Friday, December 23, 2011

A tale of two Christmas origins....

The romance of Christian history likes to say how Christians took a basically pagan holiday and turned it into the most successful Christian holy day ever (even if it has reverted somewhat in more modern day times). Now, there is another point of view. This point of view suggests just the opposite -- the invention of a holiday in the hopes of stealing away Christmas from the Christians (already in the 270s AD). You get you pick of origins. I will have to admit that I have changed my mind. A million years ago I would have picked up on the romance of a Christian conversion of a pagan day but I am more and more convinced that this is wrong and the opposite it true.

If you want the romance of a pagan conversion, then this appeals to you:  

Scholars have no idea when Jesus of Nazareth was born, except that it may have been around 4 BC, the last year of the rule of Herod the Great. The New Testament gives us neither a specific date, nor even a month. The tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 originated in the fourth century, around the time that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Church, however, didn't officially adopt this day for another 200 years. Because early Christians didn't have a specific date in scripture, they chose one with metaphorical significance that also coincided with two preexisting Roman celebrations. December 25th was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar -- the shortest day of the year. Sunlight grows stronger and longer each day following the solstice. Picking a day that represented the transition from dark to light would have been an appropriate symbol for those who saw in Jesus the birth of a man who would lead them to salvation. 

The Bible abounds in symbolic language of Jesus represented as light, a metaphor found for the divine in every other major religion as well. The choice of December 25th also worked for the early Christians because it corresponded with two Roman celebrations centered on the winter solstice. Saturnalia, an ancient Roman celebration that originated two centuries before Christ, began on December 17th and ended on the 23rd. Saturnalia was a celebration of the god Saturn and was marked by feasts, merriment, the hanging of evergreen cuttings, the lighting of candles, and gift giving. How would the people of Rhode Island have reacted if the governor had called the tree a "Saturnalian Tree"? Many Romans in the fourth century also celebrated the birth of the sun god, Sol Invictus, on December 25th, marking the occasion with a festival. As Christianity began to spread throughout the Roman Empire, the Christian tradition of Christmas naturally absorbed elements of these popular pagan celebrations.
If you are like me, and think the opposite, then William Tighe has done a good job of laying out the case:  

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.

You make your choice... I believe Christmas came before the pagan attempt to steal away the Nativity of Our Lord...


Ariel said...

Even if December 25th was originally a pagan holiday, who cares? Nobody knows the exact date of Christ's birth. It's not like Easter, where we DO know the exact date and month, thanks to its close relationship to the Jewish calendar. The date doesn't matter, only the meaning of God becoming man for our salvation matters. The only problem I find is all the hymns and Christmas songs about the Nativity scene amid snow on a cold, frosty night--it's the Middle East, not Wisconsin!

Anyway, when my atheist friends try to be smug about how Christmas is fake and actually created by non-Christians, I could care less. It's not a barrier to faith.

Anonymous said...

A rather interesting work about Christmas can be found at the link below. Particularly is the work of Pastor Fido, an Anglican, writing in AD 1652.

He deals with many of these arguments, including arguments from patristics, roman calendar, the idea that the sheep were not in Jerusalem then ( hint they sacrificed sheep all year :) )

The most interesting / out of the ordinary item in his whole book was a tree in england that bloomed every christmas. However the tree was promptly chopped down by puritans so we'll never know.

I find the table of priestly service etc. wherein it is shown when Zecheriah was in the temple ergo when the annunciation was etc.

I also find fascinating that Haunnakah and Christmas both start on the 25th day of the month. Its just that the Jewish calendar is lunar and so the start of the month moves around which is why on our solar calendar it moves around relative to our fixed 25th day of the month.

Terry Maher said...

That the pagans stole Christmas is just paranoia of the worst kind, which is self-serving paranoia.

Saturnalia, eg, has nothing to do with Christmas, but results from the Roman variation of the outcome of the story of the conflict between the Titans and the Olympuans. Other cultures were having new light, return of the light celebrations at Winter Solstice long before "Christmas".

It was a natural choice, the actual date of Christ's birth being unrecorded, to place a celebration of this new light at the same time for symbolic reasons.

Which does not amount to Christians stealing Winter Solstice, Sol Invicta, Yule or any of the other pre-existing non-Christians celebrations either. As if the difference between the story of the birth of the real new light, Christ, from the story say of the origin of Saturnalia does not make that clear enough already.

Nobody stole nuttin from nobody.

For details of which, in self-serving promotion, one may visit the Christmas post on my blog,