Pagan roots run deep beneath our Christmas rituals

Cakes and onion skins > folk customs during the preparation for Christmas.

We are now deep into Advent, a special time that takes its name from the Latin ad-venio, “to come to.” It is a period of expectant waiting for Christmas, which begins with the Sunday nearest to the November 30 Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle, and embraces four Sundays. During this time, the faithful prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming into the world as the incarnate God of love and, in the western churches, Advent marks the start of the ecclesiastical year.

It is not clear exactly when the celebration of Advent was first introduced into the Church, but some theories suggest it is related to the feast of the winter solstice that was dear to our pagan ancestors. This could explain why several strange folk customs still survive in this period of preparation for Christmas, one such being Luca’s Day, a popular festival held on December 13, and a remnant from our sun-worshipping past.

In fact, all the religious feasts around the winter solstice seem to combine elements of the sacred and “profane”, even Christmas itself. As found in texts from the year 1038, the late Old English term for Christmas was Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, but the Hungarian name for the same festival seems to have very different roots. Linguists agree that Karácsony comes from the Slavic word korcun, which means “passage” and refers to the passing of the winter solstice, and the beginning of a new cycle.

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of what we know as the Christian Church, however. The first theologians ridiculed the feast: in the Scriptures it is written that only sinners, but not Saints, celebrate their birthdays. The very first evidence of the feast comes from Egypt in about 200 AD, and placed Christ’s birthday on the equivalent of May 20 in the 28th year of the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus.

Only from the fourth century on did Western calendars make December 25 Christ’s birthday, upon an order of Pope Julius I, perhaps in the hope of imbuing the long-held pagan rituals of winter solstice with Christian meaning.

The Armenian Christian rite still ignores the December festival, for Armenians the Lord’s birthday is on January 6, when we celebrate Epiphany, and some Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate Christmas on January 7, which corresponds to December 25 in the old Julian calendar. But is our December 25 Christmas celebration really a “baptism” of an archaic pagan feast?

Ancient midwinter festivals may well have guided the choice of the December date: in the late Roman Empire, people marked Natalis Invicti or Sol Invuctus (“the Unconquered Sun”) at the winter solstice, to celebrate the fact that the darkest days were over and the hours of sunlight were again increasing.

Natalis Invicti, which was celebrated on December 25, has a strong claim to be the direct ancestor of our Christmas Day, and was an important event for Roman adherents of the popular cult of Mithras (who, some scholars note, bears similarities to the figure of Christ). For Romans, December 17 also marked the start of the great Saturnalia festival, commemorating the dedication of the temple of the god Saturn.

The winter solstice, then, was an important moment in ancient culture – the New Year, and the new life cycle, began here, and besides the Natalis Invicti of Mithraism and the Roman Saturnalias, we should mention the Yule feast celebrated at this time by Norse and German pagans.

Popular beliefs can never correspond exactly to the calendars of official religion, but it is surely not by chance that the most important pagan rituals coincide with the time that the birth of the Lord is drawing near.

The most important evidence of these relics from the old sun-worshipping religions is to be found nowadays in Luca’s Day. Celebrated in many cultures all over the world, Luca’s Day in Hungary is known as the most important feast of the witches, after Saint George’s Day.

It cannot be accidental the Church set the Day of St Lucia, or St Lucy, on December 13. Before the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1582, it fell on December 21, the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. Consequently, that night was the longest of the year, when evil spirits and witches could do their worst. And it can also surely be no accident that the name itself, Lucia, Luca, Lucy, has its roots in lux, the Latin word for “light”.

St Lucia was a virgin martyr who, according to one legend, withstood such extremes of torture that she was suspected of being a witch, and so was ultimately burnt to death, but perished only after completing a final prayer.

HUNGARIAN FOLK CUSTOM > In Hungarian folk custom, Luca’s Day is still a time for guessing the future by various methods, and performing rituals to gain good luck. Women’s work is forbidden on Luca’s Day, except for acts aimed at assuring fertility and richness the following year, or in the next cycle, as the old pagans had it.

There is also a tradition of starting to build a so-called Luca’s Chair on December 13, and to add a little bit each day so that it is ready in exactly 12 days, on December 25. At Christmas midnight mass, the person who sits on the chair can supposedly see through disguises and reveal the witches that are hiding in the community. Besides revealing witches, the  tradition warns who might “steal” the cow’s milk, the chicken’s eggs, or put a spell on people, it is very common on Luca’s Day to start trying to guess the identity of one’s future husband. Girls make 12 cakes, with a man’s name in each, and they eat one every day, their future husband’s name will be the one contained in the last remaining cake.

Luca’s Day symbolizes the rebirth of nature: the partial end of the old world, and the beginning of the new. Very similar to the old pagan solar rituals, it is a feast that holds the promise of new life. The 12 days from Luca’s Day to Christmas can even be seen as a micro-year: from the events of these days, Hungarians forecast how the following year’s months will be.

Among the Hungarians of Transylvania, a peculiar method of weather divination is still popular. They lay out 12 layers of onion, corresponding to the months of the year to come, and they put salt on each piece. If the salt dissolves, that corresponding month will be wet, tradition says. It is just another ancient ritual that adds to the richness of this strange and special time.