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Wednesday, December 16, 2015

No, Christmas Is Not Based on a Pagan Holiday



Christmas is a much-beloved holiday, celebrated by billions of people across the globe. In the U.S. Alone, the Pew Center reports that nearly 96% of the population celebrates Christmas, including eight out of ten non-Christians, including atheists, agnostics, and those who have no faith commitment.1 However, Christmas is also a uniquely Christian holiday; its core message is about a personal God taking humanity upon Himself and stepping into the world to redeem sinful human beings who could never redeem themselves. The Christian message is inescapable.

I believe the love of Christmas coupled with the loathing of Christianity is one reason why atheists continue to repeat the claim that Christmas is a repurposing of a pagan Roman holiday. Two of the most popular pagan holidays put forth are the celebration of Saturnalia, which honored the Roman god Saturn, or the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, that is the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun." Both of these celebrations were held in the second half of December, making them somewhat close to Christmas.

Looking at the History of Christmas

The claim that the roots of Christmas are pagan is one I hear over and over again, especially in December. The idea isn't even new. The New England Puritans, who valued work more than celebration, taught such.2 Puritan preacher Increase Mather preached that "the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that 'Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian.'"3

When one digs into the actual history however, a much different picture arises. There are two ways to approach the question: one is to see how December 25 became associated with the Nativity, which is how the early church would have referred to the day of Christ's birth. The other one is to look at the celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Either approach shows the dubious nature of the claim that Christmas has pagan roots.

Much of the thrust of the "pagan Christmas" claim rests on the idea of a Christianized Rome trying to convert a populace that wouldn't want to give up its feast traditions, akin to the practice of churches celebrating a "Harvest Festival" instead of Halloween. Yet, scholars like Yale University's T.C. Schmidt are finding the marking of December 25 to go much earlier in the Christian history.

When translating Hippolytus' Commentary on Daniel, written just after AD 200, Schmidt notes that five of the seven manuscripts contain December 25 as the date for Jesus' birth and another offers the 25th of either December or March.4 Clement of Alexandria in this same time offers the date of March 25 as the date of the incarnation, that is the conception of Jesus, in his Stromata (1.21.145-146).5 Both works tie the idea that Jesus's death would have happened on the same day as his conception.

Christmas and Easter are Linked

This is the key to the December 25th date. As Thomas Tulley works out in his book The Origins of the Liturgical Year, there was a belief within the early church that the date of the death of Jesus would also reflect either his birth or his conception.6 Augustine wrote of this, saying "For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th."7

St. John Chrysostom in his writings goes ever further by noting that the Angel Gabriel's announcement of Mary's conception happened while Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Luke 1:26). Chrysostom argues that Zechariah's service was the Day of Atonement, thus making the conception of John the Baptist happen in the fall. Add six months and Jesus's conception lands in the spring, e.g March 25. I don't know that this calculation is historically accurate, but it does show how much the early church tied the events together. The idea of randomly choosing a pagan date seems a pretty big stretch.

Here's the thing. If Christians were recognizing the birth of Christ by the beginning of the third century, does it make sense to think that this was a fourth century invention to sway the Roman populous over to Christianity? Christianity was gaining ground in the time of Clement, but it was by no means out from under the shadow of persecution. It also wasn't borrowing much from pagan customs at the time. So why believe they would do so for this date?

In order to get a fuller picture, we must look at the Roman holidays and their histories. You can read  that post here and part three is here.

References

1. Mohammed, Besheer. "Christmas Also Celebrated by Many Non-Christians." Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 23 Dec. 2013. Web. 14 Dec. 2015. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/23/christmas-also-celebrated-by-many-non-christians/.
2. Schnepper, Rachel N. "Yuletide's Outlaws." The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Dec. 2012. Web. 15 Dec. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/15/opinion/the-puritan-war-on-christmas.html?_r=0
3. Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Print. 4.
4. Schmidt, T.C. "Hippolytus and the Original Date of Christmas" Chronicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 21 Nov 2010. Web. http://web.archive.org/web/20130303163053/http://chronicon.net/blog/chronology/hippolytus-and-the-original-date-of-christmas 16 Dec 2015.
5. Schmmidt, T.C. "Clement of Alexandria and the Original date of Christmas as December 25th." Chrinicon.net. T.C. Schmidt. 17 Dec 2010. Web. http://web.archive.org/web/20120822053409/http://chronicon.net/blog/hippolytus/clement-of-alexandria-and-the-original-date-of-christmas-as-december-25th/ 16 Dec 2015.
6. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. New York: Pueblo Pub, 1986. Print. 91ff.
7. Augustine of Hippo. On the Trinity, IV, 5. Logos Virtual Library. Trans. Arthur West Haddan. Darren L. Slider, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2015. http://www.logoslibrary.org/augustine/trinity/0405.html.
Image Courtesy Adam Clark and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License.

19 comments:

  1. Great article. Christians give thanks to Jesus everyday for being born. God loves us so much that he came down to die for our sins so, that we would not go to hell. Praise God! Praise Jesus!

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  2. Great article. Christians give thanks to Jesus everyday for being born. God loves us so much that he came down to die for our sins so, that we would not go to hell. Praise God! Praise Jesus!

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  3. I noticed you didn't bother to take into account any SCRIPTURAL support for Xmess. I guess that's because there isn't any. End of story. Any other argument fails in light of the lack of scriptural support.

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    1. Absolutely correct Jennifer. Jesus asked us to remember His death - not His birth. Study of the planetary alignments indicate that the Magi probably arrived to honour Him as a 6mo baby on 25th December 1BC so this has been adopted with the drunken pagan holiday of Saturnalia to make it appeal to the masses. Jer 10:1- is completely ignored over Xmas trees - even in churches! They have even changed 'axe' into 'chisel' to hide the meaning.

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    2. ....what? The argument being presented states that Christmas does not have pagan roots and that it has been viewed as a celebration of the birth of Christ in connection with Easter for far longer than many in our culture today purport. What does "scriptural evidence" have to do with it?

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    3. Jennifer and old Discovery up there clearly did not bother to read the article, because it would be too much work. Goodness me, but you are ready to sit in judgement quicker than a gunslinger.

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    4. As a former Muslum, growing up in Canda was especially tough around Christmas. Then in my early twenties through a divine encounter, and other factors, I accepted the Lord as my personal saviour! Excited that now I could finally celebrate Christmas legitimately, I jumped into the season the whole nine yards...the stunning tree, lights, gifts galore, the songs...and oh yeah, birth of Jesus...after the 25 years of doing so, and even all the while, I had deep convictions and reservations about the whole premise. After researching it all about 5 yrs ago, I found out just how pagan it all is...now I had no good answer to the JW's that would ask why/how us Christians justify such a practice....

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    5. As a former Muslum, growing up in Canda was especially tough around Christmas. Then in my early twenties through a divine encounter, and other factors, I accepted the Lord as my personal saviour! Excited that now I could finally celebrate Christmas legitimately, I jumped into the season the whole nine yards...the stunning tree, lights, gifts galore, the songs...and oh yeah, birth of Jesus...after the 25 years of doing so, and even all the while, I had deep convictions and reservations about the whole premise. After researching it all about 5 yrs ago, I found out just how pagan it all is...now I had no good answer to the JW's that would ask why/how us Christians justify such a practice....To be continued...

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    6. Secularism demands non-biblical evidence because they don't believe the bible and when it is given they demand biblical proof of which they claim not to believe in the first place. Interesting.

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    7. Secularism demands non-biblical evidence because they don't believe the bible and when it is given they demand biblical proof of which they claim not to believe in the first place. Interesting.

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  4. Very interesting, especially from my background as a Jehovah's Witness. I have been totally sold on the Pagan theory, until now. I look forward to reading/learning more.

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  5. Check the Hebrew calendar instemde of the Gregorian calendar. Yesh'ua isn't born in December.

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    1. While shepherds watch thier flocks by night all seated on the ground. Not in December shurley? Snow in bethlehem, or freezing nights?.

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    2. Actually, we don;t know. Israel has a climate very much like Southern California, which has had heat waves in December. Just last year, Israel's December 14 hit temps of 29 degrees Celcius (85 F)>

      But the actual date of Jesus's birth is beside the point. If you don't know the date of birth for your adopted baby, you choose one. All I'm arguing is the choice of Dec. 25 wan't based on any pagan holiday.

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    3. Sorry- I read the report wrong. The record for Bethlehem was 70 degrees Fahrenheit on Dec 24, 2013. Still plenty warm enough to bring sheep out of their pens.

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  6. Almost all references used are around 150 years after Christ a the least and that makes these references 3rd party.
    Elizabeth also cites the Hebrew Calendar. Honestly this article brings us around in a circle right back to where we started and the pagan idea still fits the facts better than anything else. A person who is studying Hermeneutically doesn't stretch like this.

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  7. Jesus taught us to remember and teach everything about his birth and life and death. His birth takes up a very large portion of scripture. That's the Gospel and we have the responsability to annonce it to every creature. It's only wisdom to use this season to evangelise and worship our Savior as the angels did. In 1995, the Israelien Shemaryahu Talmon publshed a study based on ancient manuscripts found in cave 4 of Qumrân. The (4Q321). The writings show exactly when John's father was in the Temple and when according to scripture Elizabeth became pregnant and from there we know that Christ was born the 25th of december because of what the Bible says about both Elizabeth and Mary. The disciples, Mary and the early church knew exactly when Christ was born and to imagine that christians would forget is ridiculous.

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  8. Jesus never celebrates his birthday.He is alpha and omega.Once I will meet him in heaven.WE WILL CELEBRATE IT TOGETHER.
    Or I celebrates today because he promises "Surely I come quickly"
    (my poem)
    Merry Christmas

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  9. Some of you people should read before commenting

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