Red Winged Black Bird on a fence post in a field.

Heathen Holiday


Category: philosophies

It is time, once again, for one of my favorite pagan holidays. That’s right, it’s Christmas time. That wonderful time around the winter solstice when Christians the world over celebrate the springtime birth of their savior by following the practices of their heathen ancestors.

Here in Iowa, most of the traditions came from Europe. The foods, the decorations, the music all give a festive quality to the season. It’s a pretty exciting time.

There are decorations everywhere. It is not uncommon to see a Nativity display. At minimum, there is an infant surround by two parents in stylized Middle Eastern wear. Typically, there will be an angel or two and often three wise men from the East. Some go all out and add animals, the back wall of a manger, and even a star. With this symbol of Christianity, the Christian aspects stop.

You are much more likely to see Santa Clause, snowmen, or decorated trees. One is hard pressed to find any biblical reference to these icons. Most of these things are held over from pre-Christian religions.

True, snowmen aren’t really of a religious nature and are just associated with winter where there is snow. The building of snowmen happens as soon as there is adequate snow for the task and is not associated with a particular date or holiday. Artificial snowmen, however, tend to get lumped in with the usual Christmas decorations. Lately I’ve seen a large number of inflatable snowmen in people’s yards. Often these things are illuminated and in attendance at the manger scene mentioned above.

As for Santa, he seems to have a bit of a cult following that runs along side Christianity and whose holidays coincide. Children often accept and understand Santa long before they realize anything about Jesus. It is built into them that Santa knows all, sees all, and hands out rewards and punishments.

Of course, Santa isn’t uniform around the world. He has different names, clothing styles, habits, and dates of arrival. In many parts of Europe he shows up in early December rather than the twenty-fifth.

The red and white outfit isn’t consistent either. The American Santa with his white fur trimmed red suit looks quite different from the versions that wear brown fur. Some Santas are dressed more like Christian clergy, though they are more into red and white.

Saint Nicholas, as Santa is sometimes called, is not on record anywhere as being an actual saint. There are no records of anyone fitting his description ever doing anything that would hint at being a saint, let alone having the distinction.

Where his description does fit is with old Germano-Norse deity Odin. In heathen times, Odin was the chief deity of a family of Gods known as the Aesir. The Aesir were the dominant family in a complex pantheon of deities and other beings. These were the gods of the Vikings. Odin, as chief among them, was the god of wisdom and family order as well as being a god of the dead and warfare. (At that time, all gods were thought to have something to do with war because war was an everyday part of life.) It has been suggested that the winter traditions associated with the worship of Odin have survived to this day in the person of Santa Clause.

Christmas trees are in a similar boat. It is common among all people who have the time to decorate their surroundings and trees are not spared from this. The patterns involved with Christmas trees is particularly heathen. To the heathen mind, winter was a dark time. All the green goes away and is replaced by snow and ice. It is the wolf season. Danger lurks everywhere. Naturally, that called for a party. They celebrated around the time of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. They believed that the summer aspects of nature returned to the womb of the earth at that time to be reborn in spring. To symbolize this, they would decorate trees.

Evergreen trees remind us that the green will come back. Decorating with red, the symbol for animal life, reminds us that the animals, humans included, would also be around in the spring. The tree was an affirmation of the cycle of the year.

It has survived to this day. The decorations have changed but you still can’t go wrong with red. We do two things notably different. First, we hack down live trees so that the green really does go away without returning in the spring. Secondly, we often use artificial trees. To those who care nothing for the earlier symbolism these changes don’t really matter.

What does all of this mean? Not much. Like Easter, Christmas is a wonderful time to revisit heathen practices for the happiness of you and your loved ones. If you find that you really like it, maybe later you can dance naked out in the woods and get really primitive.

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