It’s that time of year. Snow balls. Sleigh bells. Carols in the air. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” according to one song that seems pretty disconnected from actual Christmas celebrations I’ve been to. “Scary ghost stories,” according to another song that seems to have confused Christmas with Halloween. “Presents on the tree,” according to a third song that I’m pretty sure was written by someone who never celebrated Christmas, or even directly engaged with the laws of physics. Okay, for real, who’s writing these songs? I’d like to file a formal complaint with the ASCAP.
But anyway. The point is, it’s Christmas (or actually Advent, but since no one seems to understand the difference between Christmas and Advent, whatevs, call it Christmas if you want, sure)! The time of the year when we celebrate the miracle of the God of the universe being born as a tiny child! When we marvel at the incarnation and prepare for the glorious Second Coming! When we meditate on the mystery of God becoming man so that man can become like God! Or, actually, none of that. Since, as you’ve probably heard, CHRISTMAS IS SECRETLY A PAGAN HOLIDAY.
…or, at least, this is what you frequently hear from a strange, motley, seasonal coalition of atheists, Neo-Pagans, and fundamentalist Christians who seem intent on making sure that nobody (except maybe them) has any fun in December. The 25th isn’t actually Jesus’s birthday, it’s the Saturnalia! Or the Sol Invictus! Or… something (you can choose from a cornucopia of completely made-up December 25 celebrations if you’re one of the enlightened few who’ve seen the faux-documentary Zeitgeist)! When you put up a tree, you’re not worshiping Jesus, YOU’RE SECRETLY WORSHIPING SATURN OR WODEN OR THE SUN OR SATAN OR WOOD GNOMES OR LIKE THE BUBBLE GUPPIES OR SOMETHING.
Your entire religion is founded on a pile of LIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIES!
Or… I dunno. Something.
I can’t believe I have to say this, but here it is: all those people are a few reindeer short of a sleigh. If you actually dig into the primary sources from the era of early Christianity, you’ll find no evidence at all that Christmas was “stolen” from pagan solstice festivals, and at least some evidence that the exact opposite occurred. Everyone living today may think Christmas is the ripoff, but it’s actually the original—it’s the Hydrox of winter holidays (which I think makes Festivus the Swedish Fish–flavored Oreos, or something).
There are two pagan festivals that are usually pointed to as the origin of Christmas, but the evidence for both is pretty thin. The first choice is usually the Saturnalia, the Roman celebration of the god Saturn, which does pre-date Christmas, but leaves one big, gaping hole in the plot: the Saturnalia kicked off on December 17 every year, and only went up to the 23rd—so if Christmas began as an attempt by Christians to co-opt the Saturnalia, they were literally two days late to the party. Telling people to fast when their friends are partying and then party when their friends are nursing hangovers makes for a lousy way to ease the transition from paganism to Christianity, if that was the intent.
The other usual suspect is the Sol Invictus, the “Feast of the Unconquered Sun,” which looks like a better choice at first, since it did actually take place on December 25. The problem with the Sol Invictus, though, is that literally no one celebrated it until Roman emperor Aurelian instituted it in A.D. 274, and Christian references to Christ’s birth falling on December 25 date all the way back to the early A.D. 200s. So if anyone was stealing holidays from anyone, you pretty much have to conclude the pagans were stealing them from the Christians.
The reality is, while we have no super-compelling evidence that Jesus was born on December 25 (first-century Jews weren’t big on celebrating birthdays, and they didn’t even use the Roman calendar, soooooo), there is plenty of evidence that the selection of the date was nothing other than a good-faith attempt by early Christians to discern the actual date of his birth. Sources from the early Christian era show a great deal of debate among Christian thinkers over the most likely day for the nativity, and while a lot of the reasoning is fairly convoluted, none of it acknowledges anything the pagans may or may not have been doing. In brief, the reasoning that appears to have won the day goes like this:
- It was generally agreed that Jesus died on March 25. (Because there were half a dozen competing calendars in the first century A.D., it’s hard to say that with a lot of certainty, but there it is. The second-most-popular choice for the date was April 6.)
- There was a popular belief in first-century Christianity and Judaism that all true prophets died on the same day they were conceived. This meant that March 25 was also the date of Christ’s conception. (This is why, for those of you following the liturgical calendar, the Feast of the Anunciation falls on March 25, unless March 25 falls in Holy Week, in which case… never mind.)
- Adding nine months to March 25 gets you December 25. (Then, mostly because of the March 25 / April 6 controversy, Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the magi, was set nine months after April 6, on January 6, as a sort of compromise. This left us with a 12-day Christmas season in between the two, which is why every year we all get stuck with a bunch of calling birds and lords a-leaping and maids a-milking that we have no idea what to do with and usually just end up returning for store credit.)
So there it is. Convoluted, sure, but not “stolen from the pagans,” or whatever. And even if you don’t buy that particular explanation for the date, you still have to contend with the fact that there’s no evidence at all of early Christians plotting to co-opt pagan holidays. So, if that’s the case, how did we arrive at the “everybody-knows” factoid of Christmas being a re-purposed pagan festival?
As usual with questions like this, the answer turns out to be “Englightenment-era Protestants just making stuff up.”
The idea that Christmas is OMG SECRETLY PAGAN comes not from first-millennium sources, but from Paul Ernst Jablonski, an 18th-century Calvinist theologian and amateur historian who (like all good Calvinists) was looking to discredit the Catholic Church. Without citing any real evidence, he just sort of asserted the stuff about Christmas being a re-skin of the Sol Invictus and called it a day. A lot of people—including some Catholics—just took him at face value on this, and the rest, as they say, is pseudo-history. But, as popular as Jablonski’s ideas managed to get, no one has ever been able to cite any real evidence for them.
None of that is to say that Christmas didn’t absorb any pagan customs (of course it did—just like Hanukkah has absorbed some Christmas-y customs), or that Christians were the first people in history to bring trees inside and cover them in sparkly things (I’m pretty sure that honor goes to whoever was the first person to get drunk in a forest), or that no one before Christians noticed that the dark, cold winter months kind of suck and would be greatly improved with an ugly sweater party and lots of mistletoe-instigated make-outs. But the idea that Christmas was “stolen” from pagans just isn’t supported by the evidence.
So, y’know, go ahead and take another sip of that eggnog. And then ask yourself what terrible life decisions led you to the point where you’re deliberately drinking eggnog.