9 Christmas Traditions With Pagan Roots

During the winter solstice season, people around the world practice all kinds of Christmas traditions, from eating candy canes to giving presents. But did you know that many Christmas customs can trace their roots back to pagan origins? Here are nine little-known bits of trivia about Yule season traditions.

01
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Christmas Caroling

Christmas caroling

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The tradition of Christmas caroling actually began as the tradition of wassailing. In centuries past, wassailers went from door to door, singing and drinking to the health of their neighbors. The concept actually harkens back to pre-Christian fertility rites—only in those ceremonies, villagers traveled through their fields and orchards in the middle of winter, singing and shouting to drive away any spirits that might inhibit the growth of future crops. Caroling wasn’t actually done in churches until St. Francis, around the 13th century, thought it might be a nice idea.

02
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Kissing Under the Mistletoe

Sprig of mistletoe hanging down with white berries.

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Mistletoe has been around for a long time, and has been considered a magical plant by everyone from the Druids to the Vikings. The ancient Romans honored the god Saturn, and to keep him happy they conducted fertility rituals under the mistletoe. Today, we don't go quite that far under the mistletoe (at least not usually) but this could explain where the kissing tradition comes from. The Norse Eddas tell of warriors from opposing tribes meeting under mistletoe and laying down their arms, so it’s certainly considered a plant of peace and reconciliation. Also in Norse mythology, mistletoe is associated with Frigga, a goddess of love—who wouldn’t want to smooch under her watchful eye?

03
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Gift-Delivering Mythical Beings

Witch puppets
Witch puppets at the Christmas Fair on the Piazza Navona, Rome. Image by Jonathan Smith/Lonely Planet/Getty Images

Sure, we’ve all heard of Santa Claus, who has his roots in the Dutch Sinterklaas mythology, with a few elements of Odin and Saint Nicholas thrown in for good measure. But how many people have heard of La Befana, the kindly Italian witch who drops off treats for well-behaved children? Or Frau Holle, who gives gifts to women at the time of the winter solstice? Throughout the world, gift-giving mythical beings are part of local traditions.

04
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Decking the Halls

Green ornament

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The Romans loved a good party, and Saturnalia was no exception. This holiday, which fell on December 17, was a time to honor the god Saturn, and so homes and hearths were decorated with boughs of greenery—vines, ivy, and the like. The ancient Egyptians didn't have evergreen trees, but they had palms—and the palm tree was the symbol of resurrection and rebirth. People often brought the fronds into their homes during the time of the winter solstice. Over time, this evolved into the modern tradition of the holiday tree.

05
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Hanging Ornaments

Herbal Sachet
Patti Wigington

During Saturnalia, Roman celebrants often hung metal ornaments outside on trees. Typically, the ornaments represented a god—either Saturn or the family's patron deity. The laurel wreath was a popular decoration as well. Early Germanic tribes decorated trees with fruit and candles in honor of Odin for the solstice.

06
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Eating Fruitcake

fruitcake

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The fruitcake has become the stuff of legend, because once a fruitcake is baked, it will seemingly outlive everyone who comes near it. Stories abound of fruitcakes from winters past magically appearing in the pantry to surprise everyone during the holiday season. What’s interesting about the fruitcake is that it actually has its origins in ancient Egypt. There’s a tale in the culinary world that the Egyptians placed cakes made of fermented fruit and honey on the tombs of their deceased loved ones—and presumably these cakes would last as long as the pyramids themselves. In later centuries, Roman soldiers carried these cakes, made with mashed pomegranates and barley, into battle. There are even records of soldiers on crusades carrying honey-laden fruitcakes into the Holy Land with them.

07
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Giving Presents

Christmas Presents under Christmas Tree

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Today, Christmas is a huge gift-giving bonanza for retailers far and wide. However, that’s a fairly new practice, developed within the last two to three hundred years. Most people who celebrate Christmas associate the practice of gift giving with the Biblical tale of the three wise men who gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the newborn baby Jesus. However, the tradition can also be traced back to other cultures. The Romans gave gifts between Saturnalia and the Kalends, and during the Middle Ages French nuns gave gifts of food and clothing to the poor on St. Nicholas’ Eve. Interestingly, up until around the early 1800s, most people exchanged gifts on New Years’ Day—and it was usually just one present, rather than the massive collection of gifts typically given today.

08
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Christmas Holly

Holly bush

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For those who celebrate the spiritual aspects of Christmas, there is significant symbolism in the holly bush. For Christians, the red berries represent the blood of Jesus Christ as he died upon the cross, and the sharp-edged green leaves are associated with his crown of thorns. However, in pre-Christian pagan cultures, the holly was associated with the god of winter—the Holly King, doing his annual battle with the Oak King. Holly was known as a wood that could drive off evil spirits as well, so it came in handy during the darker half of the year when most of the other trees were bare.

09
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The Yule Log

Yule log

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Nowadays, when we hear about the Yule log, most people think of a deliciously rich chocolate dessert. But the Yule log has its origins in the cold winters of Norway, on the night of the winter solstice, where it was common to hoist a giant log onto the hearth to celebrate the return of the sun each year. The Norwegians believed that the sun was a giant wheel of fire that rolled away from the earth and began rolling back again on the winter solstice.