CHRISTMAS: PAGAN, CHRISTIAN, OR CONVENIENT?
19th December 2014
This may sound like a riddle found in a Christmas cracker but today many seem to take for granted the idea that the celebration of Christmas on 25 December is a pagan idea. Atheists mock Christians for celebrating a "pagan" festival, some Christians decline to make the day a celebration while others argue that regardless of its origins it is a good evangelistic opportunity. Who is right? Is Christmas really a pagan festival that the Christians took over?
To answer that question we need to go to North Africa at the end of the 3rd Century.
In AD284 Diocletian became emperor and under him (around 298-305) the Church suffered some of the harshest persecution in its history. Many Christians, including Church leaders, renounced their faith in the face of persecution. With the abdication of Diocletian, persecution stopped in the west and Christians returned to a life of peace and security. There was one problem, should those Christians who gave up their faith under duress be allowed back? Could the leaders who left be allowed to take office again?
The Church said 'yes', and following their Saviour's example forgave and welcomed them back, giving them the chance to make a new start.
They believed that the Church should not be contaminated
In North Africa however there was a movement in the Church which rejected this idea. They believed that the Church should not be contaminated and no one who had turned their back on the faith should be allowed back. They were concerned with the purity of the Church and wanted to avoid any pagan influences. This group became known as the "Donatists", after their leader Donatus.
What does this have to do with Christmas? The Donatists are recorded as celebrating the birth of Jesus on 25 December. This group, who were studious in their avoidance of anything that even looked like compromise with the world or any hint of paganism, were following an old tradition of remembering the birth of Jesus on the same date most Christians celebrate today.
So where do we get the idea that 25 December is a pagan day?
Some claim it is to do with the winter solstice and that Christians simply borrowed this. The problem is that the solstice is actually a few days earlier. Some suggest that it is because of the Saturnalia festival – but that runs 17 - 23 December.
Some claim it is to do with sun worship and bring up the festival of "Sol Invictus" (Unconquered Sun) which Emperor Aurelian instituted on 25 December 274. However when we look closer we see that this was not a traditional sun worship date. The two sun temples in Rome celebrated their feasts on 9 and 28 August (not December), and had fallen into neglect by the time of Aurelian. A new sun god, Mithras, was becoming popular. Although long thought of as a development of eastern sun worship, historians now believe Mithras worship to be a roman invention – a cult created by and for the imperial bureaucracy. But even Mithras did not have any feasts associated with solstices or equinoxes until a hundred years later. So it appears that Aurelian, who was hostile to Christianity, picked a date with no pagan sun worship and created one. Why? It has been suggested that he was trying to create a pagan alternative to another feast on that day; a pagan festival that would help unite his empire. That festival was the celebration of Jesus' birth. In fact, in spite of Aurelian's pronouncement, there is no record of celebrating Sol on 25 December until 354/362 AD, much later than the Christian celebration in Africa and elsewhere.
It was only in the 17th and 18th Centuries that secular enlightenment scholars started to suggest that Christianity had borrowed the date of Christmas from the pagans.
Yet this leads us to another problem. We know from the accounts of Jesus' birth in the Gospels that it was unlikely that He was born in December, so why had the Church chosen to celebrate it then?
The answer has two parts: the date of Jesus' death, and Jewish tradition!
For the Early Church, celebrating the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus was very important.
For the Early Church, celebrating the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus was very important. It worked hard to determine the date of this event, a calculation made more difficult by having to work out which year it was, and which calendar – Jewish or Roman – to use). After much deduction the Church in the West and Africa settled on 25 March as the date of Jesus' crucifixion.
Why was this important in determining the date of Jesus' birth? In Jewish tradition common around the time of Jesus, it was thought that prophets died on the same day as they were born. This idea, which seems strange to us but was understood and accepted by the Early Church, was called the "integral age" of prophets. Jesus was different to the prophets however, His life didn't start at His birth, rather it was when the angel spoke to Mary. This is why the Church celebrated the annunciation (or announcement to Mary that she was carrying the child) on 25 March. Add nine months of pregnancy and you arrive at a birth date of 25 December.
Clearly we know Jesus wasn't born on 25 December, but the Church choose to celebrate it on this day. In a similar way, this country celebrates the Queen's birthday on the second Saturday in June ("trooping the colour") even though her real birthday is on 21 April.
So even though they didn't know the real date of Jesus' birth the Early Church, following Jewish traditions, choose a date when they celebrated the fact God loved the world enough to send His Son as a baby. This date had no connection to pagan gods or ideas – these were invented years later.
[Editor's Note: This article was first published in BUC News on 17 December 2010. Due to numerous requests we are posting it again for your convenience, Pastor Andrew Willis is a Course Tutor at the Adventist Discovery Centre, Watford. He enjoys research and history. This article deals with some of the questions that church members ask at this time of year and provides some helpful insights.]