2017.12.20 Our pagan celebrations

Here’s something from a few years back—OK, from 20 years back—that will make another holiday appearance.


Christmas was banned in America? I never knew that until reading about the history of the holiday recently. The Puritans wouldn’t allow such pagan activity, not when they ran the show in England nor when they came over to settle in the New Country.

“Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas and the like, either by feasting, forbearing labor, or any other way…every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.”

Puritan leader Increase Mather found Christmas nothing but “mad mirth…highly dishonorable to the name of Christ.”

I heard a woman talking on the radio recently about what the Christmas season would be like if a new “puritanical” movement swept the country. Look at Halloween, she said. In many  communities it’s been stripped of its traditions and made into what she called a “bland harvest festival.” That sounds a little pagan in its own right.

What if Christmas were next?

If Christmas came under reform, I suppose they would start with mistletoe. It’s an old Celtic symbol of regeneration and eternal life. It later became known to provide magical protection against evil and witchcraft. 

Next, take away the holly—it was a symbol of fertility—and forget the fruitcake (please do) since that was a celebration of the harvest. No more Yule logs to encourage the Sun back into warming the Earth.

The puritan Christmas would certainly bring an end to the Christmas tree. That comes from an ancient European custom in which people brought evergreen boughs into their homes as a reminder that spring would make its return.

Every time we light the Christmas tree, we’re playing the roles of modern-day Druids, encouraging the tired Sun to be reborn. Candles, lights, flame—the Sun was a mighty important concern to the ancients as the winter solstice arrived and darkness grew.

Eating mince pie was said to bring good luck. Gift-giving was part of the midwinter festivals. And in America, we have a magical bringer of gifts who travels up and down chimneys, encouraging our shopping frenzy right up through Dec. 24th.

I don’t expect the reformers to prevail in this holiday. Halloween might falter, but the Christmas traditions will remain intact, despite their origins.

It’s going to remain a season of magic and light just as it has for centuries, whether Celtic or Christian. And don’t forget, the Druids were very serious about their spirituality, too, probably even more than the typical Christmas shopper scurrying through the mall.


For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio

      -W. H. Auden

Music and sudden light

Have interrupted our routine tonight,

And swept the filth of habit from our hearts.

O here and now our endless journey starts.