• Richard Murff

Just How Pagan is Christmas?


Just how pagan is Christmas? Turns out, not nearly as much as either the critics or the fans want to believe. Regardless of theology, the rites of the holiday seem to be more human than anything else.


That the festival was dripping with pagan rites isn’t pointed out until the Protestant Reformation, when religious leaders and writers began to cite a connection between Christmas and the Roman winter solstice celebration die solis invicti nati “the day of the birth of the unconquerable sun.” Puritan true believer Oliver Cromwell famously “canceled” the holiday as being pagan, but he was politician, not a historian. Nor did he cancel Christmas. Parliament banned the attending hootenanny as a side-door way to label anything the Catholics were doing as “pagan.” Protestants were trying to create their own religious identity which is exactly what the early Christian church was doing when it fixed the date of Christmas at 25 December.


Let’s define our term here. The Latin term Pagus means “country” or “district.” Paganus means “villager” or in modern terms, “someone from out in the county.” Therefore, to be “pagan” isn’t a specific set of beliefs, but anyone following the old local religion. In short, there were now uniform set of rites or beliefs to appropriate; just some common cultural threads.


Like the Protestants a millennium and a half later, early Christians were trying to establish their own “brand.” To copy the existing Roman imperial traditions would have been counter-productive. In the first two centuries of the Christian era, celebrating anyone’s birthday was considered pagan. It was at odds with Christian idea of separating the sinful human from the spiritual divine – you weren’t supposed to celebrate becoming a sinful human. The life of a saint or a martyr was celebrated on the date of their martyrdom or death because that’s when they met their maker. And wasn’t that swell?


It is true that nowhere in the bible is the date December 25th mentioned. That date got fixed in about 221 AD (sigh…CE) when the Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus set out to write his Universal Chronology; a history of the world dating from the start of time to his day. Of course, he had to just guess with most of it as opposed to Stephen Hawking, who “theorized” his brief history of time. Sextus reckoned that the world must have been created on the spring solstice because, well, of course. Following that thread, the biblical Book of Genesis states that on the fourth day the Lord said, “Let there be light.” Ergo, that must have been the day that Jesus was conceived. The way Sextus had it sorted, four days after the spring equinox was 25 March. Go forward nine months and you land on 25 December.


As a theory, this is a little cumbersome to modern thinkers. The minds of ancients, however, were very attuned to the natural world and held a fascination with astrology. Not because they were sorting out their lucky lotto numbers, you understand. They knew that the sun caused seasons, and knew that the moon affected the tides, so it wasn’t obvious that the other heavenly bodies weren’t monkeying around with the world as well. Early Christians assumed that the dates of the year (despite no one had knowing precisely what year it was) followed the same patterns as the seasons and the heavenly bodies above.

Even then, the date wasn’t officially accepted by church for another century, in 313 AD. In 336, the church was accepted by Emperor Constantine as the official state religion. And that was that. Constantine, it should be noted was a convert when he did this, but probably not a true believer. His mother, however was. And it seems very likely that he both converted himself and the empire just to shut her up.


I suppose miracles don’t always involve the parting of the seas.

Constantine might have sought to replace the old pagan rites but Sextus Africanus, working a century earlier, wasn’t. As far as the Roman solis invicti goes, there is no strong evidence that it was held on 25 December. Saturnalia, the big Roman to-do, was held earlier in the month. Besides, all cultures with winters had winter solstice celebrations because a) they’d been cooped up inside for a long time and b) the days would be getting longer. Most early celebrations of the life of Christ were held on 6 January, the traditional date of his baptism. And at any rate, the Easter and Good Friday was always the bigger festival.


The presents and fir trees and lights only date back to 15th century Austria and Germany, some thousand years after abandoning the old pagan ways. Renaissance humanist Sebastian Brunt records in his Das Narrenschift (1494 “The Ship of Fools”) people giving gifts to symbolize “God’s gift in making Jesus.” They brought fir branches into the house because in mid-minter Germany, it’s about the only décor available to spruce the place up for a party. By 1605, in Strasbourg, people were placing fir trees inside and decorating them with apples. The aristocracy were decorating with lighted candles. Which is something you can do with armies of servants standing by to put out any resulting blaze.


The gift giving resulted in anticipation, because we all know when pay-day is. The fir branches were woven into wreaths and then 24 candles were added in a countdown to Christmas. This was a bit much, so it was reduced to four and the Advent wreath was born. Reportedly its counterpart, the Advent calendar was invented by a Munich housewife whose children’s incessantly asking how many days until Christmas had gotten on her last nerve.


The traditions made the jump from the continent when that determined half-pint Victoria married a German prince and became Queen of the United Kingdom and Ireland for a very long time. Albert imported all those German trees and lights and suddenly any English family with pretension had to copy the royals. It was while Great Britain was exported all of this holiday cheer when a brilliant hack named Charles Dickens more or less wrote the manual for modern Christmas. And it stuck.


So God bless us, every one.