Some Thoughts About Christmas


December 23, 2016

By Joseph Tkach.

Is Christmas rooted in paganism?

While eating lunch some time ago with a pastor friend (from another church), we discussed his reasons for believing Christ’s birth should be celebrated in September, not December: 1) Jesus was more likely to have been born on one of Israel’s autumn festivals than at the end of the year, and 2) Christmas is a pagan holiday. We discussed both assertions at length, and though he agreed that the word “Christmas” is not of pagan origin (it’s from a Latin expression meaning “Christ is sent”), he would not budge from his position, which was based on his use of an argument known as “the fallacy of origins” (or “the genetic fallacy”) in which a perceived defect in the origin of an idea or thing is taken to be evidence that discredits that idea or thing itself. According to this faulty line of reasoning, the truth of an idea or thing is rejected based on its source rather than on its merit. Here are two examples:

  • Wedding rings were invented by pagans, therefore wearing a wedding ring is un-Christian.
  • The word “cereal” comes from the name of the pagan goddess Ceres, therefore Christians should not eat cereal.

Those not realizing the fallacy of such reasoning risk falling prey to the myths and misinformation that often surface when the origin of Christmas is raised. Even if the day is somehow incidentally related to less-than-Christian practices of the past, that association does not determine the meaning Christians (in the early church and today) attribute to Christmas. It’s enough to know that Christ was born on a day in history, in flesh and blood, space and time, for us and our salvation so that we might be born from above by God’s Word and Spirit. By assigning December 25 on the church calendar to celebrating Jesus’ birth, we as Christians are able to celebrate together, and then invite others to join in.

The meaning Christians attribute to Christmas comes from our services of worship on that day, which include readings of relevant Scripture, the preaching of messages expounding those readings, and the singing of hymns and carols that proclaim the joyous, biblical message of Christ’s birth. For us, the meaning of Christmas is determined by the object to which our celebrations point: Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God.

Is Christmas rooted in paganism? Historians (and others) have long debated that question. In the History Today article reproduced below (with permission), British journalist Matt Salusbury debunks some of the claims frequently made in that debate. The bottom line is this: incidental associations of Christmas with non-Christian practices do not determine the meaning of the day for Christians. Jesus Christ gives Christmas its meaning.

Did the Romans Invent Christmas?

Did the first Christian Roman emperor appropriate the pagan festival of Saturnalia
to celebrate the birth of Christ? Matt Salusbury weighs the evidence.

It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. But was Christmas, Western Christianity’s most popular festival, derived from the pagan Saturnalia?

The first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as ‘the best of times’: dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged.

Saturnalia saw the inversion of social roles. The wealthy were expected to pay the month’s rent for those who couldn’t afford it, masters and slaves to swap clothes. Family households threw dice to determine who would become the temporary Saturnalian monarch. The poet Lucian of Samosata (AD 120-180) has the god Cronos (Saturn) say in his poem, Saturnalia:

‘During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping … an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.’

Saturnalia originated as a farmer’s festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honour of Saturn (satus means sowing). Numerous archaeological sites from the Roman coastal province of Constantine, now in Algeria, demonstrate that the cult of Saturn survived there until the early third century AD.

Saturnalia grew in duration and moved to progressively later dates under the Roman period. During the reign of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), it was a two-day affair starting on December 17th. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event. Changes to the Roman calendar moved the climax of Saturnalia to December 25th, around the time of the date of the winter solstice.

From as early as 217 BC there were public Saturnalia banquets. The Roman state cancelled executions and refrained from declaring war during the festival. Pagan Roman authorities tried to curtail Saturnalia; Emperor Caligula (AD 12-41) sought to restrict it to five days, with little success.

Emperor Domitian (AD 51-96) may have changed Saturnalia’s date to December 25th in an attempt to assert his authority. He curbed Saturnalia’s subversive tendencies by marking it with public events under his control. The poet Statius (AD 45- 95), in his poem Silvae, describes the lavish banquet and entertainments Domitian presided over, including games which opened with sweets, fruit and nuts showered on the crowd and featuring flights of flamingos released over Rome. Shows with fighting dwarves and female gladiators were illuminated, for the first time, into the night.

The conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity in AD 312 ended Roman persecution of Christians and began imperial patronage of the Christian churches. But Christianity did not become the Roman Empire’s official religion overnight. Dr David Gwynn, lecturer in ancient and late antique history at Royal Holloway, University of London, says that, alongside Christian and other pagan festivals, ‘the Saturnalia continued to be celebrated in the century afterward’.

The poet Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius wrote about another Saturnalia, describing a banquet of pagan literary celebrities in Rome during the festival. Classicists date the work to between AD 383 and 430, so it describes a Saturnalia alive and well under Christian emperors. The Christian calendar of Polemius Silvus, written around AD 449, mentions Saturnalia, recording that ‘it used to honour the god Saturn’. This suggests it had by then become just another popular carnival.

Christmas apparently started – like Saturnalia – in Rome, and spread to the eastern Mediterranean. The earliest known reference to it commemorating the birth of Christ on December 25th is in the Roman Philocalian calendar of AD 354. Provincial schisms soon resulted in different Christian calendars. The Orthodox Church in the Eastern (Byzantine) half of the Roman Empire fixed the date of Christmas at January 6th, commemorating simultaneously Christ’s birth, baptism and first miracle.

Saturnalia has a rival contender as the forerunner of Christmas: the festival of dies natalis solis invicti, ‘birthday of the unconquered sun’. The Philocalian calendar also states that December 25th was a Roman civil holiday honouring the cult of sol invicta. With its origins in Syria and the monotheistic cult of Mithras, sol invicta certainly has similarities to the worship of Jesus. The cult was introduced into the empire in AD 274 by Emperor Aurelian (214-275), who effectively made it a state religion, putting its emblem on Roman coins.

Sol invicta succeeded because of its ability to assimilate aspects of Jupiter and other deities into its figure of the Sun King, reflecting the absolute power of ‘divine’emperors. But despite efforts by later pagan emperors to control Saturnalia and absorb the festival into the official cult, the sol invicta ended up looking very much like the old Saturnalia. Constantine, the first Christian emperor, was brought up in the sol invicta cult, in what was by then already a predominantly monotheist empire: ‘It is therefore possible,’ says Dr Gwynn, ‘that Christmas was intended to replace this festival rather than Saturnalia.’

Gwynn concludes: ‘The majority of modern scholars would be reluctant to accept any close connection between the Saturnalia and the emergence of the Christian Christmas.’

Devout Christians will be reassured to learn that the date of Christmas may derive from concepts in Judaism that link the time of the deaths of prophets being linked to their conception or birth. From this, early ecclesiastical number-crunchers extrapolated that the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy following the Annunciation on March 25th would produce a December 25th date for the birth of Christ.

Note: This "History Today" article was first published in December 2009 (volume 59, 12).
It is reproduced here with the publisher’s permission with "History Today" retaining the copyright.

I praise God for leading GCI out of faulty reasoning, errors of fact, and various misinterpretations concerning the celebration of Christ’s birth at Christmas. We join with the host of Christians down through the centuries in celebrating Jesus’ birth on the traditional day, knowing that the incarnation of the Son of God is central to God’s plan to save humankind.

Regardless of the actual day of the birth of Immanuel (God with us), his birth is more than worthy of our celebration. As Jesus’ followers, we celebrate together, rejoicing in the amazing, sacrificial love of our Triune God seen in the birth of Jesus Christ over 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem.

The story behind December 25

Claiming that the practice of celebrating Christmas on December 25 is rooted in paganism cannot override the fact that, for well over 1700 years, the worship of the church has irreversibly established the biblical story of Jesus’ birth as the focus of Christian Christmas celebrations. It’s superstitious to think that if pagans did certain things in the distant past, then Christians, merely because of that association, must avoid those things today. Pagans performed animal sacrifices, lit candles and had harvest festivals long before ancient Israel included similar practices in their temple worship. Were they wrong in doing so? Pagans breathe oxygen, must Christians avoid doing that? How far does such silly thinking go?

In deciding to celebrate Jesus’ birth on December 25, was the early church cozying up to paganism? The article below, reproduced with permission from the December 2003 issue of Touchstone Magazine, provides some interesting historical perspective.

Calculating Christmas, The Story Behind December 25

by William J. Tighe

Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival. Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival. But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals. Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.

A Mistake

The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the gospel.

In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.

There were two temples of the sun in Rome, one of which (maintained by the clan into which Aurelian was born or adopted) celebrated its dedication festival on August 9th, the other of which celebrated its dedication festival on August 28th. But both of these cults fell into neglect in the second century, when eastern cults of the sun, such as Mithraism, began to win a following in Rome. And in any case, none of these cults, old or new, had festivals associated with solstices or equinoxes.

As things actually happened, Aurelian, who ruled from 270 until his assassination in 275, was hostile to Christianity and appears to have promoted the establishment of the festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” as a device to unify the various pagan cults of the Roman Empire around a commemoration of the annual “rebirth” of the sun. He led an empire that appeared to be collapsing in the face of internal unrest, rebellions in the provinces, economic decay, and repeated attacks from German tribes to the north and the Persian Empire to the east.

In creating the new feast, he intended the beginning of the lengthening of the daylight, and the arresting of the lengthening of darkness, on December 25th to be a symbol of the hoped-for “rebirth,” or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire, resulting from the maintenance of the worship of the gods whose tutelage (the Romans thought) had brought Rome to greatness and world-rule. If it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.

A By-Product

It is true that the first evidence of Christians celebrating December 25th as the date of the Lord’s nativity comes from Rome some years after Aurelian, in A.D. 336, but there is evidence from both the Greek East and the Latin West that Christians attempted to figure out the date of Christ’s birth long before they began to celebrate it liturgically, even in the second and third centuries. The evidence indicates, in fact, that the attribution of the date of December 25th was a by-product of attempts to determine when to celebrate his death and resurrection.

How did this happen? There is a seeming contradiction between the date of the Lord’s death as given in the synoptic Gospels and in John’s Gospel. The synoptics would appear to place it on Passover Day (after the Lord had celebrated the Passover Meal on the preceding evening), and John on the Eve of Passover, just when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Jerusalem Temple for the feast that was to ensue after sunset on that day.

Solving this problem involves answering the question of whether the Lord’s Last Supper was a Passover Meal, or a meal celebrated a day earlier, which we cannot enter into here. Suffice it to say that the early Church followed John rather than the synoptics, and thus believed that Christ’s death would have taken place on 14 Nisan, according to the Jewish lunar calendar. (Modern scholars agree, by the way, that the death of Christ could have taken place only in A.D. 30 or 33, as those two are the only years of that time when the eve of Passover could have fallen on a Friday, the possibilities being either 7 April 30 or 3 April 33.)

However, as the early Church was forcibly separated from Judaism, it entered into a world with different calendars, and had to devise its own time to celebrate the Lord’s Passion, not least so as to be independent of the rabbinic calculations of the date of Passover. Also, since the Jewish calendar was a lunar calendar consisting of twelve months of thirty days each, every few years a thirteenth month had to be added by a decree of the Sanhedrin to keep the calendar in synchronization with the equinoxes and solstices, as well as to prevent the seasons from “straying” into inappropriate months.

Apart from the difficulty Christians would have had in following—or perhaps even being accurately informed about—the dating of Passover in any given year, to follow a lunar calendar of their own devising would have set them at odds with both Jews and pagans, and very likely embroiled them in endless disputes among themselves. (The second century saw severe disputes about whether Pascha had always to fall on a Sunday or on whatever weekday followed two days after 14 Artemision/Nisan, but to have followed a lunar calendar would have made such problems much worse.)

These difficulties played out in different ways among the Greek Christians in the eastern part of the empire and the Latin Christians in the western part of it. Greek Christians seem to have wanted to find a date equivalent to 14 Nisan in their own solar calendar, and since Nisan was the month in which the spring equinox occurred, they chose the 14th day of Artemision, the month in which the spring equinox invariably fell in their own calendar. Around A.D. 300, the Greek calendar was superseded by the Roman calendar, and since the dates of the beginnings and endings of the months in these two systems did not coincide, 14 Artemision became April 6th.

In contrast, second-century Latin Christians in Rome and North Africa appear to have desired to establish the historical date on which the Lord Jesus died. By the time of Tertullian they had concluded that he died on Friday, 25 March 29. (As an aside, I will note that this is impossible: 25 March 29 was not a Friday, and Passover Eve in A.D. 29 did not fall on a Friday and was not on March 25th, or in March at all.)

Integral Age

So in the East we have April 6th, in the West, March 25th. At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which, as it is nowhere taught in the Bible, has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.

This notion is a key factor in understanding how some early Christians came to believe that December 25th is the date of Christ’s birth. The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed.

It is to this day, commemorated almost universally among Christians as the Feast of the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel brought the good tidings of a savior to the Virgin Mary, upon whose acquiescence the Eternal Word of God (“Light of Light, True God of True God, begotten of the Father before all ages”) forthwith became incarnate in her womb. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months. Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany.

Christmas (December 25th) is a feast of Western Christian origin. In Constantinople it appears to have been introduced in 379 or 380. From a sermon of St. John Chrysostom, at the time a renowned ascetic and preacher in his native Antioch, it appears that the feast was first celebrated there on 25 December 386. From these centers it spread throughout the Christian East, being adopted in Alexandria around 432 and in Jerusalem a century or more later. The Armenians, alone among ancient Christian churches, have never adopted it, and to this day celebrate Christ’s birth, manifestation to the magi, and baptism on January 6th.

Western churches, in turn, gradually adopted the January 6th Epiphany feast from the East, Rome doing so sometime between 366 and 394. But in the West, the feast was generally presented as the commemoration of the visit of the magi to the infant Christ, and as such, it was an important feast, but not one of the most important ones—a striking contrast to its position in the East, where it remains the second most important festival of the church year, second only to Pascha (Easter).

In the East, Epiphany far outstrips Christmas. The reason is that the feast celebrates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and the occasion on which the Voice of the Father and the Descent of the Spirit both manifested for the first time to mortal men the divinity of the Incarnate Christ and the Trinity of the Persons in the One Godhead.

A Christian Feast

Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.

And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the “Sun of Salvation” or the “Sun of Justice.”

Note: The author refers interested readers to Thomas J. Talley’s book, "The Origins of the Liturgical Year."

William J. Tighe is Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and a faculty advisor to the Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a Member of St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and a contributing editor for Touchstone.

What about Christmas trees?

In celebrating Christ’s birth, many Christians display a Christmas tree. For them, the colorful lights and ornaments add to the ambiance of the season. Some Christians choose not to have a Christmas tree, and that’s fine, as long as they don’t buy into the false idea that having one is tantamount to joining in pagan worship. I chuckle at that notion because, though I love trees, I’ve never worshiped one, nor have Christians down through the ages. There is a strict and obvious difference between the pagan worship of trees and what Christians do in displaying a decorated tree during the Christmas season.

The Bible says a lot about trees. It tells us that God created trees for us to enjoy and to care for. It tells us that God placed two special trees in the Garden of Eden—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Some commentators see the tree of life as symbolic of blissful eternal life in God’s presence. Others see the Garden of Eden as symbolizing heaven, with the tree of life symbolizing Christ through whom eternal life is gained.

In the book of Proverbs, trees signify life and happiness (Proverbs 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4). Elsewhere, trees often symbolize God’s redemption. Note what Isaiah says about the promised Messiah: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (Isaiah 11:1). Other passages refer to the Messiah as “the Branch of the Lord,” “the Righteous Branch,” and “God’s Servant, the Branch.” These are references to God’s gracious work in raising up within our time and space a Messiah to give life and righteousness to all who believe in him (see Isaiah 4:2; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:15-16; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12).

The Bible mentions multiple kinds of trees, including almond, acacia, apple, ash, aspen, balsam, broom, carob, cassia, cedar, citrus, cypress, date palm, elm, evergreen cypress, fig, gopher, holm, mastic, mulberry, mustard, nuts, oak, oil, olive, pine, poplar, sandalwood, spice, storax, sycamine, sycamore, tamarisk, terebinth and willow. In Hosea, God refers to himself as a tree: an evergreen tree! “O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; from me comes your fruit” (Hosea 14:8 ESV).

In the New Testament, the Greek word xulon is used for both the cross and trees, including the tree of life (Revelation 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19). Jesus compares himself to a tree as he hears women lamenting his plight: “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31). Jesus calls himself a green tree because of his eternal power and capacity to give new life.

No right-thinking Christian would ever worship a tree. They know God taught Israel to avoid idolatry, and it’s idolatrous to think that any part of God’s creation is divine. Embracing that belief set Israel apart from its pagan neighbors who viewed the sun, moon and stars as divine, and regarded vegetative and human fertility as making use of the power of the gods. Though God commanded Israel to reject such pagan notions, he did affirm the goodness of all that he created—distinguishing between the absolutely distinct, holy, particular and personal goodness of God (who alone is uncreated and thus divine) and the relative, limited (fallen-distorted) goodness of God’s created gifts.

This distinction between what is divine and what is created informs how Christians view the bread and wine served at the Lord’s Table. The communion elements are created, not divine. However, as signs of the real presence of our divine-human High Priest Jesus Christ, they are powerful reminders of God’s atoning work in and through Christ—both in the past and in the present, at the Table. In communion services within liturgical churches, before the bread and wine are consumed, the elements are lifted up to God in a prayer of consecration, given in recognition that the created elements have no power in themselves to give us fellowship and communion with God. Each and every time the Lord’s Supper is served, God graciously acts by his Spirit in making these created things to be channels of his grace to us as we worship Jesus for how he—on a tree!—poured out his blood from his broken body to conquer sin and death for all humanity.

It is interesting (and likely highly significant) that in the Bible the grand narrative of salvation is book-ended with key scenes featuring trees. Note this from fourth century church leader John Chrysostom:

Do you see how the devil is defeated by the very weapons of his prior victory? The devil had vanquished Adam by means of a tree [of the knowledge of good and evil]. Christ vanquished the devil by means of the tree of the Cross. The tree sent Adam to hell. The tree of the Cross brought him back from there. The tree revealed Adam in his weakness, laying prostrate, naked and low. The tree of the Cross manifested to all the world the victorious Christ, naked, and nailed on high. Adam’s death sentence passed on to all who came after him. Christ’s death gave life to all his children.

It’s not a sin, and thus there is no Christian prohibition against using decorated trees to celebrate the way Jesus created trees and then used them in fulfilling God’s plan for the redemption of humankind. When we use a Christmas tree as part of our celebration of the nativity of Christ, we do so as a mere sign (witness) of God’s great gift of his Son who brings eternal light and life into our dark world. We let the light of Christ, which shines down on those trees, reveal to us their true meaning. We refuse to let any pagan Grinch of Christmas trees past steal way that Christ-centered significance. The often star-tipped tops of our Christmas trees point humbly up to their transcendent Maker and Redeemer—the One who from heaven came down to us in the humble form of a servant, born in a manger in Bethlehem.

Jesus, the second Adam, redeemed the distorted relationships that through the first Adam had intruded into all creation (trees included). By dying on the “tree” of the Cross, Jesus brought redemption to humanity and light to the world. Through his sacrifice, he brought forgiveness, hope and salvation. We don’t worship trees, but because of what Jesus did, trees can serve as witnesses to God’s glory—reminders of his grace and love for all humankind.

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