Ho, ho, ho, merry Saturnalia!
A Zogby poll released on December 6, 2006, revealed that 46 percent of Americans take offense to being wished “happy holidays” by store clerks as opposed to “Merry Christmas.” A quick study of our Christmas traditions reveal, however, that if anyone should be taking offense to retail Christmas wishes, it’s the pagans.December 25: It’s not exactly clear why this day was chosen by the Church as the birthday of Christ. The Roman Catholic Church most likely assigned this day as Christmas to coincide with Pagan celebration of Natalis Invictus ("the birth of the sun"), changing it to “Birth of the Son.” Another possibility is that the church changed March 25, the spring equinox celebrated by pagans, into the Day of Announcement, the day Mary miraculously conceived Jesus. Add nine months to that and you get December 25. Either way you cut it, the day of Christmas as December 25 was inspired by paganism, not Christ.
Christmas tree: There are a number of religious groups who used evergreens as symbols of worship and none of them were Christians. The Vikings believed evergreens could protect them from evil spirits of winter. The Romans decorated their trees during the celebration of Saturnalia, a pagan winter festival. The contemporary practice of tree decoration began in Germany around 1600.
Gift giving: Early Christians did not exchange gifts. The practice has its roots in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, where citizens gave each other gifts like fruits, clay figures, evergreen branches and coins.
Mistletoe: Coming from the Celtic word “all heal,” mistletoe was believed to protect people from evil spirits that lurked in the winter night by ancient pagans. Vikings hung it outside their doorsteps as a sign of peace. They also would kiss under these plants as a sign of friendship. The kissing component stems from an ancient Norse myth about the goddess Frigga, who vowed to kiss all those who stopped beneath the plant.
Yule log: Ancient pagan Germanic tribes would burn Yule logs in honor of the god Thor. They would bring wood from the forest into their homes and burn it as a way to ward off evil spirits. The tradition continued into ancient Christianity and is practiced to this day.
Santa Claus: Santa Claus began as Nicholas, a bishop from the town of Myra, who lived during the latter part of the 3rd century in what is known today as modern Turkey. He was imprisoned for his Christian orthodoxy and later released under Roman Emperor Constantine. After his death, Nicholas was made a saint by the Church and grew into a legend throughout Europe as a benevolent miracle worker.
Source: Christmas Traditions, A Brief Study of the Modern Christmas Celebrations, Kathryn Capoccia (sources cited).