It’s a common claim that Christmas is based on a Pagan holiday. The most common claim is that it’s based on the Roman holiday Saturnalia. But is it really true or is it just a bumper sticker rebuttal that doesn’t really look at the information? Lenny Esposito of Come Reason ministries has both a blog post series as well as a podcast series that looks at the information. I think it’s a pretty thorough examination of the facts, enough so that I tend to share this information every year on my social media pages. Now that I’m blogging, and because it’s now officially the Christmas season, I think it’s a relevant blog post topic.
In his first blog of this series, he says this:
Christmas is a much-beloved holiday, celebrated by billions of people across the globe. In the U.S. Alone, the Pew Center reports that nearly 96% of the population celebrates Christmas, including eight out of ten non-Christians, including atheists, agnostics, and those who have no faith commitment.1 However, Christmas is also a uniquely Christian holiday; its core message is about a personal God taking humanity upon Himself and stepping into the world to redeem sinful human beings who could never redeem themselves. The Christian message is inescapable.
I believe the love of Christmas coupled with the loathing of Christianity is one reason why atheists continue to repeat the claim that Christmas is a repurposing of a pagan Roman holiday. Two of the most popular pagan holidays put forth are the celebration of Saturnalia, which honored the Roman god Saturn, or the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, that is the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.” Both of these celebrations were held in the second half of December, making them somewhat close to Christmas.
Looking at the History of Christmas
The claim that the roots of Christmas are pagan is one I hear over and over again, especially in December. The idea isn’t even new. The New England Puritans, who valued work more than celebration, taught such.2Puritan preacher Increase Mather preached that “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that ‘Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian.'”3
When one digs into the actual history however, a much different picture arises. There are two ways to approach the question: one is to see how December 25 became associated with the Nativity, which is how the early church would have referred to the day of Christ’s birth. The other one is to look at the celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Either approach shows the dubious nature of the claim that Christmas has pagan roots.
Much of the thrust of the “pagan Christmas” claim rests on the idea of a Christianized Rome trying to convert a populace that wouldn’t want to give up its feast traditions, akin to the practice of churches celebrating a “Harvest Festival” instead of Halloween. Yet, scholars like Yale University’s T.C. Schmidt are finding the marking of December 25 to go much earlier in the Christian history.
When translating Hippolytus’ Commentary on Daniel, written just after AD 200, Schmidt notes that five of the seven manuscripts contain December 25 as the date for Jesus’ birth and another offers the 25th of either December or March.4 Clement of Alexandria in this same time offers the date of March 25 as the date of the incarnation, that is the conception of Jesus, in his Stromata (1.21.145-146).5 Both works tie the idea that Jesus’s death would have happened on the same day as his conception.
Christmas and Easter are Linked
This is the key to the December 25th date. As Thomas Tulley works out in his book The Origins of the Liturgical Year, there was a belief within the early church that the date of the death of Jesus would also reflect either his birth or his conception.6 Augustine wrote of this, saying “For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”7
St. John Chrysostom in his writings goes ever further by noting that the Angel Gabriel’s announcement of Mary’s conception happened while Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Luke 1:26). Chrysostom argues that Zechariah’s service was the Day of Atonement, thus making the conception of John the Baptist happen in the fall. Add six months and Jesus’s conception lands in the spring, e.g March 25. I don’t know that this calculation is historically accurate, but it does show how much the early church tied the events together. The idea of randomly choosing a pagan date seems a pretty big stretch.
Here’s the thing. If Christians were recognizing the birth of Christ by the beginning of the third century, does it make sense to think that this was a fourth century invention to sway the Roman populous over to Christianity? Christianity was gaining ground in the time of Clement, but it was by no means out from under the shadow of persecution. It also wasn’t borrowing much from pagan customs at the time. So why believe they would do so for this date?
In his next blog in the series, he continues, by looking at the date of Saturnalia and comparing it to the date of Christmas, and shows how it doesn’t line up.
Roman Time and Saturnalia
Before we get into the texts discussing timing, it is important to understand how Romans referenced time. Unlike modern times, whereby we number every day, the Romans divided a month into three parts: the first of a month, known as the Kalends, the middle or Ides of a month (as in “Beware the Ides of March” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar), and the space in between them known as the Nones. Other dates were referenced as before these three points, so the 25th of December would be eight days before the Kalends of January.1
When studying the ancient reference to Saturnalia, a primary source we have is written by the Roman Macrobius , who lived in the fifth century. His work Saturnalia provides much of the details of the origin stories of the celebration as well as its customs. Ancient texts scholar T.C. Schmidt highlighted this passage from Saturnalia Book 1, chapter 10 giving the dates of the celebration:
Our ancestors restricted the Saturnalia to a single day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, but, after Gaius Caesar had added two days to December, the day on which the festival was held became the sixteenth before the Kalends of January, with the result that, since the exact day was not commonly known—some observing the addition which Caesar had made to the calendar and others following the old usage —the festival came to be regarded as lasting for more days than one.
And yet in fact among the men of old time there were some who supposed that the Saturnalia lasted for seven days…
[But] one can infer, then, from all that has been said, that the Saturnalia lasted but one day and was held only on the fourteenth day before the Kalends of January; it was on this day alone that the shout of “Io Saturnalia” would be raised, in the temple of Saturn, at a riotous feast. Now, however, during the celebration of the Saturnalia, this day is allotted to the festival of the Opalia, although the day was first assigned to Saturn and Ops in common.2
He concludes with:
The Dates Don’t Fit
Remember, Macrobius was writing in the fifth century AD and we haveChristmas sermons from John Chrysostom preached on December 25th from a century earlier. Yet the dates don’t correspond. If Christmas was create to supplant Saturnalia, the Christians would have chosen December 17th. Add to that the references I noted yesterday about the December 25th date stretching all the way back to A.D. 200 and you have a very real dating problem with Saturnalia being the origin date for Christmas.
Imagine a modern church seeking to replace Halloween celebrations by having a Harvest festival on November 8. It wouldn’t work! People could celebrate one and then attend the other. The concept of substitution would be fairly ineffective.
This shows that the date of Saturnalia, which is the most common pagan holiday that Christmas is supposed to have copied, doesn’t work. It doesn’t line up.
In part 2, I finish covering Lenny’s thorough examination of the date of Christmas, which will cover the addition of Sigillaria as well as the winter solstice.