A look at pagan roots of some beloved traditions

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As I got out our little Christmas tree and menorah this year, I realized how complicated it can be to have been raised interfaith. But it is truly who I am.

Seminary has taught me to continuously go deeper in my thoughts and beliefs and get to the root of the faith, issue, system, problem, etc. When it comes to faith, especially at this time of year, we often go through the motions of our traditions of the season without even thinking about them.

Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoy all those in my family — putting up the Christmas decorations, driving through the neighborhood looking at the holiday lights, singing Christmas carols all month long. Those are just some of the joyous and comforting practices we enjoy doing as a family. But being more thoughtful while I am doing them this year has been profound.

It started me thinking what I’ve been learning in school about getting to the real history and root of the season so I can be more intentional about my spiritual practices in this revered time.

Although pagans are unfortunately sidelined or joked about, we have them to thank for many of the traditions we enjoy today. The name of the yuletide season comes from the yule log, which originated from the Norse Yule when people lit fires and candles celebrating the rebirth of the sun god. Santa Claus had origins from the Norse god Odin even before the Christian saint.

As we go to holiday parties and eat, drink, and be merry, we also have the pagans to thank for starting that custom. In celebrating the winter solstice years before the birth of Jesus, the pagans would have festivals with ale and delicious fare for weeks, some going from town to town celebrating.

After Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the early church tried to eliminate the festivals, but the people didn’t want to give them up, so they kept celebrating their festival-going traditions. Eventually, the church decided to Christianize them instead. And that’s how the customs got blended.

So, with all this going on in my head as I sat down to write my column, I realized I couldn’t write my usual letter to Santa or Ms. Claus. This year it isn’t about writing a plea to a fictional character with my wants or demands. For me, this year is about getting to the root of why I do what I do and living more intentionally as I go through my activities of the season.

As we’re about to experience winter solstice (the shortest and darkest day of the year), or Christmas or New Year’s, I am going to walk, not run, with a more conscious, intentional frame of mind. Where did this ritual come from? Why am I doing it? How does it benefit me, my family, or our community?

So, the next time you go to a holiday party and have some wassail, sing a carol, or kiss under the mistletoe, you might want to thank your pagan neighbors. Thanks to my daughter, Kate, for the musing this month. For more information on the history of the season’s celebrations, one easily accessible source is www.patheos.com.

Formerly a Colorado state senator, now a seminary student at Iliff School of Theology, Linda Newell is a writer, speaker, filmmaker, and facilitator. She may be reached at senlindanewell@gmail.com, www.lindanewell.org, www.senlindanewell.com, @sennewell on Twitter, Senator Linda Newell or @TheLastBill on Facebook.

Linda Newell

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