Christianised calendar

The term Christianised calendar refers to feast days which are Christianised survivals from pre-Christian times. Several Christian feasts occupy moments in the year that were formerly devoted to pagan celebrations. Familiar examples are All Saints Day, which replaced the Celtic Samhain; Christmas, which replaced the Roman feast of Sol Invictus (as well as, some argue, the Saturnalia), and the Germanic feast of Yule; Easter, which replaced the Germanic springtime festival of Eostre; and Saint John's Eve, which replaced the Germanic Midsummer Night festival.


Cross quarter days

The Cross-quarter days, i.e., the days falling exactly half way between a solstice and an equinox, are universally acknowledged as having had great significance to pre-Christian groups, particularly the Celts. They are also days on which Christian festivals occur, that were in mediaeval times quite significant, but have become progressively less so in modern times, particularly among Protestant groups.

Lammas (loaf-mass) on 1 August, the first-harvest festival, derives from Lughnasadh, the pre-Christian Celtic first-harvest festival, and is still celebrated in Ireland and Europe with fires and dancing. The now non-religious highland games, held around the time of Lammas, may also be survivals from Lughnasadh (a multi-day festival lasting until 15 August), whose celebrations also included contests of strength, in honour of Lugus, the deity after whom the festival was named.

Walpurgis Night on 1 May, which in Christian tradition is dedicated to the eve of the feast of Saint Walburga, was previously Beltane, the Celtic spring festival, when people would ritually purify themselves by walking on glowing coal. Since this pre-Christian tradition survived in the popular form of lighting large fires, the Church did their best to allow this very harmless practice, although strongly disapproving its origin, also closely associated with the interest for witches and their sexual intercourse with demons during this specific night. The date of the Walpurgis Feast is referring to the translation of the relics of Saint Walburga to Eichstatt 870 A.D., whereupon medicinal oil miraculously began to pour from the rock around her tomb.

Candlemas on 2 February, celebrating the ritual purification of Mary, the mother of Jesus in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, according to ancient Hebrew Tradition, has long been considered a day on which future prosperity, or not, can be prophesied. This is due to the startling prophesy of the old aged Simeon, to whom the Holy Spirit had revealed that he would not to see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah, i.e. Christ. Upon seeing Mary with her Child in the Temple, he knew that this moment had come, and exclaimed his joy beyond human reasoning, that his Master, the Lord of Israel, had granted him to hold the Salvation of the world in his arms. In America the association with Mary and Simeon has been reduced to such a level that the day is mostly known for the prophecy ritual, and is known there as Groundhog Day. Imbolc, the Celtic festival that had been held at the same time of year, was the festival of the onset of lactation in ewes, due to give birth to spring lambs, and was consequently seen as a time when animals had the ability to indicate future prosperity; it was also celebrated by lighting lamps or candles, representing the lengthening of the day which becomes noticeable around the time of Imbolc. Conversely, Lupercalia[1] on 15 February, the Roman festival at the time, was concerned with the ritual purification of women. Some historians argue, despite all evidence from Hebrew Tradition, that Candlemas, originated as a heavily sanitised Christianisation of Lupercalia, into which certain traditions of Imbolc, such as the significant presence of candles, and Christian objects for celebration, merged.

In most Christian groups, and particularly in Catholic and Orthodox groups, there is an annual commemoration of the dead on 2 November, known by various titles such as All Souls' Day, the Day of the Dead. It follows All Saints Day on 1 November, which in western Europe and North America is preceded by Halloween, which has become somewhat detached from the commemoration aspect. In pre-Christian times, this cross quarter day was celebrated as Samhain, in Celtic countries, and Dziady in Slavic countries. In many early cultures, including not only Celtic cultures, but also the Hebrew, the standard reckoning of time considered a day to start with darkness and gradually become lighter; dusk was the start of a day, not an indication that it approached its end. Similarly, in Celtic countries the year was considered to begin in winter at Samhain, and it was thought that the start of the year was a time when the world of the dead met that of the living; rather than a sinister event, this was considered a time when a feast should be laid on for the supposed temporary visit from the souls of the dead. The Orthodox tradition, deals rather with the zealous prayer for the dead, whom they believe are allowed to visit the living during 40 days after the moment of death, and always are greatly comforted and even saved from hell, through these prayers. In Catholic traditions, the night is one when the graves of dead relatives are visited, with candles being lit, under a familiarly atmosphere, often including picnic; many historians argue that this is clearly derived from the pre-Christian events. The Christian festival was originally held annually on the week after Pentecost, and is still held at about this date by the Orthodox churches, but in western Europe, churches began to hold it at the same time as the pre-Christian festivals commemorating the dead, and it was eventually moved officially, by Pope Gregory III. The pre-Christian Romans also had a festival concerning the dead at 9 May, 11 May, and 13 May, known as the Feast of the Lemures, which cultural historians have identified as the source for All Saints Day, and which the ancient Romans identified as being the same as Samhain, despite the large difference of date.

Significant Saint's Days

St. Lucia Day on 13 December, which was originally held on the darkest night of the year (the winter solstice), is a significant celebration in Scandinavian countries, and in the Balkans, and heavily involves candlelight. The day is dedicated to Saint Lucy, whom Christian tradition regards as someone who plucked out her eyes, yet was still able to see. Historians see her as a fiction, derived from pre-Christian folk tales of Scandinavian night demons called the Lussi, her story coming from the association with darkness combined with folk etymologies of her name as deriving from lux, the Latin word for "light". The problem with the attempts to explain her history by linking her exclusively to northern folk stories fails to account for the veneration that she holds in both the Greek and Catholic Churches of southern Europe and historical documents of veneration that existed before the conversion of the North such as the canon of St. Gregory. She is venerated by the Christians of The Catholic Church and Orthodox Chrurches as a virgin and martyred by pagans for her sexual purity and Love of Jesus Christ.

Saint Valentine's Day on 14 February, traditionally linked to romance, is attributed by Christianity to a "Valentine". However, no early documents connect Valentine, whoever he may be, with love, and such legends only appear in the mediaeval era, while the pre-Christian festival of Lupercalia held on the same day was strongly connected to romance, as it was a major Roman fertility festival. Pope Gelasius I both banned Lupercalia and instituted the feast day of Saint Valentine, and many scholars think that the romantic significance of Lupercalia is the source of the romantic significance of Valentine's Day.

The Day of the Nativity of John the Baptist on 24 June, also known as Saint Jonas' Festival, Jāņi, and "Saint John's Eve", is Christian mostly in name only, and is really a survival of the celebration of the summer solstice (Midsummer celebration), the various local traditions on the day involving herbs and fire being very difficult to explain in Christian terms. In many European countries the midsummer festival has high significance, and in the Roman Catholic Church, the date is the single most significant feast day of the year, excepting those connected directly to Jesus; several historians have argued that this Roman Catholic tradition stems from the evangelizing motivation to skillfully wean European peoples from the ways of their old gods and gently replace pre-Christian religious forms with "approved" Christian ones.

Major Christian Festivals

Though having obvious Christian importance, and clear Christian rituals and practices, major Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter have several elements associated with them that do not have such clear Christian connections, and are often interpreted as more secular aspects of the events. The festivals themselves occur at the same time of year as several pre-Christian festivals; in some cases a connection is openly acknowledged by Christian organisations, and at other times it is only critical historians that argue that such connections exist. Many of the festivals are known to descend from paganism.


Christmas on 25 December is, according to Christian tradition, a celebration of the birth of Jesus, and this is often the reason that many modern Christians celebrate the day. However, most scholars dating the birth of Jesus think that he was born in late spring or early autumn, and argue that the celebration is a survival of Saturnalia (17 December to 23 December), the most popular festival in the Roman year. Saturnalia, originally a celebration in memory of the dedication of a temple to Saturn, had become by the 3rd century dedicated to the increasingly popular Mithras, under the title Sol Invictus (unconquerable sun), since the winter solstice fell during its week long festivities. The Roman Calendar was somewhat erratic in relation to the seasons, and the exact date of the solstice consequently drifted; after this was corrected under the Julian calendar, and once the festival became associated with Sol Invictus, Saturnalia was formally moved to December 25, by Aurelian in 274, as this was the date of the solstice that year. Fundamentalist Protestant groups have often regarded Christmas with suspicion, and when the puritans gained control of Britain, in 1647, Christmas, and all the festivities associated with it, was prohibited by law. Saturnalia had been a week long festival, and a time when a feast would be held, gifts given, and slaves were allowed to mistreat their masters; though the feast and gifts continue as Christmas traditions, the Feast of Fools, a popular mediaeval event, has mostly died out since. Early Christian and non-Christian accounts portray Mithras and Jesus as similar figures,[2] and the transformation of Saturnalia into Christmas has been cited as evidence for their position by those who believe that Jesus is a syncretism in the Osiris-Dionysus mould.

Several Christmas traditions, particularly in Northern Europe and North America, have several facets with a similarity to Yule, the pre-Christian winter solstice festival, whose name has often been used as a synonym for Christmas. The traditional consumption of ham, and/or sausages, at Christmas, historically known as Christmas ham, is widely thought by historians to derive from the sacrifice of a pig to the god Freyr, that occurred during pre-Christian Yule. The burning of a Yule log is derived from the celtic of cutting a tree, dousing it with wine and grain, as offerings, and burning it for the duration of Yule, believing that it would protect the house from evil for as long as it burnt. Kissing under Mistletoe is thought to derive from a celtic tale in which Frigga (after whom Friday is named), goddess of love, extracted the poison of Mistletoe from her son, and when he recovered, she was so grateful that she kissed anyone passing under the Mistletoe. Covering buildings in holly, and creating holly wreaths, is thought to derive from pre-Christian beliefs that holly would protect the house from evil, and also be a gesture of hospitality to small woodland spirits who could use it for their protection; the sharp edges of holly allow small animals to hide inside the bush and be protected from predators.

Dionysus in his Triumphant Return; behind the god of victory holds an evergreen.

In the English-speaking world the Christmas tree was popularised by Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, having brought the tradition over from Germany, from where it had also spread to other nations. The earliest written references to decorated trees as having an importance at Christmas come from 16th century Germany, and these suggest the tradition had already been established for some time; it thus somewhat uncertain from where the tradition evolved. Although some conservative Christian groups have recently argued that the tree is an important Christian tradition that should not be secularised, others feel that it is an obviously pre-Christian tradition and should not be used, some even arguing that it is explicitly prohibited by a passage from the Book of Jeremiah. It is known that in celtic belief, the evergreen held a particular value as symbolising the continuation of life during the dark times of winter, and that bringing a tree indoors was considered to be offering hospitality to its sprite. Complicating the picture is the fact that Dionysus, the central figure of one of the Osiris-Dionysus group of mystery religions, appears to have been associated with a conifer of similar appearance to a Christmas tree, at least in what is now Tunisia.

According to Christian tradition, the gift giving Santa Claus is based on Saint Nicholas, whom legend states rescued the daughters of a poor man, from the prospect of a career of prostitution, by secretly throwing purses filled with gold to the family. Historically, Nicholas was a prominent, and somewhat violent, anti-Arian church father at the First Council of Nicea, and an advocate of the destruction of non-Christian places of worship; forensic examination of his supposed remains suggests that he had been involved in fights, including the fact that he had a broken nose. Many historians argue that the discrepancy between the historic individual and legends attributed to him are due to the legends originally having been applied to someone else. Woden (after whom Wednesday is named) is considered the most likely ultimate origin of Santa Claus by most historians, since Woden was said to lead the Wild Hunt, riding his horse through the sky, at Yule (the traditions of mainland Europe have Santa riding a horse), and is based in northern Europe, in areas where reindeer pulled sledges were normal modes of transport. Food for Woden's horse was left out by people as an offering, and in return Woden was said to provide gifts, and although Santa is said to leave gifts for other reasons, food for him or for his animals is left out all the same. Woden was portrayed as an old man with a beard, as is Santa, and it is possible that the historical Nicholas became associated with the traditions of Woden because Nicholas is one of the very few early Christians to be known to have managed to live into old age. In many traditions, particularly those of Germanic countries, Santa is said to have certain sinister companions, with black clothes and faces, which are now thought to be derived from Woden's ravens.

The Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech, a stereotypical image of Father Christmas prior to merging with Santa Claus

Though now identified as Santa Claus, before the 20th century Father Christmas was a distinctly separate individual, middle aged not old, with a crown of leaves, and in a green fur lined robe, not a red suit, and rather than secretly visiting homes to deposit gifts, Father Christmas would roam the streets, plying people with alcohol and jollity. Father Christmas is considered to be derived from the Pre-Christian, Green Man, a foliage covered figure from European mythology associated with the connection of man to nature, and thought likely to have been considered in early times to be similar to Bacchus, the Roman deity of wine, who was the main figure associated with the practice of Saturnalia. In mediaeval times, and later, Green Man was a popular name to chose for a pub, indicating strong connections to joyous consumption of alcohol.


Though not celebrated in many Christian countries in as lavish a manner as Christmas, Christians usually regard Easter as their most important festival. All parties acknowledge similarities of Easter to the Jewish passover, since to Christians this has strong theological significance, and many adjectives relating to Easter, such as paschal, and the name of Easter in non-English speaking countries, are etymologically derived from the Hebrew term for passover. The tenebrae, a service held by most, but not all, Christian groups, is clearly based on the idea of darkness covering the earth, though Christian apologists usually argue this is representative of Jesus being removed from the earth (due to impending death), not on the ominous foreshadowing of the passover portrayed in the bible.

Though one of the central tenets of Christianity is usually considered to be a belief that the Biblical events of Easter are based on similar (or exactly identical) actual historic events, more secular and non Christian scholars have argued that the Biblical description is a heavily contrived allegory simply using the passover as its template to appeal to Jewish sensibilities. Historic records indicate that Easter was not always celebrated in early Christianity, and Socrates Scholasticus (b. 380) argued that the observance of Easter by the church (which he believed should continue) was simply the perpetuation of local custom (most likely meaning the Jewish passover), and that neither Jesus nor his apostles enjoined the keeping of this (or any other) festival.

In eastern Europe and Scandinavia, many Easter traditions have obvious connections to the death of Jesus, such as whipping, and murder mysteries, but other traditions, mostly kept in the western world, are less obviously so. The name of Easter itself is usually considered to derive from a pre-Christian northern European deity of springtime, known as Eostre, an argument which is thought to have been first made by the Venerable Bede, now recognised as a doctor of the church. Studies by Jacob Grimm, a renowned scholar of linguistics and of mythology, agreed and suggested that the German name of Eostre was Ostara, and that the names are derived from a term meaning dawn, and with spring as the dawn of the year the deity became associated with the season. It is, however, otherwise unknown who this goddess refers to, or what her characteristics were, though Grimm does suggest that the figure might have a shared root with Austri, the dwarf that Norse mythology believed held up the eastern corner of the world, the direction in which the sun dawns.

In Christian tradition, decorated Easter Eggs are sometimes said to have an origin in Mary Magdalen giving a red painted egg to a Roman emperor who had previously said that red eggs were more likely than the resurrection of Jesus. There are also many theological interpretations of the eggs as having strong Christian symbolism. However, the giving of decorated eggs at the start of spring pre-date Christianity by several hundred years, eggs having long been a symbol of fertility, a property strongly celebrated during spring time. More difficult to reconcile as a Christian symbol is the Easter Bunny, traditionally regarded as the deliverer of Easter eggs. Hares are very promiscuous animals, and consequently they have always been strong fertility symbols, and many scholars think that the two spring fertility related traditions of the giving of eggs and the symbolism of rabbits gradually merged together, until the bunny was considered to lay highly decorative eggs (rather than give live birth, as real rabbits do). Grimm wrote that similar myths of an egg laying rabbit had been present in Germany for centuries, and suggested that they were somehow connected to the goddess Ostara, though this suggestion was simply a speculation as he had no concrete evidence to demonstrate the association clearly.

See also


  1. ^ display text
  2. ^ So much so that Christians attacked Mithraism as a pre-cognitive mockery of Christianity - c.f. Eusebius


  • Kerenyi, Karl, Dionysus: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life 1976.
  • MacMullen, Ramsay, Christianizing the Roman Empire, AD 100 – 400 Yale University Press (paperback, 1986 ISBN 0-300-03642-6 )
  • Trombley, Frank R., 1995. Hellenic Religion and Christianization c. 370-529 (in series Religions in the Graeco-Roman World) (Brill) ISBN 90-04-09691-4
  • Vesteinsson, Orri, 2000. The Christianization of Iceland: Priests, Power, and Social Change 1000-1300 (Oxford:Oxford University Press) ISBN 0-19-820799-9

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