Have yourself a pagan little Christmas?

Cheryl Lawrie, in Saturday’s Age (“Away with the Manger”), drags up that old furphy:

Historians largely agree that the celebration of Christmas came about just after Constantine had made Christianity a recognised and privileged religion within the Roman Empire. Religious leaders were looking for a way to make Christianity more widely accepted among the populace, so they adopted an existing mid-winter festival and layered it with Christian meanings.

Yes, its the old “ancient-pagan-festival-masquerading-as-pious-Christian devotion” myth mixed with the “Constantine-created-Catholicism” myth.

In fact, Cheryl, “historians largely agree” that the impetus toward celebrating Christmas in the 4th-6th Centuries depended, not upon Constantine, but upon the definitions of Christological dogma from the first four ecumenical councils (Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon). The Council of Ephesus, which approved the designation “Mother of God” for Mary likewise saw an increase in Marian devotion.

Of course, there are plenty who will point out that Christmas is just the pagan winter solstice festival and that Marian devotion looks suspiciously like the devotion to Athena (which was also popular at Ephesus in pre-Christian days). And here is the only thing that Cheryl and the historians largely agree on: the early Christian missionaries were canny evangelisers. Long before the word “inculturation” was invented, they were doing it.

And for those of you scandalised at the “pagan” history of Christmas, I challenge you to find something from Christianity (other than the Gospel itself) that was entirely invented by Christianity alone. The Gospel has the remarkable effect of “baptising” the things of this world, causing a rebirth and renewal into a new reality. Finitum capax infinitum. And that, to be sure, is at least one aspect of Christmas, is it not?

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6 Responses to Have yourself a pagan little Christmas?

  1. Tony says:

    The liturgical scholar Thomas Tally demonstrated that the celebration of 25th December as a nativity feast predates the reign of Constantine.

    I am a little hazy on the facts, and I have packed all my books away, but there is also an ancient tradition that the incarnation (i.e. the Annunciation) and the resurrection occurred on the same date – 25th March, and that the date of Christmas was determined from this, rather than the date of the the Annunciation being determined the other way around.

  2. Tony says:

    I should have thought to look up the reference on wikipedia:


    “Sextus Julius Africanus popularized the idea that Jesus was born on December 25 in his Chronographiai, a reference book for Christians written in AD 221. This date is nine months after the traditional date of the Incarnation (March 25), now celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation. March 25 was considered to be the date of the vernal equinox and therefore the creation of Adam; early Christians believed this was also the date Jesus was crucified. The Christian idea that Jesus was conceived on the same date that he died on the cross is consistent with a Jewish belief that a prophet lived an integral number of years.”

    So it all has to do with the vernal equinox, rather than pagan mid winter solstices.

    What a lovely thought that the date of the creation of the first man is also the date of the recreation of humanity in Christ by his incarnation and his death.

    Of course, none of this makes these dates historically accurate, but historical commemoration is not the point of liturgy. Instead, anamnesis is the point, whereby in remembering historical events the past becomes a present reality for us and so we participate in those events ourselves and experience their power in our own lives.

    This, unfortunately, does not make as good press and is not as popular as the idea that Christmas was originally a pagan festival, and the sooner it is re-paganized the better!

  3. Schütz says:

    Thanks for all that info, Tony. It augments, rather than disputes, the thesis I put forward. We do not suggest that devotion to either Mary or Christ was invented by the dogmatic defintions–both are obviously ancient and the basis for the dogmatic pronouncments in the first place. But it is nevertheless true that popularity increased after the Christological councils.

  4. Tony says:

    I wasn’t meaning to dispute what you were saying. I agree with what you said. I do get annoyed though with articles such as that in Age, which repeat the erroneous argument that Christmas was originally a pagan festival that was adapted to the Christian faith. Rather, the celebration of Christmas has its own origins. That it happened to coincide with pagan festivals was a happy coincidence that the Church was able to use.

    If you look at the pagan customs that have become associated with Christmas, none of them are integral to the Church’s liturgical rites. Christmas trees and Advent wreaths both derive from Germanic pagan customs. Yet both are clearly secondary to the Church’s liturgical life (and in many countries e.g. the our pacific neighbours) these customs are unknown.

    What we have is first of all the kerygma, which established the liturgical practices of the Church. Once the liturgical practice was established, only then did the Church appropriate in a moderate way customs of particular cultures as a way of mooring the celebration in those particular cultures. I think that there is a lesson here about inculturation, in particular liturgical inculturation. Again, I hope that what I am saying augments what you said in your original post.


    It was interesting in the wikipedia article that the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas day also did much to extend the importance of the Christmas celebration.

    Also, the celebration of Christmas almost died out in England after the Reformation due to the effects of the puritans and also the dismal state of church life in England under the Hanoverian monarchs. It was only with the Oxford movement that the celebration of Christmas started to revive.

  5. Lucian says:

    See Dr. Tighe’s article on this, Calculating Christmas.

    Also, here’s the problem:

    1) The pagans had their own Spring-equinox and Summer-solstice celebrations. The Jews had Easter and Pentecost. Why isn’t anyone here attacking the Jews?

    2) The ancient Egyptian New-Year and Roman Indiction were on September 1. And so is Rosh haShana. What’s the problem?

    3) Pagans believe in the existence of one or more personal Gods (i.e., not just some mere “forces” that are “out there”). So, does this mean that we should all just become atheists, or -on the other hand- believe that these are just abstract concepts, devoid of any personality, and subject to demystification? (`cause, You know, they’re all just symbols, should be interpreted metaphorical)

    3) Pagans also believe in good and wrong. (Romans 2:14) Guess we should just be anti-nomians then, huh?

    OH, YEAH, and … since we’re all into deconspiring holiday-thieves, how about THIS: we’ve just recently celebrated the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple on November 21, right? NOW, …

    1) November -as its name says- is the Ninth month of the Roman calendar.

    2) Not only that the Mother of God entered into the Temple on this day, but she is hereself the Reality of whom the Temple was but a type thereof.

    3) on the 25th day of their ninth month, which falls in November/December, the Jews have this cute little celebration of, err, the Feast of the Rededication of the Temple, by Judah Maccabee.


  6. Past Elder says:

    The first version I heard of the “Christmas is just a Christian version of a pagan holiday” thing was that it was appropriated from Saturnalia, and that was forty some years ago when you could still say “Merry Christmas” on TV!

    If there’s an inculturated Christmas, it’s got to be the world’s secular morphing of it into Santa Claus, presents, and that “holiday spirit” of acting more civilly than usual.

    In a way though, Christians can be glad for it — the commercialisation of Christmas is something the world can not do without economically, so it will be around for us to address!

    Of course the celebration of Christ’s birth is a development of the church rather than something instituted in Scripture. The world hates the real Christmas because the world hates Christ. Unless he comes down off that cross and is simply a moral guide and example only, not that and a saviour from sin, which means I have to acknowledge that I’m a sinner.

    There were three things that I stuck in my mind during the years I was not a Christian following Vatican II. One is how odd it is that every other religion’s observances are treated with respect culturally at least, except Christianity’s — unless they can be reduced to yet another of the world’s various universal festival themes or yet another expression of a universal morality — whose derision sticks out like a sore thumb.

    (The other two, for completeness, were the impossibility of restoring the OT priesthood after the destruction of the Temple shortly after Jesus’ death, thereby making my theory that the OT religion was still valid and Messiah still coming untenable, and the Book of Concord, which allowed me to see that the implosion of Christianity didn’t start at Vatican II but centuries earlier and hadn’t been lost after all.)

    So we now have “Happy Holidays” with Stars of David, Kwanzaa, solstice symbols et al. all around, driven by “holiday shopping” which if you took out buying Christmas presents wouldn’t amount to much.

    Does lead to some curious ironies, though, like me driving two Lutheran kids home from public school belting out “Eight days and nights” in the back seat learned in their rehearsals for the school “Winter Program”. I doubt that the Jewish or Pagan kids went home singing “Away In A Manger”.

    Religion, apparently, is just fine as long as a) you keep it to yourself as a matter of culture only, b) it’s all a matter of inducing a common morality, and c) it doesn’t have anything to do with God becoming Man to save him from sin.

    Feliz Navidad entonces!

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