5 Sacred Symbols of #Christmas and their Pagan Origins

It has started; the Christmas decorating. In this house, it takes a week, and finally culminates in the dressing of the tree. And year on year, the same symbols abound throughout the festive season; Santa, the reindeer, the stable and the manger, hanging up the stocking etc, to name just a few. But have you ever wondered where they came from? It might surprise you to know that they derive from some pretty ancient, pre-Christian traditions. Here are my top 5.

The Christmas Tree

The tree we proudly decorate and display today is an invention of the Victorian days, introduced from Germany. Prior to this, the tree which most symbolised mid-winter is most likely to have been a Holly bush.

Imagine how winter must have felt to our ancestors; harsh and bleak, a time of hardship, a struggle for survival. The return of summer’s warmth and plenty seem a distant memory, an elusive dream . It’s dark, cold, wet and maybe frosty or snowy. All the deciduous trees and plants have died or are hibernating. Crops cannot grow in frozen or flooded ground. Food stores are running low. Many animals are hibernating or have migrated so hunting is difficult. The days are short, the nights are long. Life seems to have slowed.

Yet despite the ‘death’ of winter, the evergreens continue to push stoically through the snow, bracing their stunning shield of vibrant green against the cruel onslaught of winter. How do they flourish in the deep dark season, when all else hides or fails? What magical powers do they possess which ensure their survival? They must surely be blessed by the Gods and full of potent power.

No doubt the evergreens were seen as a sign of hope, and a promise of new life to come in the lush and bountiful impending spring and summer. Until then, homes were decorated with boughs of bright holly and fragrant fir, clinging fronds of ivy and sacred sprigs of mistletoe to guard against misfortune and bring good luck upon the household.

The Star

The Star of Bethlehem has generally been presumed to be the North Star, but this is highly unlikely. If you think about it, the North Star is constant; how could it have suddenly alerted the Three Wise Men to the birth of Jesus?

Modern thinking is that the Three Wise Men were probably astronomers accustomed to studying the stars, much like the ancient Druids of Ireland. It is more likely that a series of unusual happenings in the night sky aroused their suspicions of an unusual and auspicious impending event.

It is now known that in March of the year 5BC, a nova was visible for approximately seventy days. A nova is a star which suddenly increases in brilliance. This could have caught their attention and led to the belief that it represented something of great significance, such as the birth of a new and powerful king.


Christmas wouldn’t be the same for me without a myriad gentle flickering candles. They create such warmth and atmosphere. Our ancient ancestors celebrated their festivals with the lighting of great bonfires on hill tops, where they would have maximum effect. These fires may have been lit to appease the sun God, thus ensuring his return, or simply honoured the golden life-giving orb of the sun. It may be that they offered light, warmth and reassurance in the dead of winter when they were lacking.

The arrival of the new religion eventually put an end to this practice, but candles were lit instead to symbolise the need-fire. Pacing a candle in the windows of one’s home was thought to warn off evil spirits, while welcoming friends and visitors.

Robin in the snow

The Robin

I have a resident robin in my garden. In winter, when food and shelter is scarce, he flits ever closer to the house  on his daily territorial wanderings. The robin is often depicted on Christmas cards. His fiery red chest, and his determination to survive harsh winter conditions must have been seen as inspirational and a sign of hope, endurance and renewal to our ancestors. He represents the beginning of the New Year and Spring, and regular visits from a robin are said to signify the presence of a departed loved one watching over you.

According to Christian lore, the robin tried to remove the thorns from Jesus’s crown, but only succeeded in snagging its own breast, and has worn its red feathers as a badge of honour ever since.

The Stag

Sadly, I don’t have a stag in my garden. But this noble animal with his heavy crown of antlers takes my breath away with his grace and power. Recently, he has become very popular as a symbol of Christmas, but this should not come as a surprise.

Cernunnos, the Horned God, sometimes known as Herne the Hunter, is a Celtic deity depicted on the Gundestrop Cauldron with a stag at his side. This may indicate that he could shift between the forms of stag and man at will. He is thought to be a God of peace, nature and Lord of all wild things. Cernunnos was linked to the ancient Germanic mid-winter festival of Yule, a celebration of the Wild Hunt in which a spectral group of huntsman raced across the frozen winter sky. In Ireland, it was said to be Fionn mac Cumhaill leading his Fianna in the Wild Hunt.

A white stag was thought to come from the Otherworld and signified dramatic life changing events.

You can read more about the origins of Christmas in my other seasonal posts;
Holly, King of Winter
So What Did We Do In Winter Before The Christians Invented Christmas?
The Pre-Christian Origins of Christmas Decorating

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93 Comments on “5 Sacred Symbols of #Christmas and their Pagan Origins

  1. I loved this post and the images were wonderful!! I like the story of poor robin – like the rose and the nightingale!! I love the connection of the pagan with the Christian- Wonderful read Ali and I must get one of your books! Nollaig Shona!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I know, that poor little Robin! Their bright feathers and chirpiness are so cheery in winter. They look so tiny and frail, I wonder how they survive!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Tree Lore | The Five Sacred Evergreens of Christmas | aliisaacstoryteller

  3. Pingback: Christmas Musings – The Christmas Tree, When, why and why not? | The Curious Archaeologist

  4. I really enjoyed this post Ali. We all take Christmas for granted and rarely think about its origins and our customs. This post made me think. Thanks and have a great Christmas. x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Than you so much! I know, these days we don’t even think so much about the Christian message either, never mind what came before. To me, it’s the chance to spend time with family, and treat them, which is important. But I do like to look back at the origins of our traditions, it gives them greater depth.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s only taken me all day to write this! But what I wanted to say was – awesome about the robin I had no idea that was the story behind the red breast. Secondly – my mum always says that about robins and spirits – lovely comforting thought too. 😍

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting post, though I completely disagree about the Robin and Deer. The only Deer I can associate with Christmas are the reindeer connected, via a couple of fairly recent poems, to Santa Claus. They have no Christian connections and no old traditional connections that I can discovered (incidentally they would all be female, and the unfortunate Rudolf has worms).
    On the other hand thanks for pointing out the robin, I will certainly be mentioning that in one of my Christmas blogs.
    As for Christmas Trees, they are certainly in the old tradition of evergreens at Christmas, and were introduced into Britain in the early nineteenth century. here’s a puzzell for you, why couldn’t we have had Christmas trees before then?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Poor Rudolph! So you don’t agree with the Wild Hunt and Cernunnos at mid-winter? I am positive our ancient ancestors would have hunted deer in the winter, they feature a lot in Irish mythology, I wrote a post about it last year. And the stag would have been highly prized above the doe for its antlers, as well as its meat. I think in England the Holly bush was used as a Christmas tree before the fir took its place, but I’m not sure. I have a feeling that’s not what you mean though… enlighten me!


      • I have no problem with the deer being a sacred animal in antiquity, there are plenty of cases where deer have been buried as ritual, or possibly sacrifices. My favourite case was where a deer and three dogs had been carefully placed in a circle in a large flat-bottomed pit, hunting throughout eternity. However deer don’t seem to have been absorbed into Christmas mythology.

        Evergreens were a vital part of winter decorations, not just at Christmas or mid-winter. There are references to Bay being used to decorate houses in February, and different ‘strewing herbs’, plants scattered on the floor among the rushes on the floor, for different seasons.

        Christmas trees first appeared in nineteenth century in Britain as it was only then that such trees were available. There are no native pines in England, Wales and Ireland. Scots Pine had once grown in southern Britain, but had long been extinct, and it wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that Pines were planted in quantity, so that young pine trees would be available for decorating!

        There was a tradition of decorating a ‘kissing bough’, many of the decorations of the bough seem ot have been transferred to the new Christmas Tree.


  7. This was a brilliant read, Ali.

    I’ve been told many times that the planet Venus is the Christmas star because it is our close neighbour and therefore (after the moon) is the shininess heavenly body in our winter sky. Could it be, therefore, that the Wise Men were the first to discover another Planet?

    I had no idea of the story behind the Robin. It’s a lovely thought that a resident one is that of a loved one who has recently departed this world. When I was a child, my father always told my Sister and I that the Robin was the messenger of Father Christmas. He said the Robin would watch us all year long and tell Father Christmas if we had been good. We have a resident Robin in our garden at our home in Hove, but not here in Wales…yet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting thought about Venus, Hugh. Havent heard that one before. I haven’t seen my little Robin for a while… hope he’s ok. I have a blackbird and a wagtail too. I saw them work together and gang up on a bunch of crows who were stealing the food I put out for them. It was one of the most incredible things I ever saw!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Gorgeous post, Ally. I also have a resident robin in my garden and a determined fella he is! Your book covers are looking amazing! Merry Xmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Now you’ve gone and made me all Christmassy, Ali, goshdarn it. (Thank you). Love the way you put that together. Plus I am awarding you my inaugural Now! That’s What I Call Book Marketing Award for your beautifully gentle yet effective post closer. There are a lot of authors who could learn a lot from you. Any chance you could sort them out?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Really? REALLY??? What… you mean there’s no, like, trophy or cash prize or anything? No? Ok, well thanks anyway. I’ll take the authors then… lol!

      Thanks Tara! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks for this interesting post, Ali. I didn’t know the story of ho the robin got its red breast, and for me, that just adds so much more to the story.
    I love candlelight too, it is so much cosier and I like the fact that it was a welcoming symbol for visitors.


  11. Lovely Christmas post Ali, I love flickering candles at Christmas too, and like you I don’t have any visiting stags in my garden, sometimes a robin appears and that is very nice indeed. 🙂


  12. Pingback: 5 Sacred Symbols of Christmas and their Pagan Origins | oshriradhekrishnabole

  13. Very interesting post. I especially enjoyed the one about the robin, but they were all good. This is my first visit and I thank you for making it a pleasant, festive one. Merry Christmas. :o)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I’ve looked at the use of cut trees for Christmas as wasteful and used a plastic tree I purchased for $13 in 1972 until moving to my present home in 1992 (I can’t seem to find the tree). It seems so much better to use a small potted tree, transplant it when it grows a few feet, and continue doing this until you’re tired of dealing with it. And nothing cures a person of wanting a Christmas Tree better than a cat. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree with you about the tree. Although my family insist, and it is so beautiful and fragrant. But I always feel incredibly guilty. Cutting down a tree just feels so wrong. But now the children are older and don’t seem so concerned with the trappings of Christmas, I plan on getting a tree in a pot. I dont actually like all that plastic either. And funny about the cat and Christmas trees… I just saw a video on Facebook of cats wreaking havoc with Christmas trees… very funny! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Carl. I am very fond of the Robin in my garden. Hes such a little character. He brought a mate to the garden and they had a nest, but sadly I never saw any baby Robins and then after a while I didn’t see his lady friend anymore, either.


  15. I’m reminded of an observation Jung had made on the similarities between Virgin Mary and Athena. No matter how much we try, our archetypes don’t change all that much…

    Liked by 1 person

    • No I don’t think that they do. Over here the Goddess Brigid became Saint Brigid and took on many of Mary’s characteristis. In fact she is often called ‘Mary of the Gaels’.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Brilliant Ali, you beat me to it this year 🙂 So glad you did it, I just love the images. Wasnt Cernunnos/The Green man also linked to The Dagda?


    • Was he? Oooh didn’t know that. I know Cernunnos was linked with the Green Man but not Dagda. I started my seasonal posts last week with the Holly King. Trying to get myself in the mood! 😀🎅⛄🌲

      Liked by 1 person

  17. The Christian church was like a sponge soaking everything up until you eventually squeeze the sponge and it all comes out intermingled.Half the church festivals are pagan in origin and obviously Christmas is no different.
    Their maxim must have been ‘If you can’t conquer them, absorb them and call it ours.”
    xxx Nadolig Llawen Dear Ali xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • So they were! They were very good at absorbing aspects of other religions and cultures, as we’re the Romans. Thanks David! Hope you’re having a good week!

      Liked by 1 person

      • No Ali, it’s a terrible week I’ve had to start the wrapping and haven’t managed to con anyone into helping.
        Erm, how far are you from the ferry?
        xxx Humongous Hugs xxx

        Liked by 1 person

        • Omg how dreadful! I haven’t started that chore yet. Break out the sherry and the mince pie and put some festive music on as you wrap… it’ll be fun! I’ll be making mulled wine to accompany my wrapping. 😁

          Liked by 1 person

  18. Thank you for this; I loved it all, but have to say that my favorite line appears at the bottom, with regard to your books. ” …you could do worse” had me laughing! Oh, how I love Irish phraseology! Slainte!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! I thought it was worth doing a bit of self promotion, it being the season that’s in it, but maybe that wasn’t the best way to do it lol! In my defense I did write it late at night… or was that early in the morning? 😁


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