Friday, December 30, 2011

Pagan Christmas?

It's that time of the year again, when more people than usual come down with Danbrownitis, and we are reminded how the Church "stole" Christmas (and everything else!) from the pagans, in order to shore up their Constantinian theocracy, etc., etc. As a small antidote for seasonal Danbrownitis, then, I offer the following excerpts from some articles about the history of (the date of) Christmas.

1) "Calculating Christmas" by William Tighe, Touchstone Magazine, Dec. 2003.

[T]he choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals. … [T]he pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance.

The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “paganizations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the gospel.

In the Julian calendar, created in 45 B.C. under Julius Caesar​, the winter solstice fell on December 25th, and it therefore seemed obvious to Jablonski and Hardouin that the day must have had a pagan significance before it had a Christian one. But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time, nor did the cult of the sun play a prominent role in Rome before him.

It is true that the first evidence of Christians celebrating December 25th as the date of the Lord’s nativity comes from Rome some years after Aurelian, in A.D. 336, but there is evidence from both the Greek East and the Latin West that Christians attempted to figure out the date of Christ’s birth long before they began to celebrate it liturgically, even in the second and third centuries. The evidence indicates, in fact, that the attribution of the date of December 25th was a by-product of attempts to determine when to celebrate his death and resurrection. …

At this point, we have to introduce a belief that seems to have been widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ, but which … has completely fallen from the awareness of Christians. The idea is that of the “integral age” of the great Jewish prophets: the idea that the prophets of Israel died on the same dates as their birth or conception.

… The early Christians applied this idea to Jesus, so that March 25th and April 6th were not only the supposed dates of Christ’s death, but of his conception or birth as well. There is some fleeting evidence that at least some first- and second-century Christians thought of March 25th or April 6th as the date of Christ’s birth, but rather quickly the assignment of March 25th as the date of Christ’s conception prevailed … [and which gave rise to] the Feast of the Annunciation…. What is the length of pregnancy? Nine months. Add nine months to March 25th and you get December 25th; add it to April 6th and you get January 6th. December 25th is Christmas, and January 6th is Epiphany. …

Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.

And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the “Sun of Salvation” or the “Sun of Justice.”

2) "Whose Christmas Is It Anyway?" by Judith Weingarten

A recent doctoral dissertation by S.E. Hijmans at the University of Groningen (NL) takes a fresh look at … [the pagan background of December 25 and] Dr Hijmans is the first to have noticed that there is absolutely no evidence to show that the Games of the Sun founded by Aurelian ever took place on December 25th. On the contrary, no feast day for Sol is mentioned on that day until 80 years later in the Calendar of 354 and, subsequently, in 362 by Julian the Apostate….

In fact, the Calendar lists a festival of Sol that was celebrated in 354 AD from 19-22 October culminating in an unparalleled 36 chariot races (instead of the standard 12 or 24 races at this time) -- an extravagance which seems to suggest not an annual festival but a rarer quadrennial event; thus, these are likely to be the Games dating back to Aurelian. … So, if the Christians had wanted to take over Sol's most important festival, that should have been the multi-day games celebrated on 19-22 October.

At the very least, this new way of looking at the evidence casts doubt on the contention that Christmas was instituted on December 25th in order to counteract a popular pagan religious festival. Christ didn't have to trump Sol after all. Sol wasn't even in play.

3) "Notes on the Date of Christmas" by

[Citing an article by Professor Tommaso Frederici in Osservatore Romano, 24 Dec 1998:] "December 25 is explained as the 'Christianization' of a pagan feast, 'birth of the Sol Invictus'; or as the symmetrical balance, an aesthetic balance between the winter solstice (Dec. 21-22) and the spring equinox (March 23-24). But a discovery of recent years has shed definitive light on the date of the Lord's birth.

"As long ago as 1958, the Israeli scholar Shemaryahu Talmon published an in-depth study on the calendar of the Qumran sect, and he reconstructed without the shadow of doubt the order of the sacerdotal rota system for the temple of Jerusalem (1 Paralipomenon/ Chronicles 24, 7-18) in New Testament times.

"Here the family of Abijah, of which Zechariah (Zachary) was a descendant, father of John the herald and forerunner (Luke 1, 5), was required to officiate twice a year, on the days 8-14 of the third month, and on the days 24-30 of the eighth month. This latter period fell at about the end of September. It is not without reason that the Byzantine calendar celebrated 'John's conception' on September 23 and his birth nine months later, on June 24.

"The 'six months' after the Annunciation established as a liturgical feast on March 25, comes three months before the forerunner's birth, prelude to the nine months in December: December 25 is a date of history."

In other words, according to the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Sacred Scripture, our liturgical calendar is accurate:

[late] September - Zachary (Zechariah) "executed his priestly function" (Luke 1:8) according to his class. His wife, Elizabeth, conceived (the Church traditionally holds St. John's conception to have taken place on 23 September) just as St. Gabriel said (Luke 1:24) and hid herself away for 5 months.

25 March, the Feast of the Annunciation - In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy (Luke 1:26), St. Gabriel appears to Mary to tell her she is to have a child

24 June, the Feast of St. John the Baptist - Three months after the Annunciation, St. John the Baptist was born, at a time when the days were becoming shorter

25 December - Nine months after the Annunciation, Jesus was born, at a time when the days were becoming longer.

[This article, "Are Christmas and Easter 'Pagan'?", makes a good point in passing about another argument leveled against December 25:

Even the common argument that shepherds would not have been in the fields in December is inaccurate. That is the time of the year when sheep naturally begin giving birth ("lambing"), and the shepherds would typically stay with the sheep at night to take care of the newborn lambs. In fact, the lambing season would have been the only time of the year in which the shepherds would have stayed with the flocks during the night (see Luke 2:8).

4) "Why is Christmas celebrated on December 25?" by David Bennett:

This essay is not intended to address the issue of when Jesus was actually born, but rather, I am interested in exploring reasons why Christians chose December 25th to celebrate Christ's birth, although based on the theories below, it is certainly plausible that Jesus was actually born on December 25th. Basically, I want to provide an overview of recent historical scholarship regarding the origins of Christmas that suggests that the date of Christmas was chosen primarily for Christian reasons, as opposed to so-called pagan reasons.

[I]n the early Church, there was no fixed date for the celebration of Christmas across the entire Church, or even agreement as to when Jesus was born. The current date of the celebration of Christmas, like the final decision on the canon of Scripture, took hundreds of years to become established throughout the entire Church. … [T]he main reason early Christians chose December 25th for the date of Christmas relates to two significant and symbolic dates: the date of the creation of the world, and the vernal equinox. According to some Christians, both events happened on March 25th. …

There are other good, Jewish, Christian, and biblical reasons why Christians chose the date of December 25th. … So, we have multiple reasons why ancient Christians chose December 25th as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus. And while we may not agree with the reasoning behind the choice of December 25th, nonetheless, there are no pagan conspiracies at work, and no evil machinations of the emperor Constantine, just solid Christian symbolic reasoning. This is not surprising, considering Christians of the time were very concerned about the influence of paganism, and took great pains (even giving their lives) to avoid worshiping or celebrating non-Christian gods. Besides, virtually every historical and Apostolic Christian church celebrates the birth of Jesus on December 25 (those using the Gregorian calendar that is), and it is highly unlikely every Church in every region caved into pagan influence so readily. …

This, of course, brings up the issue of the relationship between Christian feasts and pagan ones, and we must ask, "is there anything wrong with Christians borrowing some practices and concepts from pagan festivals?" The Catholic and Orthodox answers are "no." Did Christians put an end to every Saturnalia custom? Probably not. Did some Saturnalia customs become associated with the Christmas feast because the dates of the festivals were close to one another? Certainly. However, Christians took these customs, baptized them as Christian, and now these customs honor the true Sun of Righteousness, Jesus Christ.

5) An astute reader's comment from Dr. Weingarten's post (above) that sums of the matter nicely:

25 Dec is nine months after the feast of the Incarnation, 25 Mar. This was specified iirc because great prophets were believed to enter the world on the same day they departed. It is thus tied to Good Friday calculation. Since another calculation identified 6 Apr as Good Friday (and hence as the Incarnation) churches in the East celebrated Christmas on 6 Jan. The very fact that early Christians were celebrating Christmas on two different days in two different regions should indicate that they were selecting the date for their own reasons and not for any retrospective modern Realpolitick.

Merry Christmas to all!

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