The idea that Christmas is a pagan holiday is more compelling to Christians than most might assume. I once believed this myself, everyone said Christmas was fake so I went along with it.
There are two main reasons that changed my mind regarding Christmas. First is that the claim of pagan origins relies on a logical fallacy. Second is that there is a pretty decent amount of Biblical and historical evidence for December 25 actually being Christ’s birthday. In this blog post I will explain both of these reasons in detail and then leave some links to my sources at the bottom.
Origins of a Pagan Logical Fallacy
The most common pagan holiday that Christians are accused of ripping off that I have seen is Saturnalia. For a quick summary below is a quote I obtained from a source you can read HERE.
“In Ancient Rome the Winter Solstice festival Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for seven days.
Saturnalian banquets were held from as far back as around 217 BCE. The festival was held to honor Saturn, the father of the gods and was characterized by the suspension of discipline and reversal of the usual order. Grudges and quarrels were forgotten while businesses, courts and schools were closed. Wars were interrupted or postponed and slaves were served by their masters. Masquerades often occurred during this time.
It was traditional to offer gifts of imitation fruit (a symbol of fertility), dolls (symbolic of the custom of human sacrifice), and candles (reminiscent of the bonfires traditionally associated with pagan solstice celebrations). A mock king was chosen, usually from a group of slaves or criminals, and although he was permitted to behave in an unrestrained manner for seven days of the festival, he was usually killed at the end. The Saturnalia eventually degenerated into a week-long spree of debauchery and crime – giving rise to the modern use of the tern saturnalia, meaning a period of unrestrained license and revelry.”
It’s actually very common to find holidays in a wide variety of cultures and traditions around the winter solstice. Notice that even this being the case, Saturnalia is on Demeber 17 not the 25th. While some will cherry pick and point out that gifts were given, nobody will accuse Christians of stealing the idea of celebrating “debauchery and crime” every Christmas.
The real tell here though is the use of a false cause logical fallacy. Just because two things are similar doesn’t mean that they came from each other. A nexus has to be drawn between the similarities to logically make the connection. Pastor Jonathan Fisk uses a really good example of this in a video that I have linked at the bottom of the post.
How he puts it is that just because apples and oranges are both round, that doesn’t mean that apples came from oranges.
Specifically, to prove the claim that Christians appropriated Christmas one would need to find an ancient document of early Christian Bishops conspiring to do so. This isn’t an unfair demand on my part either. We have a vast library on early Christian correspondence and scholarly works. We have also found embarrassing forgeries and comments that we would probably prefer to ignore. Even with that being the case there has been no evidence found of Christians stealing a holiday. Instead we see that many genuinely believed December 25 to be the day. The following is a quote from Hyppolytus that pre-dates Constantine:
“For the first advent of our Lord in the flesh, when he was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, but from Adam, five thousand and five hundred years. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.” – Hyppolytus of Rome, Commentary on the book of Daniel (c. A.D. 204)
Hyppolytus actually believed that creation began on March 25, nine months prior to December 25th. The idea is that Christ was conceived on the anniversary of creation itself. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful idea, and for that reason alone I honestly hope it’s true. Whether Hyppolytus is correct or not, the fact is he had his own reasons for believing in a birth date of December 25 separate from pagan influence. Which means it would not be fair to accuse him or those who came after of ripping it off.
Lastly, there are many good reasons to institute a holiday on or around the winter solstice. This is easily overlooked in a day with smartphones and outlook calendars. But back then getting everybody across the world to observe a holiday at the same time would have been more difficult. If you place it around a winter solstice though it’s not that difficult at all. Even if one small village in the middle of nowhere gets it wrong they will still be close.
So, based on the fact that there are reasonable motivations to have a holiday in the solstice season besides cultural appropriation, and that there is no direct evidence of such a theft, I simply dismiss the claim that Christians have done so until some actual evidence is presented.
Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christmas
This one surprises everyone, yes there is Biblical evidence to support December 25th. There is obviously no command in scripture to keep the date. In fact, there is even clear scripture against enforcing such a command (Rom 14:5-6).
But there is some Biblical evidence for the date itself which is rooted in the birth of John the Baptist.
And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense
Above we see Zechariah performing his duties in the temple. It is probable based on Biblical and extra Biblical sources though that he was performing his role in Yom Kippur, not as a high priest of course, but his priestly duties associated with the season. Notice above that he was required to enter and perform the services alone in accordance with his division of Abijah.
“5 Thus were they divided by lot, one sort with another; for the governors of the sanctuary, and governors of the house of God, were of the sons of Eleazar, and of the sons of Ithamar…
Many excellent sources argue for either a Yom Kippur / Feast of Trumpets referent to Luke 1. It is reasonable to assert that the Early Church saw this as well based if nothing else on their selection of December 25 for the Birth of Christ. This would place the conception of John the Baptist between the dates of September 22 – 30.
“26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. 29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. 30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. 32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” Luke 1:24-35 KJV
A friend of mine named Larry Dean has a very helpful analysis of the events in Luke 1. He believes that the text not only allows for but requires a Yom Kippur / Feast of Trumpets referent when compared to the Jewish Talmud from 70 AD, and I agree with his reasoning.
“The records that are found in the Talmud that date from AD 70 – the only accurate and complete record of the various “divisions” of the Temple service in use during the First Century – place the Division of Abijah squarely on Yom Kippur.
Zacharias’s offering of incense when the angel spoke to him is not inconsistent with this, since incense was offered on Yom Kippur in both the Holy place and the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest was allowed in the Holy of Holies to incense the spot where the Ark of the Covenant would have been. Luke does not say that Zachariah was the High Priest.
But any Priest could and did offer incense in the Holy place on Yom Kippur. That duty was not limited to the High Priest.”
If you add six months to Sept 22 – 30 you’re going to be very close to March 25. It’s fair to point out that March 25th is when the Church has traditionally observed the Annunciation of Mary (when Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit) on the Liturgical Calendar. Which can be dated back to St Irenaeus (130 – 202 AD) and is consistent with Hyppolytus reflections.
When you add 9 months to that you get December 25. So to prove the date of Christmas being pagan in it’s origins one would also have to prove that the day Christ was conceived was stolen from pagans too.
Is it a tradition of the Church?
Of course it is.
Are we allowed to have traditions and keep dates if we want to?
Yes we are as Rom 14:5-6 and others allow for this.
It would also be fair to call Christmas a Biblical tradition as it’s not only permitted by scripture but it’s also compatible with the details of the narrative.
There are of course sound objections to the date of December 25. Some will point out that the shepherds being out with their flock at night favors a spring or fall birthday. This is insufficient though. There could be many reasons that they would be out with their sheep, perhaps it was an unusually warm night. We simply don’t know. Temperatures in the middle East actually allow for shepherding at night in December anyways. For more on that click HERE.
Some will argue that Luke 1 could also be referring to Sukkot rather than Yom Kippur. If that were so then it would put Jesus date of birth in early October rather than late December. I think this is unlikely though as the Jewish 70 AD Talmud places the week Zecharia would have been in the temple at the time of Yom Kippur.
Also, since the Annunciation of Mary is key for the December 25 date, one would have to prove that this day is of pagan origins too. The fact that nobody is sounding that alarm is telling. In my assessment this shows an intellectual inconsistency in the argumentation of Christmas deniers.
Are there pagan traditions that continue around this time of year that even Christians participate in?
I realize that Santa Clause has roots in St. Nicholas, but lets be real, this is a pagan demi-god. There is nothing Christian left about Santa Clause. There is also nothing wrong with such things either in their proper context. Do you place your trust for your salvation in Santa Clause? Of course not. If such pagan traditions bother your conscience then maybe you should abstain, but if they do not there is freedom in Christ to be unconcerned (1 Cor 8).
The point of this post though is to make it clear that there is plenty of evidence for the Christian origins of Christmas. The burden of proof is on the one who claims it was appropriated from pagans to make their case and provide some original source material.
Below is a succinct YouTube video that I found very helpful for this article
Also, you can click HERE for a steadfast Lutherans post that I found useful.
For an excellent article on why Yom Kippur is most likely the referent to Luke 1 see HERE.