“Christmas originates from pagan--” Stop Right There!
Buckle up kiddies, Aunt Shad is gonna explain why the common belief of Christmas’ pagan origins is fallacy.
To begin with, one has to understand the culture of the early church in
order to understand how they approached pagan practices. clergy were
extremely concerned with the mixing of religions, especially ritualistic
practices, because of the threat it posed to the unadulterated church.
remember, much of the early church’s doctrines and teachings were
written by “doctors” (scholars) who researched scrupulously,
particularly in matters of salvation history, in ordet o examine what
did and did not belong in the church’s teachings. thus, they examined
the old testament: which includes the failings of the Mosaic Jews. the
one thing they struggled to do generation after generation was to remain
faithful to God. why is this important? well, one of the major reasons
they continued to fail at monotheism for centuries was because Jewish
men took pagan wives: these women eventually corrupted the conviction of
the Jewish men’s belief in monotheism. It was the prophet Ezra who
eventually figured out this forumla for disaster, and became known for
being extremely strict when it came to marriages.
The early doctors of the Church, being the indepth scholars they were, noticed this trend. They would not want it to be repeated. In fact, there are many testaments in early Church history to being complete abandon of paganism a requirement in conversion: the most obvious and well-known would be King Charlemagne, who was renowned for his complete and brisk conversion of the pagan Franks. As he swept through towns, any and all pagan symbols were swept away, burned, or removed completely.
Perhaps the greatest reason the Church did not assimilate pagan practices was to prevent converts from feeling tempted. It’s certainly logical– constantly being reminded of your former beliefs would certainly create a longing or pull towards what you had left behind. Thus, the Church very much believed in starting fresh, on a clean slate.
Using Pagan holidays/customs to draw in converts is a fallacy within itself. It simply wasn’t in the early Church’s “purity” culture– they were obsessed with keeping the religion untainted. Just check out how many negligible heresies the Church openly sought to squash. If they were truly concerned with just getting people to convert, they probably would have let a few heresies slide here and there to keep people content with the Church. This was the furthest thing on its mind.
Moving on to the very common claim that most Christian holidays (Christmas, Easter, etc) are based around pagan holidays. This is just plain false. The misconception became widely circulated in the 19th century, with the publication of Alexander Hisop.
To begin with, Yule was a celtic pagan celebration. Doesn’t make much sense for the Church to center the celebration of Christmas on a day devoted to one tiny section of west Europe. In fact, the current date of Christmas on Dec 25th wasn’t set until the Middle Ages, past the time when most of Europe was converted into SOME form of Christianity.
One such quote that has sparked such belief in Christmas being pagan is 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. 155)
Many seized this passage as proof of paganism being the root of Christmas. However, context (as we all know) is super important. Bishop Bar-Salibi (the author) was an Eastern Orthodox bishop, writing to his flock to attempt to explain why WESTERN Catholics celebrated on the 25th instead of the EAST’S tradition of Jan 7th. He had only a cursory knowledge of Western Catholic culture and wrote sparingly, not particularly well thought-out or with much research. It is by far no means “proof” or an official statement as to how or why the celebration came about.
Early Christians adapted a LOT of traditions from Judaism. Of course, not just any traditions could be assimilated– that was left to the Apostles, and eventually the early Church, to decide what still applied to Christians and what was no longer okay to celebrate (Council of Jerusalem circa 50 AD, according to Acts). As it was, Hanukkah did not originate from Mosaic Judaism: i.e., the part that Christians were told to no longer follow. It was a way for the Jews to remember and celebrate the second dedication of the Temple after the Maccabean revolt. The celebration always lasted 8 days, starting on the 25h day of the Jewish month of Kislev. The month of Kislev on the Jewish calendar overlaps the month of December on the Julian/Gregorian calendar. In fact, sometimes the overlap is so close, that Hanukkah is celebrated at the same time Christians are celebrating Christmas.
Now, Hanukkah was very much a celebration focused on light, a “rebirth” for the (earthly) kingdom, and a refreshed covenant with God. It made sense that Early Christians would therefore feel close to it. However, early Christians were shunned by the Jews, often kicked out of the culture completely. They lost track of the Jewish calendar over time, and thus it’s only natural that they fell into using the Julian calendar as other Christian Gentiles did. They instead celebrated Hanukkah on December 25th–which was pretty close to Kislev 2th anyways. And–here’s the kicker– there are 8 days between Dec 25th and Jan 1st, meaning it perfectly wrapped up the end of the Christian cultural year with re-dedication (new years revolutions, anyone?). Christmas became the christened version of Hanukkah in the beginning. This went on for several centuries in the Early Church.
So how did the Christian Hanukkah become associated with Christ’s nativity? Very early Christians believed that the world was created on Nissan 14, which is about 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. To this day, the Catholic Church (and Lutheran, Anglican) celebrate the Annunciation of Mar 25th. Pregnancies last for about 9 months, so count that far ahead from the date: you get to December 25th. Early Doctors/Fathers such as Saints Ireaneus and Sextus Africanus firmly defended this date. Thus, it was only natural for Christians to adapt their version of Hanukkah into a celebration of Christ’s nativity. Eventually the 8-day feast was overshadowed by 12 days, but that’s another discussion irrelevant to this one.
So you’ve got two explanations as to how Christmas came to be: the widely-circulated suggestion of it being based on pagan practices, mostly prompted by 19th-century misconstructions; versus it naturally originating from the course of intermingling of Jewish and Gentile-born early Christians. The latter is supported by a lot of official documentation by the church, including published works by several saints/scholars close to the time of origin.
Some might continue to suggest it was still influenced by pagan holidays. Such as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Unconquered Sun). However, this was proposed on Dec. 25th by the pagan Roman emperor Aurelian in 275 AD– AFTER the dates of published works from the aforementioned Saints Irenaeus (130 - 202 AD) and Sextus Africus (160 - 240 AD). Thus, early Christians (many of Jewish heritage) were celebrating December 25 as a date closely associated with Christ long before Aurelian dedicated the birthday of the sun. Why do this? Remember that the early Christians were actively persecuted for many centuries by the then-Pagan empire. Still the religion was gaining traction. Aurelian could have easily set the date with the mind to upstage the rising tide of Christianity.
In fact, many scholarly sources indicate that the winter soltice was NOT a hotbead for sun-worshiping for pagans. Here’s the most succinct quote: “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)
The principle dates for sun-worship were actually in August…not December.
And again, culture context is KEY. The Christians were being actively persecuted BY the Pagans in the early Church days. Is it really that likely that those same pagans would take kindly to them adopting their practices–or that the Christians would WANT to assimilate the culture that was trying to wipe them out? Not likely.
Accepting that Christmas was not pagan-based, let’s move on. What about the supposedly pagan customs ingrained in it? Like the Christmas Tree (hey trey)? Yes, the Franks and Scandinavians worshipped trees. But there is no credible documentation found that suggests they even brought them into their houses (in fact, this probably would have been sacrilegious, esp to the Norse: trees were only ever to be chopped down for absolute necessity, so having one around for ornamentation would be disrespectful).
St. Boniface was glorified for the legend of his chopping down of the (pagan) Donor Oak to prevent human sacrifice, and this act was quite evangelized. The Germans watched in horror, fearing Thor would strike them down for this brazen act. Boniface, seeing this, took action. He indicated a small fir sapling growing close to the roots of the former sacrifice tree, and used it as a teaching tool: the fir was triangular in shape, representing the trinity; it was always green, representing God’s never-ending love for His people; and the needles always point upwards as God. Boniface suggested that God placed the fir there as a symbol to the pagans. It is then said that Boniface took a tree into the later-constructed church, an ever green similar to the fir, during the winter as a reminder.
Of course, the modern Christmas tree came later, during the time of the Protestant reformation. It was in Germany, in an attempt to recreate St. Boniface’s 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.
There are other supposedly Pagan symbols used in Christmas celebrations, but most of those aren’t as widely used or accused as the Christmas Tree.
TL;DR: Christmas comes from Jewish customs, not pagan.