Seems like every year about this time we hear the same outcry from certain sectors of the Christian community. And every year the same responses arise, that Christians do not ‘own’ the midwinter holidays. Rebirth of the sun on the year’s shortest day, not any particular religion, lies at the heart of midwinter celebrations around the world. The modern Christian custom of marking December 25 as the birth date of Jesus Christ was established by church fathers sometime in the 4th century in their effort to override pagan beliefs. Yet modern holiday traditions surrounding Christmas derive from those ancient roots, not the other way around.
So yes, you could call this another response. But I wanted to gather, in one fairly tidy summation, an overview of the non-Christian winter solstice traditions. So I dug in and thought I’d share the results with you.
Far back into prehistory, human rituals marked the winter solstice. The year’s shortest day arguably served as early man’s most important marker of the passage of time, a point of reckoning enshrined in monolithic stone structures which align with the sun’s movement. Archaeological examinations of better known sites such as Stonehenge (it’s believed the site was established by 8000 BCE) have uncovered evidence of fires, feasting, and ritual sacrifice. Manmade monuments with midwinter alignments are found on every continent.
The earliest written records of solstice celebrations are Sumerian and Egyptian myths dating from around 3000 BCE. In Egyptian myth, the birthday of the god Horus was celebrated on the winter solstice. His mother Isis was impregnated by the resurrected body of Osiris. The annual celebration marking that birth included offerings, feasting, and sacrifice. Writing in 65 BCE, Plutarch stated “…it is said that Isis…at the winter solstice gave birth to Harpocrates (from Hor-pa-khered, Horus the Child).,  The story of Horus is one of several original archetypes of a sky god born by supernatural means.
The Twelve Days of Christmas came from the Sumerians. The celebration for the rebirth of the year lasted twelve days. It is also from the Sumerian celebration that the next oldest tradition derives, gift giving. During their celebrations, the Sumerians held huge parades, wished good tidings to each other, and exchanged gifts. Early Greeks adopted the Solstice with celebrations honoring Zeus’s victory over Kronos and the Titans.,
As early as 1000 BCE, Eastern Asians including Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Koreans celebrated the year’s shortest day with the Dongzhi Festival on or about December 22. The solstice festival gives a nod to the yin-yang philosophy of balance and harmony in the cosmos as recorded in the Daoist teachings of the I Ching. After the celebration, days of longer daylight hours brought an increase in positive energy as symbolized in the I Ching hexagram fù (復, “Returning”). Today, Asian people cook special foods such as the colorful balls of glutinous rice known as tangyuan or, in more northern regions, a certain type of dumpling. Old traditions also require people with the same surname or from the same clan to gather at their ancestral temples to worship on this day. A grand reunion dinner follows.
The early Iranian religion Zoroastrianism recognized a holiday they called Sadeh which is now celebrated in Iran as Yalda. Documented as early as 600 BCE, fires were set on December 25 near water and the temples. The fire was originally meant to assist the revival of the sun and bring back the warmth and light of summer. It was also supposed to drive off the demons of frost and cold which turned water to ice and thus could kill the roots of plants.
The Vainakh people of the North Caucasus include the modern Chechens and Ingush who celebrate Malkh on December 25 as the birthday and the festival of the Sun. During the ceremonies suppliants turned to the east. The Hindu Sankranti historically takes place on the Solstice, although the date is January 14, which gives evidence to how much time has elapsed since it started. It is believed that people who die on this day end the reincarnation cycle, for which reason it is very lucky. Gifts are exchanged, sweets and other special food are consumed, and bonfires are lit on Sankranti eve, which is known as Lohari.
More specific to our Western traditions, pagans of Scandinavia and Germanic regions celebrated the season as Yule. People came to the common hall and brought food. It was a three day celebration in memory of ancestors and dates back to the Stone Age in Western Europe. Animals were sacrificed and everyone drank ale. A specially selected Yule log burned through these days as a symbol of the returning sun.
Particularly in Scandinavia, the last sheaf of grain from the harvest was preserved for the occasion, believed to hold magical properties and called the ‘Yule goat.’ Another tradition holds that the Yule goat is a spirit that appears during preparations for the Yule to ensure things are done right. A popular theory is that the celebration of the goat is connected to worship of the Norse god Thor, who rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats.
Northern Europeans also celebrated the Yule boar in a tradition where all men laid hands on the bristles of a sacrificed boar and solemn vows made. There is believed to be a connection between the choice of a boar and the Nordic god Freyr, whose mount is the gold-bristled boar Gullinbursti. The continuing Swedish tradition of eating pig-shaped cakes at Christmas recalls the heathen custom. The serving of a roasted pig’s head at midwinter feasts in England also recreates this ancient tradition as does the serving of a Christmas ham on many American tables. 
Saturnalia was an ancient Roman midwinter festival in honor of the deity Saturn. It occurred within the broader seasonal celebration known as Brumalia and continued from December 17 through December 23. Sacrifices to the gods, a public banquet, and private gift giving were the primary activities. Candles were given to help drive away evil and encourage the return of the sun. Other gifts included toys for children and gag gifts as well as monetary gifts from employers and ranking members of society to their employees or underlings. On the day of Saturnalia, Roman social norms reversed so that masters served the servants, gambling was allowed, and a carnival atmosphere prevailed. In keeping with the reversal, Roman citizens wore the conical felt hat (pileus) typically worn by freed slaves as a symbol of their freedom, an ancient Greek tradition. The idea of reversal is believed to have symbolized the reversal of the sun’s decline.
In Roman mythology, Saturn was an agricultural deity who was said to have reigned over the world in the Golden Age when humans enjoyed the spontaneous bounty of the earth without labor. The revelries of Saturnalia were supposed to reflect the conditions of the lost mythical age. Following Saturnalia, on December 25 the renewal of light and coming of a new year was celebrated as Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.”
Similarly, the celebration of Hannukah among Jews tracks the same prehistoric tradition. As noted by one rabbi, “…it is a short leap to surmise that the Maccabees, when they took the anniversary of that day as the day of rededication, were rededicating not only the Temple but the day itself to Jewish holiness; were capturing a pagan solstice festival that had won wide support among partially Hellenized Jews, in order to make it a day of God’s victory over paganism. Even the lighting of candles for Hanukkah fits the context of the surrounding torchlight honors for the sun.”
The origins of the Christian gift-bringer figures in European folklore connect specifically with the Yule festivals of Germanic paganism and are often associated with the figure of Odin, the leader of the Wild Hunt at the time of Yule. Santa Claus’ reindeer have been compared to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin. After Christianization, the benign mid-winter gift bringer was associated with the 4th century Christian Saint Nicholas of Myra, based on his generous gifts to the poor.
The use of mistletoe as a kissing bough evidently derives from a Celtic custom in which Druid priests climbed a sacred oak to cut down mistletoe from which they made an elixir to cure infertility. Holly use during the holiday season also derives from Celtic custom; Druid priests wore wreaths of holly on their heads. Wreaths as household ornaments originated with Greeks and Etruscans (by 600 BCE) as an offering to the gods to prevent crop failure and plagues. Evergreens were sacred because they did not ‘die,’ thereby representing the eternal aspect of the Divine.
Wassailing as a house-to-house caroling tradition follows from the Anglo-Saxon toast Wæs þu hæl, meaning “be thou hale”—i.e., “be in good health.” In medieval Britain, the practice became an exchange between feudal lords and their peasants wherein the lords could practice charitable giving. Songs sung by visiting bands of peasants such as “Here We Come A’Wassailing” and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” emphasized this dynamic but also hinted at the implied threat that if ‘figgy pudding’ wasn’t given ‘right here,’ vandalism or at least curses might be inflicted upon the manor house.
Christmas trees were relatively unknown in the United States until well into the 19th century and were first considered strictly a German custom. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”
Advent, a period of Christian rituals leading up to Christ’s Mass, began sometime in the late 5th century. The earliest Christmas hymns date to the same period. Modern Christian worship centered on the holiday may involve lighting of candles, prayers, giving to the poor, and other elements of earlier pagan traditions.
The midwinter celebration is the oldest of human traditions. With its darkness and cold, the shortest day gives pause even to the most jaded world citizen. Remembrance of family, feasting, exchange of gifts, and well wishes are no less compelling today than they were in the shadows of our ancient past. Future generations will continue to note this compelling point of the sun-earth cycle, no matter by what name.
May your days be merry and bright!
Please note I openly confess to shameless usage of cited materials.
 BCE refers to “Before Common Era,” sometimes notated as BC, or “Before Christ.”
 See also Crump, William D., The Christmas Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition. McFarland. p 369