Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Christmas: Pagan Festival or Christian Celebration?

Dr Anthony McRoy

  • Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2004)
  • J. Neil Alexander, Waiting for the Coming: The Liturgical Meaning of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, (Washington DC: Pastoral Press, 1993)
  • Susan K. Roll, Toward the Origins of Christmas, (Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1995)
  • Maxwell E. Johnson (Ed.), Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year, (Collegeville: Pueblo/Liturgical Press, 2000)
  • John F. White, Restorer of the World: The Roman Emperor Aurelian, (Stroud: Spellmount 2007)

Atheist and Muslim polemicists – and some Protestants – often claim that Christmas derives from a previous pagan festival. These books help answer this accusation. Those by Kelly and Alexander are brief, readable and informative (though it must be cautioned that none of the liturgical studies books here have a conservative approach to the Bible). Johnson’s book is a collection of liturgist articles;, those by Thomas Talley, ‘Constantine and Christmas’, and Susan Roll, ‘The Origins of Christmas’, being particularly interesting and pertinent.

Polemicists (and The Da Vinci Code) frequently state that 25 December was Mithras’ birthday, yet the renowned Mithraic scholar, Dr Richard Gordon has corresponded to me that he is unaware of ‘a single date on a Mithraic inscription that falls in the winter, let alone late in December… We know NOTHING about the cycle of rituals in the cult...’ So, Christmas owes nothing to Mithraism. This is one area where Kelly (p. 65) and Roll (p.111) are inadequate.

Roll’s book presents two theories for the origins of Christmas: the ‘History of Religions’ school, and the ‘Computation’ thesis. The first only goes back to the eighteenth century, proposed by Paul Ernst Jablonski, an Egyptologist who claimed that ‘Constantine exercised a personal influence on the establishment of Christmas’, p. 130. However, the main figures responsible for the claim were Hermann Usener in 1889 and Bernard Botte in 1932. Usener’s thesis was that the Church adapted certain pagan customs to keep the converts happy, such as the Natalis Sol Invicti – birthday of the Unconquered Sun, pp. 132-133. Botte similarly held that the Church ‘“christianized” certain non-Christian practices, Christmas being intended as ‘a counterfeast in regard to the pre-Christian feast’, p. 141.

The argument on ‘Christianisation’ usually rests on one or both of two foundations: the Roman Feast of the Saturnalia, which ran 17-23 December, characterised by carousing, merry-making, gifts and candles, and the Sol Invictus event on 25 December. One can immediately dismiss the supposed link with the Saturnalia: it did not stretch to 25 December, was not inclusive of any Solstice commemoration, and ended on 23 December when another event began – the Larentalia, a feast of the dead!

The evidence suggests that Christian festivals in the fourth century were accompanied by worship and fasting, not dissipation, cf. p. 203. As Kelly notes: ‘early Christian leaders found the Saturnalian practices offensive’, p. 69. Alexander observes (p. 9ff) that the 380 Saragossa synod obliged daily church worship for 17 December-6 January. All the indications are that fasting, rather than secular ‘feasting’ was prescribed, as demonstrated by the writings of Bishop Filastrius of Brescia (d. 397), pp. 14-15.

Gregory Nazianzen, Bishop of Constantinople c. 379, in his sermon On the Theophany indicates that proper practice for celebrating the Nativity differed from pagan Saturnalia practices – not least riotous conduct: ‘…let us not strive to outdo each other in intemperance… Let us leave all these to … the …festivals of the Greeks… But we, the Object of whose adoration is the Word… seek it [‘luxury’]…in the Divine Law …’ There are no patristic references to a conscious decision to copy or usurp the Saturnalia.

Secondly, all polemicists – and unfortunately, all the books reviewed here – make the mistake of over-emphasising the Solstice and especially Aurelian’s contribution. Emperor Aurelian, as White’s excellent, informative and lucid book demonstrates, was a remarkable man, who in a short five-year reign re-united and strengthened the Roman Empire. The book is also superb for presenting the cultural/historical background for church history during this era, and White pays special attention to Christianity, e.g. p. 168. Most pertinently, regarding claims that White notes (p. 136) that Aurelian dedicated a temple to Sol Invictus in 274 ‘perhaps on 25 December’; note the caution here – the dating is not secure. Apparently, Aurelian did institute Games in honour of Sol on October 19-22 – but not 25 December.

A prominent Roman Studies specialist, Dr Steven Hijmans, has demonstrated that contrary to claims (unfortunately, repeated in the liturgical studies books here) that Aurelian borrowed from a Syrian cult brought to Rome by the degenerate Emperor Elagabolus some decades earlier, Aurelian’s religion was a development of the existing Roman cult. Moreover, in Hijmans’ article, Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice and the Origins of Christmas, we read: ‘…December 25 was neither a longstanding nor an especially important feast day of Sol… the suggestion that it was established by Aurelian cannot be proven. In fact, there is no firm evidence that this feast of Sol on December 25 antedates the feast of Christmas at all.’ He continues: ‘The traditional feast days of Sol… were August 8, August 9, August 28, and December 11. Of these, only August 28 is still mentioned in the Calendar of 354, along with October 19 and October 22, the latter being the most important, judging by the 36 chariot races with which it was celebrated.’

He also emphasises that we must distinguish between the Sun-god - the cult of Sol - and the Sun - i.e. the astronomical body. Hijmans states that the failure to differentiate ‘between astronomy and cult’ touches upon the ‘fatal flaw in the contention that Christmas was instituted on December 25 to counteract a pagan feast.’ The winter solstice in December was an astronomical event: the major feast of Sol, the sun-god, was October 22. Christians could deal with the astronomical symbolism of the sun, without engaging the deity Sol. Thus Natalis Solis Invicti i.e. the winter solstice, observed on December 25, was recognised as the ‘birthday’ of the astronomical entity, not necessarily the solar deity! This allowed the Christians to utilise the imagery of Malachi 4:2 - that Christ was the ‘Sun of Righteousness’.

The essential point is this: if Aurelian did not initiate any festival on 25 December, and there was no major festival before that, it follows that the Christian feast of the Nativity – Christmas – cannot be construed as deriving from a pagan festival! This is where so many accusations of ‘paganism’ against Christmas fall down. As for claims that Constantine was responsible for the December 25 Nativity feast, there is no hard evidence for this. The first recorded celebration occurred in Rome in 336, a city Constantine left for the last time in 326 and never returned, (Talley, Between Memory and Hope, p. 267). By this time Constantine was in Constantinople, but he ordered no such Nativity festival on December 25 there. It seems likely that the Constantinople December Nativity only began with Gregory Nazianzus c. 380.

The second theory is ‘Computation’, based on the Rabbinic concept of the ‘integral age’ of prophets, that they died on the same date they were born, or with Jesus, on the date of his conception (Roll, pp. 95-96). Since Rome and North Africa held that Jesus died on March 25, and the East that He died on April 6, He must have been conceived on either of those dates. Add nine months and you get His birth on January 6 (when Armenians still celebrate the Nativity) or 25 December, Alexander, p. 52.

There is evidence from North Africa from the third and fourth centuries that the date of the nativity had been computed to 25 December (Roll, p. 87). We know from Clement of Alexandria (c. 159-215) in Stromateis 1:21 that in Egypt people were computing the date of Christ’s birth, and that the Basilidian Gnostics even celebrated the event of His baptism (believing that the heavenly Power endued the man Jesus at this point). On the basis of Luke 3:23: ‘And Jesus was himself beginning about thirty years’ many believed that Jesus was baptised on His birthday. Hence the earliest Nativity celebrations – which occurred on January 6 (Alexander, p. 72) commemorated both the Baptism and the Birth (again, Armenians still celebrate both).

It appears that the earliest Easter celebration was ‘a unitive feast which included the incarnation’ (Roll, ‘The Origins of Christmas’, p. 287), as demonstrated in the Paschal homily of Melito of Sardis c. 165. However, by the time of Origen (c. 185-254), in Against Celsus VIII:XXI, it had fragmented into Preparation-Day, Passover and Pentecost. The emergence of the Nativity feast was simply an extension of this fragmentation (p. 212). It is also possible that Christological controversies which questioned the true deity or humanity of Jesus spurred the practice. Certainly, we find people like Gregory Nazianzus, Leo, Ambrose and John Chrysostom using the Nativity feast as an occasion to attack Christological heresies (ch.4). Perhaps the process of festal fragmentation and the need to emphasise the true simultaneous deity and humanity of Jesus came together to encourage the Nativity festival.

What about the candles and lights? We know that the January 6 Nativity feast was sometimes called ‘the Festival of Lights’ (Ta Phōta), and Chanukah, the Jewish ‘Festival of Lights’ was characterised ‘by lighting lamps and kindling fires’ (p. 121). How about the ‘pagan’ Christmas tree? The earliest record of Christmas trees comes from 16th century Germany, when one was decorated with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers. Later, Martin Luther, impressed by the stars shining through the evergreen trees, decorated his Christmas tree with candles to reproduce the majesty of Creation. In Britain, the Christmas tree was introduced by King George III’'s German-born Queen Charlotte, and popularised by Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert.

The pagan Germans revered an Oak, not a Fir tree! The centre of their worship was the Oak of Geismar, dedicated to Thor (Donar). It was felled by the British/Saxon ‘Apostle of Germany’, Boniface in 723. Falling, it crushed every tree around except a small fir tree. Boniface declared the fir tree’s survival a miracle: ‘Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child.’ Boniface used the triangular shape of the fir to illustrate the Trinity.

Regarding holly and ivy, all ancient cultures used greenery/flora as decorations, and in winter evergreens were used. There was nothing specifically religious in this, and in Medieval and Tudor times, no ‘arcane’ properties were ascribed to either plant (Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun, p. 35). Tertullian in On Idolatry XIV-XVI is concerned that Christians do not participate in pagan festivals, and on that basis attacks Christians who use evergreens during such. Holly became associated with the Crown of Thorns and the red berries with Christ’s blood.

As an Irishman working in Wales, I am always amused by ‘Celtic’ traditions like the Welsh hat which actually date no earlier than the 18th century. The same is true of the supposed Druid ‘fertility’ link with kissing under the mistletoe. Although mistletoe was used with other evergreens, kissing under it only began in the 18th century (Susan Drury, ‘Customs and Beliefs Associated with Christmas Evergreens: A Preliminary Survey’ [Folklore 98.2 1987, p. 194]) – long after the demise of Druidism! The so-called Druid association is found in Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, Book XVI, where he claims (based on reports) that Druids believe ‘that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart fecundity to all animals that are barren…’ Nothing about kissing.

The other fantasy is that in Norse mythology, the evil god Loki used mistletoe to kill Baldur, but that his mother Freya caused him to be restored to life and then changed the plant to a symbol of love, blessing any who kissed under it. In fact, the Norse Eddas, whilst confirming that Baldur was killed by mistletoe, say nothing about a resurrection, still less about kissing under the plant!

This 25 December, enjoy your Christmas, celebrating the Nativity of Our Saviour: the festival is truly Christian, not pagan.

This article was first published in the Church of England Newspaper of 14th December 2007, placed on pages 12 and 21. It is reproduced here with permission. A related article by Dr. McRoy on the origin of Easter was published by Christianity Today: Was Easter Borrowed from a Pagan Holiday?