We use holidays as a way of bringing the family back together, of getting in touch with our beliefs and why not, to get a few days off work. When you take each celebration/holiday and look at its history, its roots, its modern-day adaptation, you’ll notice that a lot of the holidays are just modernized versions of things our ancestors celebrated. Here are 8 holidays with pagan origins we love and celebrate, even to this day.
While we celebrate Christmas as the day Christ was born, the day itself and some of the traditions associated with this holiday have pagan roots. Various pagan cultures celebrated winter festivals around the time of the winter solstice. These festivals marked the end of the harvest season and the return of longer days. The Roman festival of Saturnalia is just one of them, a festival which honored the god Saturn and included feasting and gift-giving as customs. The same goes for Yule, the winter festival celebrated in pagan times in Germany which involved activities like burning a Yule log and decorating with evergreen branches.
With a fluctuating date, this holiday depends on the moon cycle, falling on the spring Sunday after the new moon. It is believed the name “Easter” itself derives from the name of a pagan Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre or Ostara. With hare as her animal of choice, we have yet another pagan origin for this holiday. In ancient pagan cultures, spring festivals used to celebrate the renewal of life and the arrival of the warmer season. Some customs, such as the use of eggs as a symbol of fertility and new life, and the practice of decorating eggs, have connections to these earlier traditions.
With no religious meaning attached, Halloween has its roots in ancient pagan traditions. It goes way back to Celtic festivals, precisely the Gaelic festival called Samhain. This was the time when people celebrated the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter in the Celtic calendar and they chose October 31st to do so. As for the ghouls and scary stuff, folks believed that during Samhain the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead became blurred, allowing spirits and supernatural forms to roam freely on Earth. The gist was simple: there were bonfires, people wore costumes made from animal skins, and made offerings, asking for a good harvest season, health for all etc. They also believed that the presence of the spirits would help Druid priests make predictions about the future.
4. New Year’s Eve
The concept of marking the beginning of a new year predates Christianity and, as expected, has roots in ancient pagan practices. Ancient cultures greeted the start of a new year around the time of the winter solstice or the spring equinox, because this was the time people started being active again by working the field, planting veggies, doing all the agricultural work they had to do in order to survive. These celebrations often involved rituals, feasting, and various cultural observances. When Christianity became widespread, the timing and customs associated with New Year’s celebrations started being slowly incorporated into Christian traditions. Following the Gregorian calendar reforms of 1582, the date of New Year’s Day was eventually set to January 1st, thus aligning it with the Roman calendar.
5. Valentine’s Day
The exact origins of Valentine’s Day and its connection to Saint Valentine are not entirely clear, as there were multiple saints with the name Valentine or Valentinus. The holiday gained more significance and popularity in the High Middle Ages, and by the 14th century, it became associated with romantic love in the context of courtly love traditions. Some scholars suggest that certain customs and rituals associated with Valentine’s Day have roots in ancient Roman festivals. One such festival is Lupercalia, which was celebrated in mid-February and involved fertility rites and the pairing of men and women through a lottery-like system. There are speculations that Lupercalia’s traditions might have influenced the way Valentine’s Day is celebrated, but the direct connection between the two is not definitive.
6. Mardi Gras
“Mardi Gras”, or “Fat Tuesday” in French, refers to the day before Ash Wednesday. This is also known as the beginning of Lent. It has roots in ancient Roman pagan festivals such as Saturnalia and Lupercalia, both being synonyms with feasting, gathering around, and the indulgence of pleasures before the fasting period of Lent.
Midsummer or the June 21st feast, is celebrated around the world. It has pagan origins and was associated with the sun’s peak power, fertility, and the abundance of the summer season. Festivals and rituals were held to honor the sun and nature during this time. It was seen as a time of joy, light, and celebration. Festivities often included bonfires, dancing, feasting, and rituals aimed at ensuring a successful harvest, protecting against evil spirits, and promoting love and fertility.
8. Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day, observed on February 2nd, has both pagan and Christian roots. Imbolc, a Celtic tradition marking the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox is believed to have inspired this holiday. People thought that the behavior of animals, particularly the emergence of groundhogs, could predict the arrival of spring.
Recommended reading next: 20 unusual traditions around the world
What is the oldest pagan holiday?
Dating back thousands of years, Yule is believed to be the oldest pagan holiday. Its old flame is slowly starting to die, now being celebrated mostly by wiccans and other neo-pagan believers.
And that’s a wrap on the most popular holidays with pagan origins that are still part of our life. While most of this is stuff for trivia night, we think knowing how these celebrations evolved to what we celebrate and buy today is both fun and essential.