Some people oppose the celebration of Christmas today based on the assumption that it can be traced back to pagan religious events. Others connect it to the Roman Catholic Church, which—in their opinion—is just about as pagan as anything else. They see it as a combination of Christianity, polytheism, sun worship, and pagan beliefs about the cycles of nature.
There is a great deal of scholarly speculation about the origin of Christmas and its traditions—which, in my opinion, needs to be handled very carefully. Scholars can gloss over significant differences between religions and cultures in trying to make connections between Christianity and paganism. Scholars of religion did this often in the late 1800s and early 1900s, especially in what is called the History of Religions School (Religionsgeschichtliche Schule). While this approach flamed out quickly in the early 20th century, critics either are not aware of it or else are reluctant to give up something that seems to undermine Christianity so effectively. Unfortunately, this long-debunked scholarship is still used today and even cited as authoritative (on a side note, if you see someone mention anything written by James Frazer, Godfrey Higgins, Gerald Massey, Alvin Boyd Kuhn, or Dorothy Murdock/Acharya S, you can dismiss it immediately. These writers were total quacks).
The very fact that the early church did not celebrate the birth of Christ, and by the third century had not yet associated it with 25 December, gives us ample cause us to question the assertion that Christmas was a church-sanctioned event influenced by paganism.
The early church did not choose a winter birthdate for Jesus because it happened to be near the winter solstice, as critics and conspiracy theorists almost universally allege. Rather, they did so because of the belief that Jesus was both conceived and crucified on the same day: 25 March. We find this in the writings of Tertullian (Against the Jews 8) and other writers. Working backward nine months, the date of Jesus’ birth, according to Tertullian’s calculations, was 25 December. This idea appears in other early Christian writings. An anonymous fourth-century Christian mentions that Jesus was conceived on the same date of his crucifixion (On Solstices and Equinoxes). Augustine of Hippo connected Mary’s womb with the grave in which Christ was laid after his death (Sermon 202).
Contrary to the beliefs of conspiracy theorists, the date for Christmas did not arise out of pagan celebrations. Modern scholars understand that these celebrations probably did not exist in the Roman Empire before the third century AD. For instance, “The Day of the Unconquered Sun” was instituted in AD 274 and celebrated on 25 December, but this was long after early Christians had already chosen it as the birthdate of Christ.
Other elements of Christmas are also claimed to have an ancient pagan origin. We see this with Christmas trees, which are assumed to have derived from pagan religious celebrations. Trees were a part of paganism, to be sure (The Hebrew Bible mentions the Asherim, or Asherah poles, which were a stylized version of that goddess’ sacred tree). But Christmas trees did not become associated with Christianity until the time of the Renaissance. It began with Germans decorating trees taken from nearby forests. This custom later migrated to England with George I in the 1700s and continued on to America.
Some Christians try to dismiss Christmas as pagan in origin but can be exceedingly careless in doing so. For instance, some believers will condemn Christmas trees based on a reference in Jeremiah 10:1-4, which condemns those who go into the forest, cut down a tree, and bring it home to overlay it with gold and silver. Our zealous friends may not realize that this passage is not condemning Christmas trees, but idols made from wood and overlaid with precious metals (cf. Isaiah 44:9-20). This passage in Jeremiah is often taken out of context, which is made clear by the reference to idols in the very next verse (v. 5).
There are a lot of popular misconceptions about Christmas, some of which involve its origins. Others include elements of the birth narratives of Christ, and how inaccurate details have become enshrined in popular stories and hymns. We’ll take a look at those in our next couple of posts.
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