Is Christmas Really a Pagan Holiday? – Come Reason Ministries
Christmas is a much-beloved holiday, celebrated by billions of people across the globe. In the U.S. Alone, the Pew Center reports that nearly 96% of the population celebrates Christmas, including eight out of ten non-Christians, including atheists, agnostics, and those who have no faith commitment.1 However, Christmas is also a uniquely Christian holiday; its core message is about a personal God taking humanity upon Himself and stepping into the world to redeem sinful human beings who could never redeem themselves. The Christian message is inescapable.
I believe the love of Christmas coupled with the loathing of Christianity is one reason why atheists continue to repeat the claim that Christmas is a repurposing of a pagan Roman holiday. Two of the most popular pagan holidays put forth are the celebration of Saturnalia, which honored the Roman god Saturn, or the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, that is the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.” Both of these celebrations were held in the second half of December, making them somewhat close to Christmas.
Looking at the History of Christmas
The claim that the roots of Christmas are pagan is one I hear over and over again, especially in December. The idea isn’t even new. The New England Puritans, who valued work more than celebration, taught such.2 Puritan preacher Increase Mather preached that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that ‘Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian.'”3
When one digs into the actual history however, a much different picture arises. There are two ways to approach the question: one is to see how December 25 became associated with the Nativity, which is how the early church would have referred to the day of Christ’s birth. The other one is to look at the celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Either approach shows the dubious nature of the claim that Christmas has pagan roots.
Much of the thrust of the “pagan Christmas” claim rests on the idea of a Christianized Rome trying to convert a populace that wouldn’t want to give up its feast traditions, akin to the practice of churches celebrating a “Harvest Festival” instead of Halloween. Yet, scholars like Yale University’s T.C. Schmidt are finding the marking of December 25 to go much earlier in the Christian history.
When translating Hippolytus’ Commentary on Daniel, written just after AD 200, Schmidt notes that five of the seven manuscripts contain December 25 as the date for Jesus’ birth and another offers the 25th of either December or March.4 Clement of Alexandria in this same time offers the date of March 25 as the date of the incarnation, that is the conception of Jesus, in his Stromata (1.21.145-146).5 Both works tie the idea that Jesus’s death would have happened on the same day as his conception.
Christmas and Easter are Linked
This is the key to the December 25th date. As Thomas Tulley works out in his book The Origins of the Liturgical Year, there was a belief within the early church that the date of the death of Jesus would also reflect either his birth or his conception.6 Augustine wrote of this, saying “For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”7
St. John Chrysostom in his writings goes ever further by noting that the Angel Gabriel’s announcement of Mary’s conception happened while Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Luke 1:26). Chrysostom argues that Zechariah’s service was the Day of Atonement, thus making the conception of John the Baptist happen in the fall. Add six months and Jesus’s conception lands in the spring, e.g March 25. I don’t know that this calculation is historically accurate, but it does show how much the early church tied the events together. The idea of randomly choosing a pagan date seems a pretty big stretch.
Here’s the thing. If Christians were recognizing the birth of Christ by the beginning of the third century, does it make sense to think that this was a fourth century invention to sway the Roman populous over to Christianity? Christianity was gaining ground in the time of Clement, but it was by no means out from under the shadow of persecution. It also wasn’t borrowing much from pagan customs at the time. So why believe they would do so for this date?
2. Schnepper, Rachel N. “Yuletide’s Outlaws.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 15 Dec. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/opinion/the-puritan-war-on-christmas.html?_r=0
3. Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Print. 4.
4. Schmidt, T.C. “Hippolytus and the Original Date of Christmas” Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 21 Nov 2010. Web. http://web.archive.org/web/20130303163053/http://chronicon.net/blog/chronology/hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas 16 Dec 2015.
5. Schmmidt, T.C. “Clement of Alexandria and the Original date of Christmas as December 25th.” Chrinicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 17 Dec 2010. Web. http://web.archive.org/web/20120822053409/http://chronicon.net/blog/hippolytus/clement-of-alexandria-and-the-original-date-of-christmas-as-december-25th/ 16 Dec 2015.
6. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. New York: Pueblo Pub, 1986. Print. 91ff.
7. Augustine of Hippo. On the Trinity, IV, 5. Logos Virtual Library. Trans. Arthur West Haddan. Darren L. Slider, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2015. http://www.logoslibrary.org/augustine/trinity/0405.html.
Image Courtesy Adam Clark and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License.
Over the last two posts, I’ve explained how historical research is showing the date for celebrating Christmas was not chosen because of a Roman holiday like Saturnalia, but how the early church linked the date of Jesus’s birth to the date of Jesus’s crucifixion. That means Christmas is not a response to a pagan celebration such as Saturnalia but it has Christian roots.
However, Saturnalia is not the only candidate offered by critics as why December 25th was the focus of the coming of the Son of God. There is another holiday that actually occurred on December 25 mentioned in antiquity. This was the Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, translated as is the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.” It was celebrated on December 25 in 354 AD according to the calendar of Philocalus.1
The Sol Invictus cult followers worshipped the sun. Thomas Talley reports that while Emperor Aurelian did not first introduce Rome to the cult, he popularized it and the celebration day. Previously, local celebrations of Sol revolved around the dedication of the god’s temples in August and/or November. In fact, the word Natalis can mean more than simply birthday, but it may also be used for the concept of an anniversary, as Roger Pearse notes:
There is also the question of what “natalis” means. It could mean birthday; but also it can mean “anniversary of the dedication of a temple”. This seems to be the meaning for other “natalis” in the calendar. We know that Aurelian dedicated the temple of Sol Invictus. Thus we would get a festival on the anniversary of the dedication of the temple, and thus the idea that the festival was created at the same time by Aurelian.2
Tally tells us the “indigenous Sun cult at Rome does not seem to have been especially sensitive to the winter solstice or any other quarter days.”3 Also, Steven Hijmans declares that while Aurelian set the feast, it may not have been set in December until much later:
there is no evidence that Aurelian instituted a celebration of Sol on that day [December 25]. A feast day for Sol on December 25th is not mentioned until eighty years later, in the Calendar of 354 and, subsequently, in 362 by Julian in his Oration to King Helios.4
The Roman Solstice and Who’s Borrowing from Whom?
One mistake we must be careful of is placing too much emphasis on the similar sounding words “sun” and “Son.” This is a common misstep for English speakers. While the Latin word for sun is “sol, the word translated son is “filius,” breaking any ties to a play on words. Yet, Romans did hold to the idea that December 25 was the “birth of the Sun as the days began to noticeably get longer. Schmidt quotes Macrobius who states it was the Egyptians of the 4th or 5th century that developed the metaphor of the sun coming on the solstice as an infant and growing until the summer, where it would then shrink again as an aging man.5
Of course, all of this is well after the 202 to 211 AD mark where Hippolytus ties December 25 to Jesus’s birth. If the Natalis was originally celebrated in August or October or November, why was it changed to December? One possibility is that Aurelian dedicated a new temple on that day and thus they celebrated that dedication as a feast day. Thomas Talley gives us an even more interesting possibility:
Halsberghe, without suggesting that there already was a Christian festival on December 25, presents the probability that one item in Aurelian’s religious agenda was the provision of an authentically Roman alternative to the increasingly successful Christian mission.6
Of course, there’s much much more, but I think you can see that the charge of Christians chose December 25 in order to “Christianize” or even just appease a pagan populous is weak at best. If you want to dig into more of the history, T.C. Schmidt’s series is a great place to start, although it is only available via the internet Archive now. He summarized his findings thus:
- Saturnalia did not occur on December 25 and had nothing to do with the birth of any god or anyone else.
- A feast to Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) did occur on December 25, but the earliest evidence for it dates from the mid to late 4th century. There is no evidence that Emperor Aurelian established a Festival of Sol Invictus (or anyone or anything else) on December 25.
- Egyptians apparently presented an infant as a representation of the newborn Sun on the winter solstice, but this evidence also dates from the fourth and fifth centuries.
- Hippolytus in 202-211 AD set the date for the birth of Jesus on December 25, because he thought Jesus was conceived 9 months earlier on the Passover, the day in which he also thought the world was created (5500 years earlier), the Vernal Equinox March 25.Clement of Alexandria (193-215 AD) quoted various anonymous sources about the birth of Jesus and roughly agrees with Hippolytus, claiming that Jesus was born in late fall to early winter. Clement’s sources clearly seem to believe that Jesus was conceived on the Passover and was born roughly 9 months later; in fact the only difference between them and Hippolytus is that they differed on when the Passover actually occurred. However there is a significant possibility that one of Clement’s sources was Hippolytus himself because of the preponderance of possible dates he gives that fall on the 25th of a month (He gives 4 of them and then another date on the 24th) which corresponds with Hippolytus’ belief that Jesus was both conceived, born, and executed on the 25th of a month.
2. Schmidt, T.C., “Antiochus of Athens and the Birth of the Sun-update.” Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 28 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/antiochus-of-athens-and-the-birth-of-the-sun/
3. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. New York: Pueblo Pub, 1986. Print. 88-89.
4. Hijmans, S. E. Sol: the sun in the art and religions of Rome. 2009 Groningen: s.n. 588 quoted from T.C. Schmidt. “Sol Invictus evidently not a precursor to Christmas.” Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 21 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/sol-invictus-evidently-not-a-precursor-to-christmas/
5. Schmidt, T.C., “Christmas, the Winter Solstice, and the birth of the Sun.” Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 19 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/christmas-the-winter-solstice-and-the-birth-of-the-sun/
6. Talley, 1986. 89.
7. Schmidt, T.C. “Sol Invictus evidently not a precursor to Christmas.” Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 21 Dec 2010. Web. https://web.archive.org/web/20140717194947/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/sol-invictus-evidently-not-a-precursor-to-christmas/
Many times when we seek to defend the faith, we can get caught taking on a bigger burden of proof that we should. I was recently reminded of this when a couple days ago I had two Jehovah’s Witnesses visit my home. Given that it’s three weeks before Christmas, we discussed the Christmas celebration and its roots. The Witnesses pointed to my tree and claimed it was originally a pagan symbol and Christians shouldn’t be bringing such pagan symbols into their homes.
Now, I’ve heard this charge before. We hear tales of the yule log being tied to celebrations of the winter solstice and Christmas trees symbolizing a pagan concept of new life resurrecting through its ashes. This claim isn’t limited to atheists; I found the following story on the Facebook page of a man who claims to be a Christian. In his article, he shouts that following holiday traditions is Baal worship and provides the following as “unequivocally historical.” I’ve shortened the section a bit, but the words are his:
“Nimrod of Babylon whose wife Semiramis deified his memory by implementing an observance to replicate his death and this in the Yule log which was also chopped up to a stump, then she birthed an illegitimate child (Tammuz) through another man, and claimed this new child was Nimrod resurrected anew.
“To memorialize this she instituted a brand new young green sappling (Christmas tree) the next morning and sold this lie that on the night before Christmas the slaughtered and quartered former demi-god Nimrod entered into the fire of purification as a cut down tree (Yule log) and through being made pure as the savior of the world, he resurrected and regenerated the following morning as a new being, i.e. the green tree.”
Christians who hear such charges are quickly put on the defensive, and they normally seek to explain how the Christmas tree (or Easter eggs, bunnies, or other symbols used in holiday celebrations) no longer holds their original meaning. They have been integrated into the Christian tradition and now carry Christian meanings—at least for the person with the tree in his house.
I agree that such an argument is valid. Even though we call the fifth day of the week Thursday, doing so in no way implies that we wish to exalt the Norse god Thor even if that’s the origin of the day’s name. But, as I’ve been researching Christmas origins, I’ve found that the real problem isn’t with the pagan origins of Christmas traditions, but the spurious origins of the belief that Christmas traditions ever were pagan in the first place.
Did pagans ever use Christmas trees?
Let’s look at the concept of bringing a Christmas tree into your home. Critics will try to point to some ancient rite or festival prior to Christianity where trees were used and force a connection between them. For example, Jacqueline Farmer, in her children’s book O Christmas Tree, writes that the ancient Egyptians used palm branches to decorate their in celebration of the winter solstice. She then points to the Romans celebrating Saturnalia and says they also used evergreen branches to brighten their homes. Both are offered as the genesis for Christmas trees.
But, why should we believe that? It is no surprise that ancient people would decorate their homes to mark significant events, including the beginning of a new growing cycle. It is also no surprise that trees would play an important symbolic role across many cultures. Trees live much longer than people and can be identified as existing from generation to generation. Also, because fruits and nuts will grow on trees, they can be a source of food. Finally, the shedding of leaves and the new blossoms that accompany the seasonal cycle makes trees a natural symbol for these ideas. This is easily shown by looking at the practice of Northwest Native American tribes, who had no connection with Egyptian or Roman culture whatsoever, would take a tree to carve and decorating it as a totem pole.
Assuming the worst
Behind each of the assertions that Christmas and its traditions are rooted in paganism lies the flimsiest evidence. There is just no historical connection to Christmas trees and pagan rites. There are some scholastic works on the history of Christmas traditions that try to make the connections, but these tend to come from the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and are woefully out of date.
Simply pointing to some festival that used a log or a tree and then claiming that this proves Christmas to be rooted in pagan worship is on the same level as one who would point to totem poles and say that their origin lies in the Roman celebration of Saturnalia. The evidence for both is the same: cursory and unconvincing. Why not go even further and argue that since the Bible used the symbol of trees (the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) in its creation story, perhaps the Romans borrowed their use of trees from the Bible!
While Christians can make a case for symbols in modern culture adopting new meaning, I don’t think it’s necessary. It seems to me the burden of proof is on those making the charge of paganism, and I see no evidence to believe their charge has merit.
Merry Christmas! I hope you have a chance to celebrate the day today. It’s easy to see all the commercialism, the merchandising of a sacred remembrance, and resent buying gifts or gathering to spend time with extended family. It’s even easy to think that the trees, presents, and decorations distract us from the real reason for Christmas, that is the coming of Jesus. But that isn’t true. Just as the solemnity of bonding two people together is followed by a celebration, so to should the joining of holy God with human flesh be recognized. That isn’t my idea; Saint Augustine preached on it over 1500 years ago:1
That day is called the birthday of the Lord on which the Wisdom of God manifested Himself as a speechless Child and the Word of God wordlessly uttered the sound of a human voice. His divinity, although hidden, was revealed by heavenly witness to the Magi and was announced to the shepherds by angelic voices. With yearly ceremony, therefore, we celebrate this day which saw the fulfillment of the prophecy:
- “Truth is sprung out of the earth: and justice hath looked down from heaven.” 2
- Truth, eternally existing in the bosom of the Father, has sprung from the earth so that He might exist also in the bosom of a mother.
- Truth, holding the world in place, has sprung from the earth so that He might be carried in the hands of a woman.
- Truth, incorruptibly nourishing the happiness of the angels, has sprung from the earth in order to be fed by human milk.
- Truth, whom the heavens cannot contain, has sprung from the earth so that He might be placed in a manger.
For whose benefit did such unparalleled greatness come in such lowliness? Certainly for no personal advantage, but definitely for our great good, if only we believe. Arouse yourself, O man; for you God has become man. “Awake, sleeper, and arise from among the dead, and Christ will enlighten thee.”3 For you, I repeat, God has become man.
- If He had not thus been born in time, you would have been dead for all eternity.
- Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, if He had not taken upon Himself the likeness of sinful flesh.
- Everlasting misery would have engulfed you, if He had not taken this merciful form.
- You would not have been restored to life, had He not submitted to your death; you would have fallen, had He not succored you; you would have perished, had He not come.
Let us joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festal day on which the great and timeless One came from the great and timeless day to this brief span of our day.
So, give voice to the joy that we have in the Savior’s arrival. Enjoy your holiday and I wish you a very Merry Christmas!
2. Ps. 84.12
3. Eph. 5.14.