Many holiday celebrations can stray from the day’s original meaning. What, for instance, does a portly bearded man living in the Arctic Circle have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? What do egg hunts and bunnies have to do with Christ’s resurrection? Why do we mark the feast day of St. Valentine with lingerie and trays of chocolates, and what do costumes and anthropomorphized pumpkins have to do with the eve of All Saints Day? Consumer-friendly merch aside, we know major holidays all have deeper meanings, many rooted in Christianity—right?
Yes, and, maybe not: These books argue that Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter can be traced back to spiritual traditions far older than Christianity—notably paganism—and that some of trappings and traditions we use to celebrate them today carry echoes of their pagan lineage.
Of all Christianized annual holidays, Halloween borrows most liberally from its pagan roots. In Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Nicholas Rogers traces the history of All Hallow’s Eve back to an ancient Celtic festival known as Samhain—essentially a harvest celebration that marked the end of summer, but also “a period of supernatural intensity.”
In Pagan Christmas, anthropologists Christian Rastch and Claudia Muller-Ebeling examine the pagan roots of Christmas symbols and imagery, specifically botanical staples such as the fir tree, which was once considered sacred “World Tree” in Northern Europe. They also look deeper into the origins of Santa Claus who, with his Rudolph-led sleigh, resembles the “shamanic reindeer-herding tribes of arctic Europe and Siberia.”
3. Roman Myths
Some historians have argued that St. Valentine’s Day can be traced back to a pagan Roman tradition called Lupercalia, a bacchic celebration that took place annually from February 13 to 15. Traditions included a “matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar,” and the skinning of hides from animals, which men then used to whip women as part of a fertility ritual. Jane F. Gardner’s Roman Myths collects information about a number of Roman stories and traditions, including Lupercalia.
Numerous aspects of Easter derive from ancient religious traditions, according to Heather McDougall of The Guardian. She points out that the resurrection story bears resemblance to the story of the Sumerian goddess Inanna that the symbol of the rabbit may come from the pagan festival of Eostre, a goddess whose symbol was hare. Michael Judge’s The Dance of Time delves into the connection between Eostre and Easter and looks at other pagan symbols and practices that have found their way into popular culture today.