The word holiday implies religious significance—”holy”+”day”—but celebrations of seasonal and astronomical events predate today’s religions, providing “pagan” prototypes for today’s commemorative activities.
In the old Norse calendar, there were but two seasons—summer and winter—so a celebration of the Vernal Equinox shifting to warmer days has long been a part of Nordic tradition. Even today, the Icelandic festival known as “Sumardagurinn Fyrsti” (the first day of summer) is cause for parades, sporting events, entertainment and other festivities each April.
Similarly, the Winter Solstice (shortest day of the year) has been the subject of celebratory activities since Neolithic times. Early communities feared starvation during the winter and had to prepare for the hard months of January through April. A midwinter festival served as the last opportunity to feast before the deep cold set in.
Meanwhile, the Egyptians celebrated the rebirth of Horus in December and made his holiday the center of their 12-month calendar. And the Babylonians, wanting to be just as trendy as the Egyptians, honored their own creator and sun god, Marduk, who bestowed order, peace and beauty on Earth. They called this celebration Zagmak.
Rejoicing in winter carried through to the birth of Rome in 753 BC, when the year’s major holiday, Saturnalia, was a week-long celebration, culminating on the 25th of December. It celebrated the birth of the “Unconquerable Sun” with parades, feasts, giving of gifts and general merry-making.
Between 337 and 352 AD, Pope Julius I began officially celebrating the “Feast of the Nativity” (birth of Jesus of Nazareth) on December 25th, so that Romans could more easily accept and adjust to the new religion known as Christianity.
But it was not only the Romans who celebrated the Winter Solstice. In Scandinavia, it was observed from December 21st to January 1st in a celebration called “Yule,” from the Norse word “Jul,” meaning “wheel.” It was a festival of light and the rebirth of the sun.
In Germany, the pagan god Odin was said to fly across the sky during the mid-winter holiday to judge people. The Germans would stay indoors to avoid the Nordic god’s wrath. Sounds like someone else quite familiar that judges who has been naughty or nice, doesn’t it?
Obviously, the holiday we now know as Christmas has some pagan roots—so much so that early Puritans settling in America refused to celebrate it at all.
But as holidays have proliferated over the centuries, many of the pagan origins have been forgotten. What remains is the celebratory atmosphere and the one tradition that even an atheistic cavemen would have appreciated—an excuse to take a day off work.
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