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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Is Christmas Pagan?

A Jewish Star of David Tops This Christmas Tree
THE CATHOLIC KNIGHT: About this time every year we hear the usual misnomer that Christmas is a Pagan celebration whitewashed by the medieval Catholic Church. We hear this from all corners. Secularists just accept it as fact. Catholics, rather embarrassingly, often try to gloss over it. While Protestant Fundamentalists frequently rail against it, usually calling for either a boycott of the holiday, or else a return to the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. (For some ridiculous reason, some Fundamentalists subscribe to the notion that if a certain date happened to be used by Pagans, that automatically makes anything Christians celebrate on that same date a bow to Paganism.) It is so widely accepted that people fail to address the possibility that the scholarship behind this common assumption might be flawed -- seriously flawed.

I submit to you that everything you've heard about the supposed "Pagan origin" of Christmas is false.  It is much hyperventilation over nothing really. Not only is it false, but it is based on such poor scholarship that it ought to be embarrassing to anyone who embraces it.  Sadly, it would seem the whole modern world has embraced this error, a serious error, which ought to give us some pause.

It's time to learn some real history....

The idea that the celebration of Christmas originated from Pagan origin comes from two 18th century scholars. The first was a German Protestant named Paul Ernst Jablonski. He was the one who first put forward the notion that the celebration of December 25th was one of the many Pagan influences of the Church of Rome (Catholicism) on Christianity. The second was a Catholic Benedictine monk named Dom Jean Hardouin who, in response to Jablonski, tried to show that while the Church may have adopted a pagan celebration of December 25th, it did so without compromising the integrity of the gospel. Both men were wrong. Jablonski erred in his theory that the Pagan December 25 pre-dated Christian celebrations, and Hardouin erred in assuming Jablonski's date assumption was correct in the first place. From these two catastrophic errors, the whole modern world has come to believe that Christmas was originally a Pagan celebration co-opted by the medieval Church.

The controversy surrounds an event that happened in the late 3rd century (AD 274) when the Pagan Roman Caesar Aurelian decreed that December 25th would mark the celebration of the 'Feast of the Unconquered Sun' god (or 'Sol Invictus'), noting the rise of the sun's ecliptic after the winter solstice (December 21 - 23).  Now, the sun worshiping cult can be traced in Rome back to about AD 158.  However, the marking of the summer and winter solstices had no significant relevance to this Roman cult at that time. Instead, the dates of August 9th and August 28th held more relevance, depending on what clan of the cult one followed. The marking of equinoxes and solstices had little relevance to early Roman sun worship. That was a job for astrologers who operated from a completely different religious perspective that had nothing to do with sun worship. So according to the ancient records anyway, Roman sun worshipers had no particular interest in December 25th, or the winter solstice for that matter, before AD 274.

In contrast however, the date of December 25th did hold some religious significance to Jewish converts to Christianity during antiquity. While it is true that we are currently unable to find evidence of Roman Christians celebrating December 25th as the date of the Lord's nativity until AD 336, there is some evidence that Jewish Christians in Rome held that date in high significance as far back as the early 2nd century (AD 100's), and there were some minor celebrations going on for a different reason.

Let's begin with the ancient Christian community in Rome, which had a fairly sizable Jewish convert population for some time. These Jewish converts to the Christian faith were accustomed to celebrating the Jewish Feast of Dedication (or Hanukkah), which early Gentile Christians certainly would not have had any problem celebrating with them, since the Scriptures record that Jesus himself kept this feast (John 10:22-23). However, in the years following the forced separation of Christianity from Judaism and the fall of the Second Temple (AD 70), Jewish Christians would have found themselves increasingly isolated and alienated from the larger Jewish community, and many of these Jewish Christians were "put out of the synagogues" anyway. Jews used a complicated lunar calendar in which the months never coincided with the civil calendar commonly used in the Roman Empire during that time. So Jewish Christians living outside of the Holy Land, would have found themselves alienated from all Jewish times and seasons once they were "put out of the synagogues" (Jewish excommunication). Thus early Jewish Christians found themselves completely immersed in a civil culture that had no connection to the Jewish calendar whatsoever, and any attempt to calculate the times and seasons among themselves would have resulted in endless debates and disputes between them. So they did what any Jew would do in a similar situation. They assimilated into the prevailing culture, but kept their distinctively Jewish identity and customs. Because they were believers in Jesus Christ however, they did so in a Christian context.

Jews always marked the 25th day of the winter month of Kislev as the start of the eight-day Feast of Hanukkah. Because they no longer had access to the Jewish lunar calendar, having been "put out of the synagogue," they simply observed the 25th day of the month that most closely aligned with the winter month of Kislev. That month on the Roman (Julian) calendar is December.  So for Christians of Jewish ancestry in ancient Rome, December 25th became of significant importance as the beginning of the Festival of Dedication, in which Jews remember the light that came into the Second Temple after the Maccabean Revolution in BC 167 - 160.  From a Jewish Christian perspective, this would have taken on even more significance, marking the coming of The Light of God (Jesus Christ) into the Temple as well (John 10:22-23).  However, the Jewish Christians were about to get a surprise from the Gentile Christians that would make their celebration even more significant.

The early Church was preoccupied with debates and disputes over the proper time to celebrate not the birth, but the death and resurrection, of Jesus Christ.  Again, the problem goes back to the Jewish calendar.  Christianity had been forcibly ejected from Judaism.  This is not because Christians rejected Jews.  Quite the opposite really.  It was the Jewish leaders who rejected Christians, telling them that by following Jesus of Nazareth they had apostatized themselves from Judaism.  The acceptance of uncircumcised Gentiles into the Christian communities just exacerbated the situation.  Essentially, the early Christians were rejected by the larger Jewish population and told they no longer had any connection to the Jewish faith and religion whatsoever.  They were all "put out of the synagogue" so to speak, many of which having never been granted admission in the first place, in what amounted to a full scale mass excommunication from Judaism and all things Jewish.  It was this ejection from Judaism that led to the Roman persecution of Christians in the first place.  So long as Christianity was considered a Jewish sect, Christians were under an accommodation made between the Jewish leaders and the Roman Empire, that exempted them from having to participate in emperor worship.  (Jewish leaders had for centuries agreed to make sacrifices to the Jewish God Yahweh on behalf of Caesar, and pray for Yahweh to bless his rule, rather than actually worship Caesar as everyone else was required to.  Because such action guaranteed Jewish allegiance to Rome, there was no need to force the emperor worship cult on the Jews.)  However, as Christians were ejected from all things Jewish, the Pharisees made arguments before Roman authorities that Christians could no longer enjoy the exemptions afforded to Jews.  Thus, when Rome finally agreed that Christians were no longer Jewish (AD 67), the Christians were then required to worship Caesar.   When they refused, they were tortured and put to death in the circuses of Rome.  This Roman persecution of Christians continued from the late 1st century, until the Edict of Milan in AD 312. 

In addition to this ongoing Roman persecution, ancient Christians were confronted with a problem created by no longer having access to the Jewish calendar.  The date of the Passover could no longer be accurately projected, thus the dates marking the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ could not longer be accurately projected either.   No longer having reliable access to the Jewish calendar, ancient Christians set out to create their own method of calculating the time of the Passover, and thus projecting the dates of Good Friday and Easter (Pasch) Sunday.  Naturally there was a significant amount of dispute over this, especially between the Eastern and Western Christians, but in the 2nd to 3rd centuries (AD 100 through 300), there was a consensus among Roman Christians that March 25th marked the actual date of Christ's crucifixion according to the Roman (Julian) calendar.  Later research would reveal this to be impossible, but for those early days of the Church, that was the consensus among Christians living in and around Rome. 

There is another dimension we must add to this here.  It is called the 'integral age.'  Here we have yet another example of ancient Jewish influence on early Christianity.  While such a belief is found nowhere in the Scriptures, it was widely held by ancient Jews that great prophets died on the same date as either their birth or conception.  So according to this extra-biblical JEWISH TRADITION, which was accepted by early Christians (though it was never required as an article of faith), Jesus being the greatest of all Jewish prophets, must have died on the same date on which he was originally conceived in the womb of his mother -- Mary.  So March 25th came to be assigned not only as Good Friday (which rarely fell on a Friday actually) but also the date of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced the coming of Christ to the Virgin Mary, wherein she accepted her destiny and conceived Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  March 25th is to this day marked as the Feast of the Annunciation in the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church.  Even though this date was determined by flawed calendar calculations coupled with extra-biblical Jewish traditions, it should be taken as the historical reason for the selection of this date as the Feast of the Annunciation.   It should not be taken as the literal date in which it actually happened.   There is no way we can know the actual literal date of Christ's conception.  Every theory out there is just speculation.  Still, the early Christians in and around Rome were satisfied with this date, and there is evidence that many Christians accepted it as both the Annunciation and Good Friday throughout various regions of the Roman Empire.

Okay, so now we have the date of Christ's conception and death, which was accepted by many early Christians from the 2nd to 3rd centuries.  The actual date of Christ's death would be recalculated in later centuries much more accurately, but March 25th would remain as the accepted date of Christ's conception in later centuries, as by that time the Jewish tradition of the "integral age" had fallen into obscurity.  To this day, March 25th remains the commonly accepted date of Christ's conception, if for no other reason than tradition's sake, and that is why we celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th.  Just count exactly nine months from the traditional date observed as Christ's conception (March 25th) and you land on the 25th day of December, which from the fourth century (AD 300s) onward was marked as the traditional date observed as Christ's birth -- the Feast of the Nativity.  Of course, this worked out quite well for the Jewish Christians, particularly those living in Rome, because that date happened to coincide exactly (coincidence or providence?) with the beginning of the Jewish Christian observance of Hanukkah they had been celebrating on December 25th for a couple hundred years already.  Now the Jewish Christians living in Rome were not only celebrating the coming of the Light of God (Jesus Christ) into the Second Temple (John 10:22-23) along with remembrance of the light that entered during the Maccabean Revolution, but December 25th now marked the coming of the Light of God into the whole world at his birth!  Naturally, this added significance for this date to Gentile Christians as well, who were keen on celebrating birthdays, and in all likelihood the growing observance of December 25th among Christians in Rome was enough for the Pagan Caesar Aurelian to take notice of it in AD 274.  Thus, seeing how closely this celebration was in proximity to the winter solstice, he tried to trump it with his Pagan Feast of Sol Invictus.  The observance of December 25th was not a Pagan celebration hijacked by Christians as theorised by Jablonski and Hardouin in the 18th century, but rather the other way around.  It was a growing Christian celebration that the Pagan Emperor attempted to hijack instead, in his vain attempt to reunify the crumbling Pagan religions of Rome.  His attempted Feast of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), which marked the close of a winter solstice that Roman sun worshippers never cared about prior to his decree, was a miserable failure.  Basically, it was a flop!  The cult (and the empire) went extinct sometime in the 5th century.  By that time Christianity had spread throughout all the known world, and would soon come to power as Christendom, the prevailing governance of all Europe during the Middle Ages.

So that is how the date for Christmas (December 25th) came about.  The Octave of Christmas, on the Roman Catholic calendar, which spans from December 25th to January 1st, ends with the beginning of the civil new year, and is a tribute to the contribution made by the eight-day festival by early Jewish Christians.   In time the Jewish population of the early Church faded away, and with them the Jewish origins of Christmas fell into obscurity.  Hints and clues of this have remained with us to this day, but they are veiled by a general lack of historical knowledge.  Later, the Christmas festival was expanded to encompass a full twelve days, which came to be called Christmastide or the 'Season of Christmas,' marking the time between the Feast of the Nativity (December 25th) and the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th), commemorating the visit of the wise men (magi) from the East.  In the West, the emphasis for Christmastide has always been on the first day of the twelve-day festival -- the Feast of the Nativity (December 25th).  While in the East, the emphasis has always been on the last day of the twelve-day festival -- the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th).

In the Western world, other traditions and customs developed over the centuries.  Most of them are actually Protestant in origin, but equally enjoyed by Catholics.  The Christmas tree comes from Germany, particularly from the Protestant founder Martin Luther.  Yule logs and mistletoe likely come from northern European folk customs.  Some may perhaps be Pagan in origin, but have since lost their Pagan meaning.  These things have little significance in the modern celebration of Christmas anyway.  Of course the legends of Santa Claus originated with the Catholic Saint Nicholas, who is the patron saint of sailors and children.  The story of his life has been embellished with legends and myths from all over the world, resulting in the Santa Claus traditions we are familiar with today.  Much of that was commercialised in the United States in the early 20th century.

So in answer to the above question.  No, Christmas is not Pagan.  Far from it really, but it seems that some people are hell bent on finding something Pagan about it, regardless if it is true or historically accurate.  So have a Happy Advent and a Merry Christmas everyone!

9 comments:

Ryan said...

Thank you for a succinct and proper summary. The Pope recently commented on the connection between December 25th and the messianic expectations associated with Hanukkah in one of his Advent/Christmas collections. Alas, the original scholarship is in German, and I've yet to find an English translation.

As for the Christmas tree, Luther certainly gets credit for lighting the first tree, but evergreens were common to winter festivals since pre-Christian times; and I'd always heard St. Boniface credited with felling Thor's Oak and proclaiming (to paraphrase) "You see that Thor is fallen, but Christ is ever green!" Then red balls and Communion wafers were placed in evergreen trees to represent the trees of Eden during the biblical plays of the Christmas season, leading to Christmas ornaments. Tree, ornaments, lights -- one symbol, three origins!

docfrey said...

Kudos again Sir Knight, on your scholarly insights. I would only add that Christmas has been "re paganized" due to the orgy of shopping, materialism, totally non-Christmas "greetings" songs etc. We have utter fools like RI Gov Chaffee choking on calling it a "Christmas" tree, etc. Somehow, the church needs to re-claim its own feast and, as it did in the past, throw the pagans out into the darkness. Pete Frey

Kurt said...

Good job!

Prince Ire said...

I'm currently having some debates with a fundamentalist about this. Could you tell me what scources you used so that I can cite them?

Catholic Knight said...

Multiple sources. It will take me some time to look up again. As for debating with Fundamentalists on this issue, don't bother. You won't make any progress on this issue. The point of this article was not to convince Fundamentalists, who cannot be convinced, but to keep Fundamentalists from spoiling your Christmas celebrations. The article is for you, not for them.

Steve C said...

Fr Buckley, FSSP has a great write up in the monthly FSSP newsletter (which is free) on the date & place of Christmas. Great article that you would enjoy as well, Sir Knight.

Steve C said...

Fr Buckley, FSSP has a great write up in the monthly FSSP newsletter (which is free) on the date & place of Christmas. Great article that you would enjoy as well, Sir Knight.

Confederate Papist said...

Great work as usual TCK!!

Deo Vindice and Merry Christmas!

Promeet said...

This is an interesting article. EWTN describes how Christmas was used to erase traces of the Saturnalia celebrations, and it certainly worked. Over a period of 2000 years, lines demarcating fact and fiction tend to get blurred so it's important to remember that "tradition" does not equal "fact."