Recently, a Christian acquaintance told me that her family doesn’t celebrate Christmas at all. How sad. I felt sorry for her children. I can understand trying to celebrate differently than the secular materialistic way that is typical in our culture (my family certainly does), but to skip it entirely seems almost disrespectful of our Lord. This family does celebrate their kids’ birthdays; why not the birth of their Savior? Along with Easter, it is a crucial Christian event. The incarnation is vital to our Faith, a pivotal moment that changes everything. We didn’t get into the why of their decision not to celebrate, but I suspect it’s similar to what I’ve heard before: Christmas is really pagan in origin. But is that true?
I’ve never been bothered by this idea that the date for Christmas and several of its holiday traditions were, or might have been, co-opted from various pagan traditions. Christ surely has the power to redeem and baptize anything. Unless you’re Jewish, your ancestors were once pagan. I don’t think the “it was once pagan, has its origins in paganism, therefore it is still evil and Christians should have nothing to do with it!” argument matters much. I’d never bothered to do much reading up about it, but since it seems to matter a lot to some people, I thought I’d do a little research. Just a little turns up some interesting answers, like this: maybe it was the pagans who were co-opting celebration ideas from the Christians, not the other way around. It turns out that Christmas Isn’t Secretly Pagan at all.
The point is, it’s Christmas… The time of the year when we celebrate the miracle of the God of the universe being born as a tiny child! When we marvel at the incarnation and prepare for the glorious Second Coming! When we meditate on the mystery of God becoming man so that man can become like God! Or, actually, none of that. Since, as you’ve probably heard, CHRISTMAS IS SECRETLY A PAGAN HOLIDAY.
…or, at least, this is what you frequently hear from a strange, motley, seasonal coalition of atheists, Neo-Pagans, and fundamentalist Christians who seem intent on making sure that nobody (except maybe them) has any fun in December. The 25th isn’t actually Jesus’s birthday, it’s the Saturnalia! Or the Sol Invictus! Or… something (you can choose from a cornucopia of completely made-up December 25 celebrations if you’re one of the enlightened few who’ve seen the faux-documentary Zeitgeist)! When you put up a tree, you’re not worshiping Jesus, YOU’RE SECRETLY WORSHIPING SATURN OR WODEN OR THE SUN OR SATAN OR WOOD GNOMES OR LIKE THE BUBBLE GUPPIES OR SOMETHING.
Your entire religion is founded on a pile of LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIES!
If you actually dig into the primary sources from the era of early Christianity, you’ll find no evidence at all that Christmas was “stolen” from pagan solstice festivals, and at least some evidence that the exact opposite occurred. Everyone living today may think Christmas is the ripoff, but it’s actually the original…
There are two pagan festivals that are usually pointed to as the origin of Christmas, but the evidence for both is pretty thin. The first choice is usually the Saturnalia, the Roman celebration of the god Saturn, which does pre-date Christmas, but leaves one big, gaping hole in the plot: the Saturnalia kicked off on December 17 every year, and only went up to the 23rd—so if Christmas began as an attempt by Christians to co-opt the Saturnalia, they were literally two days late to the party. Telling people to fast when their friends are partying and then party when their friends are nursing hangovers makes for a lousy way to ease the transition from paganism to Christianity, if that was the intent.
The other usual suspect is the Sol Invictus, the “Feast of the Unconquered Sun,” which looks like a better choice at first, since it did actually take place on December 25. The problem with the Sol Invictus, though, is that literally no one celebrated it until Roman emperor Aurelian instituted it in A.D. 274, and Christian references to Christ’s birth falling on December 25 date all the way back to the early A.D. 200s. So if anyone was stealing holidays from anyone, you pretty much have to conclude the pagans were stealing them from the Christians.
The reality is… there is plenty of evidence that the selection of the date was nothing other than a good-faith attempt by early Christians to discern the actual date of his birth. Sources from the early Christian era show a great deal of debate among Christian thinkers over the most likely day for the nativity, and while a lot of the reasoning is fairly convoluted, none of it acknowledges anything the pagans may or may not have been doing. In brief, the reasoning that appears to have won the day goes like this:
- It was generally agreed that Jesus died on March 25. (Because there were half a dozen competing calendars in the first century A.D., it’s hard to say that with a lot of certainty, but there it is. The second-most-popular choice for the date was April 6.)
- There was a popular belief in first-century Christianity and Judaism that all true prophets died on the same day they were conceived. This meant that March 25 was also the date of Christ’s conception. (This is why, for those of you following the liturgical calendar, the Feast of the Anunciation falls on March 25, unless March 25 falls in Holy Week, in which case… never mind.)
- Adding nine months to March 25 gets you December 25. (Then, mostly because of the March 25 / April 6 controversy, Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the magi, was set nine months after April 6, on January 6, as a sort of compromise…)
So there it is. Convoluted, sure, but not “stolen from the pagans…” And even if you don’t buy that particular explanation for the date, you still have to contend with the fact that there’s no evidence at all of early Christians plotting to co-opt pagan holidays. So, if that’s the case, how did we arrive at the “everybody-knows” factoid of Christmas being a re-purposed pagan festival?
As usual with questions like this, the answer turns out to be “Englightenment-era Protestants just making stuff up.”
The idea that Christmas is OMG SECRETLY PAGAN comes not from first-millennium sources, but from Paul Ernst Jablonski, an 18th-century Calvinist theologian and amateur historian who (like all good Calvinists) was looking to discredit the Catholic Church. Without citing any real evidence, he just sort of asserted the stuff about Christmas being a re-skin of the Sol Invictus and called it a day. A lot of people—including some Catholics—just took him at face value on this, and the rest, as they say, is pseudo-history. But, as popular as Jablonski’s ideas managed to get, no one has ever been able to cite any real evidence for them.
None of that is to say that Christmas didn’t absorb any pagan customs (of course it did—just like Hanukkah has absorbed some Christmas-y customs), or that Christians were the first people in history to bring trees inside and cover them in sparkly things…
There are even more reasons to be found as to why Dec. 25 was set as the date to celebrate Christ’s Mass such as how the date can be tied to Zechariah’s serving in the Temple and the subsequent conception of St. John the Baptist, and that early church fathers such as St. John Chrysostom (c.344-407) were certain that Dec. 25 was the date of the Nativity and referred to historical records in Rome as proof (since destroyed by barbarian invasions of Rome). See more here and here and here.