Holiday Harassment: Christmas pt. 1: Pagan Origins

Let it not be said that I hate Christmas. I don’t. I rather like it. However, like abortion, gay rights, and taxes, it has become something in-between a political football and a litmus test for the “correct” sort of belief (or lack thereof). In the interest of truth being the antidote to ignorance, let’s take a ride on the bus of no bull$h!t for a bit, and talk about Christmas. This is the first is a 3 part series. Part 1: Pagan origins of Christmas, Part 2: Christian origins of Christmas, and Part 3: Santa Claus and his ilk.

Pagan origins of Christmas:

First off, I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet. I absolutely hate it when I see/hear/experience the “keep Christ in Christmas/put Christ back in Christmas” crowd. Often, people who say this have a profound lack of insight into the historical roots of the holiday, and an even more profound lack of understanding about the nature of Christianity itself. On the second point, Christians who advocate that they should have some special rights to safeguard their desired way of living to the detriment of the way others want it should look at Jesus, who obviously felt so diametrically opposed to this that he was willing to die than to advocate for his “rights.” The Apostle Paul also mentioned how Christians are obligated to lay down their rights when they become Christians in order to win others by love (notice how hard it is to love someone when yelling at them or belittling them or trying to force your beliefs on them).

But i digress. To the first point, weren’t Christians were the ones who put “Christ” into Christmas in the first place? Might it be more appropriate for non-Christians to shout, “take the Christ back out of Christmas?”

While many cultures the world over have celebrated the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight), it was the practices of the Roman Empire that are most relevant to the discussion of Christmas.

Saturnalia

Saturnalia was the festival of the god Saturn (Chronos in Greek). He was regarded as an agricultural god and was thanked for abundance. However, it was also recognized that Saturn was king of the gods before Jupiter (Zeus) was, and, since Saturn/Chronos was also the god of time, the celebration of Saturnalia was a celebration of chaos, in that the current reign of Jupiter was suspended in favor of recognizing Saturn once more. As such, the celebrations tended to be chaotic to match.

This celebration lasted from December 17th to December 23rd (NOT December 25, as many misled or angry folk are prone to mistakenly say). During this time, gifts would be exchanged, merriment would be ongoing for extended periods, folks would wander from home to home, singing carols, and many would bake treats in the form of humans (Gingerbread folk, anyone?) to eat.

Now this might cook your noodle… Saturnalia was adopted in 217 BCE, when the Romans suffered a great loss to Carthage, who had a counterpart god to Saturn/Chronos named Ba’al Hammon. Ba’al Hammon, in various forms is mentioned in the Bible as Moloch (regarding the practice of child sacrifice) and the Levantine deity Dagon. Pagan indeed. The celebration was adopted to appease the god after the defeat, and thus included a practice of allowing Carthaginian slaves to participate in the celebrations.

While there is no strict correlation between Christmas and Saturnalia, a number of practices migrated to Christmas celebrations due to cultural remnants of a waning of pagan religion and the proximity of the dates involved.

There are some scattered references to Romans bringing in trees during this time, and even decorating them with 12 candles. However, this practice was not picked up by early Christians, and the idea of this lay dormant for almost a millennium …

Dies Natalis Solis Invicti

This was the celebration of the cult of the Sun. The cult itself was introduced by Emperor Aurelian in 274, and the celebration followed and was placed on the date of the Winter Solstice, December 25. This was because the festival commemorated the birthday and the re-birth of the Sun, and of course the Solstice is when the sun is at its least influential. When the Sun shines so little, yet always comes back to full power, it was said to be unconquerable. It should be noted, however, that there is no mention of this celebration being held on December 25 prior to AD 354, since before this, the celebration was held every 4 years, and not on the 25th of December, and often not in December at all.

The takeaway here is that early church fathers such as Chrysostom commented about how, based on the Hebrew scripture Malachi 4:2, that Jesus was the “Sun of righteousness,” and stands alone as the “unconquerable” one, therefore it is natural that the birth of Christ be celebrated on this day.

Roman New Year

Briefly, it should be noted that the proximity of date to the new year, also encouraged a crossover of the Roman new year traditions of bringing greenery into homes, celebrating with lights, and doing various charity work.

Non-Roman Traditions

From northern Europe, traditions of yule-logs and lighting them in a fire, while singing merry songs have made a major influence on traditional Christmas celebrations, and still do, most potently in those northern European nations.

 

Conclusion: These are the things Christians did not invent, and it would be foolish for Christians (or non-Christians alike) to pretend that Christmas and all of its practices are of Christian origin.

Celebrating a late December/solstice celebration: NOT of Christian origin.

Carolling/singing merry songs door to door: NOT of Christian origin.

Making treats in the form of people (precursor to Gingerbread men): NOT of Christian origin.

Exchanging of gifts: NOT of Christian origin.

Bringing trees into the house and decorating them: NOT of Christian origin, however, no direct link to pagan practice, either.

Charity work during winter Season: NOT of Christian origin.

Yule logs, open fires, communal singing: NOT of Christian origin.

A Date of December 25 as the celebration of the birth of our Lord: NOT of Christian origin…. MAYBE…. stick around to the next in the series….

Optimistic Chad

Chad really really hopes things are going to turn out ok. He loves his wife - with the passion of 1000 exploding suns, and is a diligent, but surely mediocre father to his brilliant and subversive children. He likes Chinese food.

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4 thoughts on “Holiday Harassment: Christmas pt. 1: Pagan Origins

  1. The “pagan origins” thing seems like a gigantic red herring. Nobody gripes and moans about their poor atheist ears being bombarded by carols or “their” tax dollars paying for a tree in the town courthouse because they have something against Saturnalia. Trying to disconnect the non-Christian trappings surrounding Christmas from Christ strikes me as being irrelevant to the issue, rather like those who argue (mostly because they’re trolling on the internet) that nobody should be offended by swastikas because the symbol was originally Hindu/Buddhist.

  2. Actually, I agree with you to some extent, Charles. One one hand, there is a lack of understanding on Christians’ part that allows them to be fooled/frustrated/angered, which shouldn’t be the case. In this instance, whether or not one of our practices had a pagan origin isn’t that big of a deal compared to what it has been taken to mean. On the other hand, ignorance can cause all sorts of damage in the hands of well-meaning folks. Of course, this is only part 1 of the 3 part series, and I expect that the next one on Christian origins of Christmas will address some of your concern.

  3. Pingback: Holiday Harassment: Christmas pt. 2: Christian Origins |

  4. Pingback: Holiday Harassment: Christmas pt. 3: Santa Claus and His Ilk |

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