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Christmas and Paganism Part 1: December 25th was not an Ancient Pagan Holiday

Christmas and Paganism
1. Christmas and Paganism Part 1: December 25th was not an Ancient Pagan Holiday
2. Christmas and Paganism Part 2: Jesus’ Death, the Early Church, Ancient Judaism and Christmas
3. Christmas and Paganism Part 3: The Winter Birth
4. Christmas and Paganism Part 4: Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

Part 1: December 25th was not an Ancient Pagan Holiday
Part 2: Jesus’ Death, Christmas and the Early Church
Part 3: The Winter Birth
Part 4: Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

Originally published on our old site, Throwback Christianity, in 2014.

According to popular myth, Christmas was an ancient Pagan Holiday. Those from the Hebrew Roots Movement love to parrot this myth and sadly it is common among mainstream Evangelicals today as well.  While some Atheists call for the removal of Christ from the holiday, in the last few years opponents of Christmas from within Christianity have steadily risen beyond the historical minority cults/sects into mainstream Evangelicalism. Some follow Atheists seeking to remove Christ from Christmas stating that “He was never in it in the first place” and others advocate that Christians shouldn’t observe this holiday at all,  because it is pagan or at the very least, admit it is pagan in origins.

As the myth goes, Christmas is linked to ancient pagan celebrations either for the false deities Mithras, Sol Invictus or the winter solstice celebration of Saturnalia. Constantine and his emerging Roman Catholic Church installed one of these three celebrations in place as Jesus’ birth date to counteract paganism, therefore, historically December 25th had nothing to do with Christianity or Christ.

However, this is a lie! Historically,  no one related Christmas to paganism until the 12th century when a Syrian bishop named Jacob Bar-Salibi wrote this in reference to the nativity being moved from January 6th to December 25th:

It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.[1]

Sadly, many people believe that ancient proof exists to support these claims, but, in reality, there are only two pagan sources linked to December 25th. Both, however, postdate the Christian sources. The first is from 274 A.D. when Emperor Aurelian inducted the games of Sol. The problem with this source is that these games took place in August, October, and December; it was December 11th, though, not the 25th when these games took place and this source postdates Christians sources as we will soon show.

This leaves us with the second source—the Chronography of 354 A.D.—which lists Natalis Invicti on December 25th, as the one, sole source:

…on December 25 “N·INVICTI·CM·XXX” = “Birthday of the unconquered, games ordered, thirty races”[2]

As mentioned above, the Chronography is predated by the early Church writings which point to December 25th as the birth date of Christ. Furthermore, Scholars do not know for certain if Natalis Invicti was or was not used in reference to Christ as some Roman Christians called Jesus the Unconquered as well.

Alexander Hislop and Hermann Usener are two of the most frequently cited sources for the December 25th-is-pagan myth. Many people simply trust their research, yet few realize that their research was not based on the actual ancient texts from the cults of Sol, Mithras, and the festival of Saturnalia. During the 18th and 19th centuries authors like Hislop and Usener assumed that Sol and Mithras were the same deity. Therefore, if the Chronography of 354 listed an observance for Sol on December 25th, these authors presumed that there must have been an observance for Mithras long before this time on December 25th. This idea would, of course, predate the early Church, but nothing has ever been found to prove this presumption correct.

Many modern encyclopedias, including the Encyclopedia Britannica, reflect this fact in their updated works:

This view presumesas does the view associating the origin of Christmas on December 25 with pagan celebrations of the winter equinox—that Christians appropriated pagan names and holidays for their highest festivals. Given the determination with which Christians combated all forms of paganism, this appears a rather dubious presumption.[3]

If ancient texts using the December 25th date that predate Christianity do not exist, then the myth is proven to be fictitious. And that is exactly what Scholars have discovered today, but the popularity of the pagan Christmas myth still persists:

And indeed, ever since Usener’s studies of the feast of Christmas, the idea that December 25 was chosen as Christ’s birthday to counteract this important pagan festival has received wide acceptance.[4]

Fortunately that widespread acceptance is dying out among historians and scholarship as true historical data is being researched. Historians and Scholars now report that there isn’t any evidence in any original ancient text giving proof that December 25th is related to pagan festivals prior to the Chronography listed above:

The idea, particularly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, that the date of 25 December for Christmas was selected in order to correspond with the Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun”, is challenged today.[5]

In point of fact, the evidence for a religious festival of any kind for the sun god on December 25 is not only meager but also exceptionally late, as it dates to the second half of the fourth century AD. In fact, it postdates our earliest evidence for the celebration of Christmas.[6]

In short, we have no firm evidence for a festival for Sol on December 25 until Julian wrote his hymn to Helios in December of 362.[7]

The contention that December 25th was an especially popular festival for Sol in late antiquity is equally unfounded.[8]

There is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas … The traditional feast days of Sol, as recorded in the early imperial fasti, were August 8 and/or August 9 , possibly August 28 , and December 11. These are all dates that are unrelated to any important celestial alignment of Sol, such as the solstices and equinoxes.[9]

This means that in the early fourth century, when Christmas was established by the church on December 25, anyone surveying the calendar of festivities in honour of Sol would identify the period from October 19 to October 22 as far more important than December 25, and the festival of August 28 as far older. If the aim was to “neutralize” the cult of Sol by “taking over” its major festival, December 25th seems the least likely choice.[10]

So Christians did not borrow the birth date of Sol or Mithras for Jesus, but instead Jesus’ birth date was literally stolen beginning with Aurelian in 274:

There is quite simply not one iota of explicit evidence for a major festival of Sol on December 25th prior to the establishment of Christmas, nor is there any circumstantial evidence that there was likely to have been one.'[11]

The specific nature of the relation of Christmas to the then-contemporary feast of the birth of the sun, Natalis Solis Invicti, has up to now not been conclusively proven from extant texts, no matter how much some sort of causal relation might make perfect sense.[12]

 

Mithras

As far as Mithras (who is considered to be the same deity as Sol by some Scholars), history is absent of any connection to December 25th as well:

‘There is no evidence of any kind, not even a hint, from within the cult that this, or any other winter day, was important in the Mithraic calendar. Although three seasonal zodiacal signs are singled out in the iconography (Taurus, Leo and Scorpius), Aquarius, the sign that would correspond to notional mid-winter, being diametrically opposite to Leo, is never paid special attention. No Mithraic votive is dated 25th December (VIII A.D. KAL. IAN.). Nor is there any mention among the dipinti in the mithraeum of S. Prisca of Mithras’ birthday, though the first line of a zodiacal poem was written up on the wall, starting, quite unconventionally, with Aries, the first sign of Spring.[13]

Of the mystery cult of Sol Invictus Mithras we know little with certainty, and even if we leave aside the problem of the relationship between the Mithraic mysteries and the public cult of Sol, the notion that Mithraists celebrated December 25th in some fashion is a modern invention for which there is simply no evidence.[14]

Polemicists (and The Da Vinci Code) frequently state that 25 December was Mithras’ birthday, yet the renowned Mithraic scholar, Dr. Richard Gordon has corresponded to me that he is unaware of ‘a single date on a Mithraic inscription that falls in the winter, let alone late in DecemberWe know nothing about the cycle of rituals in the cult…’ So, Christmas owes nothing to Mithraism.[15]

Even those who claim that December 25th was the birth date of Mithras or Sol admit there is no evidence to prove it:

That an important Mithraic feast also fell on December 25th can hardly be doubted, although there is no direct evidence of the fact.[16]

Both the sun and Christ were said to be born anew on December 25. But while the solar associations with the birth of Christ created powerful metaphors, the surviving evidence does not support such direct association with the Roman solar festivals. The earliest documentary evidence for the feast of Christmas makes no mention of the coincidence with the winter solstice. Thomas Talley has shown that, although the Emperor Aurelian’s dedication of a temple to the sun god in the Campus Martius probably took place on the ‘Birthday of the Invincible Sun’ on December 25, the cult of the sun in pagan Rome ironically did not celebrate the winter solstice nor any of the other quarter-tense days, as one might expect. The origins of Christmas, then, may not be expressly rooted in the Roman festival.[17]

Since Sol is linked to Mithras and Mithras to Tammuz of Ancient Babylon, those who claim that Christmas began in Babylon have nothing to prove their claims. Remember the only semi-pagan source using the December 25th date is from 354 A.D.

Saturnalia

Another pagan festival is often cited as the precursor to Christmas. This celebration of the winter solstice was called Saturnalia. However, history and Scholarship once again prove that Saturnalia was not celebrated on December 25th, thus debunking the myth that Christians adopted this pagan holiday as the birthday of Christ:

But all our surviving calendars that preserve the month of December mark 17 December as the date for the Saturnalia. In his discussion of the origins of the Saturnalia, Macrobius explains that the Saturnalia was often celebrated over three days from 14 to 17 December, since the former was the date given by the Numan calendar, the latter the date given by the Julian calendar after Caesar added two days to the month[18]

The Saturnalia occupy a position exactly between the Consualia of the 15th and the Opalia of the 19th of December.[19]

Saturnalia was not a festival held on December 25th. Not even in the latter times of this festival when it was moved to December 17th through the 23rd:

Eventually, the carnival expanded to a full seven days, December 17 to 23.[20]

Although Saturnalia was close to December 25th, it was never on the same day. Thus Christmas is a distinct date from that of Saturnalia.

Conclusion

With the given information, we learn that Christmas was not historically pagan. The problem arises from the fact that people have been so indoctrinated with this myth, they simply believe it as a widely known fact without researching the actual evidence themselves.

The cults of Sol or Mithras and the festival of Saturnalia did not historically have any association with December 25th. The myth has been based on nothing more than presumption which scholarship and historical information have proven to be fictitious. It is clear the early Church observed this date prior to the other pagan groups. If there is any resemblance between the two, one must have to admit that it is the pagans who copied the Christians not vice versa. As a result modern scholarship has proven Christmas to be an entirely Christian holiday.

Part 1: December 25th was not an Ancient Pagan Holiday
Part 2: Jesus’ Death, Christmas and the Early Church
Part 3: The Winter Birth
Part 4: Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?

Footnotes:
[1] Quote taken from Toward the Origins of Christmas by Susan K. Roll, p. 151
[2] Chronography of 345, Part 6 via Tertullian.org
[3] Encyclopedia Britannica: Easter
[4] Hijmans, Steven, Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas, Mouseion, Number 47/3 (2003), 277-298.
[5] Wikipedia: Sol_Invictus
[6] Steven Hijmans, Assoc. Professor of  Roman Art and Archaeology at the University of Alberta,  quote taken from, Usener’s Christmas: A Contribution to the Modern Construct of Late Antique Solar Syncretism, in Die Metamorphosen der Philologie. Hermann Usener und seine Folgen, (2011) p 139-152.
[7] Ibid
[8] Ibid
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid
[11] Ibid
[12] Roll, Susan K., Toward the Origins of Christmas, (1995), p. 107.
[13] Ezquerra, Jaime Alvar. Romanising Oriental Gods: Myth, Salvation, and Ethics in the cults of Cybele, Isis and Mithras, in Gordon (ed. trans.), Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, p. 410 (2008).
[14] Hijmans, Steven. Usener’s Christmas: A Contribution to the Modern Construct of Late Antique Solar Syncretism
[15] Christmas: Pagan Festival or Christian Celebration? answering-islam.org quoting Dr. Richard Gordon
[16] Chambers, Edmund Kerchever. The Mediaeval Stage, Volume 1, (1903).
[17] Anderson, Michael Alan. Symbols of Saints, pp. 45
[18] Newlands, Carole E. Statius’ Silvae and the poetics of Empire, p. 236 (2006).
[19] Versnel, H.S. Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion: Transition and Reversal in Myth, p. 165 (1993).
[20] Littleton, C. Scott. Gods, goddesses, and mythology, volume 11, p. 1255 (2005).

Additional resources on Christmas and Paganism:

For more information on the historicity of Christmas as a Christian celebration and Scholarship proving it to have no pagan connections please see:
Biblical Archaeology – How December 25th became Christmas
Answering Islam – Christmas: Pagan Festival or Christian Celebration? Dr. Anthony McRoy
Mere Christian – How the Pagans Stole Christmas!
Lutheran Satire – Horus Ruins Christmas
Dr. Taylor Marshall – Yes, Christ Was Really Born on December 25: Here’s a Defense of the Traditional Date for Christmas
LogosApologia – Christmas on December 25th is not from Paganism!
Steadfast Lutherans – Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies-Christmas

Image by ?Merry Christmas ? from Pixabay

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