Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

Oh, Lighten Up, Christmas Is NOT a Pagan Holiday.

 

Here’s an interesting factoid: There’s a considerable group of Christians who hate Christmas with the same furor that they hate Halloween.

Like, for real.

Maybe if you grew up outside the bounds of Christian fundamentalism you’re unaware of this group, but I assure you, they’re out there. Each year around this time my Facebook newsfeed gets flooded with status updates and MEMEs denouncing the holiday and those Christians who choose to celebrate it.

Now, why in the world would Christians– people who claim to follow Jesus– be so incensed over a holiday that celebrates his birth? The reason for that is these Christians believe that Christmas is a Pagan holiday– or at least, that Christmas co-opted a Pagan holiday.

Even many Christians who love Christmas believe in this association with Christmas and an ancient Pagan holiday. The basic explanation goes like this: Early Christians lived in a Pagan culture that had many celebrations and festivals. In order to slowly influence that culture, it is claimed that Christians began their own celebrations on those same dates in order to provide culture with an alternative, Christian celebration (sometimes referred to as “contextualization”).

This is claimed to be the case with many Christian holidays. For example, many errantly claim that Easter is rooted in a Pagan holiday for the fertility goddess Eostre, even though the evidence for that is dubious. Similarly with Christmas, it is argued that December 25th was first the celebration of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” before Christians tried to hijack it.

However, these arguments are ones made by scholars in more recent times (say, 17th century claims for the Christmas myth), and don’t hold up to deeper scrutiny. In fact, there’s a far stronger case to be made that the Pagan holiday of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun was a rip-off of Christmas– not the other way around.

William J. Tighe in Calculating Christmas, gives a full explanation for how this myth of Christmas being a co-opt of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun came to be. While you can read his extended research here, I’ll break it down and explain the essence of how the Pagan connection is actually wrong at best, and backwards at worst:

As early as the 2nd century Christians attempted to pin-point the dates of the birth of Christ and the date of his execution. Obviously from the Gospel narratives we have enough clues as to be able to narrow down the date of the crucifixion based upon which years passover fell on a Friday. We now know, as Tighe asserts, that the crucifixion of Christ could have only been at passover in AD 30 or 33. However, by the end of the first century/beginning of the second century, it was widely believed/accepted that the crucifixion occurred on the 25th of March, AD 29.

This brings us to a second point to consider: something called Integral Age.

There was the common belief in Judaism and early Christianity that saints died on their birthday or the day they were conceived. This means, for these early Christians, that March 25 was not only the date of the crucifixion but was also either Jesus’ birthday, or the day that Mary conceived him. Eventually, viewing March 25th as the day Jesus was conceived became the accepted view– adding 9 months to this would make the date of his birth December 25th. (Tighe also points out that some early Christians insisted that the crucifixion was on April 6th, and still celebrate the birth of Christ on January 6th.)

Thus, the early Christians were not attempting to hijack a Pagan holiday at all– they just had a really weird way of figuring out when your birthday was.

Now, that brings us to the Pagan holiday that did exist on December 25th. This holiday was introduced by Emperor Aurelian in AD 274, after the acceptance of December 25th being the day Christians celebrated the birth of Christ. As Tighe states:

“The pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians… Thus the ‘pagan origins of Christmas’ is a myth without historical substance.”

So, is Christmas a Pagan holiday?

No.

Did early Christians decide to celebrate the birth of Christ as an alternative to a holiday to honor the sun? No again.

Yes, Christians and Pagans in Rome celebrated a holiday on the same day– but it was Aurelian who tried to co-opt a Christian holiday, instead of the reverse that is so often claimed.

Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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Join the resistance: Subscribe for posts and updates from BLC!

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  • Let’s talk about pagans. Many (most) Christians believe pagans were bad people, which is why they abhors the thought of sharing a holiday. Pagans were not bad or evil people. They worshipped a group of gods that were part of nature. That religion began centuries before Jesus came. So there were no Christians. As Christianity began to expand in the Roman cities, paganism still remained in the rural areas. Pagan in Latin means country dwellers. It does not mean evil people. They were just regular people living in the countryside where Christianity hasn’t yet gained a foothold.

    • Your claims are preposterous. The early Christians didn’t consider pagans to be bad people and neither do modern Christians. As a rule, but the exception might be Islam and for obvious reasons considering practices like dismemberment, honor killing and the occasional act of terrorism.

      Modern equivalents to pagans would be atheists, and as far as I’ve ever seen Christians don’t consider them to be “bad people” either. Again, there are exceptions, anti-theists are not the same thing and most Christians would probably consider their motivations as evil while they may not view the actual person as “bad”.

      You do not appear to BE a Christian because your stereotypical broad generalizations show a lack of depth of first hand knowledge regarding Christianity and Christians. Maybe you should consider formulating your public comments around things you know a little more about.

  • There’s a guy on this thread named Alistair John who’s sent me 50 emails saying the same thing.

    Dude you ain’t very clever. Your post wasn’t even that good.

    Neither am I censoring your posts.

    And get a f###ing life.

    Moron!

      • Well not really. I just ignored him and thought it was funny he was so worked up to post like 50 times when I didn’t even bother reading them.

        I decided to put the poor sod out of his misery by reading one of his posts in a moment of boredom and compassion.

        • Every Evangelical Troll that attempted to silence me has failed, and their digital footprint only further supports my arguments. Maybe someday these Evangelicals will repent and atone for their bullying behavior.

  • Ooowee. Denial of Winter Solstice being one of the best-established details of ancient cultures, not just Roman…? And Romans got Mithraism from the Persians! And Babylon celebrated Winter Solstice, and there are indications the Egyptians did too.
    But there are reasons from the Biblical narrative itself to disbelieve that Christ was born on that “Holy Night” anywhere even close to December 25.

    On the night Yahshua Immanuel was born, “shepherds were watching their flocks by night” and got an angelic visit announcing His birth. They still do that in that region, to avoid SUNSTROKE in SUMMER. During the day they’re resting in the shade. When the weather cools off, they graze in the daytime; this takes place no later than October.
    A September-October birth is also corroborated by the length of Christ’s ministry being 3.5 years (He was prophesied to be “cut off” or killed, “in the midst of His week”, a prophetic day standing for a year) coupled with His death at the Passover season which is in the Spring, NOT MIDSUMMER.
    So we can believe Scripture, or we can believe this guy and Hippolytus doing his merry dance of self-justification, but not both.

  • so he thinks that Sol Invictus came after Christianity? No. It existed before before Jesus was even born. He didn’t even mention Saturnalia, which hijacked Sol Invictus as a way to grab power by the Caesar. A Christian Caesar did the same. The Celts that celebrated the Solstice had elements of their pagan traditions hijacked as a way to “convert” them. Same for the Norse.

  • The author is acting like this is a new idea that Christians have considered Xmas a pagan holiday & not celebrated it. I hate to break it to you but, many denominations haven’t celebrated Xmas for a long time; the JW is one off the top of my head in modern times that don’t. In fact if the author did a little research they’d know the Puritans in the America outlawed the celebration of the holiday in the 1600s & didn’t get rid of the ban until the later half of the 1800s. & it was because it was seen back then as a pagan holiday & a celebration created by the Catholic church which Protestants denominations until not that long ago had a horrible relationship with.

    Christianity like every other religion is full of different denominations & interpretations. We don’t all religiously believe or worship the same even if we follow the same God.

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