Many of the so-called Christian festivals we celebrate today were originally pagan celebrations marking special times/ days in the yearly cycle of seasons. They were taken over by Christians, or, to be more specific, the Catholic Church, during the latter half of the first millennium AD. Here is why they chose to adapt pagan festivals to suit Christianity.
First, a few Examples
Before going into why many pre-Christian celebrations were hijacked by Catholics, let’s take a brief look at some prime examples of such ‘take-overs’.
Easter – The Spring Equinox has been celebrated by many cultures for thousands of years. Known as Osara by pagans, it was celebrated to mark the arrival of spring (a time of renewal and rebirth) and the land’s renewed fertility. 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 instance, originated from a thousands-of-years-old Middle Eastern tradition. The ‘Easter bunny’ is actually the product of confusion over eggs in wild hares’ nests (forms) in Europe. Wild hares build forms for their young. Once the young have abandoned the forms, these nests are often taken over by birds (plovers). On finding these birds’ eggs in hares’ forms, locals believed they were left by the hares.
Halloween – Taken over in the 8th Century as ‘All Hallows Eve’ (the 1st of November being ‘All Hallows, or All Saints Day), Halloween was celebrated by pagans to mark the beginning of winter and the Celtic New Year. Samhain, as it was and still is known today by modern pagans, is also the night when the souls of people who passed away during the year are said to wander among the living. Celebrations were meant to honour the dead and aid them on their journey into the afterlife, or ‘other-world’.
Christmas – Marking the winter solstice (northern hemisphere), pagan Yule celebrations included clove-spiked oranges and apples in baskets made from evergreen boughs and flour-dusted wheat stalks being carried and offered as gifts to others by children. The interiors and exteriors of homes were decorated with ivy and holly in the hope nature sprites would join 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 harvested from the land of the homeowner or presented as a gift (buying a log was unacceptable). Once the log had been dragged into the fireplace, people would decorate it with seasonal greenery, douse it with ale or cider and dust it with flour before setting it alight using a piece of the previous year’s log. After burning through the night, the log would be allowed to smoulder for 12 days before finally being ceremonially extinguished.
If at first you don’t succeed..
Sometimes, adding or changing names did not have the desired effect and additional ‘measures’ had to be taken. Introducing All Saints Day in the 8th Century, for example, was far from successful in removing the deep-rooted ‘travelling dead’ symbolism of Samhain. Honouring some new religion’s saints was, after all, somewhat different from honouring the souls of departed loved ones. To accommodate for this, All Souls Day (2nd of November), a day where people pray for the souls of the dead, was added in the 9th Century.
Why these Festivals were Hijacked
As early missionaries travelled around the world to spread the Christian message, their attempts to remove/ subdue deep-rooted native beliefs, traditions and customs met with understandable resistance. In the 6th Century, Pope Gregory I decreed that Catholic missionaries should try to accommodate for native/ pagan customs in order to make Christianity more palatable to natives. Adding new ‘holy days’ or simply renaming special dates in the pagan calendar and incorporating some of the original customs into the way such days were celebrated effectively made it easier for missionaries to convert natives to Christianity.