Many mainstream Christmas traditions stem from original Pagan practices. Though Christian origins and associations have been attributed to many of these traditions, they do in fact pre-date Christianity.
Yule Log – A special log was chosen on the eve of Yule, for the holiday fire. A small piece from last year’s log is used to light the fire. The lighting of the fire was a festive family event, to hurry the return of the sun. Charred pieces from the fire would be kept to protect the house through the coming year. The woods most often sought for the Yule log were birch, oak willow or holly. Today, the Yule log is sometimes represented as a log cake instead. Or a small log is decorated with candles. The burning of the Yule log is a well-known tradition, but it’s not often done outside of the Pagan community anymore.
Kissing Under Mistletoe – The roots of this habit are unknown, but is likely tied with the fertility aspects of mistletoe and that it was viewed as a bringer of peace by the Druids. Mistletoe was also a powerful healing herb. Mistletoe and kissing are also seen in one of the Norse myths: Frigga is the Norse Goddess of love, marriage and fertility. Her son, Balder was slain by Loki with an arrow made from mistletoe. When Balder was restored to life, Frigga blessed the mistletoe and gave a kiss to anyone who passed under it. Some later versions of this tradition say to remove one berry with each kiss. When there are no more berries on the sprig of mistletoe, no more kisses.
Tree Decorating – There is some debate on the origin of this tradition. Druids (and some other ancient cultures) saw evergreen trees as symbols of everlasting life, because they seemed to live through the winter undaunted by the cold. So using evergreen branches as decorations symbolized the undying strength of the Sun. Decorating the trees may have come from the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia (see below for more on Saturnlia).
Gift Giving – The Christians attribute the giving of gifts at Christmas to the wise men who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Jesus. But this tradition was common well before the time of Jesus, during Saturnalia.
The Ancient Roman Festival of Saturnalia
Saturnalia is one of the best known ancient celebrations of the Winter Solstice. The name comes from the Roman God Saturn, who ruled over agriculture. He was the main God honoured at this time, after the fall crops had been sown. Saturnalia lasted for several days (typically 7, but various officials changed the length of the festival on a few occasions). Saturnalia was the greatest festival of the Roman year, and was marked with great feasting, gift-giving, dancing, playing, and relaxing. Homes were decorated, work was suspended, and there was general merry-making done by all.