The Pagan Origins of Christmas
December 05, 2017

The Pagan Origins of Christmas

Christmas has well and truly arrived at Dragonspace, with fantastical ornaments, magical gift guides and plenty of sparkle adorning our physical and online stores!

Since we're fans of mythology and ancient cultures, we wanted to delve into the old origins of this magical season. Popularly regarded as a Christian holiday, Christmas as we know it can actually be traced back to Pagan roots, from the revelling Romans to Celtic Gods.

Let’s take a look at how some modern Christmas traditions were inspired by the nature-worshipping religions of old.

The Plants

Pagan festivals are always closely linked to the seasons and the natural world. Look around you at Christmas time, and you’ll see leafy green and berry red everywhere - Christmas trees, glittery wreaths, holly and more! Not just pretty decorations, many of these plants carry important symbolism.

Mistletoe was a sacred plant for many ancient cultures, particularly the Ancient Romans. The Roman festival Saturnalia - honoring the God Saturn - fell in mid-December. During this festival, "fertility rituals" took place under sprigs of mistletoe...leading to the more modest "kissing under the mistletoe" tradition.

Holly is a plant with ties to old Celtic cultures. The Holly King, a nature spirit, is said to rule the natural world in the winter, while the Oak King reigns in the summer. The Christians also consider holly an important plant, with the spiky leaves reminiscent of Christ’s crown of thorns.

There are also aesthetic reasons for the greenery that bedecks homes at Christmas, of course. As Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere falls in the dead of winter, early Pagans decorated their homes with evergreen trees and other hearty foliage to bring a touch of natural brightness to the bleak winter spaces. This tradition paved the way for the modern day Christmas tree and hanging wreaths.

Carol Singing

Music plays a big part in Christmas traditions, whether it’s an old-fashioned carol or a pop hit. Singing and dancing in general always feature in Pagan Wheel of the Year festivals, like dancing around the May Pole at Beltane. Music is considered a way of outwardly paying respects and bonding with the community.

While we’re more likely to hear carols on the radio these days than at our doorstep, the tradition of carolers serenading their neighbours has ancient origins. In the old Pagan times, wassailing was the tradition of going door to door, singing and drinking to the health of your neighbours. Singing was said to drive away bad spirits, and hot wine and cider were seasonal drinks for health and merriment.

Mythical Figures


Santa Claus is a jolly icon of Christmas, appearing in folk tales and pop culture as a bearded old man who brings gifts to children around the world. There's a concrete contemporary mythology surrounding Santa, traditionally including a toy factory in Lapland, elf helpers and a fleet of flying reindeer. Most origin stories trace the myth back to a religious figure known as Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children. But there may have been other influences.

Pagan religions often gave a human form to intangible concepts, like the Holly King personifying winter or the May Queen personifying spring. It was a form of ancient storytelling, bringing an air of imagination and excitement to festivals and helping children understand things they couldn’t physically see.

There have also been links between Santa Claus and the Norse God, Odin. Odin was often depicted as a strong old man with a white beard, like Santa. He rode a great eight-legged horse called Sleipnir, and would leave gifts in children’s boots by the fireplace during winter - sound familiar?

Santa's helpers often appear as magical elves, clearly derived from the "little folk" or "fairy folk" of the old Celtic and Scandinavian cultures. While the original fairy folk were ancient and powerful figures, modern interpretations often seen them down-sized to diminutive cartoonish figures, like Santa's elves.

Ornaments and Festive Decor

If you’re a modern-day Pagan, chances are you have an altar in your home. We wrote about altars a while back, which you can read here.

Christmas is a time of year where many non-Pagans craft a version of an altar in their home as well. Symbolic ornaments decorate Christmas trees, from animals and toys to personal trinkets and mementos. Pine-cones, festive fruits, ribbons and stars might form a centrepiece at a Christmas table. And greeting cards containing well-wishes and photos of loved ones take pride of place. All of these elements are reminiscent of a religious altar, which is a powerful site of positive energy and seasonal reflection.

Yule Logs and Candles

Fire plays an important role in Pagan rituals, whether in the form of votive candles, boiling cauldrons or fragrant incense. Fire is one of the four natural elements and represents heat, light, the sun and more. Candles are often lit at Christmas-time in symbolic colours like red, green and white, keeping with the Pagan tradition. And the fairy-lights that adorn Christmas trees and house exteriors carry the same connotations of warmth and light.

But perhaps the most important festive fire symbol is that of the Yule log. The Yule log is a folk custom across Europe, where people burn a giant log upon the fire during the Winter Solstice to celebrate the impending return of the sun. In the cold dark months of winter, it’s only natural that beautiful bright things like fairy lights, candles, glitter and hearth fires feature so prominently.

The old spirits are always well and truly alive at Dragonspace, and we love that Christmas is a time where they trickle into the mainstream world as well! Let us know your favourite Pagan festive traditions in the comments below. And be sure to check out our 'Top 20' gift recommendations to find the perfect gift for your loved one from our magical treasury! 

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