How ancient Pagan festival Yuletide transformed into Christmas with the advent of Christianity in Europe

The festival of Christmas as we know it today, contains a lot of elements which are not of Christian origin. As Christianity grew from middle East and expanded into Europe, it subsumed various pre Christian traditions of old European faiths collectively referred to as Pagan.

The festival from which modern Christmas has borrowed most of its characteristics is an old Germanic festival named Yuletide. The Christmas we know today is highly influenced by the pre Christian festival, so much so that in some parts of Europe it is still known by the old name.

Yuletide was an old Germanic winter solstice festival which lasted for 3 to 12 days as per family and regional traditions of ancient Europe. The main night of this festival was called Mōdraniht or the night of the mother, on which tribes used to make sacrifices for Goddesses.

During the entire Yuletide period, Germanic people used to enjoy good food and wine after making sacrifices for their gods at the temples. There was a community tradition of sitting around the fire and enjoying roasted meat together. The tradition has survived in the form of Christmas dinner.

When thinking about Christmas what comes to our mind first? Most would say Santa Claus, and it is neither a co-incidence and nor a result of aggressive promotion of the figure by corporates. But to the the contrary, this bearded man’s deep rooted influence over the festival perhaps even pre-dates jesus. Further if experts are to be believed, then this tall and stout bearded person was the actual central figure of the European winter solstice festival, before it was subsumed and replaced by Christmas.

The Supreme God in Germanic traditions was Odin, the king of Heavens (Asgard), in whose honor Yuletide used to be celebrated. His features were very similar to the figure we today know as Santa. An old bearded man, father to the benevolent God Thor and also to naughty Loki.

According to ancient Germanic beliefs, Odin would lead a ghostly procession through the sky during winter solstice. The Germanic kids used to leave food in their boots or socks for the horses of Odin, in hopes of getting a return-gift from the elderly God.

With the Christianisation of Yuletide, the bearded God Odin was first transformed into father Christmas, and later his characteristics were merged with a semi-historical personality named St. Nicholas, to give shape to the modern day Santa. Even after so many years and despite falling from of being absolute overlord of Germanic people to becoming a chubby resident of North Pole, the bearded man still retains his position as one of the most important elements of Christmas if not the most.


An illustration portraying the evolution of the figure from Odin to Santa

Modern Christmas also shares elements from other European traditions such as Wiccan in which Yule was celebrated as the birthday of the great Horned God. It is an unique nature of the Abrahamic faiths and especially of Christianity to adapt and appropriate local traditions.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SatyaVijayi.

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