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Pagan Origin of Christmas?

Winter Solstice

Around Christmas time there’s always the old saw that Christmas is essentially a pagan celebration. It’s usually said by a Christmas Grinch, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or someone with a particular agenda. The truth, possibly surprisingly, may be the other way around.

The Puritan-dominated Parliament of England in 1644 banned all Christmas activities as being unChristian. The Puritans of New England followed suit. Scholars aided the perception of the unChristian basis for Christmas.

Paul Ernst Jablonski (1693-1757) argued that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity that the degenerating Church of the fourth century embraced, departing from the pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. On the other hand, Dom Jean Hardouin (1646 – 1729) argued that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without losing the purity of the gospel.

As an aside, if I had to side with one of those two positions, I would not share Jablonski’s fear of “paganism”. If the dating of Christmas in fact is proved to be of pagan origin – I will happily continue celebrating it.

But I have mentioned previously that the date of Christmas may have originated with a calculation of the date of the Incarnation based on the belief that this occurred on the same date as the crucifixion.

In the West the calculation of the crucifixion came up with 25 March; in the East 6 April. So that’s the date of the incarnation. Calculate 9 perfect months forward and you have a birth in the West 25 December, and in the East 6 January.

You can read more about this in Thomas J. Talley’s The Origins Of The Liturgical Year

Professor William J. Tighe presses this further. He argues the opposite of the pagan origin of Christmas. He would have Christians already dating Christ’s birth as 25 December. Then the Roman Emperor Aurelian, hostile to Christianity, leading an empire that appeared to be collapsing in the face of internal unrest, rebellions in the provinces, economic decay, and repeated attacks from German tribes to the north and the Persian Empire to the east, and seeking to unify the various pagan cults of the Roman Empire, instituted the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” on 25 December 274. “If it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.”

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Whether you regard the Christmas Season as concluding on Christmas Day, Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, Candlemas, the Sunday following Candlemas, or are Orthodox, or Armenian, and celebrate the Incarnation on another day and see the season differently… in the Southern Hemisphere, and certainly in Aotearoa-New Zealand, this is our go-slow time…

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5 Responses to Pagan Origin of Christmas?

    • Er… no, Alex (thanks for checking – I can make mistakes). This calculation (as I say) is based on the belief that the Annunciation (Incarnation) happened on the same date as the Crucifixion. Blessings.

  1. Apparently William J. Tighe is a numpty.
    First, he discounts pagans and atheists who seem to think Christianity squatted on a festival. Relatedly, the idea of American Evangelicals getting their knickers in a twist that it makes them somehow pagan – wakie-wakies, if it weren’t for the matter of a dictionary definition, then with its themes of divine cycles of death and rebirth, Christianity would *be* a pagan religion.

    Second, however, in an act of considerable intellectual dishonesty, he dismisses the “pagan origins of Christmas” as a myth based on the date 274CE. Hang around a bit. Romans were celebrating Saturnalia (running from Dec 17 to 23rd [wikipedia] and extending over the years to the 25th [somewhere else, I forget]) from before the first century BCE.

    Amongst other things I see in his article, it’s quite a leap to assume the crucifixion was on the same date as the incarnation, especially to run with the hypothesis without further thought. Sounds to me like someone was on a mission to fabricate significance, quite probably with an agenda of squatting on someone else’s party.

    Other theories are also available. Maybe, if Saturnalia *was* the pagan festival in question, some early Christians rationalized their choice along the lines that the Romans could have their cake from the 17th and eat it on the 25th (with or without a day or two’s grace to sober up). Or, indeed, given that Saturnalia was not exactly a holy pastime, maybe they thought it could use a little sanctification. Those might still be seen as “squatted on the pagans” arguments, but approached from the angle of pragmatism.

    The big question is why a festival’s origins should be important. I’m not so sure they are; festival gonna happen, is gonna evolve, has gotta come from somewhere somehow. Live in the present; if it works for you, celebrate it, be excellent to each other and party on.

    • Thanks, Tim.

      I see no evidence of numptyness. The Saturnalia origin-of-Christmas theory is pretty standard. Questioning it does seem to raise some hackles. That Saturnalia covers the time of some Christians’ dating of Christmas does not, of necessity, mean that the dating is based on Saturnalia.

      Your accusation of “without further thought” is unwarranted. I encourage you to read Thomas Talley’s work, as I suggest in the post (as does Prof. Tighe).

      Blessings

    • Most of the coopted-paganism theories don’t adequately take into account the local nature of ancient paganism. There were vanishingly few festivals celebrated in more than one region. Saturnalia, for example, was a central Italian festival, not really done elsewhere, except perhaps among central Italian transplants elsewhere. So the early Asian Christian celebration of proto-Christmas on January 6 wouldn’t be connected to Saturnalia, even if the Italian Christian proto-Christmas on December 25 was.




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