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Is Christmas simply a re-imagining of ancient pagan celebrations?

By Mary Farrow for CNA

(Image: Ben White/Unsplash.com)

Denver Newsroom, Dec 13, 2020 / 04:58 am (CNA).- ‘Tis the season to be jolly, and, perhaps, to have one’s social media inundated with memes about Christmas being nothing more than a co-opted pagan holiday – maybe a winter solstice celebration – repurposed and baptized by Christianity.

“There are dozens of religions in mythology that have had visits by wise men, kings who’ve killed children to stop the new king being born…there’s a great deal of Christianity that is traditional, and however wonderful people think the story is, it’s frankly not original,” Stephen Fry, an actor and self-proclaimed atheist, said in a mid-2000s Christmas episode of the British comedy show, QI.

In the episode, Fry repeats some popular claims about Christmas and its origins, including that the date of Christmas was stolen from pagan holidays, and that many of Christ’s characteristics – that he was born of a virgin, is the son of God, that he and died and rose to save us from sin – were simply borrowed from pagan gods and traditions that pre-date Christ.

Is there any truth to these claims? CNA spoke with several Catholic academics to find out.

Dr. Michael Barber, an associate professor of Scripture and theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colo., said there is some truth to the idea that Christians “‘baptize’ pagan ideas.”

One example, he noted, is the wedding ring, a tradition with origins in ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian customs that pre-date Christianity. Today, Catholic weddings include the blessing and exchange of wedding rings, as a symbol of the commitment of marriage, even though this did not originate as a Christian idea.

But the questions of pagan links to Christmas in particular are something Barber has spent much time studying, as he is planning to publish a new book entitled “Christmas: What Every Catholic Should Know.” It’s a part of a series that includes the book “Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know.”

“[T]here are also elements of the traditional Christmas celebration that are borrowed from pagan cultures. We are not quite sure how the tree, for example, became part of the Christmas scene but certainly there is nothing in Scripture that establishes it with Christmas,” he said.

Dr. Mark Zia, a professor of sacred theology at Benedictine College in Kansas, said Christianity “recognizes, appreciates, and incorporates into her own ‘Christian culture’ anything that is good, true, and beautiful, even if these things have their origins in pre-Christian religions or cultures.”

However, he added, the Church stands by the historicity of the person of Christ and the events of the Gospels.

“Since the four Gospels are the historical accounts of what Jesus truly said and did while on earth, there is no room for the suggestion that they contain ‘myths’ or ‘embellishments’ or ‘exaggerations’ about the power or identity of Jesus,” he said.

“The Gospels clearly teach that Jesus identified Himself as the Son of God, that his audiences understood that he claimed to be God, that eyewitnesses observed his great miracles of power, and ultimately he truly rose from the dead. Unlike all pagan myths, there is nothing mythic or fictitious in the life of Jesus.”

The origin of claims linking Jesus to pagan gods

Barber said many of the claims about Christmas being a pagan holiday, and Jesus being compared to pagan gods, come from the 1999 book “The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” written under the pseudonym S. Acharya.

In the book, Acharya argues that Jesus was invented as a culmination of various gods, including the ancient Roman gods of Mithras, Hercules, and Dionysus, in order to unite the Roman empire with one state-sanctioned religion.

“The author is actually D. M. Murdock who never earned advanced degrees and was not an academic,” Barber said. “Her work is in some ways like that of certain 19th century writers who also made wild claims that could not be substantiated by evidence. Murdock’s book has been roundly dismissed by scholars. Even scholars known for skepticism towards the historical reliability of the Gospels such as Bart Ehrman have dunked the books claims.”

Barber noted that Ehrman wrote in his 2012 book, “Did Jesus Exist”: “In short, if there is any conspiracy here, it is not on the part of ancient Christians who made up Jesus but on the part of modern authors who make up stories about the ancient Christians and what they believed about Jesus.”

One example of a god that Jesus is sometimes compared to is that of Mithra, a pagan god of Iranian origin who was also a popular Roman god until the 4th century. According to multiple sources, Mithra (or Mithras) was considered a god of light (or the sun), justice, and loyalty, and for this reason devotion to him was encouraged by emperors at the time. A popular Mithrain ceremony included the sacrifice of a bull, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Mithras is often included as one of a number of “crackpot theories” that Jesus was merely an idea that came from pagan gods, Barber said, adding that any parallels that may exist between Jesus and Mithras or other pagan gods are incidental, and historically flimsy.

Christmas and December 25: Which came first, the pagan or the Christian?

There are two major theories as to why Christmas falls on December 25, Barber said, though the long and short of it is that Christians do not know for certain the exact birthday of Jesus.

The first theory dates back to 1905, when German scholar Hermann Usener posited that December 25 was adapted by Christians as the date for Christmas because it had been the birthday of the sun god, Sol Invictus.

According to Barber, Usener claimed that Emperor Aurelian established Sol Invictus “as the official god of the Roman empire in 274 and established his feast day as December 25. Christians took elements from this religion and reinterpreted them, applying them to Jesus.”

Usener also claimed that Constantine changed December 25 from a celebration of this pagan god to the celebration of Christmas in order to Christianize the empire.

However, Barber said, “our earliest evidence for a December 25 feast day of a pagan god dates to the fourth century – and the same document also already mentions December 25 as Jesus’ birthday. Indeed, it is just as possible that the Christians’ celebration of Jesus’ birth was copied by the pagans. In short, the claim that Christianity came out of the feast day of Sol Invictus is without evidence.”

Zia noted that some sources even date the celebration of the Christian Christmas on December 25 before any records indicate any pagan celebrations on that same day.

“Historical sources tell us that the pagan festival of Saturnalia in honor of the sun god was celebrated in Rome, beginning in the end of the third century AD, and held on December 25,” Zia said.

“Given that the date for the celebration of Christmas was not standardized until the fourth century, the assumption was that the pagan feast came first,” he said, and that Christmas was later set on this date to “counter-act” this pagan festival.

But there are reasons to doubt this account, he said.

“The earliest reference to the birth of Christ on December 25 of which I am aware comes from St. Hippolytus (d. 235), whose writings predate by half a century the first celebration of the pagan feast in honor of the sun god,” he said.

St. Hippolytus wrote in a piece that is historically “accepted as genuine that Jesus was born nine months after the creation of the world, a date which the early fathers identified as March 25. Thus we have a clear reference to Jesus’ birth on December 25 before there ever was established the cultic celebration of the sun god in Rome,” Zia said.

Barber added that there are other reasons to believe that it was in fact the pagans who were copying the Christians, in this and other ways.

“Justin Martyr (in First Apology 66) accuses the followers of Mithras of imitating the eucharistic practice of the Church,” he said.

The Church fathers’ understanding of March 25 as the date of the creation of the world is also a key to understanding the theological view of why Christmas is on December 25, said Fr. Michael Witczak, associate professor of liturgical studies and sacramental theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

As the understood date of the creation of the world, March 25 is also fittingly celebrated as the feast of the Annunciation, or the day that Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, he said.

“December 25 is related to March 25. So March 25th is the celebration of the feast of the Annunciation…and March 25th is nine months before December 25,” Witczak said.

Witczak added that the Church does not know for certain that these were the exact dates on which these events occurred, as these exact dates are not mentioned in Scripture, and we have few early historical documents on them. Even the year thought to be that of Jesus’ birth may be off by a few years, he said.

But understanding Jesus as an historical person who actually existed, and understanding him in his divinity, are two different things, he added.

“I don’t think any good historian would doubt the historicity of Jesus Christ or Saint Paul,” Witczak said, “but knowing that Jesus was a historic figure (versus) believing that he’s the second Person of the blessed Trinity…it’s a matter of faith.”

Even if December 25 as a date for the celebration of Christmas were taken from a pagan tradition, Witczak said, it does not negate the person of Christ.

If December 25 was originally a festival of a sun god, for example, “as a Christian, I would say, but the divinity is not the sun, the divinity is the creator God who created the world and everything in it. This is revelatory of the presence of God in our life and in our world,” he said.

“When Pope Gregory The Great sent St. Augustine to England to bring the faith to the British people, he gave him advice about how to consecrate pagan temples to use as a Christian Church,” Witczak said.

“In Mexico, there are some aspects of the way that they celebrate All Souls Day, the Dia de los Muertos, that are reminiscent of Aztec customs. The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, she’s dressed in Aztec clothes and the belt that she wears is the belt that a pregnant woman would have worn in pre-Christian days in the Aztec world,” he said.

“So this dynamic of taking over things from a previous culture and then using it for Christian purposes…it’s kind of part and parcel of the way that the Church operates,” he said.

Zia said the claims of strong links between Jesus and paganism tell of a lack of catechesis among believers, and a lack of faith among non-believers.

In reality, “there is ample room to include pre-Christian elements in the celebration of our Christian holidays” Zia said, and “the core purpose of each specific Christian holiday is utterly new and not a borrowing from pagan holidays.”

Zia encouraged anyone who was really interested in the parallels between Jesus and any number of pagan gods to do their own research, and not rely on the claims of books such as Acharya’s.

“(D)epending on how much time and effort one puts into the task, one can find occasional parallels between Jesus and just about any pagan deity from any culture,” Zia said.

“Yet such comparisons are too few and too weak to suggest that Jesus is simply the ‘Christian’ version of these former pagan beliefs.  When we look at the entire context of the identity, life, mission, and teachings of Jesus, then it becomes abundantly clear that he is utterly unique in the history of the world,” he said. “It is for this reason that Jesus – and only Jesus – could boldly proclaim, ‘Behold, I make all things new!’”


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12 Comments

  1. Fr. Michael Witczak rises above pagan-esque incidentals when he comments: “but knowing that Jesus was a historic figure (versus) believing that he’s the second Person of the blessed Trinity…it’s a matter of faith.” Two comments:

    FIRST, on this matter of faith, even the development between the Old Testament prophecies and their fulfillment as testified in the New Testament (“the Old prefigures the New; and the New fulfills the Old”), Hans Urs von Balthasar explains the “clash” or “collision” of Old Testament “DE-velopment” when it is fully swept up by New Testament “EN-velopment.” As an event, the actual Incarnation (in Person!)—discontinuity within continuity—greatly stretches Cardinal Newman’s conceptual “Development of Christian Doctrine.” (The Glory of the Lord, vol. I, Ignatius, 1998). Even less adequate or even credible is ersatz “paradigm shift” hermeneutics.

    SECOND, in response to Dr. Barber of the Augustine Institute (“We are not quite sure how the tree, for example, became part of the Christmas scene…”), maybe this possibility from Frederick D. Willhelmsen:

    “Far from the warm Mediterranean, beyond the frontiers of the Empire, the Germanic tribes in the vast forests that covered half of Europe would break the monotony of a bitter winter by observing the solstice. The festival centered around the old barbaric worship of ‘the mother tree,’ which grew in the center of every settlement and was thought to be the source of all life, its roots reaching down to the springs of being. When baptized by missionaries, the Teutons retained their feast, but transmuted its nature into the custom that survives today in the Germanic Yule log and tree [….] Thus the entire weight of the tradition of the Christmas Tree, Weinachtsbaum, reminds us that with the birth of Our Lord all Creation was born again” (Citizen of Rome, Sherwood Sugden & Co., 1980).

    But, the real QUESTION TODAY is how to graft-on such human customs as the Yule Log (into our tradition—small “T”), without regressing the Tradition (big “T”) into the dhimmitude “pluralism”, whether under global Secularism or cosmopolitan Islam, and without genuflecting before forest-cult Pachamama in Amazonia or the post-modern/tribal “synodal path” of Germania.

    The Teutons would have thrown the (worse-than-“monotonous”) 2020 Vatican Christmas creche display into the fire.

  2. The sadder part about Christmas and also Easter is that it brings out the secularist in full force. The reduction of Christ our Saviour’s birth as a prelude to sales pitch for romance hallmark movies and everything else is really annoying. It seems like each passing year it gets worse.

  3. Fr Witczak is correct, that the historicity of Christ is well established, although whether he is the Son of God is a matter of faith. Our faith nevertheless is concretized in the historicity of a singular event, the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We have eyewitnesses to the resurrection, which is the chief charisma of the Apostles. And with their documented witness alleged historicity. Although why would we believe an event that defies the logic of science, and historical precedence? For example, evidence for the existence of God is found in nature, reasoned analysis of causality, of the teleological ends of things speaking to divine intelligence and creation. And why Paul condemned unbelieving Romans because they denied the evidence and turned to idolatry. Christ risen from the dead then is not supported by intellectual evidence, rather by sensual evidence. Sensual here refers to an interior ‘sense’ of the intellect consistent with our understanding of love, an inner conviction of the principle good. The human soul was designed to apprehend this primary truth ultimately, as it is revealed in God. The Person of Christ reveals this to Man. So definitive is this revelation that those who believe are saved, those who don’t are condemned. We call that assent of the intellect Faith. Faith, a spiritual dynamic is superior to material evidence. As to its efficacy the Apostle affirms that our faith is actually the evidence of what we hope for.

    • “Christianity’s claim to be true cannot correspond to the standard of certainty posed by modern science, because the form of verification here is of a quite different kind from the realm of testing by experiment—pledging one’s life for this—is of a quite different kind. The saints, who have undergone the experiment, can stand as guarantors of its truth, but the possibility of disregarding this strong evidence remains” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions, Ignatius, 2003, p. 226).

      • Agreed Peter there is the credibility owed the witness of the saints that is efficacious evidence. Although what is said does not contradict my comment, it’s necessary for the reader to understand that the evidence of God’s revelation in Christ surpasses the capacity of reason. “Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but ‘the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives'” (Aquinas ST 2a2ae 171 5 Ad 3 quoted in CCC 157). “What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived” (Pius IX Dei Filius 3 in Catechism 156). In effect we believe because God has spoken, God whose revelation in Christ is its own primary evidence independent but not exclusive to secondary witness.

  4. Rev .Fr.Mitch Pacwa of EWTN , in a recent homily brought more light into what idolatry is about – desires in fallen men , to live for carnal slaveries with the lie that the idols made to suit such tastes do not die , thus those who serve such also are spared death – the antitheses of the words from The Father , to Adam .

    The desire to do away with The God Man , who comes to help us partake in His Eternal Act of continuous death , to be dead to the carnal slaveries of self will , to thus live in The Divine Will – of ever increasing goodness and holiness , in deeper , richer praise and joy with and for all ..

    No wonder that the envious father of lies in his demonic wisdom have been well versed in using his agents to have come up with all sorts of lying flood waters ..

    Thank God that there are good rich writings of mystics such as Bl.Emmerich and S.G Luisa of Divine Will , who can help to shred the lies and doubts from such idols into dust ,to help unleash the continuous flood waters of oceans of praise and gratitude to the Most Holy Trinity as our joyful and blessed destiny .

  5. The great move of the commercial world is to commercialize everything. TBH, secular-ism is more profitable than anything religious for these people. Therefore, they keep trying to maintain the buying habits of the season while removing the reason for the season. It isn’t politics, but business. Back in the Fifties, a science fiction story came ouyt, “Happy Birthday Dear Jesus”, which poked fun at the mercantile instinct, wherein it was reveled the “shopping season” had been pushed back to Valentine’s day. (And considering we have moved it almost to Labor Day already, the notion is not too far-fetched.

    However, even a cartoon 55 years old knows more than some people.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPhqMJpQsYQ

    • Thanks for adding the You Tube of Charlie Brown’s Christmas. Before the Vatican Council 2 and the following Secular Age, the reason for Christmas was obvious to 90 plus percent of Americans. Even those with a limited understanding of the bible had a core understanding of Christ, our Saviour. Now thanks to the distaster that happened after VC2, there is a massive need for proper catechization.

  6. The magisterial Catechism of the Catholic Church has such great respect for The New Testament that it uses more than 3,500 citations of this uniquely Holy Spirit inspired Apostolic witness. That could teach us Catholics that without a life-long, personal immersion in The New Testament we’ll miss out on a major way to love God’s saving revelation, that is Jesus Christ, His life-giving words and His merciful way of life.

    We might then ask: “What can religious cycles and ceremonies add to our revelation of, and love of, and obedience to, the Apostolic witness to Christ? We might especially ask that question in regards to such celebrations as syncretize our precious communal spiritual life in Christ with pagan traditions and highly material worldly attitudes.

    Apostle Paul had to deal with this problem – of Christians syncretizing their faith with ungodly traditions. Less than 30 years after Jesus’ resurrection, he wrote to new converts in the region of Galatia (including cities such as Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch):

    “. you (who) have come to know God, or rather be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.”

    Whilst it is surely a good thing that the whole world hears the name of Christ every year at Christmastime, it is also surely a sad thing that the message is muffled and contaminated with ungodly things. Even sadder, that so many Catholics and other Christians are muzzled and unable to announce the whole truth about this amazing Babe born of Mary in Bethlehem, who is:

    “. . the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in Him all things in heaven and earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through Him and for Him. He himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”

    In this 21st century we can say that there never was or will be a Babe like this. Author before time of expanding space-time; of the partial quantum vacuum and energy-matter; of quarks and gluons and electrons and positrons and protons and neutrons and axions and anyons; of all the elements and their millions of compounds; of the speed of light and gravitational waves; of stellar genesis; black holes and galaxies; of planetary systems like our Solar system; of our Earth and its moon; of vast oceans and moving continents; of the science-flummoxing complexity of the cells that generated microbes, fungi, plants and animals; of a primate with consciousness and a conscience, able to communicate with Him and even to recognize what Mighty Being beyond our comprehension smiles back at us from the crib in that stable.

    One, who alone is able to explain to us why, in this universe, sin and evil and pain and death must happen. One alone who is able to love us into looking past all the hurt to our resurrection and the immeasurable joys of life eternal. Some Babe, Mary’s Boy!

  7. The nattering nabobs who periodically dissect the existence and/or divinity of Jesus and of Christianity, are free to believe, write and talk about it however they please. Finding my faith has been a long path, frequently a struggle, some periodic detours, and occasionally of doubt. But I always seem to come back to two ideas that ground me. No one, least of all me, is going to know the truth of Christ in this life, other than through a glass darkly. That’s why it’s called “Faith.” And something a brilliant Christian pastor told me many years ago: there’s nothing in the life, teachings, or death of this man, nothing he ever said or did, that smacks of a liar. Who among us can truly say that?

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