Links between holiday traditions and pagan culture are well established - and occasionally celebrated - but there are also a lot of misconceptions about paganism that make the word itself a bit taboo.
Paganism isn't something to be feared or shunned. In Latin, "pagan" was simply the word for villager or civilian. Religious connotations that developed during the Middle Ages made pagans into heathens rather than outsiders.
With all that in mind, there continues to be a pervasive presence of paganism in the modern world. There are numerous things you may be doing on a daily basis that are similarly tied to pagan practices and ideas. From wearing a wedding ring to just crossing your fingers for good luck, here are a few activities with pagan roots that you probably never gave a second thought.
The names of the days of the week all have pagan origins. This was problematic for Christians, to the point that leaders in the church made efforts to change them to letters, numbers, the sacraments, and the names of Christ's apostles. Ultimately, the traditional names won out.
Monday derives from the Anglo-Saxon word monandaeg, which means "Moon's Day." It's a day for celebrating the moon goddess. Meanwhile, Sunday is literally a day to worship the sun. Tuesday comes from the Germanic god of war, Tiu; Wednesday honors the Norse god Odin, or Woden; Thursday celebrates Thor, the Norse god of thunder; Friday is for Freya, the goddess of love; and Saturday refers to Saturn, the Roman god of abundance.
Just like days of the week, the months of the year draw their names from pagan influences. They refer to festivals, specific gods and goddesses, and work duties tied to specific times of year. June, named for the goddess Juno, reflects the deity's connection to the sky, marriage, and birth. With the summer solstice, prolific marriages, and general blooming taking place during that time of year, the name fits.
Other months with clear pagan origins include April, a name that comes from the pagan festival of Eoster monath. German tribes sacrificed offerings to its namesake, Eoestre - hence, Easter. January is derived from "Giuli," or yuletide, a word used to describe the time of the year we associate with December and January.
Celebrating birthdays, even that of Jesus himself, was uncommon among early Christians. What eventually became Christmas, the Roman festival Saturnalia, was originally celebrated around the winter solstice.
Major events in nature, such as a birth or a solstice, were thought to bring out spirits - and it was critical to keep evil spirits at a distance. Many pagans lit candles to deter bad spirits and protect themselves from the darkness. Due to superstitions about evil spirits attacking unaware children on their birthdays, Germanic groups placed candles on a cake: one candle for each year since birth, and an additional one for another healthy year of life.
When you yawn, your first instinct may be to cover your mouth. This is something that can be traced to antiquity, most likely to the idea that opening one's mouth too far could invite disease. In the Roman world, doctors noticed infants were unable to cover their mouths when they yawned, something they connected with high infant mortality rates. Essentially, the yawn allowed life to escape.
Adults who linked odd events and yawning may have also contributed to the practice. In one ancient Roman anecdote, a man witnesses a black dog yawn, and then is compelled to yawn himself. When he develops a fever the next day, he attributes it to the whole exchange. The demon or evil spirit that entered his body could have been avoided if he'd put his hand in front of his face.