Christianization of Pagan Festivals

Wherever a ruling elite seeks to impose or stimulate a change in the dominant religious beliefs of the populace, as when controlling a new population following a victory in war, they may tear down old places of worship and build different ones on the same sites, replace existing sacred myths and stories with ones that reflect the new ideology, and introduce novel rites and ceremonies in the hope of eliminating the existing ones. This is as true of the spread of Christianity as of any other religion. Throughout history, new Christian churches have been placed on the sites of "pagan" temples. This process is particularly evident in the Republic of Georgia, where the conversion to Christianity occurred as early as the fourth century C.E., and archaeologists excavating under early churches are wont to discover pre-Christian temples built several centuries earlier. Where indigenous religious festivals were timed in relation to the calendar, or tied to particular astronomical observations, it made sense to schedule the new Christian festivals to coincide with them, thereby upstaging them. A well-known example of this is the timing of Christmas to coincide with pre-existing winter solstice festivals; likewise, the feast of St. John is scheduled close to the summer solstice.

The result was the transformation of pagan festivals into Christian ones, but the original meaning was not always lost. In Mexico, for example, the feast day of St. Michael, as observed in the village of San Miguel del Milagro in the state of Tlaxcala, preserves some aspects of ancient observances relating to mountain and fertility gods.

It has been supposed that the timing of certain Christian feasts on mid-quarter days reflects the Christianization within Europe of earlier Celtic festivals dividing the year into eight equal parts. The best known of these is the feast of All Saints, which takes place on November 1, on the traditional date attributed to the Celtic festival of Samhain. The notion of a Celtic calendar that was widespread through western Europe in the Iron Age and provided an accurate division of the year into eight equal parts is problematic. Yet there is no doubt that a significant pagan "start of winter" festival somehow became transformed into a Christian festival. Its main association now, in many parts of the world, is with the dead, but this probably came later.

See also:

Celtic Calendar; Mid-Quarter Days.

Cacaxtla; Mithraism.


References and further reading

Hutton, Ron. The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, 247-341. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

-. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain,

360-370. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

McCluskey, Stephen C. Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe, 60-76. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Ruggles, Clive, and Nicholas Saunders, eds. Astronomies and Cultures, 100-123. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1993.

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