Christians stealing from Pagans

This is something that you hear alot about during the holidays.
Christmas and Easter are usually met with claims from our secular friends that these practices and celebrations were lifted from vibrant and bustling pagan traditions.

The reason being that Christians needed to co-opt something already successful in order to sneak in their views and beliefs.

But here’s my problem: how vibrant were those pagan traditions?
I was reading about Julian the Apostate and how he struggled mightily to reinvigorate the pagan customs.
He would see Christians alms giving to destitute pagans and lamented the fact in his writings; essentially saying how great of a failure it is on part of pagans to have Christians tending after poor and sick pagans.

The theme that I’ve gathered, even aside from Emperor Julian’s struggles, is a pagan culture that was nominally practiced among very few elite while being almost completely ignored by the masses.

It just seems to undercut the idea of this pulsating pagan tradition (which ever pagan tradition) that Christianity leeched off of.

Consider the fate of the pagan religions.

Catholics overran pagan cities, towns and lands, bought and occupied pagan buildings and temples, altered pagan art, music and literature, absorbed and replaced pagan harvest festivals and religious feasts, and, above all, won over and converted the pagan people themselves. In doing so, Catholics brought all things under the dominion of the one true God, Jesus Christ.

Isn’t that what He wanted us to do (cf. Mt 28:19)?

Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) wrote:

We began just yesterday, and already we fill the world and all your places: the cities, the islands, the towns, the municipalities, the councils, even the army camps, the tribunals, the assemblies, the palace, the senate, and the forum. We have left you only your temples! (Tertullian, Apology, 37.4)

Scripture sanctions this practice. The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was on the same day as a Canaanite vintage festival that it supplanted, much as Christmas coincided with the festival of Sol Invictus that non-Christians were celebrating.

This is the same principle that Protestant churches use today when they replace the celebration of Halloween with “Reformation Day” or “harvest festival” celebrations. It is an attempt to provide a wholesome alternative celebration to a popular but unwholesome one. Anti-Catholics who accuse Christmas of having “pagan origins” fail to recognize that it is precisely anti-pagan in origin.

Well, there are lots of things that the “masses” did according to their beliefs…be they religious or superstitious, before Christianity came to their area, that they continued to do, and continue to do today. Many of these things were part of their cultures, but were certainly tied up to religious and superstitious beliefs.

There were very many different religions being practiced in the many different areas that Christianity later entered, the idea that very few of the people in those areas had and practiced a faith is erroneous.

Even a shallow study of history will show the sacred sites, traditions etc of the many cultures. If pagan religion and practices were not endemic, there would not have to have been much speaking out against them or forbidding their practice, which ultimately there was.

Such continues to this day, where the Church still condemns various practices which are syncretic “additions” that people carried forward from their previous faith. People would not carry them forward unless they were entrenched beliefs and meaningful to them.

I would agree with you in the most part, but we have a much earlier textual attestation to the December 25 celebration of the Nativity than we do for the Roman celebration of Sol Invictus. As with the Neo-Platonist’s attempts to incorporate elements of the life of Christ into the new pagan reboot of Adonis, Apollo, etc., the borrowing seems to have come from the pagans, not the Christians.

As far as the date chosen (or perhaps actual) of the Nativity, I believe you are right.

But as far as a number of other practices that cultures carried forth into the observance of Christmas and Easter, they are clearly remnants of pagan faiths/cultures. Whether or not this is a matter of any importance is up to the Church or individuals to decide.

Some people feel that syncretism of these sorts of traditions are an insult to God, or confusing to the people to participate in them.

With proper teaching, perhaps that need not be so.

I have heard a lot of allegations, but when I ask for proof of they are alleging , there is never any substantive evidence. Have any of your secularist friends provided proof?

Can I ask to which pagan surviving practices you refer?

I ask because it is commonly held popular belief that because a particular practice occurred at some point in the past, and because a similar practice is associated as a folk tradition of the Christian observance of the Feast of the Nativity, that this is somehow a surviving tradition - yet there is no evidence of the practice being passed down from generation to generation.

Take, for instance, the practice of giving gifts, which the Romans did (on a limited basis - they typically gave white candles, masks, and small clay figurines) during during their holiday of Saturnalia, which ended a few days before Dec. 25. With the fall of the Roman Empire and the collapse of their civilization, we see no textual or historical evidence of Saturnalia in general, or gift giving specifically, surviving through the fall of Empire. We see the tradition arise in a Christian context centuries later, in association with the gifts of the Magi as a way to honor the Christ child, with the gifts offered by St. Nicholas to assist the poor, and with the charitable gifts given by St. Wenceslas in similar circumstances.

Giving something to someone else as a sign of affection or caring is obviously a basic human activity, and cannot be said to be either Christian or pagan. We also cannot say that such a practice in the wintertime in general or at Christmas specifically is in any way a remnant of pagan culture. We have no evidence (textual or otherwise) of the practice continuing through the centuries after the end of Roman paganism, or that anyone during that period post-Empire was even aware of the earlier tradition or had knowledge of the existence of Saturnalia generally or gift-gving specifically as a custom at winter-time.

If we see two technological advances that spring up simultaneously in widely separated cultures - such as the steam engine, say - we do not say that one derived from the other in the absence of evidence of connection. Why do we do the same with folk-traditions or religious observances?

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