According to most references, Gregory urged Abbot Mellitus to "ease" the transition of converts into the British church by usurping practices and festivals from pagan religions.
As an example, here's a quote from a Wikipedia article on "Anglo-Saxon paganism."
. . . Christianization involved the co-opting of original folk culture into a Christian context, including the conversion of pagan sacred sites and feast days into Christian ones.
The article goes on to quote part of Gregory's notorious letter to Mellitus as "proof" of this assertion, without bothering to admit that the letter actually says nothing about "converting pagan feast days into Christian ones."
Christian usurpation of pagan practices was a popular theme of European anthropologists in the 1800s, by the way, leading them to search for pre-Christian elements in every aspect of Christian faith and practice. That's one reason so many people were glad to canonize Jacob Grimm's unsupported hypothesis that virtually all modes by which Europeans celebrated the Resurrection were stolen from the worship of an ancient Teutonic deity that Grimm for all intents and purposes invented in 1835.
Anthropologists have long since recognized that their nineteenth-century predecessors were claiming connections that were never there. But the notion that most or all Christian practices are just recycled pagan practices has survived in popular culture, especially among devotees of Neo-Pagan or New Age religions. In addition, once this sort of "urban legend" takes root in academic reference works, it's nearly impossible to dislodge.
By misrepresenting and misquoting Gregory's letter, Neo-Pagans and others have sought to boost their allegation that most European modes of celebrating Jesus' Resurrection, including colored eggs and egg-bringing rabbits, were "stolen" from ancient Teutonic cultures such as the Saxons in Britain.
The problems with attempts to use this bit of "evidence" to prove such claims are manifold:
As you go through the following translations, notice that there is no mention of borrowing modes or even dates of worship.
Of course some folks would be disturbed by what seems to be a command to seize another religion's temples. But Mellitus was working his way through Britain one fiefdom, duchy, or kingdom at a time. He had no military support, so he was in no danger of seizing anything by force. The question facing Mellitus and people like him was: once a community is converted, should the now-neglected temple be torn down and a new church constructed, or would he be safe reusing the temple once it had been cleansed? Gregory's direction reflects his opinion that reusing the temple as a church might make the Saxon converts feel more at ease in the place. One benefit to archaeologists is that a number of pre-Christian structures are standing today which would otherwise have been torn down or crumbled from disuse centuries ago.
Recommending reuse of standing structures and introducing Christian-themed festivals on dates already established in the church calendar is a long way from saying that Gregory urged Mellitus to co-opt pagan practices and iconography, as many imply he did.
The original manuscript of Gregory's letter has long been lost. But we do have manuscripts of one of Bede's books that claims to quote that letter.
The following translation is an excerpt from Fordham University's online translation of Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. It's a very literal translation, and therefore a little hard to wade through. For that reason, we've included an easier translation, also from Fordham, below this one.
[Bede's Introduction the Letter:] The aforesaid messengers being departed, the holy father, Gregory, sent after them letters worthy to be preserved in memory, wherein he plainly shows what care he took of the salvation of our nation. The letter was as follows -
"To his most beloved son, the Abbot Mellitus; Gregory, the servant of the servants of God. We have been much concerned, since the departure of our congregation that is with you, because we have received no account of the success of your journey. When, therefore, Almighty God shall bring you to the most reverend Bishop Augustine, our brother, tell him what I have, upon mature deliberation on the affair of the English, determined upon, viz., that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let holy water be made and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed.
For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more familiarly resort to the places to which they have been accustomed. And because they have been used to slaughter many oxen in the sacrifices to devils, some solemnity must be exchanged for them on this account, as that on the day of the dedication, or the nativities of the holy martyrs, whose relics are there deposited, they may build themselves huts of the boughs of trees, about those churches which have been turned to that use from temples, and celebrate the solemnity with religious feasting, and no more offer beasts to the Devil, but kill cattle to the praise of God in their eating, and return thanks to the Giver of all things for their sustenance; to the end that, whilst some gratifications are outwardly permitted them, they may the more easily consent to the inward consolations of the grace of God.
For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps. Thus the Lord made Himself known to the people of Israel in Egypt; and yet He allowed them the use of the sacrifices which they were wont to offer to the Devil, in his own worship; so as to command them in his sacrifice to kill beasts, to the end that, changing their hearts, they might lay aside one part of the sacrifice, whilst they retained another; that whilst they offered the same beasts which they were wont to offer, they should offer them to God, and not to idols; and thus they would no longer be the same sacrifices. This it behooves your affection to communicate to our aforesaid brother, that he, being there present, may consider how he is to order all things. God preserve you in safety, most beloved son."
Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.
Further, since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice, they should receive some solemnity in exchange. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on the feast of the martyrs whose relics are preserved in them, build themselves huts around their one-time temples and celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds....
Mention this to our brother the bishop, that he may dispose of the matter as he sees fit according to the conditions of time and place.
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