Pagan and Christian holidays

February 10, 2021
Pagan and Christian holidays

Pagan traditions and celebrations preceded the onset of Christianity.

Arising spontaneously in the ancient world, holidays and feasts developed in Syria and Egypt, Persia and Mesopotamia, in Gaul and the dark woods of present day Germany, and in the Roman Empire.¹

Festivals, feasts, and celebrations, centered round the winter and summer solstices, appeared in all pagan civilizations centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, and continued for centuries after. Originally the Christian Church frowned upon these pagan rituals, but when traditions were too difficult to overcome the Church absorbed them, creating the ecclesiastical calendar around there existence.

Here are some Christian holidays, beliefs, and rituals which are based upon pagan celebrations and beliefs, in both their timing and their traditions.

Valentine’s Day

February 14 is commemorated as Valentine’s Day, or St. Valentine’s Day in the calendar of the Anglican and Lutheran Churches, although in the Roman Catholic Church it was relegated to local status in Calendar of Saints, removed as a feast day, “since, apart from his name, nothing is known of Saint Valentine except that he was buried on the Via Flaminia on February 14.” Though there were several early Christian martyrs named Valentinus or Valentine, little is known of any of them beyond legend. In 496 CE, Pope Galesius added Valentine of Rome to the Calendar of Saints, with a Feast Day of February 14, citing his martyrdom in Rome in 269 CE.

February 14 coincided with the Roman celebration of the Lupercalia, which took place February 13-15, and was officially condemned by the same Pope Galesius. Lupercalia was as old, or older, as Rome itself, with links to Ancient Greeks, who celebrated the god Pan. The Romans worshiped a similar god named Lupercus. Both civilizations used symbols for gods based on wolves. Lupercalia as a festival was limited to Rome, and rituals connected with the festival used the Lupercal, the cave where Romulus and Remus were nursed by a she-wolf name Lupa, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum, sites associated with Rome’s founding.

The rituals of Lupercalia included the slaying of sacrificial dogs and goats, the anointing of designated celebrants with the blood of the sacrifice, and then the manufacturing of crude thongs from the skin on the animals. Following a sacrificial meal the thongs were donned, and celebrants, clad only in the thongs, ran around a circle which included Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, before returning to the Lupercal cave. Those they encountered during their run were slapped with the ends of the thongs, believing that this would lead to fertility, or in the case of women already pregnant, successful birth. When Pope Gelasius tried to end the festival, the Senate opposed him.

The creation of a feast day to an early Christian (and Roman) martyr was a means of limiting the Lupercalia. There was nothing to connect the Roman Valentine with romantic love at the time, and in medieval Europe the feast was connected more with the coming of spring than with lovers.

Legends of Valentine began to be merged with the fertility and romantic aspects of the Roman festival.

Saint Valentine, or the several different legends of men named Valentine, had nothing in his or their lifetimes to connect them to the holiday as it is celebrated today. Even their existence is murky. On the other hand the records of the fertility festival of the Lupercalia in Rome are recorded even before the First Republic, and were commented on by Plutarch, Tertullian, and other ancient writers. Whether the establishment of a feast for a martyr of which little is known was an attempt to subvert a pagan ritual or to replace it is a matter of conjecture, but it today has more to do with romantic relationships than a martyr of the church.

The Roman Saturnalia and Christmas

Prior to the reign of Pope Julius I, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth had been ascribed to several different dates of the calendar, including in December, January, March, and June. The biblical description of the event indicated that it was likely not in winter – shepherds would not be tending their flocks in the fields in December or January – and the description of the census being conducted indicated that it was likely in summer, when travel would be easier for all citizens to return to the towns of their birth to be counted. Nonetheless Julius I selected December 25 as the date of the birth of Jesus, which corresponded not with a Roman census, but with the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Saturnalia was a pagan festival which covered roughly the fourth week of December. The Roman god Saturn celebrated by the festival was the god of the harvest, and Saturnalia was about conspicuous consumption of food and drink. During its celebration no prisoners were executed, and some were granted release. Masters served their slaves at table during one point of the festival, and a slave was elected to serve as the King of the celebrations. Public feasts were held, and gifts were exchanged, some of them to public associates as jokes, while gifts given privately to family and friends were often of a more substantive nature.

Public business was suspended during the festival, which expanded from the original one day celebration to one of a week over time. Schools were closed. Gambling was allowed, and slaves were allowed to gamble with their masters, often for stakes which included fruits and nuts. While many Roman festivals required access to the public sites of Rome, such as the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, or the Palatine Hill, much of Saturnalia could be celebrated in the home, and it was thus celebrated throughout the Empire, with the official ceremonies only taking place in Rome, at the Temple of Saturn. Candles were lit to mark the days of the festival as it transpired.

When Julius I declared December 25 to be the birth date of Jesus he tied it in with the pagan festival, perhaps accidentally, and perhaps with the hope that it would provide an alternative holiday for Roman Christians, rather than celebrating the pagan god Saturn. Regardless the celebration of Christmas for the next few centuries coincided with the celebration of the winter solstice, which gained momentum as it coincided with several other pagan celebrations of the solstice in Europe. Christmas in Europe during the Middle Ages was celebrated with overeating, heavy drinking, gambling, and the exchange of gifts, as well as religious ceremonies.

The Wedding Ceremony

The modern wedding, as performed in the Christian Churches and even by civil authorities, contains many traditions, rituals, and other links to pagan beliefs and traditions. The very idea of a father giving a daughter away is linked to the pagan practices which preceded the church by centuries.

Many are based on the belief that they warned away evil spirits, or appeased pagan gods, who would then bestow good fortune on the wedded couple. They come from nearly all of the ancient pagan beliefs and religions, and are reflected in modern wedding ceremonies.

The bridal veil has been traced to ancient Rome, prior to Christianity, where it was worn by the bride to ward off evil spirits which would otherwise ruin her day. It was believed by the ancient Romans that the bride was particularly susceptible to evil spirits on her wedding day, having gone to great lengths to make herself attractive for her wedding.

Another means of protecting the bride and the other members of the wedding party from evil spirits was through aromas. Pagan practices included the bride carrying and wearing different herbs or plants. The pagan belief in the activity of evil spirits also led brides to carrying onions, scallions, leeks, or garlic, in order to protect them. The aromatics had a secondary purpose as they were believed to be able to ward off plague, an important consideration when in a crowded area. The bunches of aromatics were the precursors of the bridal bouquet.

Pagan weddings also included escorts for the bride which were the forerunners of the modern bridesmaid. They too, were a response to the presence of evil spirits, and were selected to be sacrificial should the spirits crash the wedding. The bride’s escorts were intended to distract and confuse the evil spirits, which they accomplished by being dressed in a manner similar to the bride. Bridesmaids have been traced to pagan traditions in Rome and Greece, Persia, the Nordic tribes, and among the Celts in Ireland and Wales. They too were often heavily veiled, in order to more effectively confuse the evil spirits.

Even the placing of the wedding ring on the so-called ring finger of the left hand is a tradition left over from pagan practice. Wedding rings themselves were introduced in Ancient Egypt, but it was the Ancient Greeks who established the practice of placing the ring in the traditional location. The Greeks believed that a vein, the vena amoris (vein of love) ran from that finger to the heart, and since the left hand is closer to the heart that was the hand selected for the wedding ring. Engagement rings also began in Ancient Egypt as simple bands, diamonds were added by the Romans for the more wealthy of their citizens.

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