Heathen and Pagan

In most households, Christmas decorations are now safely stowed away for another year (unless you celebrate as an orthodox Christian, in which case, in line with the Julian calendar, 7th January is Christmas day, not 25th December.

The birth of Christ, whatever day it is celebrated on, is a major influence on end of year activities, not just for Christians, but atheists, agnostics, and many from other religions too. It is, after all a traditional time to take leave from work and an excuse for fun and feasting and twinkly lights, as well as higher than usual church attendance. This despite the recent census information that fewer the half of British population now call themselves Christian.

Why so few? In part, obviously it is because more people of other faiths now live in the UK. In part it is because more people now record themselves as agnostics or atheists. But in part also, as some church leaders admit, it is because more people are willing to describe themselves as non-Christian, whereas not so long ago this would have spelt social death in the here and now, not just a jolly good roasting in Hell followed by eternal damnation.

Not many people, however, describe themselves as pagan, and even fewer use the term heathen. And I suspect even self identifiesd pagans and heathens, especially if they have children, had some form of ‘Christmas’ celebration as well as, maybe, celebrating the winter solstice in late December. Feasting to ward off the chills of mid-winter, pre-date our Christmas indulgences.

Paganism was dominant in Britain and Europe before Christianity took a hold, and lingered on in rural areas long after the more sophisticated urban areas had been converted to Christianity. The word, heathen is believed to come from the Gothic (East European) haithno (dweller on the heath). It was the word Bishop Ulfila used, c 800 AD, to translate the Latin word for pagan – paganus – when referring to those country folk not yet converted to the Christian faith.

Whether you are Catholic, Anglican, or Orthodox Christian, a member of a different faith, a pagan or a heathen, I hope you have enjoyed whatever seasonal festivals and rites you have attended.

All the best for the rest of 2023.

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