How Do We Know Christmas Is Not Pagan?

written by Dr. Bernard Mauser

IS CHRISTMAS PAGAN?

Every December we find the same claims circulating the internet. Critics say we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas for one reason or another. Some say it is a pagan tradition, and others that Christians borrowed it from mystery religions. Atheists, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even some Christians propound this claim. This was made more popular by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (p. 232). As the Watchtower declares in their Awake! Magazine of December 8, 1988 (p. 19), “those who celebrate Christmas do not honor God or Christ, but honor pagan celebrations and pagan gods.”

Those who claim that we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas because it is pagan do so in many ways. Each also misses the mark.

The first way is that there are pagan elements associated with Christmas and it is even celebrated by pagans. Many can recognize there are some ignoble things that certain groups may promote at Christmas. Highlights include commercialism, drunkenness, and illicit merry-making. Others make it all about Santa Claus.  Those who promote Santa usually know nothing of the historical figure of Saint Nicholas. The Saint Nicholas of history was the bishop of Myra, a city in Asia Minor. Most famously Nicholas was so upset about the claim of the heretic Arius, who said Jesus was not God, that he punched him in the face at the Council of Nicea. The irony is that modern day Arians are Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also oppose all things Christmas including Santa (not that Santa is intrinsically related to Christmas).

None doubt that people do have different things they celebrate. Not all celebrate things that are immoral or endorse sinful behavior. It is always wrong to sin. The main thing Christians emphasize in their celebration is the incarnation and birth of Jesus. So, in discussing this with people, keep in mind there are at least two different celebrations taking place on this day. Some have in mind the non-Christian elements and traditions. Christians, however, celebrate the birth of Jesus and all that it represents.

Let’s look at those who celebrated the birth of Jesus in Scripture. Before he was born, John the Baptist celebrated Jesus while in his mother’s womb (Lk 1:44). Angels also praised God for Jesus as did the shepherds (Lk 2:9-20). The magi also came to worship Jesus and presented him with gifts (Matt. 2:10-11).  The messiah was worshipped early on by the magi. This is an indication of his deity from birth as only God is worthy of worship. This is appropriate as what we celebrate is the incarnation, i.e., the fact that God became man (Phil. 2:6).

What of the two instances of birthday celebrations in the Bible of pagan rulers. In the first account it is Pharoah.  In the second account it is King Herod. At both birthday parties the ruler orders someone put to death.  One thing to note is that these rulers put people to death all the time. It wasn’t just because it was their birthday that they put people to death, any more than you can say they ate food just because it was their birthday. We can note that murdering people at any time is immoral. We can also note, especially as those who celebrated the birth of Christ were from God, that celebrating the birth of Christ is morally good. If John the Baptist and the heavenly host (among others) thought it was good, we too can be morally justified in celebrating the birth of Jesus.

To dismiss celebrating Jesus’ birthday due to the fact pagans also celebrated their birthdays is to commit the genetic fallacy. It points to the source of something as determining that it is good or evil. We know that even evil people know how to give good gifts to their children (Matt. 7:11). Following this reasoning, we shouldn’t give gifts to our children because that is what evil people do!

What about all the alleged problems with the date that Christmas is celebrated? Problems abound with this criticism.

Consider first the alleged parallel with the pagan festival Saturnalia. It is claimed that Christians celebrate on December 25 to replace this pagan Roman festival. The history shows that this can’t possibly be true. The reason is Saturnalia was celebrated on December 17.[1] If they really wanted to replace this pagan festival then they should have gotten the date correct. It would be similar to saying that in order to get rid of people celebrating evil things on Halloween, which is October 31, we should replace it with a festival to celebrate what God has done on November 10, which also happens to be my birthday. This would be a terrible strategy. People would just end up celebrating both (I won’t object to those who want to send me gifts on my birthday).

What about the feast Invictus Sol? This was a feast certain Romans celebrated to the unconquered Sun. There are multiple problems with the claim that we celebrate Christmas to replace this feast. The most significant is that the Christian accounts that list December 25 as the birth of Christ are much earlier than the accounts of the pagan festival. The earliest date mentioned in history for a feast day for Invictus Sol on December 25 was late in the 4th century by the Roman historian Macrobius.[2]  Macrobius Theodosius wrote Saturnalia, and is associated with either the praetorian guard of Italy in 430 AD or the proconsul of Africa in 410 AD. We have many Christian sources over a century earlier than this that have December 25th as the date for the birth of Jesus. For example, Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 AD) argued before 235 AD that Jesus was born on December 25. This means, at least according to the known historical record, that these references to a December 25th date for Jesus’ birth are over a hundred years earlier than the pagan festival. If there is any borrowing it is more probable that the pagans were borrowing from the Christians.

The methods Christians throughout history used to calculate the birth of Jesus has differed. Hippolytus’s calculation involved Jesus’s conception on the Passover, which according to early tradition was calculated as March 25. Some early sources think this was the day of Jesus’ birth, and others his conception. If it is when he was conceived, given a 9 month gestational period, this puts Jesus’s birth at December 25. Others use dates given in what is known from Zechariah’s service in the temple. They then calculate when he was there, when Elizabeth conceived John, and when unborn John (who was 6 months at the time) leapt in the womb at the sound of Mary’s voice to calculate this December 25th date.[3] The calculations of both ways of reasoning are quite advanced and neither relies on a pagan festival.[4]

What about the claim that Mithra, Adonis, Osirus, and Dionysus were also born on this day? The facts are otherwise. Just do about 5 minutes of research and you’ll see that it just is not so. There is also the problem that none of these figures were real people in history. That is completely different from the real figure of Jesus. The accounts of Jesus’ life are recorded in Christian and non-Christian sources (including Roman and Jewish sources). With very little research you can discover for yourself the historical accounts of Jesus differ greatly from the mythological nature of these others. [5]

Let us finally put to death all those claims that Christianity borrowed from pagans.  This Christmas focus on the fact that God loves us, added a human nature at the conception, was born of a virgin, testified to the truth, and died for our sins so that we may have an abundant life through Him. O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.

Jesus Wasn’t A Pagan God (11 min.)

[1] This is given to us by the Roman Macrobius. Thomas C. Schmidt provides this account and the problems with drawing this parallel between the two. T.C. Schmidt, “The dates of Saturnalia (and Sigillaria!) and Christmas.”: https://web.archive.org/web/20140721073230/http:/chronicon.net/blog/christmas/the-dates-of-saturnalia-and-sigillaria-and-christmas/

[2]The widely accepted date given by Alan Cameron of Macrobius’ work Saturnalia is 394 AD by Alan Cameron, “The Date and Identity of Macrobius,” The Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 56, (1966), 25.

[3] This is not to say there is consensus as to when Jesus was born among those who calculate the dates. However, what can be shown that the December 25 date for the birth of Jesus is much earlier in the historical record than the pagan feast Invictus Sol.

[4] There are many works that analyze these calculations. Thomas C. Schmidt explains the advanced calculation of Hippolytus in “Calculating December 25 as the Birth of Jesus in Hippolytus’ Canon and Chronicon,” Vigiliae Christianae 69 (2015) 542-563. Though when this date falls is hotly debated, few doubt he was born. The real debate is among two different theories. The one group whose views seem supported in considering these texts espouses the Calculation theory which is the approach of Hippolytus.

[5] Not only is there no real comparison with the birth narratives, but even the alleged parallels with the resurrection is linked to crop cycles in paganism and with a substitutionary atonement for Jesus. Tryggve Mettinger summarizes, “For the disciples and for Paul, the resurrection of Jesus was a one-time, historical event that took place at one specific point in the earth’s topography. The empty tomb was seen as a historical datum. The dying and rising gods were closely related to the seasonal cycle. Their death and return were seen as reflected in the changes of plant life…there is no evidence for the death of the dying and rising gods as vicarious suffering for sins.” The Riddle of Resurrection, 221.

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Reposted with the permission of Dr. Bernard Mauser from his website here. You can find more articles of his at www.bernardjmauser.com.

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