There are all sorts of myths floating around about Christmas, and some of the worst come from the myth-makers supreme (e.g. the Zeitgeist sort of people). I am referring to those who: 1) deny that Jesus existed; 2) insist that all Christian celebrations are really adaptations of earlier pagan practices such as some Egyptian rites, or Roman rituals like Saturnalia and the like. It is surprising to me that this sort of nonsense has gained such a hearing in a skeptical age. If you doubt that it has gained a foothold even in religious America, check out the reaction to Bart Ehrman’s recent book Did Jesus Exist? (to which Bart quite rightly answer— yes, he surely did exist).
I suppose it is because the will to disbelieve the Gospel story is so strong in some quarters that the only way some people can exorcise those Gospel things from their brains is by creating an aetelogical myth that explains the origins of Christianity without the necessity of a real person named Jesus of Nazareth. It just shows that such people’s skepticism is only exercised in one direction— towards Christianity. Otherwise they are gullible enough to believe all sorts of things without the benefit of solid historical evidence. They have of course also forgotten that when it comes to ancient history, it is very difficult to prove a negative– prove that someone in the ancient records actually didn’t exist, or that something didn’t happen, even though there is positive testimony that it did.
The problem of course in dealing with the modern mythmakers is that there is occasionally a grain of truth in the midst of a beach full of pure sand, pure nonsense. For example, it has been argued that Christmas was a celebration cooked up to replace the pagan festival of Saturnalia, and this was why Christmas began to be celebrated on December 25th. If we are making the general point that the medieval church did sometimes try to replace pagan festivals with Christian ones, then there is a bit of truth to that.
But in regard to the specific point about Christmas and Saturnalia here are a few major points: 1) Saturnalia was celebrated during the Roman Empire on the basis of the Julian calendar, and occurred beginning on Dec. 17th, and ran through the 23rd of December. It was celebrated in conjunction with the winter solstice, which of course was on Dec 21. 2) Saturnalia’s rituals are not fully or adequately described in any ancient source, such that a comparison could actually be made with Christian celebrations of Christmas, ancient or modern. Macrobius’ treatment of the matter is from late antiquity, which is to say, after Christians were already celebrating ‘the Feast of the Nativity’.
However, when the church went to the practice of celebrating ‘the Twelve Days of Christmas’ there seems to be a few similarities with Saturnalia (e.g. a celebration of light coming into the world). Others have pointed to the gift-giving done on Dec. 22nd in the celebration of Saturnalia, or even the practice of reversal— slaves become masters for a day and vice versa. What we do not have at all in the celebration of Saturnalia is: 1) the celebration of the incarnation of a deity, never mind the Jewish messiah; 2) the celebration of a virginal conception (which despite disclaimers to the contrary has no clear parallel in pagan sources— stories of literal divine rape of a human female are nothing like the stories in Mt. 1-2 and Lk. 1-2). So where does this leave us?
Is the heart of the theology of Christmas derived from pagan notions? No, definitely not. Is the heart of Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus derived from pagan celebrations— no, for there is very little overlap, and the overlap does not include the date December 25th. If one wants to simply make the point that Christians sometimes adopted and adapted a few of the best aspects of their broader culture’s celebrations, this is true enough, but it does not at all demonstrate the notion that Christmas was simply derived from such practices. In short, the nonsense of non-Christmas deserves to be laid to rest for a long winter’s snooze.