Is December 25th Pagan? (Part 1 of 2)

What do Jimmy Buffett, Larry Csonka, Karl Rove, Cab Calloway, Anwar Sadat, Rod Serling, Humphrey Bogart, and Conrad Hilton (Paris’ great-granddaddy) have in common?

Based on the title above, you may have guessed that they were all born on December 25th. Yet, as long as we’re listing famous people with that particular birthday, someone else seems to be conspicuously missing from the list. Someone who lived in Ancient Palestine (i.e., Israel, the Holy Land) about 2000 years ago, caused quite a stir with his radical teachings and truth claims, died a horrible death, etc. Yeah,… Jesus of Nazareth, aka Jesus Christ.

Wrong! (Well, maybe.) If we look at the clues in the Gospel narrative(s) about when Jesus was born (e.g., the census; shepherds watching their flocks by night), it probably was not during the winter. Some have postulated that the Nativity event occurred in the fall, but many others think it more likely to have been in the springtime. (More on this in a moment.) So, where did this December 25th date come from? Why do Catholic and Protestant Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth then?

Questions about the Christian adoption of December 25th come up a lot these days. Some Christians who know a little of the history worry about the supposed pagan influence on the Christmas celebration. What is the pagan connection? Is this really a valid concern for modern Christians? Some non-Christians use that as part of a larger attempt to dismiss or discredit Christianity as unhistorical, less unique than it claims, unfairly stealing pagan customs, etc. (NOTE: I will not be addressing here the broader accusations that the Gospel story of Jesus Christ was, in essence, “stolen” piecemeal from various pagan myths.) And parties from both sides have said that celebrating December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth is “a lie!” But are these claims true and fair? Let’s take a look at the historical facts and intent of the Christian Church at the time.

Apart from a scattered group here or there, the earliest Christians didn’t really commemorate Jesus’ birth. This would have been in line with the contemporary Jewish customs and law, as well. In fact, some Christian writers of the 3rd & early 4th centuries AD are on record as thinking birthday celebrations were either ridiculous or inappropriate (largely because the pagans did it). On the other hand, some were willing to speculate on what the correct date of Christ’s birth might have been. For different reasons both historical and symbolic, scholars from ancient times to modern have variously suggested dates in late March, April, or May, and a few believed it was probably in September. Still others, whether because they reached different conclusions based on the scriptural/historical evidence about the time of the Nativity, or they saw other clues leading them to believe Jesus was conceived in March, determined that a December birthdate on or close to the 25th was the best estimate.

By the late 4th & 5th centuries AD, December 25 was pretty firmly established in most of the major bishoprics — e.g., Alexandria, Constantinople, Rome. The exceptions were mostly in the Eastern churches, such as on the island of Cyprus and in Armenia. They adhered to a different school of thought on how best to calculate the birth of Christ, which gave a date of January 7th (or 6th, in some cases). The Eastern Orthodox churches have remained faithful to the January 6/7 observance even today. Oddly, it seems that the church in Jerusalem held a dual commemoration that encompassed celebrations in both December & January. And the church in Antioch was split on the matter until Chrysostom, due to concern over some Jewish celebrations, united the community (ca. AD 386) on observing the Dec. 25th date.

By the Middle Ages, Christmas was much more popular — particularly in Europe — and there were many Christmas-related holidays. Some either started (e.g., Twelve Days of Christmas) or ended (e.g., Advent) on or about December 25. Part of the reason for establishing Christmas at this time was to, in effect, compete with the Saturnalia — a popular pagan festival originating in Ancient Rome in honor of the god Saturn. It was also the time of the Winter Solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere), another event in which some pagans celebrated with drunken debauchery. In both cases, some Christian leaders thought it would be good for there to be a Christian alternative to these festivals, thereby lessening the chances that new/weaker believers would be tempted to join in with the pagan revelers. Many customs associated with the pagan festivals — whether actually originating with them or independently — were incorporated into the medieval Christmas celebrations. For example, feasts, gift-giving, caroling, games, use of evergreens, lights, etc. Thus, we have what some have called the “pagan origins of Christmas.” (More on this later….)

The 17th-century Puritans, on the other hand, condemned Christmas because they considered it a Catholic invention (“Christ” + “Mass” = “Christmas”). The majority of Colonial America (except for Puritan New England) enjoyed celebrating Christmas, until the years following the American Revolution, when this “English custom” became unpopular. Ironically, the British enthusiasm for Christmas celebrations had also been dwindling. The early- to mid-1800s saw efforts to revive the tradition and got its biggest boost from the publishing of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), which popularized the phrase “Merry Christmas!”.

Lighted Christmas tree

Lighted Christmas tree

Thanks to Queen Victoria and a painting of the British Royal family with a decorated evergreen — followed by a popular, Americanized version of it — the Christmas tree tradition was revitalized. Clement Moore’s ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1822) was instrumental in bringing back the exchanging of gifts. (An unfortunate side-effect would be the growing commercialism of the season, which is something I won’t get into now.) Caroling had been coming back in vogue by then. Even the old Puritan sentiments in some areas were starting to be replaced with holiday cheer. Several of the states in America made Christmas a legal holiday, and President Grant made it a Federal holiday in 1870. So, Christmas was making a comeback; however, the holiday had lost some of its religious themes and emphases, focusing instead on a more secular, family-centered message of compassion, generosity, and general goodwill.

I will continue tomorrow with more on the pagan issue and my conclusions….

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