Many pagan cultures played a very important role in Christmas celebrations from Medieval Europe until December 25, 2008. Their rituals may have been reworked and glossed to fit our present day interpretation of the holiday, but the fact remains that the Vikings, Romans, Anglo-Saxons and other ancient cultures played a very significant role in the Christian celebration.
The Romans which are so influential in anything of any consequence in the Medieval and post Roman occupation of the European world also put their stamp on the Christian holiday. In Rome pagans celebrated three important Roman festivals, Saturnalia (December 17-23), the Kalends (January 1-5), and Dues Sol Invictus, which we celebrate as the twelve nights of Christmas. This celebration to the sun was December 25. The citizens would light bonfires, decorate buildings with evergreens as encouragement for the sun to return.
If the Vikings had seen pictures of Santa Claus cruising the skies in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, they probably would have assumed he was catching a ride with Thor, the Norse god of thunder. According to Viking traditions, Thor’s personal transport was a flying wagon pulled by a team of horned goats. The ancient Viking god, Odin, also brought gifts to good little Viking boys and girls.
The Roman Church designated December 25 as the date of the birth of Christ in the fourth century. Some early Christians did not celebrate Christmas, because they felt that the celebration had too many pagan practices. In Roman occupied England the Catholic church banned mumming (masquerades) and wassailing (Anglo-Saxon for good health) as pagan practices, but the common people still celebrated with enthusiasm. When the Vikings invaded, they would reinvigorate pagan practices. In the rural areas pagan traditions remained very strong. When the Roman troops were recalled in the fifth century, it was very common that Thor and Christ were worshipped side by side.