Is Christmas based on paganism? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Ah yes. Christmastime. A time for love and joy and celebration and for people to come out and suddenly start taking an interest in history by declaring that everything is pagan once again. Yeah. The pagan copycat thesis died a long time ago for Jesus, and that doesn’t stop many from writing about that on the internet, but many still like to say it for Christmas. Many Christians in fact like to say that Christmas is based on pagan traditions that we just happened to steal and use for ourselves. It’s understandable. It’s also in much of pop culture. My wife and I enjoy watching The Big Bang Theory (A show about four ordinary normal guys), yet as much as I can delight in the antics of Sheldon Cooper, he’s just wrong on this count.
The article today I plan to respond to is written by Philip Greywolf Shallcrass. Let’s see what he has to say.
Pagans have deeper links with the season though. Virtually every part of Christmas has its origin in Pagan celebrations of Midwinter. Christmas Day is on December 25th because that’s when pre-Christian folk throughout the Roman Empire celebrated the birth of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. In 274 CE, Emperor Aurelian promoted Sol Invictus as a god that all citizens of the Empire could worship alongside their own deities. He combines aspects of other pagan gods, including Mithras, a Middle Eastern deity born to a virgin mother on December 25th. The birth of Christ was first celebrated on this day in 336 CE.
Okay. Sol Invictus. Lets’s start it out. Is any primary source given that says Sol Invictus was celebrated on this day? Nope. Not a one. There’s a reason for that. You won’t find one. In fact, this kind of thing is so ludicrous even Cracked has an article on this. Last I checked, they’re not hardline defenders of evangelical Christianity. They refer to this article in fact. The point is rightly made that Saturnalia lasted from December 17th to the 23rd and that there would not be another holiday celebrated since most people would still be hungover and then preparing for the New Year. In fact, they contend that Aurelian, who was not a fan of Christianity, set up the date to challenge the birth of Christ.
Now does this mean that Jesus was born on December 25th? Not really, though we can be open to the date and I would say there is more evidence for that than for the other figures in history. At least with the case of Jesus you have people from the past actually making such claims.
Also, Shallcrass claims Mithras was a Middle Eastern deity born to a virgin mother. Again, what is the source of this claim? Good luck finding one. We have no Mithraic writings out there and most of what we know of Mithras comes from artwork and in fact from the early church fathers. The viewpoint now is that in fact Mithras was born out of a rock carrying a dagger and wearing a cap. I suppose you could try to make a case that the rock was female and I’m pretty sure that rocks don’t have sex so the rock would be a virgin, but other than that, there really isn’t a case there. Shallcrass may be an authority on modern pagan rituals, but that does not equate to ancient pagan rituals.
The original significance of the date is that, in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s the first day on which the sun’s rising position on the horizon begins to move northward following the winter solstice. Our ancestors took the sun’s renewed movement as a welcome sign that there would be an end to winter and a return of warmth and growth. Hence they celebrated the rebirth of light, personified as a divine child.
Did they? Well it would be nice to see some evidence of that. It’s also important to note that if that was the case, it should be known that December 25th does not fall in the winter solstice. Now surely if the Christians were co-opting a date to show the birth of their divine child, they would know enough to put it on the right date back then. To put it on the wrong date would just be more embarrassing for the Christians. (And no Shallcrass, a link to wikipedia does not convince me you’ve done real historical research.)
Midwinter celebrations represented a metaphorical shaft of light in the depths of winter, when sources of food were limited and when cold, snow and frost ended many lives, particularly those of the frail, elderly and very young. Celebration lifted the spirits, and feasting was a reminder of good times promised by the sun’s return, as were the exchange of gifts and the decorating of homes and temples with evergreen foliage.
Okay. Any primary sources for this? No. Again, I’ll gladly state that Shallcrass would know more about modern pagan rituals than I do, but why should I think he has a clue on ancient pagan rituals? That would be like claiming your average churchgoer must know more about the church fathers than Bart Ehrman simply by the fact of the churchgoer being a Christian. Unfortunately today, most Christians don’t have a clue about the early church fathers. You’d frankly be lucky to find many who know history past the Reformation. Many of our ideas of church history would go more like this:
Let’s consider something however. What about evergreen foliage being used? Well there’s a simple reason for that. If you want to decorate your home in the winter and you want to use something that’s a plant, you pretty much have one choice. You have to go with an evergreen because nothing else is really alive at that time of year. This kind of idea did not really catch on until around the time of the Reformation so if the church was copying something, it’s ludicrous to think they would go back 1,000+ years and get an idea. While we do not know for sure the origins of the Christmas tree, it’s a stretch to think people reach back 1,000 years for a tradition.
From here, Shallcrass has some writings on how pagans celebrated the solstice that really have as much to do with Christmas as the price of tea in China. Even still, it looks like Shallcrass did all of his research online entirely. Where are the books on the topic?
You won’t find any.
While the ending might be interesting, this is not at all a true historical investigation. Shallcrass has just made some assertions and then linked to wikipedia and then said he should be considered an authority on the topic. Well he’s not.
Does this mean Jesus was born on December 25th? No. Could a case be made, yes. It’s inconsequential however. Just celebrate the birth of Jesus. Don’t let the ones who oppose it steal your joy. If you know you are not worshiping pagan deities and not honoring pagan deities at all, you have nothing to worry about.
Merry Christmas everyone.
Including you Mr. Shallcrass.