You Are Here The Myth of the Pagan Origins of Christmas


#1

It’s generally accepted that early Christians adopted December 25th as the day of Christ’s birth to co-opt the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Some believe this fact undermines Christianity.

But according to Professor William Tighe, this “fact” may actually be a myth.

Based on his extensive research, Tighe argues that the December 25th date “arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.” He also goes so far as to claim that the December 25th pagan feast of the “‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’… was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance of Roman Christians.”

Tighe explains…

In the Jewish tradition at the time of Christ, there was a belief in what they called the “integral age”—that the prophets had died on the same days of their conception or birth. Early Christians spent much energy on determining the exact date of Christ’s death. Using historical sources, Christians in the first or second century settled on March 25th as the date of his crucifixion. Soon after, March 25th became the accepted date of Christ’s conception, as well.

Add nine months—the standard term of a pregnancy—to March 25th, and Christians came up with December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth.

It is unknown exactly when Christians began formally celebrating December 25th as a feast. What is known, however, is that the date of December 25th “had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time (Roman emperor from 270-275), nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.” According to Tighe, Aurelian intended the new feast “to be a symbol of the hoped-for ‘rebirth,’ or perpetual rejuvenation, of the Roman Empire…. [and] if it co-opted the Christian celebration, so much the better.”

As Tighe points out, the now-popular idea that Christians co-opted the pagan feast originates with Paul Ernst Jablonski (1693-1757), who opposed various supposed “paganizations” of Christianity.

Of course, to Christians, it really doesn’t matter that much whether or not they co-opted December 25th from the pagans, or vice versa. The Christian faith doesn’t stand or fall on that detail. But it’s nevertheless valuable for all of us to give closer scrutiny to shibboleths—such as that of the pagan origins of Christmas—which are continually repeated without being examined. ​
source:goo.gl/iPZSP9


#2

Is Catholicism Pagan?

catholic.com/tracts/is-catholicism-pagan

Ed


#3

There is actually reason for the December 25 date.


#4

Winter Solstice, Diwali, Chanukah, Christmas, all share the same archetype theme, Light shining amid darkness, hope amid the despair of the long, bleak winter, miracles occurring amid doubt. To me, it makes no difference what the date is. The main point is that Joy comes in the morning, and our Hope came in a manger.


#5

The gospel account of “shepherds abiding in the fields” seems to be counter-evidence for this date, as shepherds would have their flocks in caves or other places where there was more shelter – assuming a backdrop of wintery weather that we experience in the U.S.

The bigger question seems to be why we would bother to even go looking for the date or care so much about the passage of 9 months of gestation, or other details. It seems that the basic point is that the Church observes a liturgical calendar and packs the main gospel events into a 12-month cycle, for the sake of evangelization and continuous preaching of the gospel. Once you buy into that idea, I believe there’s simply a thin veneer of rationalization for the dates and really not much else. Any intentional overlapping with pagan feasts may have been part of that rationalization, but such significance seems to have faded into the distant past. And, for good measure, the Church celebrates Christmas for an octave – 8 days, so how do we explain that? Did the pagans observe the solstice for 8 days, too? Did first century Jews celebrate birthdays for 8 days? They did observe the Mosaic law regarding circumcision on the eighth day, so maybe that’s where ‘8’ came from. But, then Easter has its octave, too.

I would certainly submit to a more rigorous explanation of the Church’s liturgical calendar, if there is one.

The Jewish and Biblical Yom Kipper (day of atonement) has been transferred to our Good Friday. we have to confess our sins and receive communion once a year, as the Jews had to fast and make atonement on Yom Kippur – once a year. so, there’s a similarity which seems more than coincidental.

We have changed the Jewish 7th day (Saturday) Sabbath to Christian Sunday, the first day of the week, in remembrance of the Resurrection on that weekday. But, the Jews didn’t have to go to synagogue or Temple every week, like we have a church law to go to Mass on the weekend and holydays.

It cannot be denied that we have adopted a cyclical observance of feast days. The worst part of all of it is the dreaded “ordinary time” moniker. I wish they came up with something less boring. My pastor has the tendency to expound so frequently “We find ourselves in the third Sunday in ordinary time,” for example. Yeah, last week was the second Sunday and next week is the fourth Sunday, so I don’t feel lost or found, to begin with; it makes sense that this would be the third Sunday, etc. It’s a statement of very little significance or relevance, to me, or his constant explanation that “ordinary time” means that we’re not celebrating something else. This is a homily?


#6

That’s based on parochialism, the idea that climate in Jerusalem is the same as the climate in Scotland, where that argument first originated.

I live on the same line of latitude and the same approximate altitude as Bethlehem, here in Arizona. The climates are very similar. I have personally witnessed Navajo sheepherders tending their flocks outside at night in late December.

The Navajo sheepherders, who face the same approximate weather as the sheepherders in 1st Century Palestine did, keep their sheep out in the winter, and the shepherds stay with the sheep at night to prevent coyote attacks…which often come at dark. I have asked real Navajo shepherds about this. Like Navajo shepherds, I would presume the shepherds around Bethlehem would have some shelters they could throw up quickly, or that might have been set up permanently, like lean-tos or rock walls, to herd the sheep into if the winds got bad. In temperate climes, like the middle east, sheep are often kept outside year-around.

Sheep actually do quite well outside, and don’t like the dust that can build up inside standing barns. Keeping sheep inside in temperate coastal climes like Bethlehem is bad for the sheep’s feet, bad for their metabolic adjustment, and it aids in the spread of disease. If you pen the sheep, you will also have to supply them with hay (which would have been in short supply and an additional cost for the owners of the herd in 1st century Palestine, who were presumably poor men), it would have been more economical to leave them outside and let them graze. The sheep of 2000 years ago were also presumably of tougher stock than modern breeds and more able to survive the cold.

Shepherds also had to stay up all night in shifts, even if the sheep were penned in small temporary enclosures or the kinds of low rock pens that one sees scattered throughout the plains around Bethlehem even today, to guard against attacks by wild dogs and theft by rustlers.

As others have said, Bedouin sheepherders in Israel are out tending to their sheep at Christmastime. The coldest month of the year in Jerusalem, January, barely gets below freezing. It might have been a little chilly for the shepherds, but they had access to lots of wool, (as did the sheep, of course) nature’s best insulator, which will not lose its insulating properties even when wet.

If you’d be okay with going out in a thick wool sweater or cloak on a moderately chilly night, so would the sheep. We can also presume that the shepherds were capable men, used to living outdoors and accustomed to the hardships of rural life, who knew how to build campfires to ward off the cold.

The “no sheep outside in the winter” argument was first propagated by an old Scottish killjoy, the Rev. Alexander Hislop, in a turgid little classic of anti-Catholicism craziness he first published in 1853, “The Two Babylons: Or: The Papal worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and his Wife”, a screed filled with hate for all things associated with Catholicism and the source for most of those crazy “The Pope secretly worships Ba’al” things you find nowadays on websites full of typos and blurry photos.

Hislop, a Free Church of Scotland Minister who had only a nodding acquaintance with history, anthropology, or, apparently, sanity, may have been thinking about the Scottish winters of his homeland when writing that. Jerusalem can get cold, but not Scottish-cold. In addition to that kind of provincialism, Hislop filled his book with voluminous footnotes (many misquotes, out of context, or simply made-up) that convinced many of the credulous by sheer volume, but even Ralph Woodrow, who traffics in this sort of thing now, has disavowed Hislop’s poor scholarship.

I’m sorry, but this argument is a non-starter against a late December date for Christmas. There are other valid arguments for a December date, based on the dates when Zecheriah’s priestly line offered sacrifices in the Temple, and doing the math forward from the Gospel descriptions of Mary’s pregnancy.


#7

The bigger question seems to be why we would bother to even go looking for the date or care so much about the passage of 9 months of gestation, or other details. It seems that the basic point is that the Church observes a liturgical calendar and packs the main gospel events into a 12-month cycle, for the sake of evangelization and continuous preaching of the gospel. Once you buy into that idea, I believe there’s simply a thin veneer of rationalization for the dates and really not much else. Any intentional overlapping with pagan feasts may have been part of that rationalization, but such significance seems to have faded into the distant past. And, for good measure, the Church celebrates Christmas for an octave – 8 days, so how do we explain that? Did the pagans observe the solstice for 8 days, too? Did first century Jews celebrate birthdays for 8 days? They did observe the Mosaic law regarding circumcision on the eighth day, so maybe that’s where ‘8’ came from. But, then Easter has its octave, too.

I would certainly submit to a more rigorous explanation of the Church’s liturgical calendar, if there is one.

The Jewish and Biblical Yom Kipper (day of atonement) has been transferred to our Good Friday. we have to confess our sins and receive communion once a year, as the Jews had to fast and make atonement on Yom Kippur – once a year. so, there’s a similarity which seems more than coincidental.

We have changed the Jewish 7th day (Saturday) Sabbath to Christian Sunday, the first day of the week, in remembrance of the Resurrection on that weekday. But, the Jews didn’t have to go to synagogue or Temple every week, like we have a church law to go to Mass on the weekend and holydays.

It cannot be denied that we have adopted a cyclical observance of feast days. The worst part of all of it is the dreaded “ordinary time” moniker. I wish they came up with something less boring. My pastor has the tendency to expound so frequently “We find ourselves in the third Sunday in ordinary time,” for example. Yeah, last week was the second Sunday and next week is the fourth Sunday, so I don’t feel lost or found, to begin with; it makes sense that this would be the third Sunday, etc. It’s a statement of very little significance or relevance, to me, or his constant explanation that “ordinary time” means that we’re not celebrating something else. This is a homily?

It’s just a recognition that our liturgical calendar is Christocentric, and ordered around the two great celebrations that recognized enormous events in His life, and thus our life - The Incarnation and the Resurrection. “Ordinary Time” is just an English usage, in Latin it is Tempus per annum, “Time During the Year.”

The need to counter the arguments of the Gnostics, who claimed that Christ was just a spirit who appeared to be physical (like a hologram), was a prime motivation for the Feast of the Nativity and the emphasis on His birth and physical nature, but the growing Christian movement by circa 200 A.D. was obviously intensely interested in the life of Christ and wanted to reconstruct as much information about him as they could - which explains the collection of oral data from people who had known him (as Papias did) and 2nd and 3rd generation oral histories from apostles and the acolytes of apostles, and even accounts for apocryphal gospels like the Protoevangelium of James, which attempted to fill in the gaps for people who wanted to know more about the events of the Incarnation, even though not canonical.


#8

I have often heard that claim concerning shepherds in their fields in winter.

However, Bethlehem is close to the equator.
About as far south as the Florida panhandle.

December would be mild. No where near what most of the US experiences as winter.


#9

“Ordinary” doesn’t mean “ho-hum” – it means “in order.” Think ‘ordinal numbers’ and ‘cardinal numbers’ (that is, “1st, 2nd, 3rd” as opposed to “1, 2, 3”). So, we’re simply counting the weeks. Give it a couple weeks – we’ll be in Lent, then, and maybe that’ll be a little less boring for you… :wink:


#10

Fr. Mitch Pacwa has been to Bethlehem many, many times, and has said many many times, that there are indeed Shepherds in the field in that part of the world in the winter months.


#11

The “first fruits” day was the second day of the Passover celebration. This is where Jews would bring in offerings from their fields and orchards. That occurred in late March, usually, so we can assume that the harvest would begin in February.

Being so close to the equator, as has been brought out, the hours of sunlight would not be a factor. Weather patterns would be variable, with a huge influence being the Mediterranean Sea and expanse of the Sahara Desert and the resulting prevailing winds.

Over a thousand years, poor agriculture practices used to supply the needs of the growing Roman Empire probably greatly expanded the Sahara- perhaps by a factor of ten.

It is very possible that the Judean land was capable of producing two crops a year, with another harvest in august-sept- in time for the feast of the Tabernacles which was the second most important festival of the Jews.

Geologic evidence suggests a dramatic change in weather patterns in the area in the 6th century A.D. which would explain today’s semi-arid situation over most of Judea-Samaria.


#12

It seems you may need to move to another Parish. Our priests make no particular reference to “ordinary time” and preach joyfully the teachings of the readings of the day. Nobody is really aware of the liturgical date until the priests show up in a different colored vestment, at which time they gladly explain the “reason for the season.” Expounding upon “Ordinary time” is not necessarily a Catholic tradition, but rather the preference of a single human being preparing a homily.


#13

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