Many of the so-called Christian holidays we celebrate today were originally pagan celebrations marking special times / days in the annual cycle of seasons. They were taken over by Christians, or, to be more specific, the Catholic Church, during the second half of the first millennium AD. Here’s why they chose to adapt pagan festivals to suit Christianity.
First, some examples
Before looking at why many pre-Christian celebrations were appropriated by Catholics, let’s take a brief look at some of the main examples of such “acquisitions.”
Easter – The Spring Equinox has been celebrated by many cultures for thousands of years. Known as Osara by the pagans, it was celebrated to mark the arrival of spring (a time of renewal and rebirth) and the renewed fertility of the land. When it was taken over by Christians to mark the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, some of the “old” traditions were incorporated into the new celebrations.
Painted eggs, for example, originated from a millennial Middle Eastern tradition. The ‘Easter bunny’ is actually the product of confusion about the eggs in the nests (forms) of wild hares in Europe. Wild hares build shapes for their young. Once the young have left the forms, these nests are usually occupied by birds (plovers). Finding the eggs of these birds in the form of hare, the locals believed that they had been left by hares.
Hallowe’en – Taken in the 8th century as’ All Saints’ Eve ‘(November 1 is’ All Saints, or All Saints’ Day), Halloween was celebrated by pagans to mark the beginning of winter and the Year New Celtic. Samhain, as it was and is still known today to modern pagans, is also the night when the souls of people who perished during the year are said to wander among the living. The celebrations were meant to honor the dead and help them on their journey to the afterlife, or the “other world.”
Christmas – On the occasion of the winter solstice (northern hemisphere), pagan Yule celebrations included oranges with cloves and apples in baskets made from evergreen branches and flour-dusted stalks of wheat that children brought and offered as gifts to others persons. The interiors and exteriors of the houses were decorated with ivy and holly in the hope that nature spirits would join in the celebrations. Representing the ‘seeds of the Divine’, mistletoe was also used as decoration.
The tasty Yule logs we have today are a mere shadow of the original ceremonial Yule logs, which had to be collected from the owner’s land or presented as a gift (buying a log was unacceptable). Once the log had been dragged into the fireplace, people decorated it with seasonal greenery, doused it with beer or cider, and dusted it with flour before setting it on fire with a piece of the log from the previous year. After being burned overnight, the log would be allowed to smolder for 12 days before it was finally ceremonially extinguished.
If at first you don’t succeed …
Sometimes adding or changing names did not have the desired effect and additional ‘steps’ had to be taken. The introduction of All Saints’ Day in the 8th century, for example, was far from successful in removing Samhain’s deep-seated symbolism of the ‘traveling dead’. Honoring the saints of some new religion was, after all, something different than honoring the souls of deceased loved ones. To accommodate this, the 9th century added the Day of the Dead (November 2), a day when people pray for the souls of the dead.
Why these festivals were hijacked
When the first missionaries traveled around the world to spread the Christian message, their attempts to eliminate / subdue deeply ingrained native beliefs, traditions, and customs met with understandable resistance. In the 6th century, Pope Gregory I decreed that Catholic missionaries should try to adapt to native / pagan customs to make Christianity more palatable to the natives. Adding new ‘holy days’ or simply renaming special dates in the pagan calendar and incorporating some of the original customs into the way those days were celebrated made it easier for missionaries to convert natives to Christianity.