This is the continuation of my previous blog post examining the claim that Christmas is based on a pagan holiday, showing that it’s just a bumper sticker that doesn’t really look at the information. Lenny Esposito of Come Reason ministries has a pretty thorough examination of the facts in both a blog post series as well as a podcast series. The first part examines the claim that Christmas is based on the pagan holiday Saturnalia, showing that Christmas is not a response to the pagan holiday but that it indeed has Christian roots.

Now let’s look at the addition of Sigillaria. From Lenny’s second blog in his series, he says this:

The Addition of Sigillaria

So Saturnalia was a three-day long feast that began sixteen days before January 1st. Their December was 31 days long as is ours, so that places Saturnalia on December 17, far too early to be mistaken for December 25. However, that isn’t the end of the story. Macrobius then notes that another celebration, Sigillaria was celebrated after these three days:

I think that we have now given abundant proof that the festival of the Saturnalia used to be celebrated on only one day, the fourteenth before the Kalends of January, but that it was afterward prolonged to last three days: first, in consequence of the days which Caesar added to the month of December, and then in pursuance of an edict of Augustus which prescribed a series of three rest days for the Saturnalia. The festival therefore begins on the sixteenth day before the Kalends of January and ends on the fourteenth, which used to be the only day of its celebration. However, the addition of the feast of the Sigillaria has extended the time of general excitement and religious rejoicing to seven days.

Schmidt in his article provided a translation of chapter ten in its entirety, as dates are referenced throughout. He then concludes:

Macrobius does an excellent job summarizing authorities that were available to him, most of which I think have been lost. His conclusion is quite clear, Saturnalia originally was one day and occurred on the 14th day before the Kalends January, but when Caesar altered the calendar it was extended to three days and started on the 16th, later a new Festival of Sigillaria extended the celebrations to complete seven days, meaning that the Festival ended on either the 10th or ninth day before the Kalends of January depending on how we count. Of course neither of these days fall on the eighth day before the Kalends of January, that is December 25.3

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.

In his final blog in the series, Lenny examines the claim that Christmas was based on the Roman Solstice.

Saturnalia is not the only candidate offered by critics as why December 25th was the focus of the coming of the Son of God. There is another holiday that actually occurred on December 25 mentioned in antiquity. This was the Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, translated as is the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.” It was celebrated on December 25 in 354 AD according to the calendar of Philocalus.1

The Sol Invictus cult followers worshipped the sun. Thomas Talley reports that while Emperor Aurelian did not first introduce Rome to the cult, he popularized it and the celebration day. Previously, local celebrations of Sol revolved around the dedication of the god’s temples in August and/or November. In fact, the word Natalis can mean more than simply birthday, but it may also be used for the concept of an anniversary, as Roger Pearse notes:

There is also the question of what “natalis” means. It could mean birthday; but also it can mean “anniversary of the dedication of a temple”. This seems to be the meaning for other “natalis” in the calendar. We know that Aurelian dedicated the temple of Sol Invictus. Thus we would get a festival on the anniversary of the dedication of the temple, and thus the idea that the festival was created at the same time by Aurelian.2

Tally tells us the “indigenous Sun cult at Rome does not seem to have been especially sensitive to the winter solstice or any other quarter days.”3 Also, Steven Hijmans declares that while Aurelian set the feast, it may not have been set in December until much later:

there is no evidence that Aurelian instituted a celebration of Sol on that day [December 25]. A feast day for Sol on December 25th is not mentioned until eighty years later, in the Calendar of 354 and, subsequently, in 362 by Julian in his Oration to King Helios.4

The Roman Solstice and Who’s Borrowing from Whom?

One mistake we must be careful of is placing too much emphasis on the similar sounding words “sun” and “Son.” This is a common misstep for English speakers. While the Latin word for sun is “sol, the word translated son is “filius,” breaking any ties to a play on words. Yet, Romans did hold to the idea that December 25 was the “birth of the Sun as the days began to noticeably get longer. Schmidt quotes Macrobius who states it was the Egyptians of the 4th or 5th century that developed the metaphor of the sun coming on the solstice as an infant and growing until the summer, where it would then shrink again as an aging man.5

Of course, all of this is well after the 202 to 211 AD mark where Hippolytus ties December 25 to Jesus’s birth. If the Natalis was originally celebrated in August or October or November, why was it changed to December? One possibility is that Aurelian dedicated a new temple on that day and thus they celebrated that dedication as a feast day. Thomas Talley gives us an even more interesting possibility:

Halsberghe, without suggesting that there already was a Christian festival on December 25, presents the probability that one item in Aurelian’s religious agenda was the provision of an authentically Roman alternative to the increasingly successful Christian mission.6

Of course, there’s much much more, but I think you can see that the charge of Christians chose December 25 in order to “Christianize” or even just appease a pagan populous is weak at best. If you want to dig into more of the history, T.C. Schmidt’s series is a great place to start, although it is only available via the internet Archive now. He summarized his findings thus:

  • Saturnalia did not occur on December 25 and had nothing to do with the birth of any god or anyone else.
  • A feast to Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) did occur on December 25, but the earliest evidence for it dates from the mid to late 4th century. There is no evidence that Emperor Aurelian established a Festival of Sol Invictus (or anyone or anything else) on December 25.
  • Egyptians apparently presented an infant as a representation of the newborn Sun on the winter solstice, but this evidence also dates from the fourth and fifth centuries.
  • Hippolytus in 202-211 AD set the date for the birth of Jesus on December 25, because he thought Jesus was conceived 9 months earlier on the Passover, the day in which he also thought the world was created (5500 years earlier), the Vernal Equinox March 25.Clement of Alexandria (193-215 AD) quoted various anonymous sources about the birth of Jesus and roughly agrees with Hippolytus, claiming that Jesus was born in late fall to early winter. Clement’s sources clearly seem to believe that Jesus was conceived on the Passover and was born roughly 9 months later; in fact the only difference between them and Hippolytus is that they differed on when the Passover actually occurred. However there is a significant possibility that one of Clement’s sources was Hippolytus himself because of the preponderance of possible dates he gives that fall on the 25th of a month (He gives 4 of them and then another date on the 24th) which corresponds with Hippolytus’ belief that Jesus was both conceived, born, and executed on the 25th of a month.

So the next time that you hear the claim that Christmas was based on a pagan holiday, now you know that the facts just don’t line up.