvest for the next year.
The name “Halloween” actually comes from the Catholic tradition at this time. The church created “All hallow’s eve” or “allhallowmas” to honor those saints without a specific day already set aside. They chose the date, unsurprisingly, to make it easier to convert pagans at the time.
New Year's Day
New Year’s Day wasn’t always celebrated on January 1st. At one point in time, roughly 4,000 years ago, it was celebrated around March. Why March? Well, if you guessed because of change of season and balance of light and darkness, you are correct.
The ancient Babylonians celebrated this change with 11 days of ritual called Akitu. Akitu was held in honor of the victory of the sky god Marduk over the sea goddess Tiamat.
Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14. It is named for one or more early Christian martyrs named Valentine and has a pagan origin in the Roman celebration of Lupercalia.
Lupercalia was a fertility festival during which young men would draw names from a jar to determine who their ‘buddy’ for the day would be. The pairs of men then took part in rituals involving the sacrifice of dogs and goats to honor the Roman god Faunus, who was believed to be able to help couples procreate.
The ritual concluded at sunset with a feast in which masked men (called ‘Luperci’) ran around naked and struck women with strips of goatskin as they sought release from their sexual inhibitions.
This is the “feast before the famine” holiday. Okay, not really, but maybe you’ll soon get the idea. Mardi Gras, also known as Carnival and Fat Tuesday, is a time to really live it up before the beginning of Lent. Lent is a time of giving something up for a period of time leading up to Easter. Traditionally, people give up a lot of meat and dairy. Since they wouldn’t be eating those things for a long period of time, Mardi Gras was a time to binge and clean all of that out of the house. Within pagan traditions, this celebration focused on fertility and spring.
The roots of Thanksgiving date back to the 1621 harvest celebration by the Pilgrims. One of the earliest Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies was shared between Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag.
The Pilgrims shared their food with native American people and celebrated with them as if it were a feast – a true Thanksgiving celebration. This event was one of the few times that Europeans and Native Americans celebrated together during this period.
Halloween has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which was a celebration that marked the end of summer and the harvest. It is believed that on October 31, people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off ghosts.
The Celts would also make noise by banging pots and pans or making animal noises to confuse evil spirits. In addition to being a night filled with mischief and mystery, it was also a night of feasting and drinking!
Costumes were often worn and they were thought to be an important part of the festivities because they represented an opportunity for the wearer to be someone else for one night only. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, many elements from pagan traditions were absorbed into what eventually became our modern-day holiday.
Christmas is a holiday that has many different cultural and religious origins, but the majority of its customs come from the Christian religion. Christmas falls on December 25, which is traditionally when people celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s customary for families to have a large feast and exchange gifts on Christmas Eve or Day.
The tradition of giving gifts goes back to St. Nicholas, who was a bishop in Turkey in the 4th century. Christmas has its origins in both pagan and Roman cultures. The Romans celebrated two different holidays in December. First, there was Saturnalia, which was a two-week festival honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture.
Then there was Mithra’s birthday celebration on December 25th. The religious celebrations of Mithra have many similarities to our own and gave rise to what we know of as the modern Christmas.
Birthdays?!? Are those holidays? Well, that depends on how you were raised, where you live in the world, and what your own religious beliefs are.
The earliest recorded mention of a birthday celebration is the Bible’s mention of a Pharaoh’s birthday. According to ancient Egyptian tradition, when a pharaoh was crowned, they received god-status and therefore their birthday (or coronation date depending on the source) became a day to celebrate and worship the pharaoh.
Later in history, Romans started to celebrate the birthdays of common men. Many Christians didn’t even celebrate birthdays at first as they were considered pagan rituals. It wasn’t until they started celebrating the birthday of Jesus that some Christians took up this tradition.
Do you like learning about the origins of things? You might enjoy reading our list on 25 surprising origins of today’s most popular superstitions.
May Day celebrates the end of winter. Today, it’s celebrated with a decorated Maypole, dancing, and games. While the history is difficult to pinpoint exactly, this holiday is said to have originated from the Celtic holiday of Beltane. There were many rituals observed to bring good luck and good harvest and to encourage growth and new birth.
Nowruz is translated into “new day” and is the name of the Iranian New Year (also known as the Persian New Year). Before the two week celebration Persians and other Indo-Iranian groups (Kurds, Azarbaijanis and Balochs) start preparing for the Nowruz by spring-cleaning their homes (a practice associated with the rebirth of nature), purchasing new clothes to wear for the new year and purchasing flowers. Nowruz has been celebrated for over 3,000 years and marks the day of the vernal equinoz which is the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Though it is considered a secular holiday, it’s origins stem from Iranian religions which include Mitraism and Zoroastrianism.
Chahārshanbe Suri is the Festival of Fire. Celebrated a few days before the Iranian New Year, Nowruz, this holiday involves fireworks, jumping over fires, and “tapping of spoons.” Jumping over fires is a representation of purification; tapping of spoons is similar to “trick or treating.” There are special sayings that are said during each element.
The origins of this holiday can be traced back to the festival of Hamaspathmaedaya, which honored the spirits of the dead. This also coincided with the celebrations for the creation of fire and humans.
It is the first day of Lent. It begins on a Wednesday and ends on a Saturday or Sunday. It marks the beginning of 40 days of abstinence from all things fun, including food, drink, sex, and social media. During this time, Christians are expected to reflect on their sins and have hope for the future.
They are also expected to prepare themselves for Easter by asking forgiveness from others they may have hurt during this period. On Ash Wednesday, the priest marks the forehead of those present with ashes from the burning palm branches to symbolize repentance and acceptance of suffering.
The church reads from the Bible, Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return. The origins of Ash Wednesday are tied to Pagan rituals that predate Christianity in Europe by at least two centuries.
Easter also known as Pascha or Resurrection Sunday is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and is observed on the first Sunday after the first full moon or after the spring equinox.
The date of Easter may vary between March 22nd and April 25th, but it’s always observed in late March or early April. The word Easter comes from Eostre, a pagan goddess.
What may come as a surprise to some, Easter is originally a pagan celebration honoring spring in the Northern Hemisphere, well before the spread of Christianity.
Chinese New Year
Like many of the holidays on this list, the Chinese New Year is based on the lunar-solar calendar. This festival is also known as the Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year. It’s traditionally a time to honor ancestors and deities. Additionally, the bright lights and loud noises and the color red are all said to scare away evil spirits.
You may not know this, but Mother’s Day is actually a holiday that has its origins in paganism. The ancient Greeks and Romans actually practiced mother worship. The festival for Cybele and the festival of Matronalia both focused on celebrating the goddess associated with fertility and nature.
These festivals slowly died out with the rise of Christianity. According to the studies, Mother’s Day can be traced back to the ancient Roman festival. In ancient Rome, Mother’s Day was celebrated with sacrifices and giving gifts to mothers. As Christianity spread across Europe, the church encouraged people to honor their mothers on this day instead of going through with pagan traditions.
Founded in 1970, Earth Day was created as a day of education about environmental issues with the hopes of raising public awareness of air and water pollution.
Earth day is mentioned in our list because some people believe the origins of this holiday to be rooted in the worship of Gaia. In fact, there was court case against Fox Lane High School from a Catholic parent.
The parent argued that the celebration of the environmental holiday was a violation of the rights of students who complained it forced a religious devotion upon them. However, the Court ruled that the event does not establish a “New Age” religion.
The Catholic Church has obviously taken over quite a few pagan celebrations and changed them slightly to make them their own. Islam is another religion that has done similarly.
Ramadan is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. However, it’s origins may be found in the pre-Islamic Sabaean culture of Arabia.
Some believe that Ramadan was originally a fast observed from moon-rise to moon-set in dedication to the moon god. This fast was later adopted by Muhammad who then changed the fast from sunrise to sundown. Understandably, there are objections to this origin.
Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights. This four to five day festival celebrates the enjoyment and goodness of life. There are various traditions and thoughts surrounding its celebration; some say it commemorates the marriage of Lakshimi to Vishnu; others say it celebrates the return of Rama from his 14 year long exile. There are other stories as well.
Regardless of these stories, the history of Diwali can be traced back to ancient India, where it was more than likely an important harvest festival.
Feast of the Tabernacles
This major Jewish festival is also known as Sukkot or Feast of the Booths, among other names. It’s held in remembrance of the times that the Jewish nation worshiped their God in portable structures in the wilderness during the time of Moses.
Additionally, according to the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, this festival has a lot to do with agriculture and gathering of the harvest. Many of the traditions surrounding the gathering of their crops show similarities to the pagan festival held around the same time.
It’s also believed that this festival was celebrated at this specific time to keep the Jews from wanting to participate in those pagan festivals, which worshiped the earth and not God.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year celebration. Originally, this holiday was called Yom Teruah, which translates as the “day of shouting.” How did the Day of Shouting become a celebration of a new year?
At one point in history, the ancient Jewish nation was living among the Babylonians. The Babylonians had a solar-lunar calendar that was similar to the biblical calendar. The result? Yom Teruah usually fell on Akitu, the Babylonian New Years festival. The conflict that some Jewish historians have is that the current celebration of Rosh Hashanah isn’t the first month of the Jewish calendar. Yom Teruah became Rosh Hashanah to fit in with the then current Babylonian-pagan culture.
St. Patrick's Day
Ah, St. Patty’s Day! This holiday is more like the “anti-pagan” holiday. It celebrates the life of a man who reportedly drove out paganism and druids out of Ireland. However, in much of Western society today, it’s much more of an excuse to get drunk and wear various shades of green.
Some pagans in Ireland use this day as a day to reflect on the lives of the Druids and bards. How? By playing music, listening to stories, and honoring the Triple Goddess. Adult beverages are also consumed, but you can be sure it’s not green beer.
Nativity of John the Baptist
As we have already seen, Christianity does a good job of hijacking pagan holidays to help spread their religion. The Nativity of John the Baptist may not be a huge holiday in everyone’s life, but it’s no exception.
While there is some debate, many claim that this holiday was to substitute for pagan celebrations of summer solstice. Many traditions that have transitioned over include the use of special herbs and large bonfires, called St. John’s Eve Bonfires.
If you enjoyed learning about Popular Holidays With Surprisingly Pagan Origins. You might also enjoy reading 25 Strangest Holidays That People Actually Celebrate
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