I have often heard (and repeated) the claim that Christmas was originally a pagan holiday. It made sense to me because it is not mentioned in the Bible. Until now, I had assumed that the claim that Christmas was a pagan holiday would not be made unless it had a factual basis.
Some people who believe this claim argue against Christmas decorations in church, so I decided to check the facts for myself. I do not expect facts alone to settle the argument. I just hope facts will help arguments to be based on truth.
I had assumed that the Roman Catholic church chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 to provide a Christian interpretation of an existing pagan holiday that celebrated the birth of the sun. Let’s break down my assumption point by point.
Did a pagan holiday predate Christmas?
December 25 was the day assigned to the winter solstice in the Roman calendar. I assumed that it would have been an important holiday for sun worshippers before Christianity, and that it was so popular that they wanted to continue celebrating it as Christians. Two Roman holidays that fell in December have been proposed as the origin of Christmas.
Saturnalia was a festival of Saturn that began on December 17. This was a popular holiday, but it was not celebrated on December 25. At the latest, celebrations might continue until December 23. When paganism was banned, people began using popular Saturnalia traditions, such as parties, drinking, and gift-giving, to celebrate Christmas. While this explains the origins of some troubling Christmas traditions, it does not explain the origin of the day itself.
On December 25, AD 274, Emperor Aurelian dedicated a temple to Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun). The Philocalian calendar of AD 354 listed December 25 as Natalis Invicti (Birth of the Unconquered) and indicated that games were scheduled for that day. Christianity was already well established by that time.
When was Jesus born?
The Bible does not tell us what day Jesus was born. However, it does tell us in the gospel of Luke that the angel Gabriel visited Mary in the sixth month to tell her that she would conceive Jesus. The Jewish calendar began in the fall, so the sixth month would have been in the spring. If Mary conceived Jesus in spring, He would have been born in winter.
Some early Christians thought celebrating any birthdays was ungodly. The question of what day Jesus was born was not important enough for them to record how or when they settled on December 25. The earliest writer to mention the date was Hippolytus in his commentary on Daniel 7, probably written between AD 202 and 211. Between AD 400 and 428, Augustine reported in book four, chapter five, of On the Holy Trinity that the belief that Jesus was conceived on March 25 and born nine months later on December 25 was well established.
Origin of the claim
The claim that church leaders chose December 25 for Christmas to discourage Christians from participating in pagan festivities first appeared in an anonymous note on a twelfth century manuscript. Though it has been repeated many times since, those who have made the claim (including me) do not appear to have any evidence for it. I will not go into any more historical detail because the journal Touchstone already has a very thorough article on the subject.
The Christmas tree
Just as I assumed that sun worshippers chose December 25, I assumed tree worshippers started the tradition of the Christmas tree. I expected to find that the Roman Catholic church created a Christian interpretation for the tree so that those who were attached to their tree worship could continue to practice it as Christians.
However, the historical fact is that Christianity had been established for so long before a decorated tree became associated with Christmas that the idea of it being motivated by tree worship makes no sense. The custom of placing Christmas trees in Roman Catholic churches started in the early 1900s. A Christmas tree was not erected in the Vatican until 1982.
The first evidence of decorated trees being associated with Christmas appears in northern European guild records shortly before the Reformation. It does not appear to have been a regular custom. The Tallinn Blackheads record that they placed a tree decorated with sweets for children in their guild hall in 1441, 1442, 1510, and 1514.
The reformer Martin Bucer placed a Christmas tree in Strasbourg Cathedral in 1539. At first, Christmas trees in Protestant homes served as the equivalent of nativity scenes in Catholic homes. The German army made the Christmas tree a national tradition during the Franco-Prussian war, and German migrants spread the custom to the rest of the world.
From these facts, we can draw the following conclusions:
- The claim that Christmas was originally a pagan holiday was made without evidence.
- December 25 is within the time that Jesus would have been born according to the Bible.
- The Christmas tree tradition was not motivated by tree worship.