Is Christmas stolen from the Pagans?

Image from Calamities of Nature

Read a thorough debunking of this old chestnut here, on a pagan forum, of all places (the claims to which the writer is responding are in bold).

First of all, based on a more careful reading of the nativity stories, as found in the New Testament, it is very unlikely that the historical Jesus was born in December to begin with (winters in Judea tend to be very cold, and shepherds are described as tending their sheep in the fields; the two definitely don’t go together).

Had you expanded your careful reading a little bit, you’d be aware that Christmas is “the Feast of the Nativity,” not “Jesus’s Birthday.” While modern fundamentalists typically claim it’s Jesus’s ACTUAL birthday because they’re theologically and historically ignorant, mainline denominations have never so claimed.

It is well known that the Romans celebrated Saturnalia around the 25th, while in later centuries it was the holiday of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus), the chief holiday of one of the most important cults of the late Empire (one held in special regard by such emperors as Constantine and Julian “the Apostate” and also one extremely popular among the Roman soldiers who spread the cult, along with Mithraism all over the Empire).

This fails to take into account movement of the dates relative to the solar year and relative to the calendar due to adjustments to the Julian calendar, the creation of leap-year and 10-day readjustment in the middle ages, and the switch from Julian to Gregorian calendars. But it would be a really nice argument if it were true! Christmas used to be somewhat different in date-relationship to Saturnalia and the solstice. (Also, you’ve failed to provide any support whatsoever for the assertion that coincidence in time equals shared origins.)

The pagans of northern Europe celebrated (and continue to celebrate) Yule at that time, long before Jesus was born and most of present-day Christmas customs, including carols, Christmas tree etc. have, beyond any doubt, origins in Celtic or Germanic winter solstice customs.

Here again we have a “yes, but.” You’ve failed to provide an important connecting point: Did Christians have contact with northern Europeans at the time of the setting of the date for Christmas? In fact, no. Christmas was set near the date of Yule before Christians were evangelizing northern Europeans or, according to extant evidence, had any meaningful contact with that culture. (And again, you’ve failed to provide support for the assertion that coincidence in time equals shared origins.)

Furthermore, the “present-day Christmas customs” you cite are NOT universal Christmas customs by any stretch of the imagination. They are NORTHERN EUROPEAN Christmas customs. Christianity has always engaged in what’s called “inculturation” in theological jargon – the acceptance of aspects of local culture into church customs. For example, in Hawai’i, hula is used in church celebrations because of its importance in local culture.

Others can talk about carols better, but carols-qua-carols didn’t appear until the middle ages, so I’m not really sure how you’re claiming Northern European pagans fit into that. Many Christian hymns are set to older tunes, but again, that was common cultural custom. And most of the tunes are medieval themselves.

As for trees, I have a terrifically boring revelation for you: Since the second century, churches (formal separate buildings or informal house churches) were “required” (in quotes because the authority structure was quite informal until the 10th century or so) to have green plants in the church as an expression of creation and new life. For all services, not just special ones. You can go into any Catholic Church today for a service and there will always be plants except on Good Friday. (And if not, they ought to be reported to the bishop; it’s liturgical law and they’re breaking it.)

If you’re in Northern Europe, and it’s late December, and you’re required to have greenery in your church, what are you going to use?

Oh, right – fir trees, evergreen boughs, and holly.

Which is probably, more or less, the same theological justification for their use in pagan winter celebrations.

The reason Christmas trees are so popular as a symbol of the season is because Hallmark is a company coming out of a Northern European-derived culture that maintains those Christmas traditions. Prior to 1950, Italians would have looked at you like you had two heads if you tried to give them Christmas trees. (Well, there are evergreens in Italy too and some were used as Christmas decor, but not exclusively because there’s other greenery available during that season, so there’s not the same strong association of Christmas with firs. Lots of cultures prefer Christmas lilies. In Northern Europe, lilies had to be confined to Easter.)

It wasn’t until 350 CE that the Church of Rome declared December 25 as the day of “Christ’s” birth, in order to ease the process of converting pagans to this new religion. The same process is clearly visible in Easter and other main Christian holidays. So rather than being Christian holidays with added pagan symbolism, it is more accurate to say that they are Christianized pagan holidays.

Oooooh, brilliant! You’ve hit all my favorite calendrical myths in one paragraph!

Point the first: Easter is not set according to any Pagan date, which should be immediately obvious to even the most casual observer. Easter is set according to THE DATE OF PASSOVER because Jesus’s crucifixion coincided with Passover. Prior to the 9th century, Jews (who use a luni-solar calendar; that is, a lunar calendar with solar corrections so it doesn’t “march backwards” around the year with way the Islamic calendar does, because several Jewish feasts are agricultural in nature and that’s silly when it turns up in the wrong season) set the date of Passover and certain other important dates, including beginnings of months, based on actual physical sightings of the moon (as Muslims still do today). (The reasons Jews went to an astronomical calendar in the 9th and 10th centuries – it was a process, not an event – has largely to do with the diaspora and slow communication that made it difficult for one rabbi to tell ALL the Jews when to start the month.)

For Christians, this presented a problem after their asses were booted from the Temple prior to its destruction in 70ish CE. (There’s some debate but it doesn’t actually matter for our purposes.) As Christianity became more and more Gentile, and diverged from Judaism even in areas where Jewish Christians were the norm, they had to find their own way of setting the date of Easter, since the Jewish authorities were no longer willing to “share” the calendar-setting info with the apostates, and the Gentiles were ever-farther away from Jerusalem.

The debate began almost as soon as Christ’s death, and by 180 AD there were two firm camps: one that wanted the date always to fall on Nisan 14, which could be any day of the week, and one that wanted the date to always fall on the Sunday closest to Nisan 14. There’s an important theological point to this, which has to do with the Saturday sabbath as the seventh day, and Sunday as the first. Since Jesus was arose on a Sunday and this made a “new” Creation, Sunday became both the 8th day (fruition of God’s plan in Creation) and the 1st day (new Creation). Weekly Sunday celebrations were conceived as “little Easters” – smaller celebrations on every 1st/8th day of the week to commemorate the resurrection and new creation and fulfillment of God’s promises. So to put Easter on a NOT-Sunday, argued one side of the debate, was to reject this important theological point. But to put it on NOT-Nisan 14, argued the other side, was to reject the actual commemoration of the historical date. By the third century, Christian/Jewish relations were getting relatively ugly, and Sunday won out.

Different systems developed, but the one that eventually was adopted for setting the date of Easter so that it would be near Passover and universal across a church that could take a long time to communicate, but didn’t require Jewish assistance in sighting the moon, was to set Easter for the first Sunday after the first (astronomical) full moon after the spring equinox. This is basically how the Jewish luni-solar calendar corrects itself, using the equinoxes, so this puts Easter within a week of Passover.

According to their calculations on the Julian calendar, early Church calendar obsessives thought that Jesus was crucified on March 25. (Tertullian, who was notably bad at calendar math and was in fact wrong, was the first to say so, although it’s clear the date of March 25 was important to Christians prior to that because of earlier extant texts and Tertullian’s obsession with fitting the calendar to that date.) This must mean, they decided round about AD 220, that because Jesus was in all way perfect, his life began on the same date. So they set the date for Jesus’s conception on March 25. Which means that his BIRTH, because Jesus is an all ways perfect, had to be EXACTLY nine months after the conception. (These are already celibate monks. Nine months is as good an approximation for a “perfect” pregnancy duration as we’re going to get from them.) This put the celebration of Jesus’s birth on Dec. 25.

(early authorities, incidentally, suggest the actual physical date of Jesus’s birth was around 25 Pachon/20 May in 28 Augustus. But Jesus was a nobody in a backwater, so who was really keeping track?)

Although, in point of fact, the earlier celebration is Epiphany, dating back at least to the 2nd century and extant texts suggest even earlier, which celebrates the revelation of Christ to the magi. We’re not entirely clear why Epiphany was January 6, but it wasn’t until your magic date of 350 CE that Christmas was broken out from the earlier and holier date of Epiphany. The 25th – 12 days before the 6th – was chosen for a variety of reasons, including that it was 9 months after Tertullian’s magic date March 25 (now firmly the Feast of the Annunciation), and that it beautifully fit with the happy number of 12 (apostles, etc.). However, the elements of the Christmas liturgies existed in the Epiphany liturgies long before the 350 CE breakout.

Finally, to reiterate, Christmas is NOT “Jesus’s Birthday.” It is “The Feast of the Nativity.” Feasts mean we CELEBRATE it on that day, not that we believe it actually HAPPENED on that day. (Otherwise “The Feast of St. Thomas More” would be quite silly, because how could he himself occur entirely on that day?)

So, to sum up: Christian calendar dates based on Jewish calendar dates, quasi-mystical beliefs about perfection, and sometimes crappy math.

Easter is the earliest celebration, and the setting of its date has zero relationship to anything but Jewish celebrations (and again, if you have done a “careful reading,” this should be utterly obvious). Most other early Christian calendar dates are based off Easter, with the exception of the mysterious date-preference of Epiphany. (Moreover, in terms of importance of the holidays, it goes Easter, Epiphany, Lent, THEN Christmas. Christmas is low man on the liturgical totem pole.)

To cut a long story short, neither is it Christ’s actual birthday, nor the customs have anything to do with Jesus or Christian doctrine. Everything about is far more pagan than it could ever be Christian, which is, again, why I don’t have any problems with celebrating it.

And to sum up the entire post, your assertions are wrong in almost all particulars. It appears to me that you have a particular bias – that Christianity is Pagan-derived – and that you have set out to only consider evidence that proves your belief. A truly careful examination of extant evidence would have shown you how baseless your assertions are. Even a cursory examination of the Bible and a glance at the modern calendar might have clued you in to Easter’s dating basis, so your assertion that Easter’s date is Pagan-based leads me to conclude that you’ve looked at evidence with serious blinders on that only allowed you to consider things that proved your biases.

Finally, your last sentence is UNBELIEVABLY rude and presumptuous. Would you like it if a Christian walked into your holy day and said, “Well, everything here is obviously Christian-derived, even if you’re too stupid to know it.”? Why do you feel comfortable being so dismissive about my holy day, and being so rude about my level of intellect? Do you really feel comfortable telling a billion and a half Christians that they’re ACTUALLY celebrating a Pagan holiday and just haven’t noticed? Or do you think it’s remotely possible that EVEN IF any of your assertions had been remotely based in fact and Christmas WERE a Pagan-derived holiday, that those billion and a half Christians were actually managing to celebrate a holy event of their faith, regardless of date?

Does it please you when fundamentalists inform you that even if you don’t know it, you’re actually worshipping Satan? Why, then, do you feel it’s okay to tell me that even if I don’t know it, I’m celebrating a Pagan holiday? Bad form. Very bad form.

You might also be interested to read William Tighe’s more detailed treatment of the dating question, in which he concludes:

Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.

And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the “Sun of Salvation” or the “Sun of Justice.”

The ‘truthiness’ of the ‘Christians stole Christmas from the pagans’ meme to Zeitgeist fans (or to Christian fundamentalists who are leery of the corruptions of Scripture by Church ‘tradition’) notwithstanding, most claims rapidly unravel upon closer examination.

Almost all of these debates about the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ seem to rely on the suspect assumption that the origins of a particular tradition or practice have some privileged claim upon its ‘meaning’ (and the idea that a feast such as Christmas is best understood in terms of what is generally meant by ‘meaning’ sounds fishy to me). I don’t see any reason why the ‘meaning’ of Christmas or any other such feast need be regarded as any more fixed and unchanging than the meanings of words. While there may be good reasons for seeking to preserve certain meanings, the original use of a word does not set in stone its meaning for all time.

Within contemporary Western society, Christmas means more, but considerably less, than the ‘meaning’ Christians find in the feast. The ‘real meaning’ of Christmas in contemporary Britain is shaped by commercialism, pop culture, British and Western European cultural traditions, and many other forces besides Christianity. I don’t believe that we can maintain that Christians have some exclusive claim upon its celebration. Rather than seeking bland acknowledgements of the rightfulness of our claim from an indifferent society, we are better off enjoying the celebration for what it is, while maintaining the peculiar and unique place that the celebration holds in the lives of Christians.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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10 Responses to Is Christmas stolen from the Pagans?

  1. Pingback: Christmas myths and merriment | Curlew River

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  3. Pingback: Does Christmas Have Pagan Origins? | The Western Tradition

  4. Jamie says:

    Actually the whole argument is a wash. The fact that today’s society is still debating useless crap like this is why society is as bad as it is. We have more definitive and arguable evidence for the existence of life on other bodies found with in our own solar system than we do for the existence of JC. It’s arguably a great moral fable and richl

  5. david s says:

    Another excellent resource that examines early Christian references to the Nativity and reasons why December 25th became important to the Church (pre-sol invictus):

  6. Pingback: Most Popular Posts (and a few neglected ones) | Alastair's Adversaria

  7. Warren says:

    As a Christian, I’m not at all offended by your statements and historical accounts stated. I know that Jesus was not even remotely close to being born in December. Early spring time is more factual. His crucifixion and rising from death is merely a best guess and I really don’t care when. I only go along with the holiday celebrations because it’s not important as to the when for me. Man corrupted churches long ago, so I don’t put much stock in their claims. I am a believer of God and Jesus. Man is corrupt and always will be. If God’s love is available for all mankind to freely accept or reject, then why do so many make fortunes from something that is supposed to be free? Greed and corruption along with a certain amount of power and persuasion over people.

    All that being said, Christmas brings a lot of good out of people too, so I’ll take it. It also brings out all the corporate greed and commercialism which I despise.

    Bottom line…. treat people good and fairly. Don’t cheat and steal. That’s all we really want. A person can be that rather a Christian or not. Skin color and culture should never be a factor.

    Nuff said.

  8. Diana says:

    I like this article it clarifies a lot of things to me. Because on twitter some pagans notified me that Christians stole Christmas. So I was having my big doubts until I read this. My belief is that Christmas is a time for all to celebrate. It makes no difference of what your religion is. Sometimes in this world of technology people need to be reminded. I am but a mere Christian who once strayed off the path. My reason to celebrate is I lost a baby on December 3 1990 and Christmas was my late moms favorite Holiday.

  9. Pingback: Let’s Make Juneteenth a National Holiday | Third Ed Novak

  10. Mithra says:

    All religion is garbage. The universe is reality, religion is nonsense.

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