I have commonly come across the belief that "newer" religions integrate existing customs and traditions into their own. So what traditions and customs in Christianity can be traced back (with the help of proper references) to Paganism?
What Pagan elements were adopted in christianity?
Many pagan elements were adopted in the Early Church. Some of elements that are claimed to be of Pagan origin are not true, while many are of a dubious nature and can not be clearly proven.
The early Christians adapted many elements of paganism.: Ancient pagan funeral rituals often remained within Christian culture as aspects of custom and community with very little alteration.: A type of song sung at death, the ritual lament, is one of the oldest of all art forms. As soon as death was immanent, the ritual began, then came the "struggle of the soul" and prayer for the dying. John Chrysostum gives a vivid account of the dying soul seeing angels and demons - "account books in hand" - struggling against each other in a contest for possession of the dying person's soul. Macarius of Egypt (fourth century) writes of such a contest which is only resolved by the intervention of the person's guardian angel - which is roughly parallel to Plato's daimon.
Pagans and Jews decorated their burial chambers, so Christians did as well, thereby creating the first Christian art in the catacombs beneath Rome. This art is symbolic, rising out of a reinterpretation of Jewish and pagan symbolism. Christian piety infused the symbols with its own fresh interpretation. Christian art had something fundamentally new to say as it gave visual expression to the conviction that the human soul can be delivered from death to an everlasting life. Neither Judaism nor any pagan religion had previously made such a claim. "The Jewish faith puts little emphasis on immortality, and pagan beliefs about the afterlife were vague, uncertain, and sometimes dismal".
While many new subjects appear for the first time in the Christian catacombs - i.e. the Good Shepherd, Baptism, and the Eucharistic meal - the Orant figures (women praying with upraised hands) probably came directly from pagan art.: Pagan symbolism in the form of Victories, cupids, and shepherd scenes are scattered throughout the catacombs. Jewish and pagan use of sheep and goats, birds in a tree or vine, or eating fruit, especially grapes, seven steps leading up to a tomb, a pair of peacocks, the Robe of sanctity, the reading of scrolls, are all found in pagan art and adapted in the Christian art to express the hope of immortality in Christian terms. Pagan sarcophagi had long carried shells, and portraits of the dead often had shells over the head of the dead, while some put a shell over a grave. Christians and Jews adapted the convention, identifying it with another symbol - the halo. For the Christians who made the catacombs, these symbols were necessary to convey their message.
Many previously pagan holy places were converted to Christian use. In 609 Pope Boniface IV obtained leave from the Byzantine Emperor Phocas to convert the Pantheon in Rome into a Christian church, a practice similar to that recommended eight years earlier by Pope Gregory I to Mellitus regarding Anglo-Saxon holy places, in order to ease the transition to Christianity. According to Willibald's Life of Saint Boniface, about 723, the missioner cut down the sacred Donar's Oak and used the lumber to build a church dedicated to St. Peter. Around 744, Saint Sturm established the monastery of Fulda on the ruins of a 6th-century Merovingian royal camp, destroyed 50 years earlier by the Saxons, at a ford on the Fulda River.
Some claim that Christmas a replacement of the feast of Hanukkah or of the Invincible Sun. But there is no evidence that Sol Invictus was observed anywhere outside of the borders of the Roman Empire. Earliest record of Sol Invictus being celebrated on the 25th of December is from 354 A.D. There is seems to be little evidence to suggest it was celebrated before 4th Century in Rome. But we know that the Syriac Christians were already celebrating Christmas (although it was considered a minor feast leading up to Epiphany) in the last week of their season of Subbara, which falls on December in the Gregorian Calendar. This practice dates from at least the mid-4th Century.
The Philocalian calendar of AD 354, part VI, gives a festival of natalis invicti on 25 December. There is limited evidence that this festival was celebrated before the mid-4th century.
The same Philocalian calendar, part VIII, claims that the Lord Jesus Christ was born eight days before the calends of January (that is, on December 25).
Since the 12th century, there have been speculations that the near-solstice date of 25 December for Christmas was selected because it was the date of the festival of dies natalis solis invicti, but historians of late antiquity make no mention of this, and others speculate Aurelian chose December 25 to shadow early Christian celebrations already on the rise.
Saturnalia was not celebrated on December 25, so why all the fuss about it being link to Christ’s birth.
One very popular misconception about Saturnalia is that it was celebrated on December 25th. This claim has been repeated a million times on the internet, but it is simply not true. In truth, Saturnalia was originally a one-day festival that took place on December 17th, but the holiday was so popular and beloved that, by the first century BCE, it had been extended into a seven-day long festival, which began on December 17th and continued until December 23rd.
The emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BCE – 14 CE) tried to shorten Saturnalia to only three days of celebration, lasting from December 17th to December 19th. Nonetheless, most people continued celebrating after the holiday officially ended, leading later emperors to restore some of the days of celebration that Augustus had removed. The emperor Caligula (ruled 37 – 41 CE) is reported to have extended the festival to five days, lasting from December 17th until December 21st.
Some claim that the title Queen of Heaven that Catholics employ towards Mary the Mother of Jesus is of pagan origins. This claim can not be historically proven.
Queen of Heaven was a title given to a number of ancient sky goddesses worshipped throughout the ancient Mediterranean and the ancient Near East. Goddesses known to have been referred to by the title include Inanna, Anat, Isis, Nut, Astarte, and possibly Asherah (by the prophet Jeremiah). In Greco-Roman times, Hera and Juno bore this title. Forms and content of worship varied. - Queen of Heaven (antiquity)
The term "queen of heaven" appears in a context unrelated to Mary. The prophet Jeremiah, writing c. 628 BC, refers to a "queen of heaven" in chapters 7 and 44 of the Book of Jeremiah when he scolds the people for having "sinned against the Lord" due to their idolatrous practices of burning incense, making cakes, and pouring out drink offerings to her. This title was probably given to Asherah, a Canaanite idol and goddess worshipped in ancient Israel and Judah; and not Mary the mother of Jesus.
Queen of Heaven is a title given to the Virgin Mary, by Christians mainly of the Catholic Church and, to a lesser extent, in Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. The title is a consequence of the First Council of Ephesus in the fifth century, in which Mary was proclaimed Theotokos in Greek, a title rendered in Latin as Deipara or Mater Dei, in English "Mother of God".
In the Hebrew Bible, under some Davidic kings, the gebirah, the "Great Lady", usually the Mother of the King, held great power as advocate with the king. In 1 Kings 2:20, Solomon said to his Mother Bathsheba, seated on a throne at his right, "Make your request, Mother, for I will not refuse you." William G. Most sees here a sort of type of Mary.
A statue of the Assumption of Mary typically crowned with 12 stars. A reflection of the biblical image in Revelation 12. Statue by Attard, Malta.
In the New Testament, the title has several biblical sources. At the Annunciation, the archangel Gabriel announces that [Jesus] "... will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever and his reign will be without end."(Luke 1:32) The biblical precedent in ancient Israel is that the mother of the king becomes the queen mother. Mary's queenship is a share in Jesus’ kingship.
The Catholic Church views Mary as the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12:1–3: "A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads." The Church accepts Revelation 12 as a reference to Mary, Israel, and the Church as a three-fold symbolism through the Book of Isaiah and affirms Mary as the mother of Jesus as the prophetic fulfilment described in Revelation 12 (cf. Isaiah 7:14, 26:17, 54:1, 66:7).
In the Hebrew Bible, the term "queen of heaven" appears in a context unrelated to Mary. The prophet Jeremiah, writing c. 628 BC, refers to a "queen of heaven" in chapters 7 and 44 of the Book of Jeremiah when he scolds the people for having "sinned against the Lord" due to their idolatrous practices of burning incense, making cakes, and pouring out drink offerings to her. This title was probably given to Asherah, a Canaanite idol and goddess worshipped in ancient Israel and Judah. - Queen of Heaven
Mysteries of Isis influences on Christianity are of a very dubious nature. The question of whether they influenced Christianity is controversial and the evidence is unclear.
Some aspects of the mysteries of Isis and of other mystery cults, particularly their connection with the afterlife, resemble important elements of Christianity. The question of whether they influenced Christianity is controversial and the evidence is unclear; some scholars today attribute the similarities to a shared cultural background rather than direct influence.
Possible influence on Christianity
The mysteries of Isis, like those of other gods, continued to be performed into the late fourth century CE. Toward the end of the century, Christian emperors increasingly restricted the practice of non-Christian religions. Mystery cults died out near the start of the fifth century. They existed alongside Christianity for centuries before their extinction, and some elements of their initiations resembled Christian beliefs and practices. As a result, the possibility has often been raised that Christianity was directly influenced by the mystery cults. Evidence about interactions between Christianity and the mystery cults is poor, making the question difficult to resolve.
Most religious traditions in the Greco-Roman world centered on a particular city or ethnic group and did not require personal devotion, only public ritual. In contrast, the cult of Isis, like Christianity and some other mystery cults, was made up of people who joined voluntarily, out of their personal commitment to a deity that many of them regarded as superior to all others. Furthermore, if Isiac initiates were thought to benefit in the afterlife from Osiris's death and resurrection, this belief would parallel the Christian belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus make salvation available to those who become Christians.
Some scholars have specifically compared baptism with the Isiac initiation described by Apuleius. Before the early fourth century CE, baptism was the culmination of a long process, in which the convert to Christianity fasted for the forty days of Lent before being immersed at Easter in a cistern or natural body of water. Thus, like the mysteries of Isis, early Christian baptism involved a days-long fast and a washing ritual. Both fasting and washing were common types of ritual purification found in the religions of the Mediterranean, and Christian baptism was specifically derived from the baptism of Jesus and Jewish immersion rituals. Therefore, according to Hugh Bowden, these similarities are likely to come from the shared religious background of Christianity and the Isis cult, not from the influence of one tradition upon the other.
Similarly, the sacred meals shared by the initiates of many mystery cults have been compared with the Christian rite of communion. For instance, the classicist R. E. Witt called the banquet that concluded the Isiac initiation "the pagan Eucharist of Isis and Sarapis". Feasts in which worshippers ate the food that had been sacrificed to a deity were a nearly universal practice in Mediterranean religions and do not prove a direct link between Christianity and the mysteries of Isis. The most distinctive trait of Christian communion—the belief that the god himself was the victim of the sacrifice—was not present in the cult, or in any other mystery cults.
Bowden doubts that afterlife beliefs were a very important aspect of mystery cults and therefore thinks their resemblance to Christianity was small. Jaime Alvar, in contrast, argues that the mysteries of Isis, along with those of Mithras and Cybele, did involve beliefs about salvation and the afterlife that resembled those in Christianity. But they did not become similar by borrowing directly from each other, only by adapting in similar ways to the Greco-Roman religious environment. He says: "Each cult found the materials it required in the common trough of current ideas. Each took what it needed and adapted these elements according to its overall drift and design."
I'm fairly sure this answer presents a view that will be very unlike the others, and will generate many objections. So to save time, I'll simply give a brief summary of the idea.
Some answers will say that the early Roman Church adopted many pagan practices, giving them Christian names, in order to attract new converts (syncretism). For instance, many statues and other depictions of Isis and Apollo were simply renamed to represent Mary and Jesus, and many local festivities were allowed to continue, but in the spirit of Christianity rather than their pagan origins.
But what really happened is the exact opposite. The existing pagan church wasn't absorbed by Christianity. Instead, the pagan church applied Christian nomenclature to its own practices and beliefs in order to suppress the true Christian religion, which was growing rapidly and seen as a threat. Those that continued to follow the original biblical religion were branded as Judaizers and persecuted.
Eventually paganism, rebranded with biblical terms, became what the world now considers to be Christianity. For 2000 years, true Christianity has survived only as small isolated groups.
Almost all of what is now called Christianity is pagan in origin.
- the fish-head hat worn by Dagon against the mitre.
- statues of Isis against statues of Mary, including as a madonna and child.
- images of Apollo against those of Jesus.
- Mithras and sun-worship against Christmas.
- Constantine's "In this sign you shall conquer" against a sundog phenomonon.
- Representations of the sun against various forms of the cross.
- Ancient fertility rites against Easter celebrations.
And what could be more blatant than the Egyptian obelisk that forms the centrepiece of St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.
A few years ago I wrote an illustrated summary of this: A Very Short History of Nominal-Christianity. It is totally lacking in references and other scholarly attributes, but it might give you a few ideas that you can research yourself.