‘Tis the season, and that means it is the season of memes and pseudo-intellectual YouTube clips that shout from the rooftops that Christmas is just a pagan holiday. I may do more posts later on the larger issue of people throwing out memes and arguments that try to make it seem like Christians simply plagiarized from earlier pagan stories, but for now let’s just stick to the date of December 25th.
Before really getting into the claim, we should ask ourselves this: What exactly would this argument prove if it were true? Would it make the biblical account false? Well, no, it wouldn’t. The Bible gives no date of Jesus’ birth, and most Christians are pretty comfortable with saying that we do not know exactly when Jesus was born. This happens to be true for many historical figures, so it’s no big deal. In other words, even if this argument were correct, a Christian could shrug his shoulders and say, “So what? Christians modified existing pagan holidays to try to share their message instead. Who cares?” With this in mind, it is a bit amusing how some people find this argument to be some great problem for Christianity.
However, it is still worth looking into the claim because it shows an underlying problem with so many similar arguments, and that is a transparent desperation to look for the vaguest similarities with pagan religions, to assume pagan priority, to swallow memes wholesale, and then to strut around feeling smug and enlightened. I hate to break it to some people on social media, but memes rarely, if ever, constitute much of an argument, however entertaining they may sometimes be.
The claim: Christmas is just borrowed from pagan festivals such as Saturnalia and Sol Invictus
Saturnalia is a Roman festival celebrating the god Saturn, associated with agriculture. This holiday consisted of a relaxing or inversion of social roles, where masters may serve slaves and slaves could publicly gamble and get drunk. It was therefore a fairly jovial and raucous holiday, leading to critics of Christmas to sneer that all that sacred stuff was pasted over a festival of debauchery.
Another candidate for the origins of Christmas is Dies Natalis Sol Invictus, the birthday or anniversary of the unconquerable sun that was celebrated by the Sol Invictus cult. The day of this celebration was apparently popularized by the Emperor Aurelian, and it did come to be celebrated on December 25th. This holiday celebrated the “birth” of the sun in the sense that the daylight hours after the winter solstice would get longer. Here, too, critics of Christmas draw connections between this “birth” of the sun and the birth of the Son.
Problems of date
There are several problems here, but I’ll just focus on the issue of date, one concerning the date of December 25th itself and another concerning the year.
The obvious issue with the Saturnalia comparison is this: The dates don’t line up. Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17th. Even if concessions are made that it sometimes went on for about a week, that puts its end date on December 23rd. If early Christians were trying to simply copy and take over a pagan holiday, they didn’t do the simplest thing: Choose the same date. That would be like Buddhists trying to replace, say, St. Patrick’s Day and choosing to place their version on March 9. That wouldn’t exactly work.
The celebration of the sun, at least, shares the date of December 25th, but the problem here is that the earliest known source for that date comes from the 4th century. Emperor Aurelian ruled in the 3rd century but did not seem to set a date for the celebration himself, and December 25th shows up nearly a century later. In contrast, the Christian date for Christmas can be dated as early as Hippolytus in the early 3rd century (earlier than Aurelian), where he mentions in his commentary on Daniel that Jesus may have been born eight days before the beginning of January (the way they counted that, that would be December 25). If there is any borrowing going on here, the evidence suggests that the pagans borrowed the date from the Christians and not the other way around.
In addition, just because “sun” and “son” sound the same in English doesn’t mean they sound the same in Latin. “Sol” and “filius” sound nothing alike. This sounds like such a simple point to make, but believe me the alleged similarities here get harped on.
The traditional origins of December 25th
So where did the Christian date of December 25th come from? In short: Church tradition, to go along with some calculations that some Christians attempted based on Scripture.
For example, one theory courtesy of John Chrysostom of the 4th century suggests that because Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that would place Jesus’ conception on March 25th. The reason is because priests served one-week shifts twice a year, and we know that Zechariah was serving his shift in the division of Abijah in Luke 1. With some calculations based off the destruction of the temple and going backwards, it is possible to guess that Zechariah was serving during the week containing the Day of Atonement, which would put his service at the end of September or beginning of October. With the assumption that John was conceived right after this, six months later would put Jesus’ conception around the end of March. And nine months after that gets you, you guessed it, December.
What about the shepherds outside in the winter? They wouldn’t be out there, right? Well, we can’t assume that the Middle East’s weather is like another place’s, nor can we can assume that shepherds would not be tending their flocks even if it were cold. Such assumptions actually seem flatly false, and I am guilty myself of assuming this was true in the past before simply thinking and reading about it. There really isn’t any reason for shepherds to stop working just because it got cold outside.
There are other theories, such as placing Jesus’ death on March 25th, and a Jewish theory was that prophets like him died and were conceived on the same day. Augustine seems to take this stance. Nine months later and you get December 25th as Jesus’ birthday.
None of this is to say that December 25th is actually the date of Jesus’ birth; in fact, the latter theory may be demonstrably false because we can calculate that March 25th would not have been a Friday and therefore Jesus could not have died on that day. I bring up these theories only to show that the date of Christmas comes from church tradition and some attempts at calculating his birth from what clues people have gleaned from Scripture and from history.
Christmas, as celebrated on December 25th, is very much a Christian holiday. This does not mean that we know for sure that Jesus was born on December 25th (we don’t), nor does it mean that Christmas, as a celebration, did not incorporate traditions and modes of celebration of existing cultures like the Christmas tree. It is only to say that church tradition is the source of the date of Christmas, even if it is possible that people were off in their calculations. Careful historians would not be so eager to conclude that Christmas is simply pagan in origin.
Again, this actually matters little in the grand scheme of things because the Bible does not bother to give a hard date, and it is in no way tied to any major doctrines. This does show, however, how careless people are when they hear neat sounding “facts” or when they see internet memes and how desperate they are to attack Christianity with frivolous things.