Every year, almost as soon as the last bit of Thanksgiving dessert is eaten, someone declares “Christmas is just a recycled pagan festival”.
Then, depending on whether the person making the pronouncement is a Christian or a non-believer, usually finishes with either something similar to “so we shouldn’t celebrate it at all” or “and that proves the Bible wrong”.
I have two responses to the Christmas is a recycled pagan holiday trope, and in the hopes that it will be of some benefit to you, I’ll explain both.
First, to those who just throw out the statement, my response is, depending on my relationship with them, either “so what?” or “what makes you say that?” My goal here is to get them to elaborate on why they are making the statement so that I know how best to refute it. I’ll continue to ask questions designed to get them to explain their position until they give me specifics and their conclusion (which will be either a call to refrain from certain traditions or celebration of Christmas at all, or that it proves that the Bible is not trustworthy). Once that is accomplished, I can then address the issue more effectively.
Let’s look at the easiest to deal with first – the “since Christmas is nothing more than a “Christianized” pagan celebration, that proves that the Biblical nativity account is false” argument.
The argument is a bit nonsensical from the start. First, since the Bible says nothing about the nativity other than to recount the events and point out the prophetical and theological significance of it, the time of celebration of Advent and Christmas has no bearing on the validity of the Biblical accounts at all. It’s like saying that since President’s day is nothing more than recycling the observance of Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday that neither man could have actually been President.
So, on to the idea that we shouldn’t celebrate Christ’s birth, first because all of the Christmas traditions have pagan roots, and second because He wasn’t born on December 25th anyway.
Let’s look at the first objection. It starts with declaring (usually with rather smug authority) that the ONLY reason we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25th is because the early Christians wanted to suppress the pagan Sun god (or some other pagan diety) worship festival on that day. In fact, Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born in December at all. Then, it goes on to “prove” the pagan roots of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, etc.
The reason this one is a bit harder to refute is that there is a (very) small grain of truth to most of it. Yes, there is some Scriptural and astronomical evidence that the Christ was born in September (links to detailed articles are listed below), and there are ancient references to a pagan festival at about the same time as the traditional Christmas celebration.
BUT, there is also evidence that the observance of Christmas on Dec. 25th both predates pagan festivals held on that date and that the date was chosen for reasons completely unrelated to any pagan observance.
The reason December was chosen for the observance of Jesus’ birth is because early Christian scholars calculated the birth of Christ from their dating of the death and resurrection of Christ. Working from a Jewish tradition that the major prophets were all born and died on the same day as their birth or conception, they calculated the birth of Jesus from a date of death in late March. Again, more detailed information in the links below.
But what about the pagan holiday in December? Depending upon which pundit you read, December 25th is supposedly originally a feast to honor either Mithras or the “Invincible Sun God” or some such.
I’ve dealt with the myth of Mithras as celebrated in Roman lands before; ALL of the Mithraic observances similar to Christian practices are not recorded or even alluded to prior to hundreds of years after the establishment of the Christian practice. Period. As for the Invincible Sun God, that feast was instituted by Aurelian in 274 A.D. as part of his effort to revive pagan worship and eradicate Christianity.
Here’s the grain of truth: There is no explicit record of the observation of Christmas that was writtien proir to Aurelian’s decree.
However, there is evidence that Christmas was recognized on or about Dec 25th much earlier than that time:
Clement of Alexandria stated that Egyptian scholars had dated Christ’s birth to Dec. 25th in writings dating to about 200 A.D.
John Crysostom gave a sermon in the year 385 in which he described the Christmas celebration as “very ancient”.
Although Christmas was not considered an important observance among Christians prior to about 100 A.D., there was considerable interest in what date it occurred, which brings up the question in regards to the controversy over what came first, pagan or Christian holiday: “so what”?
If many of our Advent and Christmas traditions are adapted from pagan rituals (and there are links to resources that show that most are not), then how should that affect our observance of our Savior’s birth? Very little, and here’s why:
The origin of a tradition, for example, the Christmas tree, as practiced by the thinking Christian, has no more than a very tenuous relationship to the pagan (or imagined) “original” practice. While ancient Germanic people did bring evergreen branches or twigs into the house for various reasons, it was a Christian (many point to Martin Luther) who was the first to bring an entire tree into the house and decorate it to remind us not only of the heavenly host that announced the birth of Christ, but He who brings life. To deny that that symbolism does not reflect God’s glory because of some prior claim is as wrong-headed as to turn it into nothing more than a place to store presents.
Likewise, the fact that many of the stories of Santa Claus are rooted in various ethnic and pre-Christian tales should serve only to encourage us as Christians (especially parents) to tell about St. Nicholas of whom the character of Santa Claus is based.
Bottom line: rather than bemoan the secularization, commercialization, and attempts to deconstruct Christmas, we should celebrate the coming of the Christ (Christmas) with reverence, joy, and a focus on the One Savior who can give us both abundant and eternal life.
Here’s a previous article with links on detailed information on Mithras, Horus, etc. as supposed sources of Gospel narratives: http://ua.wofblogs.org/mythicism-revisited/
I don’t usually post to merchandise, but this film by Kirk Cameron is one of the best presentations of how to deal with the subject of pagan influence and how to appropriately view Christmas I’ve seen. If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber, you can stream it for free. https://www.amazon.com/Saving-Christmas-Kirk-Cameron/dp/B015N8JCK2
An article on the Touchstone magazine site has quite a bit of detail about how the early church chose Dec. 25th for Christmas. http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v#continue
The Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries reprints an article from a now defunct blog that covers most of the same ground, but goes into more detail about how the ‘recycled pagan myth’ myth got started (fairly recently!) and the ancient Christian writings about the Nativity: http://www.oodegr.com/english/ekklisia/genika/pagan_origins_of_christmas.htm
Preacher’s Institute has an article that presents information about the history of Nativity celebration from an Orthodox perspective, and is an engaging and easy read: http://preachersinstitute.com/2010/12/02/the-ancient-feast-of-christmas/
The Catholic Encyclopedia has a well written article about the early observance of Christmas as well: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm