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.
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.
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.
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.