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 ChristmasThe 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 LinkedThis 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.
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.