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Growing up I was taught that the date of Christmas, December 25th, was a borrowed pagan festival. I couldn’t tell you exactly when or where, but I remember being told (more than a few times) that there were a myriad of ancient pagan festivals like Sol Invictus, Saturnalia, Brumalia, and European feasts like Yule, that also took place on the 25th of December.

“The Christians,” the narrative went, “moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to the place of these other pagan festivities in order to make it easier for converts and/or to encourage pagans to convert.”

In many ways this story made sense. Why not supersede, redeem, and cover-up the former pagan festivals with a Christian celebration? Christen and baptize these already celebrated days with a new meaning that moved new and inquiring Christians away from the darkness of their former heathen worship and fill it with light?

I was sometimes told, certain pagan activities were inevitably smuggled in, sometimes purposefully and other times completely unintentionally. Christmas trees, holly, wreathes, and so on, were all grandfathered trappings of a previous pagan context, forgotten and replaced. These decorations were incorporated into Christmas and over time their original meaning was lost and simply associated with the Christian celebration rather than their former pagan beginnings.

All of that, however, is bogus.

Where does the “pagan Christmas” idea come from?

If we turn back the pages of history and look into the first-hand sources, none of the modern traditions associated with Christmas today turn out to be some lost trapping of a long forgotten and profane past.

If you tried to get to the origin of these accusations you would find that their beginnings prove more modern than ancient. A lot of the blame falls on a Free Church of Scotland minister and certain concerns expressed by the Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Puritans were well intentioned and undoubtedly pious. However, in their zeal to pursue truth they did not always get it right. The rowdy and undisciplined celebrations that accompanied Christmas concerned the Puritans greatly (probably for the right reasons), but where the Puritans’ motivation might have been well intentioned their solution to the perceived problem, at least on this topic, turned out to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Meanwhile, a Scottish minister named Alexander Hislop, in the late nineteenth century, also waged his own case against Christmas. Hislop wrote a pamphlet in 1853 titled The Two Babylons, which was eventually expanded into a book of the same name. In his book Hislop argued that Roman Catholicism found its beginning as a Babylonian mystery cult, established during the Emperor Constantine’s rule in the fourth century.

Hislop argued that traditions like Christmas trees found their way into the modern world from Europe, but that the Europeans had adopted them from Roman paganism who in turn appropriated them from the ancient Babylonians. Hislop’s work has a conspicuous lack of citations for any of these assertions and prefers to make statements rather than provide any sources.

Nonetheless, many (if not all) of the detractions concerning modern Christmas celebrations and traditions can be traced to these two sources: Puritan skepticism or Hislopian condemnation.

The earliest mention of customs like Christmas trees are actually ascribed to Martin Luther. The story goes that during a winter evening stroll Luther was overcome by the brilliance of the stars in the night sky, painting the background over the evergreen forests. In order to capture that moment Luther cut down and erected a tree in the main hall of their house, covering its branches with lighted candles (Bruce David Forbes, Christmas, a Candid History, 50).

Santa, wreaths, mistletoe, and many other modern Christmas traditions may not necessarily have much to do with the ancient Christian celebration, but they also don’t have anything to do with overt paganism.

I don’t doubt that the Reformed Puritans and Alexander Hislop himself were well intentioned in their desire to weed-out paganism from Christian belief and practice (aside, of course, from Hislop’s fabrication of nearly all of ancient history). However, their understandings of many of the traditions they endeavoured to critique were often shallow, misguided, or fabricated wholesale.

Some of these critiques against Christmas sound like they could be spoken from the pages of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, where very similar accusations are made. For example, Sir Leigh Teabing, the distinguished professor from Dan Brown’s novel, retorts that “Nothing in Christianity is original! The pre-Christian god Mithras — called the Son of God and the Light of the World — was born on December 25th” (The Da Vinci Code, 55.28-29).

Brown thus portrays early Christianity as a group who were knowingly and purposefully appropriating the traditions of the pagans in order to coerce them into conversion. In their effort to win out against both the pagans and the growing Christian heresies, early Christianity is depicted as somewhat of a predatory religious movement, willing to dismantle and appropriate other cults for its own growth and wellbeing.

However, if you actually study what really took place within early Christianity that portrayal couldn’t be any further from the truth. To be sure Christianity did stand its ground against paganism and heretical factions, but their portrayal as a the proverbial religious bully on the playground is complete fiction.

What does the historical record tell us?

The reality is that modern Christmas traditions are far less sensational and nefarious than all that and the date was not stolen from neighbouring pagans. It is true that many other pagan festivals did happen around the Winter Solstice, but correlation does not equal causation and when it comes to paganism and Christmas the evidence for causation is very weak.

While there were other festivals taking place on ancient Roman and European calendars, these had nothing to do with the Christians’ choice for choosing December 25th as the date to celebrate the incarnation.

The origin of December 25th as the date for Christmas finds its beginnings in the late second and early third century with the historian Sextus Julius Africanus. Africanus, wrote a volume titled Chronographiai, an early Christian treatise that attempted to chronologically cover world history from creation to his own day. Based on calculations from his reading of Luke and Matthew’s Gospels, Africanus concluded that Jesus was conceived on March 25th. For the birth then, he counted nine months ahead which landed him on the date of December 25th (Sextus Julius Africanus, De solstitia et aequinoctiaconceptionis et nativitatis Domini nostri Iesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae).

Africanus wasn’t alone on his dating of Jesus’ birth. A contemporary of Africanus, Hippolytus of Rome, wrote a commentary on the book of Daniel in the early third century in which he too states that Jesus was born on December 25th (Hippolytus of Rome, Commentary on Daniel 4.23.3.).

It is true that Sol Invictus, the festival commemorating the Roman sun God, fell on December 25th. However, our earliest inscriptions concerning this festival place it at the beginning of December not at the end. In his work The Origins of the Liturgical Year, historian Thomas Talley argues that “[i]t is more likely that the Roman Emperor Aurelian moved Sol Invictus to December 25th to compete with the growing rate of Christianity” (The Origins of the Liturgical Year, 88-91).

Talley makes the interesting observation that by the third and fourth centuries Christianity was on the clear rise and adherents to traditional Roman paganism was in a free-fall. The trajectory of this shift in religious practice actually started a century earlier with the Roman magistrate Pliny the Younger. Pliny noted (potentially hyperbolically) that the Roman temples were being left empty due to so many Roman citizens becoming converts to Christianity (P.T.Y. Epistle to Trajan).

Julian, who was Roman Emperor for three years in the fourth century, writes about his frustration with the lack of Roman religious devotion to idols, and specifically blames the Christians for this pagan crisis of faith (Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae).

All this data leaves us with a quandary: is it more likely that within the third and fourth centuries the growing numbers of Christians copied the pagans, whose adherents were on a sharp decline, in some last-ditch effort to convert holdouts? Or, on the other hand, did the desperate pagans copy the Christians whose faith and practice was growing in popularity? Based on all of the available evidence more and more ancient historians are pointing to the latter conclusion being the reality.

Apart from Sol Invictus, which appears to have been placed on December 25th after the Christians had already acknowledged that as the date of Jesus’ birth, none of the other ancient pagan feasts and festivals fall on that date. Around it, to be sure, but not on it. Saturnalia, for example, was celebrated 14 days before January. Keeping in mind that the ancient Roman calendar at the time had two more days in their month of December than ours today, that places Saturnalia on December 17th.

The Brumalia and Bacchus feasts were likewise celebrated earlier in the season, in late November. Seeing as all of these would fall before the date of December 25th then if they were an attempt to copy and replace pagan festivals they would have been doing a poor job at it. The pagans could have just as easily celebrated their traditional pagan holidays in the days and months leading up to December 25th and simply tacked Christmas on the end, not a replacement but an addition (which did not happen).

In reality the Christians had been recognizing and celebrating the incarnation and Jesus’ birth for decades before we start to see firm designations for other pagan celebrations on December 25th. In AD 386, John Chrysostom says that Christmas was being celebrated on December 25th and describes it as a “long time tradition” (John Chrysostom, Homily on the Date of Christmas). The Philocalian Calendar, a document produced in AD 354 for a wealthy Roman Christian named Valentinus, has Christmas listed as a holiday on December 25th.

Where does that leave us?

Nowhere in Scripture does it tell us to celebrate Jesus’ birth, that’s true. However, just because the Bible never specifically commands us to celebrate it does not mean that we shouldn’t. Jesus himself travelled to Jerusalem, as recorded in John 10, to celebrate the feast of dedication — better known today as Hanukkah.

This celebration came from the 2nd century BC, commemorating the recovery of Jerusalem and subsequent dedication of the Second Temple at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt.

Hanukkah is not a celebration that the Bible says for God’s people to participate in. It comes from the inter-testimental period, the time between the last book of the Old Testament and the first book of the New Testament.

Jesus has no problem travelling to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of dedication. Despite it not being commanded in Scripture it is fully consistent with Scripture. Why wouldn’t you make a celebration out of an event that represented God’s work in the world and the preservation and redemption of His people? In a very similar way, why would’t we celebrate the incarnation and the birth of Christ?

Secondly, the incarnation and birth of Christ is — along with Jesus’ death and resurrection — the most awesome event in all of human history. Why wouldn’t we want to carve out some specific time to celebrate such an amazing event? Why wouldn’t we purposefully set aside a time of the year like Advent, to build up to the exception of our coming saviour?

Finally, why don’t we take a cue from the Apostle Paul, when he writes to the church in Corinth concerning those who were worried about eating meat sacrificed to idols:

“Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).

God made everything good, and just because someone tries to corrupt and twist something like a cut of meat, or for that matter a pine tree, it doesn’t mean that they’re successful. Even if  something has a meaning to a pagan it does not mean that is then also how God sees it.

No modern Christmas tradition can draw a strait line to any clear and decisive pagan origin.

At the end of the day I would never advise someone to go against their conscience. If you are reading this and you truly believe that modern Christmas practices are something you don’t want to be part of, that’s fine. I have no problem with that and the purpose of this type of article is not to coerce anybody who feels uneasy about celebrating this or any other holiday.

I simply desire to point out that as Christians we are followers of the truth, and the truth of the matter regarding this topic is that no modern Christmas tradition can draw a strait line to any clear and decisive pagan origin.

Finally, as Paul commends both his ancient and modern audience, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day” (Colossians 1:16).

Merry (non pagan) Christmas.

 


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