Nativity by Lorenzo Lotto, 1523 (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Of course, everyone knows Christmas and most other Christian observances, even Christianity itself, are nothing but warmed over paganism – practices which were viciously ripped from the hands of innocent pagans by a marauding Catholic Church.
It’s just too bad everyone is wrong.
Strange how every year lately someone just can’t but help bringing up the worn out urban legend that Christmas is a “stolen” pagan winter solstice festival. Of even more interest is the fact most of these people are self-described non-Christians and non-believers (especially in “organized religion”), others are even fallen away Christians, who for whatever reason (usually dissatisfaction with the “rules”) rejected Christ’s Church. Yet, these very admittedly (by their own words) non-Christians somehow fancy themselves “experts” in Christianity.
Strange too is the fact these people’s “explanations” of the “truth” are often accompanied by all sorts of claims of “toleration.” Rather dubious, I must say, considering how these people, in the name of “tolerance,” go out of their way to disparage Christianity. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
“Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet. 3:15, RSV-CE). Unfortunately, most Christians do not know the tenets and history of their faith well enough to counter these baseless charges. Instead, they generally cede the point, often mumbling something about a “shameful” point in Church history. As a result, since most Christians don’t know how or won’t take a stand, these sorts of myths continue to perpetuate.
So let’s take a look at the real facts surrounding the Christian Holy Day of Christmas.
Before we begin, it’s important to understand the correct definition of “pagan” and “paganism.” Today, when most people, particularly its “practitioners,” use the word “paganism” they are referring to a New Age spiritism belief system. However, this is not the formal meaning of the word, particularly when applied to the ancient world. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines paganism thus: “Paganism, in the broadest sense includes all religions other than the true one revealed by God, and, in a narrower sense, all except Christianity, Judaism, and Mohammedanism.” In the ancient world, a “pagan” was simply someone who wasn’t Christian or Jewish (since Islam didn’t come along until the seventh century).
Let’s begin our study by putting to rest once and for all the notion that the early Christian Church somehow “suppressed” or “got rid of” pagans. The time period under consideration for all these claims of the Church “suppressing” paganism is within the first few centuries of the establishment of the Christian Church by Jesus Christ. A time during which Christians were being mercilessly persecuted by the Romans (pagans) for the “crime” of following someone whose message was one of love: love of God, love of neighbor and love of self.
Widespread and systematic Roman (pagan) persecution of Christianity lasted into the fourth century, by which time the major feast days and practices of Christianity were already established. Given what the pagans were doing to Christians, the Church was hardly in a position to “suppress” anyone – even if she had chosen to do so. Since the major feast days and practices were established during a period when the Church was under almost constant persecution, one can hardly say these days and practices were established to “stop” paganism since the pagan Roman authorities were in control and the Church was not in a position to “stop” anyone (again, even if she’d chosen to do so).
During this time period, the vast majority of converts to Christianity were Gentiles (non-Jews). Keep in mind as well these were people who freely converted to Christianity during a time when such a choice meant subjecting one’s self to almost certain persecution and in many cases, even death. People were not forced to become Christians – such a notion is anathema for a Church which believes God grants man free will and that it’s up to man to use his free will to freely choose God’s gift. Those who brush off Christianity really need to understand this point. At a time when simply going along with the status quo was easier and more conducive to one’s lifespan, many people freely chose Christianity even while seeing what was happening to fellow Christians at the hands of non-Christians.
Christianity calls people to join through faith and reason, not through force and subjugation. St. Paul provides a perfect example of how early Christians interacted with Gentiles (pagans), inviting them to become Christians. We read in Acts of the Apostles, when St. Paul entered Athens, he saw a temple dedicated to an “unknown” god. Did he tear into the people, calling them fools for believing such nonsense? No – instead he praised the people for their faith:
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” (Acts 17:22-23, RSV-CE)
He then used that as a spring board to introduce them to the “good news” of Jesus and entered into a dialogue with the people, inviting them to become Christians of their own free wills. What a terrible act of suppression and attempt to get rid of paganism by force!
In addition, if you actually know Church history, you know why stories of Jesus’ birth were not of prime importance to the Apostles and early Christians.
In the immediate aftermath of Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension into Heaven, early Christians were most concerned with hearing the message of Jesus’ preaching. They expected the Parousia (Second Coming of Christ) to happen within their lifetimes. Therefore, they wanted to know the message of Jesus rather than being focused on details regarding the person of Jesus. For these people, getting their lives in order so that they might be ready for the return of the Lord was their top priority.
However, as time passed (again, time during which Christians were viciously and systematically persecuted by non-Christians) and it became clear the Parousia wasn’t going to happen immediately, the Church began to settle itself in for the long term. As this happened, people’s interest in Jesus began to go beyond just his preaching.
It was during this period that interest developed in establishing a feast day to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. So much time had passed since the actual events, no one any longer knew with complete certainty when this really happened – although as we’ll see shortly, compelling evidence existed for the date chosen.
Even more importantly, our ancient ancestors (Pagan, Jewish and Christian alike) were not nearly as concerned with detailed biography as we understand it in the modern sense. Therefore, establishing exact historically accurate (as we understand this concept in the modern world) dates weren’t the prime concern of early Christians; so the historicity of the date is not a critical point. The critical point we must examine is motivation, both of the early Christians as well as the Romans (pagans), in assigning significance to December 25th.
As it turns out, not only was Christmas not some sort of “hijacking” of a pagan festival, but the pagan festival generally cited as the one “stolen” by Christians was actually started by pagans to take December 25th from Christians. As Dr. William Tighe, a church history specialist at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College, puts it: “the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the ‘pagan origins of Christmas’ is a myth without historical substance.”
As Biblical scholar Mark Shae notes:
But in fact, the date [December 25] had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.
There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes.
What was the reaction of early Christians to Aurelian’s implementation of his Sol Invictus festival? Shae continues:
The first irony is the reaction of the Christians of the late Roman Empire to Aurelian’s attempt to co-opt Christmas and make it a pagan day of celebration. Instead of fighting with Sun-worshipers who were trying to rip off their feast, early Christians simply “re-appropriate[d] 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 natural symbolism of the winter solstice (return of the sun and new life) happens to also fit perfectly with Christian theology: birth of the Son of Man and the “new life” found in Him. Consequently, early Christians didn’t “take” anything from the pagans, but instead simply refused to allow Aurelian to claim some sort of “copyright” on December 25th. Christians continued to leave it up to people’s free will to decide if worshiping the sun or worshiping the Son made more sense.
It also turns out that records associating December 25th with the birth of Jesus are actually significantly older than records associating December 25th as a pagan festival day. Again quoting Biblical scholar Mark Shae:
[T]he definitive “Handbook of Biblical Chronology” by professor Jack Finegan (Hendrickson, 1998 revised edition) cites an important reference in the “Chronicle” written by Hippolytus of Rome three decades before Aurelian launched his festival. Hippolytus said Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25.
Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar—long before Christmas also became a festival.
So the inescapable historical record is that December 25th was an important day for Christians before it was an important day for pagans – or more correctly, an important day for one rather obscure pagan Roman sun-worship cult.
Also, the debate in the early Church which fixed the day of Jesus’ birth was not about that date, but about the dating of Good Friday. The Eastern Church argued for dating Good Friday to April 6th while the Western Church argued in favor of a March 25th date (keep in mind, during this time, there was only one Christian Church since the Great Schism, which saw the breaking of the Church into the Eastern [Greek] Church and Western [Latin] Church did not occur until 1054 – well after the time period we’re looking at).
What does the date of Good Friday have to do with Christmas? Everything. I’ll let Dr. Tighe explain it:
At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.
This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed.
It is to this day commemorated almost universally among Christians as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose acquiescence the Eternal Word of God (“Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten of the Father before all ages”) forthwith became incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months. Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.
St. John Chrysostom (Archbishop of Constantinople, died AD 407) argued from a Biblical standpoint, an argument which had nothing to do with any pagan festival, for the December 25th date of Jesus’ birth:
Luke 1 says Zechariah was performing priestly duty in the Temple when an angel told his wife Elizabeth she would bear John the Baptist. During the sixth months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary learned about her conception of Jesus and visited Elizabeth “with haste.”
The 24 classes of Jewish priests served one week in the Temple, and Zechariah was in the eighth class. Rabbinical tradition fixed the class on duty when the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 and, calculating backward from that, Zechariah’s class would have been serving Oct. 2-9 in 5 B.C. So Mary’s conception visit six months later might have occurred the following March and Jesus’ birth nine months afterward.
Seeing clearly that December 25th, Christmas, is a Christian Holy Day not derived from a pagan winter festival, how did it become “common knowledge” that Christmas is simply a “warmed over” or “ripped off” pagan festival? These sorts of claims of grew in the wake of the anti-Catholicism following the Protestant Reformation during the sixteenth century as Protestants looked for ways to disparage the Catholic Church as “non-Biblical.”
With regards the “pagan” roots of Christmas, we can trace the origins of these claims to the 17th and 18th centuries:
Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the Gospel.
In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one.
Note that Jablonski began, not with evidence, but with an assumption that the winter solstice must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. In other words, Jablonski simply noticed a correspondence between the Julian calendar’s solstice and Christmas and assumed the pagan feast must have been the prior one even though he had no proof for his theory. Meanwhile, Hardouin, rather than challenge that assumption, simply went along with it. And it’s upon these two authors that the entire myth about Christmas being a warmed-over pagan Sun-worshiping feast is based.
Now, as Paul Harvey would have said, we know the rest of the story. Christmas is a Christian Holy Day, not a “hijacked” pagan winter solstice festival, and the urban legend of pagan roots for Christmas came from a 17th century Protestant whose self-admitted objective was to disparage Catholicism.
In the end though, we must avoid getting bogged down in the wrong question:
The crucial thing is not, “Did the early Christians get the date of Christmas right?” It is, rather, “What mattered to them as they determined the date of Christmas?” And when you look at that, you again immediately realize that what dominates their minds is not Diana, Isis, sun worship, or anything else in the pagan religious world. What interests them is, from our modern multicultural perspective, stunningly insular. Their debates are consumed, not by longing for goddess worship, or pagan mythology, or a desire to import Isis and Diana into the Faith, but the exact details of the New Testament record of Jesus’ death, alloyed with a Jewish—-not pagan—-theory about when Jewish—-not pagan—-prophets die. They don’t care a bit how pagan priests ordered their worship in the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. They care intensely about how Levitical priests ordered their worship in the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem. These Christians are completely riveted on Scripture and details of Jewish and Christian history and tradition. They don’t give a hoot what sun worshipers, Osiris devotees, or Isis fans might think.
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