|The Christmas Tree, Albert Chevallier Tayler, painted in 1911|
Having once been an Evangelical, I was heavily exposed to the "Christmas is Pagan" or "Christmas has Pagan origins" movement in the Western world. The movement is heavily concentrated in the United States, with large pockets in Canada, Australia, and other parts of the Anglosphere. It's primarily a Protestant problem, which was popularised during the Protestant religious movements of the 17th through 19th centuries. Today it is most aggressively pushed by Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Church of God and other Fundamentalist sects. Sadly, attacks against this holiday are used to introduce suspicion of mainstream Christian denominations, and the Catholic Church in particular.
The Fundamentalist attack on Christmas is centred around the date of December 25, and actually has a rather ancient origin. The 12th-century Syrian Orthodox Bishop, Jacob Bar-Salibi, proposed the following:
"It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day."
-- Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Ramsay MacMullen. Yale:1997, p. 155Even though the quote comes from an Eastern Orthodox bishop, many Western Fundamentalist groups seized upon it in the late 19th century because it fit their anti-Catholic narrative. The only problem here is that the good bishop, as wise as he may have been on many other issues, was just plain wrong about this one. We have to remember that the Eastern Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on or near January 7. This has always been their custom, which is fine of course, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. The quote from Bishop Bar-Salibi above appears to be an attempt to explain why Western Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25, as opposed to January 7. It appears to be directed toward the Eastern Orthodox faithful, and it appears the bishop has some cursory knowledge of Western history on this matter. However, it also appears he made an historical error, by getting the proverbial "cart before the horse," and (probably unintentionally) reversed the order of events. It is important to note however, that Bishop Bar-Salibi nowhere intended for his comment to be misconstrued as a blanket condemnation of Christmas, the Christmas celebration, or even the Western date upon which it is celebrated. It was simply intended to be an explanation of why Eastern and Western Christians celebrate Christmas on different dates. That is all.
Nevertheless, some Western Protestant Fundamentalists, and Jehovah's Witnesses in particular, took Bishop Bar-Salibi's quote and just ran with it to the greatest extreme. Using it as proof text for how the Christmas celebration was started, and an indictment against the Catholic Church and Western Christianity in general. So they branded Christmas a "Pagan holiday" celebrated by "Paganised" Christians who are engaging in a "Pagan celebration" whitewashed to only "appear Christian." Of course, they argue, in order to be a "better Christian," and please God more than others, one must immediately cease and desist from this Pagan festivity. Likewise, the Catholic Church, and mainline Protestant denominations, should receive all the blame and shame for perpetrating this "ungodly hoax" on the "poor unsuspecting people" of the Christian faith. This is usually followed with a technical lesson of how it is "impossible" that Jesus could have been born on December 25, and that he was likely born sometime in September instead. This is followed by the customary condemnation of Christmas trees, evergreen and mistletoe as "Pagan customs" that continue to "infiltrate" into Christianity. Of course, their solution is to snidely turn their noses up to such things as "unfit" for a "real Christian." This is Fundamentalism run amok. Here we have Christians that have more in common practice with Muslims than they do their fellow Christians, and for some of them (Jehovah's Witnesses in particular) this actually bleeds over into the doctrinal realm as well. Tragically, the propaganda has even worked its way into the Catholic Church. I cannot tell you how many Catholics I have heard repeat it, telling others that Christmas is really just a christened version of a Pagan celebration.
Now that you've heard the fake story about the origin of Christmas, let's take a look at the real story. We'll have to start with the origin for the date of Christmas, and why this is commonly misunderstood as connected to ancient Pagan observances.
Photo by Gil Dekel.
Early Jewish Christians would have associated Hanukkah with Jesus Christ in some way, as they did with everything else. They most certainly would have associated his incarnation with the re-dedication of the covenant God made with his people. They would have associated his incarnation with the light entering the Jewish Temple. They most certainly would have remembered the account of Jesus entering the Temple in Jerusalem during Hanukkah, and referring to himself as the Son of God and thus revealing his fully glory, or light, in the Temple (John 10:22-39).
Jewish Christians were not treated well by their fellow Jews back then, and were often "put out of the synagogue" (shunned or excommunicated). Since the synagogue was the source of Jewish life, the dates of the Jewish calendar were calculated from there based on rabbinical interpretation of Mosaic Law. Jews who were "put out of the synagogue" would gradually lose connection with Jewish life, and that would include the Jewish calendar. It is theorised that to simplify matters, many Jewish Christians of the ancient world simply used the Julian calendar along with their Gentile Christian brethren. Thus the celebration of Jesus as the incarnate "Son of God" and "Light of the world," came to be associated with the 25th day of December instead of Kislev, which often falls pretty close to Kislev 25 anyway. Building on the theme of dedication, this happens exactly eight days before the Julian new year (January 1). Thus Christmas, understood as a christened version of Hanukkah, would be an eight-day celebration, beginning on December 25, marking the Light of God coming into the world, and ending on January 1, marking the re-dedication of time with the new year. All of this would have happened within the first few centuries of the early Church. However, this eight-day (octave) of Christmas, paralleling the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah would later be overshadowed by the longer twelve-day celebration of Christmastide, from December 25 to January 5, with Epiphany on January 6.
There is more to this. We can see above how December 25 came to be associated with the incarnation of Jesus Christ in general, as well as the connection to Jesus as the "Light of the world." However, how did it get to be associated with his birth or nativity? The answer again comes to us from very early Jewish Christians who believed that the world was created on Nissan 14, according to the Jewish calendar, which came to be associated with March 25 on the Julian calendar. These Jewish Christians not only associated the beginning of the world on that date, but also the beginning of the new world, meaning the conception of Jesus Christ. Thus the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, came to be celebrated on March 25, and is still celebrated on that date today. Now count exactly 9 months from March 25, and you arrive at December 25, which is the associated date for the birth of Jesus Christ. According to ancient Jewish Christians, he was miraculously conceived on March 25 and born on December 25, by the reckoning of the Julian calendar. The Christian historian, Sextus Julius Africanus, who lived between AD 160 - 240, specifically held to the belief that March 25 was the day the world was created on, and the day of Christ's conception (Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas, p. 60). Saint Irenaeus, who lived between AD 130 - 202, in his work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), specifically identified the conception of Jesus Christ as occurring on as March 25, according to ancient Church tradition, and linked it to the birth of Christ exactly nine months later, on December 25, at the time of the winter solstice. So here we have a completely different account of the reason for Christmas falling on December 25, predating Bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi's mistaken explanation by nearly 10 centuries!
So we have two explanations for the marking of December 25 as the celebration of the birth of Christ. The first comes from a time period of the early Church, close to the event itself, during a time when Jewish and Gentile Christians were intermingling and sharing traditions. The date is associated with the early Jewish Christian reinterpretation of Hanukkah, as well as marking 9 months since the conception of Jesus Christ on March 25 according to early Jewish Christian custom. The second comes from a time period nearly 10 centuries later, in which an Eastern Christian, living far away from the West, who celebrates Christmas on an entirely different day, is trying to explain to his contemporaries why Western Christians celebrate Christmas earlier than they do.
Which one do we want to believe? Well, if you're a Protestant Fundamentalist, you'll believe the second explanation, because you can twist what this bishop said, in a way he never intended, to condemn the celebration of Christmas as "Pagan" in total, and accuse the Catholic Church of perpetrating a "hoax" on the unsuspecting Christian faithful. However, if you're a reasonable person, regardless of your belief system, you can accept the most ancient explanation available, and believe this date was the product of blending early Jewish Christian beliefs into a Gentile calendar. I don't know about you, but I prefer the first explanation as a more rational choice. I mean, considering the Jesus and his apostles were Jewish and all, and a great number of early Christians were Jewish as well, I think it's far more plausible to believe the first explanation.
Does this mean there is no association at all between Christmas and ancient Pagan observances? At the core of it, there is no association. Superficially however, there is some. It was between AD 270 - 275 that the Pagan, Roman Emperor Aurelian, dedicated December 25 as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, meaning the "birthday of the unconquered sun." This occurs a few days AFTER the winter solstice, when the days are just starting to get longer again. It is associated with Pagan sun worship. As you can see, however, this event happened long after the dates I noted above, from Sextus Julius Africanus (AD 160 - 240) and Irenaeus (AD 130 - 202), who noted Christmas as being celebrated by early Christians, marking the birth of Christ exactly nine months after his conception. The historical evidence is clear, early Christians (many of them Jewish by heritage) were celebrating December 25 as a date closely associated with Christ, long before the Roman Emperor Aurelian dedicated December 25 as the birthday of the sun. So why did he do this? Remember, we're talking about a time period in the ancient Pagan empire when Christianity is gaining significant traction in spite of two centuries of periodic persecution. Could it be that Aurelian was simply trying to upstage the Christians? Is this a case of Pagans copying Christians and not vice versa? The historical dates seem to indicate this is exactly the case. Again, actual history (the bane of propaganda), tells us that the ancient Pagans were not in the habit of associating the winter solstice with sun worship. For example, one ancient history scholar writes...
While the winter solstice on or around December 25 was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas.
-- S.E. Hijmans, The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, p. 588Another similar scholar writes...
Thomas Talley has shown that, although the Emperor Aurelian's dedication of a temple to the sun god in the Campus Martius (C.E. 274) probably took place on the 'Birthday of the Invincible Sun' on December 25, the cult of the sun in pagan Rome ironically did not celebrate the winter solstice nor any of the other quarter-tense days, as one might expect.
-- Michael Alan Anderson, Symbols of Saints, pp. 42–46Study of ancient Roman sun worship indicates the principle feast date of this particular cult fell on August 9, not December 25. There has been found some documentation of minor sacrifice dates to the sun on August 28 and December 11, but nothing for December 25. All we have is Aurelian's late (post-Christian) proclamation of the sun's birthday in about AD 274, and nothing more. While sun worship was popular among some of the Caesars, there is no indication that it was a major cult within the ancient Roman Empire. So what are we to make of Aurelian's decree of December 25 as the suns birthday? Well, I think the word "birthday" gives us a clue. Christians were already celebrating December 25 as the birthday of Christ, who is the light of the world. The only way to upstage them would be to royally declare December 25 as the birthday of the sun, which lights the world. History showing the dates for what they are, would seem to indicate that this is the case. So it wasn't Christians who joined in Pagan celebrations in an attempt to hijack them, but rather it was a failed attempt by Pagans to hijack a Christian celebration. It's important to remember that this Aurelian declaration came sandwiched between two great Roman persecutions against Christianity. Emperor Valerian's persecution of Christians came between AD 253 and 260. While Emperor Diocletian's persecution of Christians lasted from AD 284 to 305. It makes more sense for a Roman Emperor, like Aurelian, who reigned between these persecutions, to attempt to upstage Christian celebrations with his own Pagan feast on December 25, than it does for Christians to adopt a Pagan Roman feast day as their own, in between Roman persecutions that were attempting to wipe them out. Remember, Christians were going to their martyrdom because they refused to observe Pagan rituals. Why would they adopt them in between persecutions? It makes no sense.
Those particularly zealous against December being the month of Christ's birth will point to the Scriptures that say the shepherds were tending their flocks the night of his birth (Luke 2:8). They argue that December is too cold for this to happen, that frost and snow on the ground would prohibit any reasonable grazing of sheep. Thus they fall back to their September dating for the birth of Christ. Others spring forward to March or April. While their observance of winter climate may be true in Europe, or even most of North America, it is not untenable for the area of Judea around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The mean temperature in Jerusalem during December runs between 47 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is plenty warm enough for green pastures. Frost and snow on the ground is extremely rare in this part of the world.
The 1963 edition of Smith's Bible Dictionary, under the heading "Palestine: the Climate," explained...
As in the time of our Saviour (Luke 12: 54), the rains come chiefly from the S. or S.W. They commence at the end of October or beginning of November, and continue with greater or less constancy till the end of February or middle of March, and occasionally, though rarely, to the end of April. It is not a heavy continuous rain, so much as a succession of severe showers or storms with intervening periods of fine bright weather, permitting the grain crops to grow and ripen. And although the season is not divided by any entire cessation of rain for a lengthened interval, as some represent, yet there appears to be a diminution in the fall for a few weeks in December and January, after which it begins again, and continues during February and till the conclusion of the season.This would have been optimal weather for grazing sheep.
So now that we've allowed real history to obliterate the the Christmas-Pagan conspiracy propaganda, let's accept that December 25 was celebrated by Christians before Pagans, and move on to other Christmas customs of alleged Pagan origin.
painted by Cornelis Bloemaert
While it is well known that ancient Germanic tribes in Germany and Scandinavia worshipped trees, oak trees in particular, they were not known to bring them into their houses. In fact, the story of St. Boniface cutting down Donar's Oak Tree illustrates how Medieval Christians evangelised these Germanic Pagans in the early 8th century. When St. Boniface (an English bishop and missionary) chopped down the Donar's Oak Tree to prevent a human sacrifice, the German Pagans watched in horror and then dropped to their knees in terror, fearing that Thor would soon send a lightning bolt to kill them all for such sacrilege. However, when the lightning bolt never came, Boniface noted that a small fir tree (about knee high) was growing between the roots of the oak tree he just chopped down. He used this as an evangelistic tool. He pointed out to the stunned Pagans that their Germanic gods are helpless and could not stop the destruction of their sacred oak tree, but the Christian God has provided in its place this small fir tree. He pointed out the fir tree was triangular, symbolically representing the Trinity, and that its leaves are always green, representing God's eternal love for us. Finally, he pointed out that the needles of the tree always point up toward God. That same year he brought a small fir tree into the chapel during the winter months to serve as a constant reminder to his congregation of these truths.
However, the modern Christmas tree, as we know it today, originated in Germany during the 16th century. It was a Protestant, not a Pagan, who took St. Boniface's winter tree and turned it into the Christmas tree. Martin Luther is said to have first added lighted candles to an evergreen tree, in an attempt to recreate in his chapel the starlight he saw, shining between trees in a forest, while walking home one winter night.
Christmas trees remained a European custom for centuries, but were considered rare in North America until after the decline of the Puritan influence. The association between evergreens and Paganism is a thin one at best. There is simply no reason why Christians can't use these as a seasonal decoration, anymore than bringing plants or flowers into the home.
Mistletoe does have some Pagan connections, as do many things in nature. In Pagan cultures, it was associated with fertility simply because it bloomed during the coldest time of year while everything else was dormant. Thus, ancient Pagans ate it for medicinal purposes to assist with fertility. That's ironic, since mistletoe is a known abortifacient. I imagine this added to their frustration. The very medicine they were taking to increase fertility was actually making them infertile. However, the modern practice of hanging mistletoe and kissing under it has nothing to do with ancient Paganism. It is rather a modern tradition of the modern age. It came about in the middle 18th century, and was associated with Christmas parties. A sprig of mistletoe was hung on a beam, and the custom was that if a maiden were to find herself standing under it, she could be kissed. It was somewhat of a party game. In another game, couples were instructed to pluck a single berry from the mistletoe with each kiss, throwing it aside, and to stop smooching once they were all gone. We can debate about whether or not such party customs are prudent for Christian celebrations, but there is nothing about them that is directly linked to Paganism.
Then of course there is Santa Claus. While Christians of all types have just grievance against the commercialisation of Christmas using this figure, the figure himself is a legendary representation of a real person. St. Nicholas of Myra was a Catholic bishop from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). There are many stories and legends surrounding him, but one thing is certain, he is a Christian figure of Christian origin.
The Christmas - Pagan conspiracy is really nothing more than Protestant Fundamentalism run amok. In their desire to implicate the Catholic Church as the source of all evil and villainy in the world, and to justify their own schism with the the Catholic Church, they must create elaborate conspiracy theories wherein the Catholic Church is implicated as a kind of cypto-Pagan organisation, seeking to stealthily impose Pagan worship upon unsuspecting Christians. Their ignorance of history causes them to implicate Martin Luther as a co-conspirator in this, which is ironic and a bit amusing when you consider the animosity between Luther and the Catholic Church. As I said though, all of this comes from people who think they understand history but really don't. They're sources are highly sectarian tracts and books, which are filled with historical revisionism, not recognised by actual historians, and completely foreign to any original source documentation from the time period in question. So the next time one of these folks knocks on your door, or slips you a tract, telling you that Christmas is a Pagan holiday, just kindly ignore them and go back to drinking your eggnog while trimming the tree.
Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and a columnist for Christian print magazines and online publications. He is a freelance writer and the creator of 'CatholicInTheOzarks.com.' Your support is what makes essays like this possible. This essay and all of Shane's Internet resources come to you (ad-free) thanks to the generosity of benefactors. Please consider becoming a benefactor.
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