“Happy holidays!” said the Target cashier, as a brief look of terror flitted across her face. I could see the spittle from a raging War on Christmas veteran slowly drying on her red shirt. Her reindeer antler headband quivered slightly. Bless her heart, she was trying to be festive and inclusive. How silly of her.
I smiled. “You too,” I said, and she breathed a painfully obvious sigh of relief. I pushed my cart away and smirked at the Karen in the next aisle, whose eyes lit up in righteous fury as she prepared what she imagined was the perfect retort.
“And a blessed Yule to you,” I said, cutting her impending diatribe off at the start. I walked away as her face turned just as red as the cashier’s shirt.
I’ve been Pagan since I was about 14 years old. As an avid celebrator of Christmas, it was an easier transition than I imagined. Turns out that half the things we did in church, such as burning incense, lighting candles, and putting greenery everywhere were all Pagan traditions! Plus, Christmas was simply a Christian Band-Aid over a longstanding Pagan celebration. In time, the traditions melded together into the delightful thing we have today.
As a Pagan, I’ve been perpetually amused by the War on Christmas for which Fox News and its devoted viewers are so quick to take up arms — partly because it’s somewhat true. Christmas was one of the world’s biggest instances of copying someone else’s homework. In time, cultural traditions corrected themselves and the original Pagan aspects of the holiday became the more popular ingredients in the contemporary Christmas recipe.
Wreaths, trees, and mistletoe? Check. Cranberries, cinnamon, and eggnog? Double-Check. Reindeer? Octuple-Check. When Starbucks puts these symbols on their cups, they’re not starting a War on Christmas, but they are openly declaring that there’s little Christmas imagery that’s solely Christian.
Let’s face it: the Christian images revolve around Jesus in the manger, with three wise men visiting and a guiding star above it all. Everything else, from snowmen and snowflakes to holly and ivy to elves and Santa to good food and drink, is all Pagan imagery that stayed tacked onto the winter holy festival, alternately called Yule or Saturnalia, depending on its cultural–geographic origins.
So, how do you know which holiday you’re truly celebrating? Here’s a handy guide.
You Put Up a Christmas Tree
The tradition of decorating a tree crosses many cultures across the span of time. However, most of our Christmas tree traditions do intend stem from Christian activity, primarily in Germany, where Yule was practiced. Some historians believe that Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant movement, was the first to add candles to a tree. (These days, we use the significantly less fire-hazardous twinkle string lights.) That said, the celebration of greenery links back to Paganism’s nature worship, and wreaths are an extension of the Christmas tree tradition.
Verdict: Mixed Christmas and Yule.
You Hung a Mistletoe
Congratulations — you have a Pagan sex symbol having in your home! Since the dawn of the Saturnalia festival, mistletoe has represented male fertility, and for centuries, women are expected to accept kisses under the mistletoe. Although this tradition carried over into the Christian era, the heavy sex symbolism and vaguely magical quality of the mistletoe squarely plants this, um, plant in the Pagan sphere.
You Built a Snowman
Okay, Frozen fans, please stop singing. Humans are no strangers to creating images of ourselves with whatever material is around. Call it vanity, call it unhealthy self-absorption, but we love to create the human shape. Snowmen, however, rose in popularity over the past few centuries, when they served as both temporary statues and political commentary. In general, however, they emerged in cultures that largely practiced Christianity, so while they are not explicitly Christian, they are not Pagan traditions.
You Drank Eggnog
Just like the best beers, eggnog started with monks, who apparently have a lot of time on their hands when they’re not studying scripture. Back then, nog was made with eggs and figs (and now I want to try the original recipe). That said, eggnog was not a holiday drink until the Americans made it so. The combination of luscious ingredients with readily available rum made eggnog a colonist’s favorite.
You Put Up an Elf on the Shelf
Elves are as Pagan as it gets. Elves were associated with the gods who created the sun, so Saturnalia traditions involved elves. However, Germanic traditions provided most of our contemporary notions about elves. As supernatural creatures who link the mundane world to the magical realm, elves are supremely important in many wintertime traditions because they hold a liminal role, just as the winter is transitioning to the spring.
Verdict: Mixed Saturnalia and Yule.
If these traditions show anything, it’s that the contemporary wintertime celebration is among the most culturally rich, inclusive opportunities in the world. Most accusations of “War on Christmas” fail to acknowledge how important Pagan traditions are to our current Christmas recipe. By the same token, Pagans shouldn’t scoff at the Christian-era contributions. Christmas/Yule/Saturnalia is a holiday for everyone. The real problem is the extreme commercialization of the holiday. But that’s another story.