Greenbelt Interfaith News

    December 1998

    The 1999 Calendar
    How Pagan is Christmas? (Francis X. Wieser)
    Calendar Caveats (this page)

    Pagan-Christian Calendar
    Calendar Caveats
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson

    The Pagan Calendar

    There is a tendency, even among modern Pagans following a specific tradition, to lump all Pagan faiths together. The influence of Sir James Frazer in this regard has been great, to the point that people will say that the Roman festival of Saturnalia was "the same thing" as the Germanic celebration of Yule. Yet a simple comparison of two Pagan calendars will demonstrate the very great differences that existed between Pagans of different faiths, and sometimes even between Pagans of the same faith living in different locations.

    Another problem that arises when trying to reconstruct the ancient Pagan calendar is that, in most cases, this is simply impossible to do. Many of the Web's essays on Pagan holy days assert with confidence facts that rest either on a single piece of evidence or on mere speculation. While reading the bold statements in these essays, it may be wise to keep in mind the more tentative speculations of the actual scholars who dig up the evidence. This passage in Ronald Hutton's The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles is typical:

      [Imbolc] does not seem to feature in the traditions of most of [Celtic] Britain . . . [Lammas] fell on the same day [as Lughnasadh] and was celebrated with fairs and gathering which sometimes make it very hard to distinguish from the Celtic feast. . . . From the Middle Ages until recent times [Midsummer] was kept with such fervour in all the Celtic regions of these islands that it was hard to believe that it was an importation by Anglo-Saxon and Viking invaders. But such it may have been. . . . There is no sign that [the Celts] kept any feasts at the equinoxes, nor, despite the prehistoric wonders of Newgrange and Maes Howe, at Midwinter: they were interested in marking the opening of the seasons, not the range of the sun.

    How it is that modern people of all faiths have come to believe that we have certain knowledge of ancient Pagan practices is an interesting story in itself; all that need be said here is that the dubious historical origins of modern Pagan holy days are no reason in themselves to look down upon them. A number of Christian calendar customs are also recent and also have questionable genealogies. What determines whether a holy day endures is not whether it has ancient origins but whether it meets the spiritual needs of the community that celebrates it.

    The modern Pagan calendar is based upon the celebration of eight Sabbats or holy days: four quarter days (the solstices and equinoxes) and four cross-quarter days (days that fall mid-point between the quarter days). The Sabbats may vary within a few days as to when they are celebrated. Pagans also have a monthly holy day on the full moon known as an Esbat. Some Pagan traditions also celebrate the new moon, but most consider the full moon the most important monthly Esbat.

    The names of the holy days are taken largely from the Celtic calendar; many Pagans, though, are quick to take notice of the Christian holy days occurring around the same time, and sometimes the Christian name is adopted instead. This brings us to the problematic question of how much the Christian calendar owes to its Pagan predecessors.

    The Christian Calendar

    The Christian calendar focuses on two cycles of holy seasons and days: the fixed Advent-Christmas-Epiphany cycle and the moveable Lent-Easter-Pentecost cycle. Beyond this, many Christians also celebrate holy days commemorating events in the life of Jesus and in the lives of saints. The Eastern and Western Christian calendars are significantly different, and some Western Christian denominations celebrate Sunday as their only holy day.

    Both Pagan and Christian essays on the Web are quick to see Paganism lurking behind every Christian calendar custom. Candlemas is of course based on the Celtic fire festival of Imbolc. The harvest festivals of ancient times have become the harvest festival services of modern Christianity. All Saints and All Souls are celebrated in early November because of the church's attempt to Christianize the Celtic feast of Samhain. St. John's Day is just the Summer Solstice under a different name.

    The truth, though, may be less easy to ascertain.

    "Once Christmas was fixed upon 25 December," says Hutton, "[Candlemas] had to occur upon 2 February, being the time appointed for this ceremony, according to Hebrew law, after a birth. Its especial association with candles, evident during the course of the early Middle Ages, was suggested by Simeon's words, read out at the service, that the child would be 'a light to lighten the Gentiles'. All this was determined by churchmen sitting in councils around the Mediterranean and representing lands very far from the Gaelic area in which Imbolc was known."

    "The familiar Harvest Festival service has long since acquired the patina of an 'ancient and traditional custom'," Charles Kightly acknowledges in The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain. 'In fact, however, harvest festivals of this kind are of comparatively recent origin . . ."

    "The real reason for the transfer [of the date for All Saints] was that the many pilgrims who came to Rome for the feast of the Pantheon could be fed more easily after the harvest than in the spring," says Francis X. Wieser in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. Moreover, "It has often been claimed that the Church authorities wanted to 'Christianize' the pagan solstice celebrations [on June 24] and for this reason advanced Saint John's feast as a substitute for the former pagan festival. However, the real reason why Saint John's Day falls on June 24 lies in the Roman way of counting, which proceeded backward from the calends (first day) or the succeeding month. Christmas was 'the eighth day before the Kalends of January' (Octavo Kalendas Januarii). Consequently, Saint John's nativity was put on the 'eighth day before the Kalends of July.' However, since June has only thirty days, in our way of counting the feast falls on June 24." (See also Wieser's thoughts on the Pagan origins of Christmas.)

    Whether or not these particular theories are true, they show how much disagreement there is on this subject among scholars. The lack of solid evidence for the Pagan roots of the Christian calendar can be summed up in this manner: The most certain assertion that modern scholars can make about the Pagan origins of the dating of any Christian festival is that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in order to replace a Roman festival on the same day – and we have no conclusive evidence that this is true. Lacking such evidence, all that modern scholars can do is speculate on whether various contemporary assertions should be trusted.

    Part of the problem with determining the worth of such speculations is that the Pagan holy days, by and large, were based on the position of the sun and the moon. Many such solar and lunar holy days have existed in cultures throughout the world, and many of them have been invented independently of the others. Can we be sure that the birthday of Christ was designed to replace the birthday of the Pagan god Mithras? Or is it simply the case that the time of the year when darkness wanes and light waxes is an appropriate time of the year to celebrate the birthday of a deity? As James Kiefer remarks, concerning the similarities in the customs of Lughnasadh and Lammas, "Some critics say that this proves that Christianity is nothing but a collection of recycled pagan superstitions. I say that it is evidence that the climate of Britain, and therefore the usual time of harvests, was not altered by the coming of Christianity."

    Hutton also expresses skepticism about overconfident assertions on this matter:

      The new religious calendar [of the Christians] was fundamentally Hebrew, not that of the classical pagans, with a service every seven days instead of a succession of seasonal feasts. But the latter soon appeared, and the greatest provided a means of marking the progress from the plunge into midwinter, through the lean times until spring and through this to midsummer, with a series of blessings and liturgies. As already noted, it incorporated several older festivals, but it was not dependent upon them. Lughnasadh was given only the feast of St Peter in chains, while the allocation of SS Philip and James to Beltine, or May Day, hardly did justice to its non-Christian importance: in the new calendar it was overshadowed upon either side by Easter and by Ascension Day and Pentecost, which had no direct pre-Christian ancestors. Great saints like the Apostles Peter, James, Andrew and Paul were given feast days which had formerly no religious significance in the norther European world. A large part of the reason for Christianity's victory in places such as Ireland, where it depended solely upon its own merits, is surely that it offered everything already given by the old cults, and added a confident promise of eternal bliss. When looking for 'pagan survivals' in the medieval Church, it is not enough for historians to detect parallels, relics or imitations of paganism. It is necessary to demonstrate that certain things, although now existing within a Christian structure, kept alive a memory of, and reverence for, the old deities. Otherwise they were part of Christianity.

    Nevertheless, though many Christian calendar customs may be parallel to, rather than derived from, similar Pagan customs, it is fascinating to see the many points of intersection between the religions. Modern Christians look upon the Pagan roots of the Christian calendar in various manners. Some Christians are eager to explore the interfaith aspects of the Christian calendar, while others acknowledge the Pagan heritage but stress the uniqueness of Christianity. Still others see these Pagan roots as reason enough not to celebrate such days as Christmas (an example of the latter position can be found here). Yet the process of Christianizing Paganism started in New Testament times; if Christianity had not adopted customs similar to Pagan ones, it would still be a Jewish sect.

    The Venerable Bede, an eighth-century historian who was intensely interested in Pagan and Christian calendars, reprinted a letter dated 601 A.D. that described Pope Gregory the Great's motivations in wishing to take over the older Pagan celebrations:

      When, therefore, Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined upon, viz., that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed.

      And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God.

      [The Venerable Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, translated by John Stevens, revised by Lionel C. Jane (London: J. M. Dent, 1910), chapter 30.]

    As painful as this passage may be for modern Pagans to read, it explains why the early Christian church never sought to eliminate Pagan customs entirely from the holy days of the new faith.

    One legacy of the church's decision to co-opt Paganism is that Christianity is more closely tied to European indigenous faiths than it is to any other faith except Judaism. In modern times, this has caused problems for Christianity as it has tried to spread to nations outside of the West, but it has also meant that generations of Westerners have felt a strong sense of identity with the Pagan world. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that this sense of identity will lead to further interfaith dialogue between Christians and modern Pagans.

    Selection of Links

    As the above sections suggest, accurate information on the connection between the Pagan and Christian calendars is hard to locate on the Web. For the holy days in our calendar, we have linked to several of the best popular and academic articles on the Web.

    Pagan holy days are given in accordance with most widespread modern usage; Christian holy days are in accordance with Western usage. We have not listed all of the Christian holy days, merely the ones that are of greatest importance or are thought by some to have links with Pagan festivals. (Whether they do in fact have such links is often discussed in the articles themselves.)

    When comparing the dates of Pagan and Christian holy days, keep in mind that the solstices and equinoxes were generally celebrated in ancient times on the 24th or 25th of the month.

    Further Calendar Links

    Keep in mind also that some of the sites that we link to in our Pagan-Christian Calendar have additional calendrical information besides the specific essays to which we have linked.


    The Calendar Zone (formerly CalendarLand) has a nice set of links to religious calendars, most of which, confusingly, are not found in "Religious Calendars" but rather in "Cultural Calendars." The Worldwide Holiday and Festival Site, Today's Calendar and Clock Page, and Calendrical and Astronomical Links offer further links.

    Our 1998 Interfaith Calendar has links to descriptions of holy days; some of the links are out of date. The Madison Area Interfaith Network's Holy Days is an interfaith calendar with brief annotations. The Mall Area Religious Council offers an unannotated Interfaith Calendar. Pacific Cultural Services' Multifaith Calendar has descriptions of the calendars of thirteen faiths (through one of the Go To buttons at the top of the page); alas, this site has not kept up its online calendar.

    PAGAN – General

    More links to Pagan holy days can be found at Pagan/Wiccan Religion's Wheel of the Year. The Celtic Year provides a set of unannotated links to calendars, with separate sections for calendar conversions, history, Pagan and lunar calendars, and Maya calendars.

    Pagan calendars were sometimes determined by astronomical means. Information on archaeoastronomy (past societies) and ethnoastronomy (modern societies) can be found in the Center for Archaeoastronomy's Introduction to Archaeoastronomy, which provides an annotated list of links. Wolfgang R. Dick's Archaeoastronomy, Ancient Astronomy and Ethnoastronomy provides an even larger list of unannotated links.

    The Witches' Web of Days, while following the Frazer tradition of mashing all religions together, is to be admired for its sheer scope: it offers a day-by-day description of the Pagan year. School of the Seasons is a fascinating exercise in showing the relation between Pagan holy days and the holy days of other faiths, primarily Christianity.

    Tryskelion, though filled with oodles of misinformation about the history of Pagan holy days, includes many interesting Sabbat rituals from different sources. (The design of this site is somewhat confusing; you need to click next to the file folder labelled "Sabbats and Esbats" in order to be able to see the holy day links.) The Web Home for Unitarian Universalists and Pagans (WHUUPS) has a Rituals page with links to information on Pagan holy day services. Pagan Paths also has a Rites and Rituals page; this one is divided into the various Pagan traditions.

    PAGAN – Specific Traditions

    The Southern Year tackles the problem of how to adapt the Celtic calendar to the Southern Hemisphere, as does Michelle Watson's Sabbats – Litha and Yule, which offers links to additional essays on the subject.

    The Romans are well represented on the Web through two day-by-day Roman calendars. Roman Calendar is the best of the two but is awkward to browse. (If you have difficulty reading images, you can reach the beginning of the calendar here.) Nova Roma's incomplete Calendar of Holidays and Festivals is much easier to read. Apollonius Sophistes' Seasonal Festivals of the Greeks and Romans offers further information on the holy days.

    The Anglo-Saxon Calendar contains an essay describing what little we know about that calendar.

    There's a great deal of variation between various modern Norse calendars. The Odinist Rite Vinland posts a page describing its holy days; the link at the bottom of the page entitled "Diary" will take you to the 1998 calendar. Norse Sacred Days and Runic Half Months and The Asatru Year both provide brief descriptions of holy days. Another Norse calendar is The Calendar of the Vikings.


    In marked contrast to Paganism, few links are available to sites describing the Christian calendar (except for Easter and Christmas sites).

    The Catholic Encyclopedia has an entry on the Christian Calendar that describes its development and history. Nicolaa de Bracton's Christianity and Popular Religion in the Middle Ages describes the folk customs connected with the medieval Christian year and has some helpful remarks about the transition from the Pagan calendar to the Christian calendar. Although the descriptions of its holy days are not yet complete at the time of this posting, the Christian Calendar for 1274 is a fascinating glimpse of what the calendar looked like in the late medieval era. As an added bonus, it is illustrated with thumbnail images of the beautiful Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry.

    The Anglican continuing churches have been doing a particularly good job of publishing worship material on the Web. The Anglican Province of Christ the King has an Ordo Kalendar with links to information on holy days. The Anglican Catholic Church is gradually building a day-by-day calendar; it also has a section on the Christian seasons. Another Anglican site, The 1662 Book of Common Prayer Website, describes many holy days on its Festivals page.

    Three Catholic sites offer additional information about holy day worship and saints' days: The Catholic Calendar Page, Catholic Online Saints Calendar, and Liturgical Calendar. "Living the Word" Hagiography Index follows the same format as this calendar, linking to articles from the Catholic Encyclopedia; its Links section leads to other sites listing saints. You can also learn from this site which saint to pray to if you're hunting for a house (Joseph), have in-law problems (Elizabeth Ann Seton), are in the Boy Scouts (George), or have a stammering child (Notkar Balbulus).

    For further links to Western Christianity's most important holy days, visit A Holy Easter and A Holy Christmas (both part of the Kir-Shalom site, edited by a United Church of Canada minister and his wife), as well as Easter in Cyberspace: A Christian Perspective ("No bunnies at this site") and Christmas in Cyberspace: A Christian Perspective ("No Santas here"). For information on and links to the Eastern Christian calendar, see our Interfaith Calendar 1998.

    Worship Links, from Lift Up Your Hearts, offers hundreds of links related to Western Christian worship; some of them are calendar-related. Liturgy addicts should probably bookmark Pagan-Christian Calendar before visiting Lift Up Your Heart; it will be a long time before you make your way back here.

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    © 1998 Heather Elizabeth Peterson
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