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Is Santa Actually Pagan?

Kanzi Kamel By Kanzi Kamel Published on December 23, 2015

Having grown up in a conservative Muslim family, I've never actually believed in the existence of Santa Claus. In my small mid-West American suburb, I think I was the only one. My friend's parents would pull me aside at play dates to ask me to "please please never mention that Santa didn't exist." But I had always admired the Christmas season, so it never occurred to me to spoil it for someone lucky enough to celebrate it. 

Then came high school. An age where you expect everyone to have accepted the fact that there is no such thing as "Santa". So imagine my surprise when I meet up with an acquaintance for lunch around Christmastime, only to have her tell me, "Of course I believe in Santa!" 

Interesting. What exactly does that mean? I asked her carefully. 

"Well," she said. "Santa is the spirit of God coming down to us on Christmas eve, his birthday, to give us blessings and gifts." So it's not Santa, it's just god. "No. He comes down as Santa." With a beard and a big red sack? "Yes!" 

But don't you know that Santa is originally pagan? I asked. 

Silence. Years later, I realise that calling one's deity "pagan" isn't the best way to preserve their friendship. However in that moment, as angry tears streamed down her face, all I could think was, "huh? Hasn't this girl ever taken a history course?" 

For starters, Jesus' exact birth date has been highly contested for centuries. Many historians deny that he was born on December 25th, and insist that evidence suggests he was born sometime in the summer. Even Pope Benedict disputed the date in his last book, saying that due to the change in the Christian calendar, Jesus' birthday is earlier than we thought.

In fact, the entire Christmas season is derived from the ancient Germanic tradition of Yule, a mid-winter celebration of the winter hunt and the god, Odin. In many viking depictions, Odin is drawn as a large, bearded man in red. Most ancient European Yule traditions involve large gatherings for food, gift-giving, and prayer. 

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Ring any bells? Perhaps... Sleigh bells? 

Some historians claim that the Christianisation of Europe adapted the Yule celebrations to Jesus as a way to quicker convert the pagans.

Does this discredit your holiday season? Not at all. If you believe in a God, then he or she won't mind if you give thanks in winter or in summer. And if you're just into the holly jolliness, well, then this just makes it a little bit more fun. 

Who wouldn't want a massive robotic Odin on their roof, waving from his sleigh at the children below? 

Just don't go and rubbing this in your religious friends' faces. Trust me, it's a bad move.

Egyptian-American food enthusiast born in Chicago, raised in Beirut, and living in Dublin. Regional Ambassador at Bookwitty. Intimately familiar with the term "identity crisis".