Around this time of year you tend to see a lot of pagans mentioning the ways in which certain Christmas traditions are survivals of pagan customs (you see it from the Christians too, though for different reasons). This inevitably leads to some debate about just which things are true survivals, and which actually appeared post-Christianity. Which is in turn part of a larger conversation about how many folk traditions, and which ones, can be traced back to pagan roots. This discussion can get heated very quickly – witness the constant controversy that follows Ronald Hutton’s work, and the responses to it.
But it seems to me that all of this is missing the point. It doesn’t matter if some particular pagan-seeming custom can be absolutely traced back to origins in the polytheistic past. Regardless, it is a survival (or re-manifestation, if you will) of the polytheistic mindset, the animistic worldview. In fact, I would posit that it’s better if these customs re-emerged in new forms post-Christianity. Then they are simply newer variations on the same themes, proving the primacy of those themes in the human experience (i.e., our natural state is paganism). They are a genuine and fresh response to the continuous perception of spirits and the immanent divine in the natural world, one that cannot be eliminated by strong discouragement by the Church or materialistic society, even when the latter two things manage to squash specific activities. They just find a new expression again, rising from the same basic spiritual understanding that has existed for all of human history.
Take, for example, mumming. Most mumming traditions cannot be traced back with any certainty more than a few hundred years. Even the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, whose antlers have been carbon dated to the 11th century, was only first referred to in 1686. But anyone who watches it is seeing the world through pagan eyes for those few minutes, tapping into the same awareness of the spiritual forces at work in the world around us. Those families in Austria who gather to be gleefully terrified by the Perchtenlauf each winter do so because deep down, they know that winter is a perilous time, with spirits abroad that need appeasing.
Even in cynical, consumerist, Christian-dominated 21st century America, we’re seeing a small resurgence of Krampus – partly in response to the hollowness of the modern Christmas season, to be sure, but also because it fills a need some people didn’t even know they had. Krampus is inextricably linked to Saint Nicholas, and therefore ostensibly Christian; it is not technically a pagan survival, but instead a new iteration of certain core concepts and perspectives that themselves are inherently pagan.
I think for the most part, we can leave the hair-splitting to the historians, and instead embrace the spirit of these traditions – a spirit which is undeniably pagan at heart.