How Pagan is Christmas?
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Believe it or not, there are plenty of Christians who refuse to partake in the festivities of Christmas Day, for not only adherents of other religions (or ‘non-religions’) suspect Christmas to be too pagan for their liking. One author writes,

Nine out of ten Americans celebrate Christmas. (And the 10% who don’t includes strict Christians who reject the holidays in the liturgical calendar on principle.)

Around three-quarters of Hindus and Buddhists in America celebrate Christmas, as do a third of Jews and a significant but undetermined number of Muslims. Even 87% of atheists, agnostics, and other “nones” celebrate Christmas

So, every year, about this time, this becomes a topic of interest — whether or not Christmas is a pagan holiday reappropriated by Christs — as demonstrated once more by a recent Forbes article on the matter.

So, in light of these claims, how pagan is Christmas?1 (December 25th in the West, January 6th in the East). This is not a comprehensive answer, but suggests some leads for interested folks.

Christmas Day compared to Christmas Traditions

But, here at this juncture, it is profitable to make a distinction between Christmas decorations, rituals, practices, and customs, and Christmas day itself. Undoubtedly many current traditions (Christmas trees, yule logs, etc) were derived from Middle-to-Late-Medieval European customs associated with Winter Solstice festivals (generously, c. 600 A.D -1400 A.D).2

Some Christians Purposefully Separated from Pagan Holidays

However, for those who think that Christians simply made their holiday December 25th to correspond with pagan or Roman practices, one should consider that in the Didache (an early Christian document ca. 150 A.D.) says that Christians (likely Egyptian, though our copy of the document was found in Asia Minor) were moving their fast-days away from the days of other religions, so that people would not confuse the two.3

Here’s the passage, from the eighth chapter of that text (discovered 1873). [Linked to Early Christian Writings here]

But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation.

Origen also proclaimed in 245 A.D. that he would rather not celebrate birthdays like temporal rulers.

So, some Christians may have seen this as missional outreach, but other Christians would not have. Rather, they would have wanted to keep Christian holidays separate from non-Christian holidays. Basically, some early Christians often made attempts to distance themselves from Pagan holidays.

Now, such does not exclude the possibility that some Christians in another part of the world may have wanted, but it does go against the grain of the narrative that all Christians habitually accommodated to other religions for the sake of missional outreach. But, how do we account for that December 25 is conveniently close to the Winter Solstice?

Winter Solstice Festivals

Winter Solstice festivals, as we know, are incredibly common. Roman Saturnalia (though specifics could be debated), was probably celebrated between about the 17th to the 25th (maybe depending on the year and the calendar).

Well, remember that Christmas Day in Eastern Churches is by decent standards, not even close to the Winter Solstice (January 6), at least two weeks separation, rather than three days. The mere correspondence to the January 6 date they are both in winter (out of only four seasons, and a plethora of holidays humans could celebrate, not that big of a deal).

However, Christians may have found significance in that Christmas, the holiday which celebrates Jesus called the ‘Light of the World’, coming into the world, being incarnated, would appropriately be celebrated about the time days only get lighter in the natural season.4

Similar Symbolism Does Not Necessitate Same Appropriation

That Christians should find this sort of symbolism significant (the God who created the world and set up the seasons coming into the world), is not to be held against them in accommodating ‘pagan’ practices. Christians would see all truth about the world as pointing to the truth revealed in the resurrection message of Christ.

Early on, Christmas may not have been even specifically commemorated Christmas5 Most early Christian documents simply do not mention it. Jesus’ death took on far more significance, because ultimately Christianity is founded upon Jesus’ resurrection. Of course, resurrection requires birth, but it is like the point of emphasis in the syllable of a word. And, by the year 300, we have no known mention of December 25, but emperor Aurelian in 274 A.D. specifically institutes the feast of Sol Invictus December 25 as a Winter Solstice Festival (note, probably not the founding of the festival, because Livy says the feast was established in 497 B.C., but this is an elevation of this particular festival to a prime place).

Christmas Appears on the 25th of December in the 300’s

Clement (c. 200 A.D.) actually mentions a few times that Christmas is mentioned, and December 25 isn’t even one of them. (Stromateis 1.21.145). The options at the time in Egypt May 20, March 21, April 20-21, April 15 (notice, all Spring). Hippolytus of Rome’s Commentary on Daniel, written in about 202 AD, is the first mention of a feast for Jesus’ birth at all. But, after 300, the birth narrative of Christ seems set in stone to be celebrated in the winter.

336 A.D. First recorded instance of Jesus’ nativity celebrated as a feast on December 25, appears in the Calendar of Filocalus (or Philocalus).

Though Julius, the Bishop of Rome [anachronistically called ‘Pope Julius’], makes the Christmas date official in 350 A.D., it is likely it was celebrated on the 25th at least some time before then. 6

If we just had the date December 25 as a viable Christmas option, one might suspect this is all there is to the story. Christians blatantly copied the Romans. But, remember, we have two independent attestations to Christmas celebration (not the date Jesus was ‘born’ though we celebrate the whole birth narrative – remember the spring dates mentioned above). Rather, we see that Christians actually (corresponding to Christian practices today), consider Jesus’ life to have entered the world the moment he was conceived.7

Christmas is based primarily on the date of Easter, not Pagan Holidays.

Remember, ancient Christians, like most modern Christians thought life started at conception. Well, nine months after April 6th, or March 25th, is December 25th/January 6th. Both traditions demonstrate both geographical strands of Christianity (East and West) used the same method and got divergent results based upon slightly different starting points. Their slight diversity, with inherent similarities (like the Gospels) attests to proof of concept. Even though this is a strange idea, and does not correspond to modern, naturalistic ideals, it is not illicit speculation, despite its lack of probable verity.8

Conclusions

So, what was the Church’s intent on choosing December 25 (and/or January 6)? Likely, it was influenced, but not determined by Pagan practices near the solstice, but the universal human symbolism of nature combined with Jewish practice of regarding holy men as conceived the same day they died. Therefore, the Christian borrowing of pagan traditions from other cultures should not be bothersome.

The irony is that some of the same people critiquing Christianity for borrowing traditions, and possibly even the day, of other religions are the people who promote inclusivism of other cultures the most. Christianity is founded upon appreciating what is good in the world and enjoying the goodness of God, the creativity of humanity, and even traditions which were born in pagan contexts can be cleansed and purified by the blood of Christ.

However, it is only when these traditions return to point to their untrue, unworthful, impotent, deities that Christians have a problem with them and must take a stand against them. In this sense, Christianity purifies good human, creative acts and traditions, not is stained by them. These diverse Christians emphasize the diversity of cultures and practices, not detracts from them.

So, arguing weaker to strong, Christmas Day should not be considered pagan in origin or practice because

(a) some Christians would rather not celebrate these events close to pagan holidays [in ancient and modern times]. This demonstrates Christmas day could exist apart from December 25th. (and does in Eastern traditions of January 6th)

(b) At least some Christians knew Jesus was born in the spring, but the next problem of celebrating Jesus’ birth in the Spring (when it was known to be), is that it is too close to Easter [pragmatically, you can’t have so many celebrations in a row].

(c) one can establish an event on the same day as a rival, viewed-as-wholesome event, not merely as an acceptable alternative, but as a rival that causes or challenges the former. Christians may have put their holiday on the same day to rival the pagan day (and the Roman Emperor may have made the December 25 date in 274 A.D. primary in order to challenge the known, increasing influence of Christians)

(d) Christmas likely reappropriates the same symbolism found in some pagan traditions [least light of day in the year, to brighter days], but in an appropriately Christian way, which is not illicit. Illicit intentions or untruth in the Christmas tradition is not demonstrated by these.

(e) the presence of traditions of non-Christian origins should not offend Christians unless in excess (modern commercialism in regards to gift-giving), or used in defiance of the gospel message. Actually, the diversity of cultural practices increases the strength of Christian witness.

The point is, Christmas is not by its essence pagan – but Christian celebration does borrow, albeit naturally and appropriately, from formerly pagan practices that were created by diverse human beings with worth in their diverse cultures. Christianity cleanses these traditions, and is not stained by them. Christ’s blood cleanses even these.

Let’s take some notes from James B. jordan, who wrote this back in 1984.

Superstitions surround Christmas on both sides. On the one side are those who believe that God will be displeased with them if they do not observe it, and on the other are those who believe God will be angry with them if they do.

Actually, Christmas in itself is neutral. As Romans 14:5 says, “One man judges one day above another; another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord….”

Footnotes

  1. Pagan, is not used here as a pejorative, simply a descriptive of Christian and non-Christian; but it is a term that originally meant ‘rural’, ‘of the country‘, but came to be known as ‘unbelievers’, since many or most unbelievers were in the countryside at one point in the Roman Empire – it primarily refers to polytheistic, sometimes animistic religious practices and customs in the context we are using it presently.
  2. Christmas became celebrated far before these cultures ever were conceived. Remember the calendar itself (A.D., after our the year of our Lord [not exactly, but pretty close]) says that Jesus was born six-hundred years before these traditions even had a chance of conceiving these traditions. What about Christmas Day itself though? Many connect the two far too closely, thinking that the date is pagan because many of our European celebratory practices are pagan. I would also say that just because people bring previously held practices and celebration techniques to the table of Christianity does not make it any less illicit – the point is to celebrate Christ the Lord.
  3. Armenia today still celebrates Christmas Day on the 6th of January – though often the traditions are combined in Western tradition to include December 25th as properly Christmas Day, January 6th as the Day of Epiphany, the coming of the Wise Men and Shepherds. Hence, the ‘twelve days’ of Christmas, the time between December 25 and January 6.
  4. Christians knew Jesus was born in the Spring-Summer in Palestine, a point I will return to later – the point of Christmas celebration is finding a time to remember the incarnation, not pin down precisely exact Jesus’ birthday.
  5. compared to Easter, ‘Pascha’ in most languages [rather than English, which increases the degree of separation between Pascha (‘Passover’ – Jewish) and pagan accusations against that holiday too. Easter is derived from the Jewish celebration first and foremost).
  6. Although we are not told what they were celebrating date, in the year 302 A.D a number of Christians were burned alive by the Romans while celebrating the feast. 300 years and counting after the resurrection of Christ, historians find Augustine mentioning a group of Christians refusing to celebrate Christmas on the 6th. And, after the year 400, Ephrem the Syrian wrote a bunch of Christmas prayers and liturgies (nineteen as recorded here). So, December 25 does seem to appear after the Roman date, but it has not been proved it was selected specifically to accommodate Paganism.
  7. You see as we know, calendars in the ancient world were all a little bit plastic, a little bit deficient and idiosyncratic in their own ways, trying to properly account for the .25 of the 365.25 solar days in a year and so on. Christians calculated Easter day (not the moment of resurrection, but the day Christ died, I mean – the Friday) to either March 25th or April 6th (do the numbers seem familiar?). And, there was a tradition of supposing back then that holy men died on the day they were conceived.
  8. And, although at least some Christians knew that Jesus was born in the Spring, possibly the preference to regard holy men’s death in accordance to this custom when choosing the date to celebrate Jesus’ birth. December 25 was likely chosen for symbolic reasons anyways.
News Reporter
From Madison, Wisconsin. B.A. Biblical Studies: Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. M.Div. Student at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, Ontario.