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.
Wearing rings wasn't a practice exclusive to pagan groups, but wearing a wedding band on the fourth finger of one's hand may be something Christians adopted from pagan practice. According to religious scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi, "the meaning of the wedding ring as a symbol of marital commitment finds its origins not in Scripture, but in pagan mythology and superstitions."
This may pair with a Roman and Greek belief that the fourth finger (or third, if you don't count the thumb) was the so-called "medicated finger," a digit that had a vein leading directly to the heart. Putting a ring on that finger became a demonstration of unending commitment and love.
Still another theory is that wedding rings trace back to the Third Dynasty of the Old Kingdom in Egypt, when rings were exchanged to indicate a binding agreement between two parties.
Knocking on wood to keep bad luck away - also referred to as "touching wood" - is also thought to have ties to pagan culture. Celts had strong ties to nature and believed there were spirits in trees. To knock on a tree and invoke the spirit residing within brought about healing and protection.
Another possible purpose of knocking on wood was to show respect and thanks to the spirits in trees. One more theory is that knocking on wood sent evil spirits away or created noise to keep evil spirits from overhearing the plans, thoughts, and wishes of humans.
Even after the introduction of Christianity, the practice of keeping evil spirits away never abated. It has been adapted to include activities like ear-pulling in Turkey and unique phrases like "touching iron" in Italy.
Necklaces, bracelets, amulets, and other jewelry were all worn by pagan cultures to decorate the body. This was done for practical purposes and to demonstrate wealth. Viking men, for example, wore elaborate jewelry to indicate their social position. Women, too, adorned themselves in gold and silver. Brooches, rings, torcs, and pins were also common, sometimes featuring symbols in honor of gods like Thor and Odin.
Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans commonly wore jewelry with spiritual symbols. In Egypt, jewelry was buried alongside human remains for the journey to the afterlife. Amulets with heart-scarabs, the two fingers of Horus, and serpent heads have all been found in burial sites, indicating their purpose of protection in the next world.
In the Roman republic, gold rings indicated political importance and were reserved for senators and nobles. When Hannibal defeated the Romans, he was said to have "sent to Carthage, as proof of his victory, three pecks [six dry gallons] of gold rings that he had pulled from the hands of the slain Roman knights and senators."
Prior to the development and spread of Christianity, pagans also venerated crosses. Symbolizing unity, a cross could be the home of kind or generous spirits. This is how the gesture of crossing one's fingers for luck developed - although the fingers involved in that crossing didn't involve just one person.
In ancient times, to make a wish and cross fingers for luck meant two people crossed their index fingers in hopes of evoking helpful spirits. It may have also been a way to designate a place where good spirits could focus their power.
Some historians believe crossing fingers while making a wish has stronger ties to Christianity. In its early days, Christianity was outlawed by the Romans. When subversive Christians came into contact with one another, they shared hand symbols and gestures to identify and support one another. Crossing fingers, again in a way that involved two people, is thought to have involved the thumb and index fingers, shaped in an "L" and positioned into a fish symbol called an ichthys. The ichthys remains a common symbol in the Christian tradition.
As for crossing your fingers to get out of telling a lie, that may be of Christian origin as well. Some scholars believe the sign of the cross, formed by fingers over one another, was meant to protect a person from God's wrath when they broke one of the Ten Commandments.