Christmas Was Never a Pagan Holiday
Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.
Around this time of year we are bombarded with anti-Catholic propaganda questioning the blessed day of Christ’s birth as December 25. This date, we arrogantly are told, was originally a pagan holiday. The Early Church “chose” it to “Christianize” a Roman feast of the Sun. According to this theory, the Christmas date was only established in the 4th century, when we have the first evidence of the Nativity being celebrated in Rome in 336. The conclusion: The origins of Christmas are pagan, and we do not really know the date the Savior of mankind was born. …
The notion that Christmas had pagan origins began to spread in the 17th century with the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians, who hated all Catholic things. The Puritans hated Catholicism so much that they revolted against the so-called Anglican church because, even with their heresies, they considered it still too similar to the Catholic Church.
… Since the Bible gave no specific date of Christ’s birth, the Puritans argued that it was a sinful contrivance of the Roman Catholic Church that should be abolished.
Later, Protestant preachers like the German Paul Ernst Jablonski tried to demonstrate in pseudo-scholarly works that December 25 was actually a pagan Roman feast, and that Christmas was yet another instance of how the medieval Catholic Church ‘paganized’ and corrupted ‘pure’ early Christianity. (1) …
The two principal claims for Christmas having pagan origins pretend that the early Church chose December 25 in order to divert Catholics from Roman pagan festival days. The first claim pretends that it replaced the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a time of feasting and raucous merry-making held in December in honor of the pagan god Saturn.
Now, the Saturnalia festival always ended on December 23 at the latest. Why would the Catholic Church, to diverge the attention of her faithful from a pagan celebration, choose a date two days after that party had already ended and whoever wanted had already overindulged? It makes no sense. No serious scholar believes this claim. …
The second claim is that the Catholic Church established Christmas on December 25 to replace a solar feast invented by Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD, the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Unconquered Sun).
The fact that Christmas entered the world calendar (the accepted Roman calendar) in 354 – which was after the establishment of the pagan feast – does not necessarily mean the Church chose that day to replace the pagan holiday. …
First, one must not simply assume that the early Christians only began to celebrate Christmas in the 4th century. Until the Edict of Milan was published in 313, Catholics were persecuted and met in catacombs. Hence, there was no public festivity. But they celebrated Christmas among themselves before that Edict, as hymns and prayers of the first Christians confirm (2).
Second, this claim is based on unsound assumptions. … Emperor Aurelian inaugurated the festival of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun trying to give new life – a rebirth – to a dying Roman Empire. It is much more likely … that the Emperor’s action was a response to the growing popularity and strength of the Catholic religion, which was celebrating Christ’s birth on December 25, rather than the other way around. (3) …
But let us leave the realm of conjecture and return to historical records. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that, even though the Christmas date was not made official until 354, clearly it was established long before Aurelian instituted his pagan feastday.
The conception of St. John the Baptist is the historical anchor to know the date of Christmas, based on the detailed and careful calculations on dates made by first Fathers of the Church.
The early tractatus De solstitiia records the tradition of the Archangel Gabriel appearing to Zachariah in the High Temple when he was serving as high priest on the Day of Atonement (Lk 1:8). This placed the conception of St. John the Baptist during the feast of Tabernacles in late September, as the Archangel Gabriel said (Lk 1:28) and his birth nine months later at the time of the summer solstice. (4)
Since the Gospel of Luke states that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary in the sixth month after John's conception (Lk 1:26), this placed the conception of Christ at about the time of the spring equinox, that is, at the time of the Jewish Passover, in late March. His birth would thus be in late December at the time of the winter solstice.
That these dates, based on Tradition and Scripture, are trustworthy is confirmed by recent evidence taken from the Dead Sea Scrolls, whose authors were very concerned about calendar dates, essential for establishing when the Torah feasts should be celebrated. The data found in the Scrolls make it possible to know the Temple’s rotating assignment of priests during Old Testament times and show definitely that Zachariah served as a Temple priest in September, thus confirming the tradition of the Early Church. (5)
The Catholic Church determined March 25 as the date of Our Lord’s Conception long before Aurelian decided to make his solar feast. For example, around 221 AD, Sexto Julio Africano wrote the Chronographiai in which he affirmed that the Annunciation was March 25. (6) Once the date of the Incarnation was established, it was a simple matter of adding nine months to arrive at the date of Our Lord’s birth - December 25. This date would not be made official until the late fourth century, but it was established long before Aurelian and Constantine. It had nothing to do with pagan festivals. …
Posted on December 15, 2010
Of related interest is the recent disclosure of (colorized) photographs of a "Nazi Christmas". The story is interesting in its own right as historical candy. It is, however, especially pertinent for this post because it provides a vivid, recent instance of the same kind of pagan revisionism of which Dr. Horvat writes in reference to Emperor Aurelian's attempts to supplant Christmas for caesaropagan gains.
Hitler's Christmas party: Rare photographs capture leading Nazis celebrating in 1941
By Allan Hall, Daily Mail Online, 24 Dec. 2010
…the Nazi Christmas was far from traditional.
Hitler believed religion had no place in his 1,000-year Reich, so he replaced the Christian figure of Saint Nicholas with the Norse god Odin and urged Germans to celebrate the season as a holiday of the ‘winter solstice’, rather than Christmas.
Out of sight at the top of the tree behind Hitler was a swastika instead of an angel, and many of the baubles carried runic symbols and iron cross motifs. The remarkable pictures were captured by Hugo Jaeger, one of the F[ü]hrer’s personal photographers.
He buried the images in glass jars on the outskirts of Munich towards the end of the war, fearing that they would be taken away from him.
Later he sold them to Life Magazine in America which published many of them this week. …
In 1944-1945, the Nazis tried to reinvent Christmas once again as a day to commemorate the dead, in particular fallen soldiers – by that time Germany had lost almost four million men in the war.
But while many Germans baked biscuits and cakes in the shape of swastikas and adorned their trees with the symbols of the Nazi regime, most still called the festival Christmas.
While there is no denying Hitler made use of Christian imagery and rhetoric [LINK]––a Germanic tradition of "militarizing" the Gospels which goes back to the early Middle Ages, as I discussed in my bachelor's honor's thesis (with much insight from James C. Russell's scintillating book)––, the point is that the dominant basis for his political vision was Aryan occult theosophy [LINK1, LINK2, LINK3, LINK4]. Indeed, there is a great deal of evidence that Hitler had much Nietzschean disdain for Christianity [LINK1, LINK2]. Hence, to say that "Catholic was a [good] Catholic" is a canard that should be put to rest. Claiming that he was an Aryan pagan may also be debatable (just as claiming Nietzsche was a proto-Nazi is irresponsible), but the point is that Hitler was hardly a consistent, honest Catholic.
A more nuanced and troubling point of debate is how the Church's teaching and witness could defend and extricate itself from the aid which strains of anti-Semitism in Christian history gave to Nazi anti-Semitism. In the same way, the question for Nietzscheans is not whether Nieztscheanism was proto-Nazism, but whether it has resources of its own to inoculate itself from legitimately being expressed and embodied by an Übermensch in the mold of Hitler. The consistent and radical opposition which the Church gave the Nazi party demonstrates that the Gospel is genuinely distinct from the anti-Semitic errors of past teachers. I do not however think Nietzscheanism can so easily be removed from the Hitler-ethos.