Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?

Almost every year, I hear debates about how Christians appropriated a pagan holiday for their Christmas celebrations and whether or not this was a good or bad idea. Well, here’s a refreshing new perspective.

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 Son” 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.

-from William J. Tighe, “Calculating Christmas,” Touchstone, December 2003


5 comments so far

  1. Greg on

    I’ve always liked the flavor of Christmas. It’s half Catholic deep mystery, half Protestant down-hominess, and a couple teaspoons of Paganism for “zest.”

  2. timothycairns on

    Bah Humbug….I always thought Christmas was a festival to stop Jacob Marley rattling those chains

  3. Al Hsu on

    And actually, it’s helpful to see Christmas in light of the patristic Christological controversies. In the fourth century or so, celebrating Christmas became a way of affirming the full humanity of Jesus, that he actually had a human birth, to refute Docetism and other heresies. Christians didn’t really celebrate Jesus’ birth until Gnostic controversies highlighted the importance of affirming that Jesus was fully human.

  4. Matt Smith on

    Historical substance or not, there’s plenty of symbolical substance. Whether we Christians like it or not, Christmas doesn’t just smell pagan. It stinks.

    The fact that Christmas occurs so close to the Winter Solstice, the darkest time of the year, the return of the sun, speaks for itself. It may be nothing more than a coincidence that Jesus was born in December. We get the “pagan” symbolism accidentally. Arguing over which is more important—historical evidence or symbolic meaning strikes me as a little arbitrary.

  5. jeffreimer on

    Did you read the whole article, Matt? His argument is that the pagan symbolism is not in fact at all an accident. It just works the opposite way we thought it did. Christians didn’t try to “redeem” a pagan holiday; the emperor Julian (was it Julian? I think it was) wanted to “paganize” Christmas. Your point is well taken though. Arguing over whether history or symbol is more important is arbitrary, but you certainly can’t have one without the other. So to argue over the history indeed can and might augment the symbolic significance of Christmas. But you strike a resonant mythic tone. All holidays (“holy” days) have their necessary mythic opposite, which is why we have Halloween the night before All Saints’ Day. All the dark, evil spirits get their chance to come out and wreak havoc before the spirits of the saints are celebrated. Am I sounding like Joseph Campbell? Because I’m laying it on pretty thick.

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