No matter which holidays you celebrate, most holidays on the calendar have a history behind it. Most of these histories are steeped in debated origins; most with at least some minor link or curious similarity to pagan tradition. It’s the reason that within each faith system, there are people who choose not to participate in celebrations. Curious to see if your favorite holiday has pagan roots? 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.
The exact origins of this holiday are a bit hazy, but there are a few dominant theories.
On February 13th-15th, the Romans celebrated the Feast of Lupercalia. In crazy ancient Roman fashion, there was a sacrifice of a goat and a dog. Then the hides of these animals were used to hit their women. It was believed that by being beat with the hides of these sacrificed animals, it would aid in their fertility. There was also a matchmaking ceremony.
Fast forward a bit, and two men named Valentine were martyred or killed for their faith on February 14th of different years of the 3rd century. Thus, the church started to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day.
In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I combined St. Valentines Day with Lupercalia in attempt to get rid of pagan traditions.
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.
Pilgrims and Native Americans? Pie, Turkey, and the slim survival of a plague-ridden land? As for the origins of this holiday, talk about debate!
Regardless of what you believe really happened back in 1621, for the purposes of this list, it’s worth noting that both sides of that feast had ancient traditions where a feast was held in thanksgiving of a good harvest or good fortune.
Purim is sometimes considered a Jewish “Halloween.” It’s said to be related to the book of Esther in the Torah, and it just might be a holiday with no real pagan roots.
So why is it on this list? Well, as with all other holidays on this list, it’s origins are still debated. Some say that Purim is an adaptation of the Greek wine festival, Pithoigia. Others say it’s too similar to Old Persian celebration of Farwadigan to be a coincidence. There’s also debate over the validity of the text of Esther.
We may never know. Regardless, if it’s a reason to dress in a costume, we say celebrate on.
Also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication, Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Temple after its time under Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus Epiphanes refused to allow the people to practice Judaism. Instead, he made them worship Greek gods. You can see why the Jewish nation wanted to rededicate it after it was used to worship gods outside their faith.
The Feast of Dedication is also mentioned in the Bible in the book of John. While much of its traditions are rooted in solid Jewish context, many people in the West criticize the giving of gifts during Hanukkah. Why? It’s an obvious tie into Christmas, which as we established earlier, is heavily rooted in pagan tradition.
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.
This current Christian tradition of repentance is actually rooted in Nordic paganism in a few ways. First, the placing of ashes above one’s brow was said to bring about the protection of the Norse god Odin. Second, Odin’s day was considered to be Wednesday.
Before the Norse tradition, ashes symbolized the seed of the Vedic Indian god Agni. Ashes also symbolized the blood of Shiva. Both Agni and the blood of Shiva were said to have the power to cleanse and forgive sins.
This 40 day period of “giving something up” or fasting is currently practiced in some Christian circles, mainly Catholic. The fast starts on Ash Wednesday and ends on Easter.
Like many traditions that were folded into Christianity, this has roots in Babylonian paganism. According to tradition, the wife of the king of Babylon, Semeramis, had a son with the sun god. Their son’s name was Tamuz. Tamuz was killed one day while hunting. After 40 days of mourning, he was brought back from the dead. After his revival, Semeramis declared an annual commemoration of the event with a 40 day period of denial…or fasting from something.
40 day fasts were also celebrated in Egypt, where they honored the god Osiris and in Mexico in honor of the sun.
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.
In many places of the world, Mother’s Day is a day set aside to show some extra love to the woman who brought you into the world.
However, did you know that 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.
Today, while mom might enjoy a whole festival in her honor, most of us keep it low key with a card, a gift…maybe a nice dinner out.
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.
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