Last Christmas season, I wrote a blog about how my wife and I decided that we would not be doing “the Santa thing” with our children. Ironically, of all the stuff I’ve posted on this blog, this turned out to be the most controversial.
The other thing that struck me with mild amusement is no one even bothered engaging with our reasons, leading me to suspect that many giving me pushback only read the title and didn’t actually read the article. Among some of the debate, the weatherbeaten topic of whether Christmas has a pagan origin arose. Again, this has nothing to do with my wife and I deciding not to perpetuate the Santa tradition with our children, but since it’s a topic of debate that often comes up, I decided it was something worth looking more deeply in to.
I recently read Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday by Gerry Bowler, who received his Ph.D. in history from King’s College in London. He’s a professor at the University of Manitoba and founding director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Contemporary Culture at Calgary’s Nazarene University College.
What Dr. Bowler’s book lays out so well is that the same debates that surround Christmas today have pretty much been going on since the beginning:
How should people celebrate the birth of Christ? Debated.
On what date was Jesus born? Debated.
Is December 25th really a pagan holiday? Debated.
Should Christians even celebrate the birth of Christ at all? Debated.
THE FIRST 3 CENTURIES
Christmas, as we celebrate it in the United States today, is a mixture of Christian and non-Christian elements. After all, the holiday is named after Christ and, regardless of when he was born, it marks the event of his birth as special. Are many of the traditions practiced during modern Christmas not based in a biblical Christian faith but instead in folk traditions from numerous cultures? Certainly. Do some of these folk traditions have pagan religious roots? It seems very likely.
If we go back to the first century to the New Testament, the earliest Christian documents we have, they never say whether Christians should celebrate the birth of Christ or not. Based on the New Testament and other historical evidence, we know what year Jesus was born, but nothing is said in the Bible about the specific month or day.
Interestingly, historic evidence tells us that several centuries passed before Christians even started celebrating the birth of Christ. The early church focused instead on the death and resurrection and imminent return of Christ. It should be noted only two of the four Gospel writers (Matthew and Luke) even included anything about Jesus’ birth in their narratives.
In the 2nd century, pagan critics like Celsus, a Greek philosopher, targeted Christianity and began mocking the virgin birth. The 2nd century also saw the rise of Gnosticism, a heresy which combined Christian beliefs with Greek philosophy. Gnostics denied that Christ truly took on flesh; it was only an illusion; he had remained spirit because the material world is, according to them, evil. At this time, Christian writers started focusing more on the birth of Christ.
By the third century, Christian writers had started speculating about when specifically Jesus was born but not particularly to celebrate it. Some favored dates in May or April, but December 25 and January 6 were dates also proposed. Though some opposed celebrating the birthday of Christ as a holy day, other evidence shows Christians started to take more interest in Christ’s day of birth.
In 312 AD, Emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire, and Christians now had the freedom to partake in holy days publicly. Christ’s birth was soon being celebrated. The exact year it became widely celebrated throughout the church is not known, but a document from 354 AD called Philocalian Chronograph, a sort-of almanac, lists it as a holy day on December 25.
THE BATTLE OVER DECEMBER 25th
Why December 25th?
Here are some often-repeated theories:
THEORY #1 – As the Roman Empire transitioned from paganism to Christianity, Constantine or some other Roman or Christian leaders chose to replace a pagan holiday on December 25th with a Christian holiday.
THEORY #2 – Before Christianity was legalized in 312 AD, Christians would hold their own festivities at the same time as pagan holidays to camouflage their own gatherings. This would certainly make sense during the times Christians came under severe persecution by the Roman government.
Some of the usual suspects of the original pagan holiday for December 25 are:
- The feast of Saturnalia.
- Brumalia, dedicated to Saturn and Bacchus.
- The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus).
- The birthday of the Iranian deity Mithra.
- Some other winter solstice celebration.
PROBLEM #1 – Now, the big problem with both Theories #1 and #2 is simply this: there’s no evidence for them. Not that there’s no evidence for pagan festivals around the same time as December 25, but there’s nothing anywhere saying that Christians started celebrating Christmas during this time for one of these reasons.
Further, one telltale sign of a theory without evidence is a lack of specificity; in other words, it’s common to claim that Christmas is on December 25th because of a pagan holiday, yet (as the list above shows) no one seems able to say which holiday. In fact, the earliest evidence of anyone making this sort of argument dates from the twelve century!
PROBLEM #2 – Moreover, there’s other issues with the pagan-replacement theory. Modern scholarship says it’s quite possible that some of these pagan festivals, especially the birthday of the Unconquered Sun, were started after Christians began marking December 25 as a special day. On top of this, claims of similarities between the Iranian deity Mithra and Christ are complete fabrications, including the December 25th virgin birth of Mithra.
PROBLEM #3 – The mindset of the early church has to be taken into account. To the irk of their pagan neighbors, Christians and Jews have always been stubbornly exclusivists; they believe in only one true God and one true faith. Historical evidence tells us that “countless sermons and books by preachers and leaders of the young Church stressed the need to avoid any association with the world of idols and state cults.”
Though it appears pagan folk customs eventually intertwined with Christmas tradition over the centuries after Christianity became widely practiced, it’s highly doubtful the devout, often-persecuted early church would adopt pagan practices, especially when it was often persecuted by the surrounding pagans for not adopting their practices!
PROBLEM #4 – With this, no records from that time explaining the dating for Christmas use any of the above theories.
CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #1 – Instead, one explanation (which seems odd to us modern folks) is the ancient idea that great men were born and died on the same date. Thus, since Jesus was crucified in late March, he may have been born around that time too. But if we start calculating at conception, the correct beginning of a life, that would put Jesus’ birth in late December.
CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #2 – Another explanation was based on another ancient idea that the first day God created the earth was springtime, and since Jesus’ birth was comparable to the creation of the universe, the angel must have appeared to Mary to tell her she was pregnant through the Holy Spirit on March 25. Then, nine months later, Jesus was born in December.
CHRISTIAN EXPLANATION #3 – Some calculations for Jesus’ birth resulting in the December 25th date start with the account in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1, of John the Baptist’s miraculous conception. His conception took place when John’s father, Zechariah, was serving in the Temple at their tribe’s appointed time. By examining the tribal duty roster found in the Old Testament, it was concluded John was born on June 25th. Luke records Mary, Jesus’ mother, visited John’s mother, Elizabeth, in the 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. So, December 25th fits once again.
At the same time, other Christian churches adopted January 6th to mark Christmas or “Epiphany,” including Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Antioch. This date may have been chosen because they used a different dating system and/or calculated the date of Easter differently than the West. Eventually, some of these churches adopted the December date as well, but some Eastern churches still adhere to January 6th today.
In 529 AD, Emperor Justinian made December 25th a national holiday. As centuries past, December 25 to January 6 became the Twelve Days of Christmas and the Advent season also developed.
Bowler observes astutely, “For whatever reason the Roman church chose December 25 as the date on which to celebrate the Nativity, it was a momentous decisions that would cause centuries of controversy and conflict.”
GROWTH INTO A SPECTACLE
Bowler writes, “From the 300s on, the observance surrounding the celebration of the Nativity became more laden with rituals, art, and music, until it grew into the second holiest day on the Christian calendar.”
Just as the debate about December 25th continues until this day, the debate about how to celebrate the birth of Christ (as well as the role of pagan traditions in celebrating) stretch from ancient times until now.
For whatever reason December 25th was chosen, it has proven to be troublesome.
For one, preventing a co-mingling of the traditions proved difficult with Christmas being celebrated around the same time as the pagan midwinter celebrations, especially if you consider that after Emperor Constantine, Christianity went from a small group of devout followers to a very large group with many nominal followers.
Arguments were made that Christians should not celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior as the pagans celebrate. This didn’t just mean not adopting pagan folk traditions, like decorating with greenery; this meant not doing things to excess – excessive eating, excessive gift-giving (or excessive expectations of gifts), excessive drinking. Times haven’t changed all that much. Some argued Christians should mark this holy day not by greed but by fasting and charity.
Eventually, many church leaders recognized they couldn’t stop the masses from practicing the customs they loved so. Thus, instead of banning them, they Christianized them. Certain pagan and folk traditions, as long as they didn’t conflict with Scripture, were claimed for Christ. They were re-branded and given new meaning connected to the Christian message.
But, as you’re well aware, the debate never ended.
Where much of the Christian/pagan debate about Christmas today has to do with grumpy atheists and non-Christians using the pagan argument to discredit Christmas, most of the arguing back then was Christians against Christians, pretty much making the same exact arguments. Likewise, some Christians in the early church protested against the materialism surrounding Christmas, imploring people to essentially “Keep Christ in Christmas.”
Jump to much later in history: by 1500 AD, Christmas celebrations were “solidly entrenched in western European cultures” with much variety and many of the familiar traditions and attitudes we associate with Christmas today, as well as many of the same troublesome excesses.
Yet, over time, Christmas became so marked by drunken chaos that Christmas in some places was all-out banned.
For a period, Christmas became much like St. Patrick’s Day in the U.S. today; the celebration had nothing to do with the holy person it was honoring; it was simply an excuse to act like drunken idiots. This banning of Christmas happened primarily after the Protestant Reformation (1517 AD) when there was no separation of church and state, such as by the Puritans and other Calvinists. No surprise there. The Enlightenment didn’t help either.
Christmas became thought of as a time of debauchery celebrated only by the lower classes. Any notion of holiness or religion vanished for the most part. No one was keeping the “Christ” is Christmas.
But Christmas would survive near-extinction and become the most celebrated holiday of all time that we know today.
Not surprising, this re-branding started in the United States. In the 1800s, a group of New York poets, illustrators, and writers helped make Christmas into what Americans know it as today: a domestic, child-friendly holiday.
One of these writers was Washington Irving, who introduced his readers to Saint Nicholas. In 1821, William Gilley published The Children’s Friend, the first to print a picture of our modern idea of Santa Claus. In 1822, Clement Clarke Moore wrote those famous words, “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house…”
Around this same time in England, old carols were being rediscovered and new ones were being written. Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol (one of my all-time favorite stories) in 1843, which “helped turn Victorian Christmas into a crusade against selfishness and greed” and “reunited the English Christmas with Christianity.” Christmas cards were invented in London in that same year. The royal family had a big influence too. Prince Albert, who had a German background, and Queen Victoria modeled Christmas as a family-oriented celebration with Christmas trees and roasted turkey.
Eventually, Christmas wiggled itself back into those stuffy Protestant churches because the common folk wanted it: “Christmas returned to Protestant church life because the rank and file of membership wanted it. It made its way against official opposition in many denominations until there was so many local groups celebrating December twenty-fifth as the birthday of Jesus that opposition was futile and indifference impossible.”
All this conflict has been over the birthday of the Prince of Peace. If nothing else, that should cause us pause. And we didn’t even touch on Santa yet.
NEXT: The History of Santa: Christian Saint or Pagan Satan?
Who Jesus Ain’t: Learn more HERE.