Pervadingly Pagan

Special days for religious or secular observances have been set aside in the calendars of all cultures throughout the ages. In modern times, such days are marked, not only by customary celebrations, but also by the cessation of employed work on specific holidays. However, many holidays have lost their traditional or religious significance. Certain days, such as Valentine’s Day or April Fools’ Day, are still noted by their occurrence, but are not disruptive to employment.

The term pagan originated from the Latin term paganus, meaning ‘country-dweller’, as opposed to urbus (from which derives the English urban), referring to those living in the larger cities. The pagani or country-dwellers were seen as closely connected to the local ways of their village or hamlet, removed from the fast pace, new ideas, and views that had taken hold in Rome and other large centres. As the new Christian religion gained popularity in the cities, the pagani became known as those still devoted to the old ways and the old gods; in other words, they were seen as ‘behind the times’. By the third century, however, the term had come to mean all non-Christians and eventually took on a distinctly negative connotation, even implying Satan-worship. 

Humankind, since antiquity, has observed occasions of religious significance with fertility rites, harvest festivals, and sun festivals. A scrutiny of all significant Christian festivals reveals that many pagan rites were simply perpetuated and combined in traditional celebrations on Christian holy days such as Easter, All Hallows Eve, and Christmas. Pagan cults presented a problem to the early church fathers, who soon realised that suppressing a popular custom seldom succeeded, and thus, the Church’s policy became one of assimilation rather than confrontation. Hence, equinox celebrations glorifying the rebirth of nature, the fertility of the land, and the onset of spring in the Northern Hemisphere were supplanted by the Christian Easter celebrations, traditional midsummer festivals were transformed into a feast honouring John the Baptist, Christmas replaced the winter solstice festivities, and most other pagan festivities, rites, and ceremonies underwent a similar process. 

Magic trees became ‘gospel oaks’, and ancient magic springs and wells became holy places linked to the names of particular Christian saints. Pagan temples and buildings were consecrated as churches or inscribed with declarations that these dwellings of demons had become Houses of God. For example, Notre Dame in Paris was built on the foundations of a temple of Diana, and St. Sulpice in Paris rose on the ruins of a temple of Isis. The pagan spirits of woods and streams became monsters, appearing in traditional tales as seductive fays and nymphs leading men astray, while fauns and satyrs became linked with the horned, hoofed creatures of medieval demonology. 

In many of our annual special days and holidays, superstition has played an important part. Activities performed on these specific days have lost their original meaning, and we are often unaware of the significance and reasons underlying the festivities, particularly why certain actions are performed and certain customs are adhered to. In the following chapter, the origin and historic significance of various select traditions still observed are considered in calendared order. 


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