Every other Friday in D-List SaintsLuke T. Harrington explores one of the many less-than-impressive moments in Christian history.

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.

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)!

…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:

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.


  1. Even if it were established beyond all doubt that Christmas is a rip-off, I’ve yet to see any compelling argument that that somehow means we should all feel super guilty about it or undergo a crisis of faith or whatever it is we’re supposed to do (probably set fire to our Christmas trees or something).

  2. Yep. Thank you. There’s a little problem known as “not citing legitimate sources” that seems to run rampant in much of the evangelical community today. Buttloads (is that one word? hyphenated?) of doctrines have been constructed over the centuries that have led to the manufacture of a Jesus that doesn’t really look much like the first century Hillel-trained, Pharasaic-sect, Essene-leaning, mystery-oriented, Torah-observant-Jewish rabbi Messiah of the New Covenant scriptures, but we can save that for another time. Unfortunately, the problem of not citing (or even knowing) sources oozes into the Messianic Jewish community, as well, and well-intentioned, sincere-hearted, passionate believers end up in the same web of accepting urban legends as fact (and revering fabricated story-telling of questionably-educated pastors as doctrine). hmmmm. Soooo… Concerning the dating of His birth, there is actually some compelling Biblical and historical evidence that he may truly have been born in the Hebrew month of Kislev (December) and that the early church bishops (though they were not really my favorite group of gentiles, I must admit) adopted the 25th of Kislev as Y’shua’s happy birthday (after all, it was Chanukah – the feast of dedication, now known as the festival of lights) and simply flipped it over to the Julian calendar – tah dah – the 25th of December. Sorry, Tammuz – it’s not all about you. Truth is, we don’t know – maybe it was in the spring during Pesach (Passover), maybe it was in the fall during Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), or maybe … just maybe it was the 25th of Kislev / December (Chanukah) and we can all relax a little bit and enjoy that delicious eggnog with our latkes and kugel (as long as we’re not actually worshiping our Christmas trees, of course).

  3. Wow! Thanks for all the info. Have heard/read about the association with pagan holidays but never investigated. Glad YOU did! As far as ‘scary ghost stories’ go…it may have something to do with A Christmas Carol. Wouldn’t want to have those chains rattling around in my dreams!

  4. This is a profoundly intellectually dishonest article. The main issue is that the author equivocates different senses in which Christmas can be considered a “pagan holiday” in order to set up a strawman argument for the pagan credentials of Christmas that is more easily refuted than what people are actually arguing. The problem is that beyond a few irresponsible Facebook memes, that isn’t an argument that anyone is actually making. No one really believes that the early Christians were Mithraists or were claiming to worship Jesus at Christmas but were really worshiping someone else, which the article explicitly claims. Serious discussion of the pagan character of Christmas, both pagan and Christian, concerns the interpretation of elements of ancient and medieval popular culture that were inculturated into Christmas traditions, either from the date of Christmas itself (Dec. 25, not the 21st, was the date of the winter solstice in ancient calendars) to the cultural pedigree of particular customs associated with the festival. The claim for a pagan Christmas is (for fundamentalist Christians) a claim that there is too much borrowed from pagan popular culture for the holiday to be licitly celebrated by Christians. Because they tend to be absolutists about religious boundaries, anything that can be shown to have any overlap with pagan traditions needs to be expunged from the Christian tradition, and because Christmas is saturated with such overlap they would frequently like to see Christmas radically reformed or even eliminated as a tradition. Pagans are typically claiming that there are sufficient elements of prechristian popular religion preserved in Christmas traditions that it is recognizable to them as a pagan holiday. Only the most reckless pagans, generally imitating fundamentalist Christians’ notions of the impermeability of religious boundaries, try to argue that the holiday is solely and exclusively theirs and has no legitimate Christian interpretation or participation. Essentially what reckless pagans and fundamentalist Christians have in common is implicit or explicit rejection of Christian inculturation (borrowing and baptizing elements incl. religious ones from a non-Christian culture in service of evangelization). Among educated Christians who accept inculturation there is no debate at all that most northern European Christian traditions were influenced by northern European paganism and borrowed traditions from it. See especially Tree of Salvation by G. Ronald Murphy, S. J. and The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity by James Russell for serious discussion of the extent and meaning of the northern European inculturation. Murphy is a Jesuit and so gives explicit theological assessment of what it means for Christmas to be both a legitimately Christian and thoroughly pagan holiday.

    1. I have! I also happen to know that virtually nothing is known about their respective cults, since almost no records survived to the modern era. Therefore anyone who tells you that their mythologies have ~striking parallels~ to the story of Jesus is straight-up makin’ stuff up.

    2. Most of the books and Mithraic shrines were destroyed by the early Christians but we know that Mithras died on the winter solstice and was reborn on Dec. 25th every year and Christians did not celebrate Christmas for hundreds of years – until the Pope declared that he was born on the same day as Mithras. I do not like your writing style. It is smug and condescending.

  5. Thank you for this. It would, however, be helpful if, especially in an article that castigates people for making unsupported assertions, you provided evidence for your claims.

  6. The God Perseus was proposed by ancient Persian astronomers who discovered the precession of the equinoxes. Around 2000 BC, the astronomers studied the precession of the vernal equinox from Taurus to Aries. Perseus was a constellation that appeared to be sitting on and killing Taurus, thus moving the sun into Aries. His nickname was the “bull slayer”. By shifting the entire cosmos, Perseus was believed by the Persians to be more powerful than the Greek gods (modeled after the planets). Greece and Persia were mortal enemies.

  7. The ghost stories around the fire thing bothered me until I played Scrooge one year and did a lot of research, discovering that especially after, but even for years prior to Dickens Christmas Carol, it was a popular tradition to tell scary stories around Christmas time. In fact, that’s one of the reasons Dickens chose that subject matter – because he was short on cash & ghost stories sold well that time of year. Love the rest, tho!

  8. “There are two pagan festivals that are usually pointed to as the origin of Christmas, but the evidence for both is pretty thin. ”
    … As opposed to, say, the evidence for existence of Jesus, which is paramount, amirite?

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