Christmas: The Christian “War on Solstice”

Today in my Sunday school class I decided to turn our attention to seasonal matters. Soon, the topic of being wished “Happy Holidays” as opposed to “Merry Christmas” came up. And so I took that opportunity to talk about what I consider one of the great Christmas miracles: the fact that long ago Christians managed to “hijack” the already-existing solstice festival, and turn it into a Christian celebration so thoroughly and so effectively that, more than a millennium and a half later, cultural Christians can complain about the “hijacking” or “secularization” of Christmas without any sense of irony.

The New Testament doesn’t provide a date for Jesus’ birth (although some have surmised that, if one takes the reference to shepherds watching their flocks by night as historical, it would probably have been during the lambing season and thus in the Spring). It also says nothing about celebrating it annually, or indeed at all. The celebration of Christmas on December 25th is a result of taking an already-existing festive occasion – the winter solstice – and transforming it into a Christian holiday.

And so I find the complaining of cultural Christians in the United States about their beleaguered or persecuted status at Christmas time not only ironic, but tedious and even offensive. The earliest Christians lived in a world where the issue was not the failure of salespeople to wish them a merry Christmas, but rather their own failure to participate in dominant cultural and religious rituals. The issue for the earliest Christians was not whether one could display a nativity scene on government property, but that every city where Christianity spread featured prominent displays of deities whom the Christians would refuse to worship, sometimes at the cost of their lives. That was persecution, not the fact that someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” – especially when that person would probably not be considered a true Christian anyway by born-again believers.

Since when are committed Christians committed to encouraging those without a deep personal faith to maintain an outward veneer of Christianity and to self-identify as Christians? In fact, born again Christians will happily, on other occasions, explain to those individuals whom they criticize at Christmas for not offering them Christian greetings that they aren’t, from their perspective, actually Christians. But once again the irony of their demanding that such people wish them a “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” seems to go unnoticed.

HT Jim Linville

I recently quoted Joseph Hoffmann as saying that “To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a book. And you have to forget the book has a history.” I think one could also say about this time of year “To be a fundamentalist, you have to have a holiday. And you have to forget the holiday has a history.”

So to those who are Christians I recommend ceasing the ridiculous habit of complaining about what others do or do not wish you, and appreciating instead that, for all our multi-cultural context today, Christmas still has Christian associations that will provide you with an opportunity to talk about your faith and what this holiday means to you. Very few people will take offense at you if you wish them a Merry Christmas. And if they do, that is their prerogative, just as it is yours to express your own faith as you see fit.

But the truth is that the Christmas holiday features services that focus on Christian doctrine and stories, but what the holiday means in practice for American Christians is otherwise the same thing it means for everyone else – time off work, time spent with family, and giving of gifts. While many American Christians complain about what the store employees wish them, they are there in the stores alongside everyone else, engaging in a practice that has no real Biblical roots, making purchases in the spirit of our contemporary materialistic age.

If your Christian faith is about what you wish others and what you demand that they wish you, and not also about what you spend and what you spend your money on, then I would suggest that you have only a veneer of Christianity spread over cultural values that are not specifically Christian, and which you share with most other people in your historical and national context.

So to those in the English-speaking world who consider themselves Christians, my recommendation is this: stop complaining about the “de-Christianization” of a holiday that we ourselves stole (sorry, borrowed) from others and successfully hijacked for more than a thousand years. And instead delight in the fact that, even in our changed and changing context,  you can express your Christian faith, and have at least as much of an opportunity to take already-existing holidays and customs and fill them with distinctively Christian values – for yourself and as an opportunity to share your faith with others – as Christians in bygone eras did. If you feel you are not up to that challenge, then perhaps instead of complaining about the greetings of others, you would do well to ask whether you faith lacks the depth, vibrancy and creativity that Christianity has demonstrated at other times in history.

  • Noophy

    Silly Christians, winter solstice is for pagans:)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this blog! I tackled this lesson about five years ago with a group of Middle School students. The head of youth ministries was not of the same mind set and I ended up declaring I would never volunteer with youth again. I hope your class went better!

  • http://afeatheradrift.wordpress.com/ afeatheradrift

    Great post. Loved the fundie reference. I too am sick of being hijacked by a tiny minority on the right making me feel that somehow there is this war with people pitted against each other. Funny, but you don't find that when you are out and about. History is such an embarrassing interuption to a good rant.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02142088367447485151 Brad Sheppard

    A great essay! One many Christians need to hear.

  • http://sobermadman.wordpress.com/ sobermadman

    Wonderful, thanks for this. It always cracks me up to hear an overwhelming and powerful majority complain about being oppressed.

  • stephen

    I never did get the uproar over saying "happy holidays". Unless I am sure the person I am talking to is a Christian I always say happy holidays. It is about being polite, charitable and respectful to others. I have always thought those were nice traits to have, especially at Christmas.

  • http://blog.echurchwebsites.org.uk/2010/12/04/poll-christians-persecuted-uk/ Stuart

    Excellent post, it needed saying.

  • http://donttakemyword.blogspot.com/ Scott F

    "they are there in the stores alongside everyone else"Ouch!

  • http://tomverenna.wordpress.com/ tomverenna
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    That's the one with 10% more Bultmann, right? :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16733274876782876659 Robert Fisher

    Amen

  • jax

    I am offended by the picture of Jesus fighting Darth Santa. It's as if you people care nothing about continuity! Either Darth Santa should be changed for Darth Easter Bunny, or Easter Jesus should be changed for Baby Jesus in swaddling clothes and a Yoda robe, possibly with the Little Drummer Boy as his padawan. I'm just sayin!Plus also the green light saber implies that Santa is Jesus's Father, which is either very offensive or extremely insightful…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Thanks for commenting. I realized, since this is such a touchy subject, that some very devout Star Wars fans might be offended. :-)If someone wants to make a picture of baby Jesus fighting Darth Santa in a manner reminiscent of the fight between Yoda and Count Dooku (the only Jedi-vs.-Sith scene with characters of the appropriate height and beardedness) let me know!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03127927719002627674 Nancy

    Equally ironic…the offensive notion that Islamics are intent on taking over the entire world for their religion…*; ) I agree that while the manner of the conquest might be a bit on the offensive side for the Christian & the Jew…the ideal…not totally Islamic…

  • Jim Reese

    The "war on Christmas" has little to do with religion. It is a political ploy to get Christians to see themselves as being attacked by "others." Those others, of course, are "liberals." The only way Christians can protect themselves is to support financially and vote for "conservatives." It's so transparent it's depressing that it works.

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  • Fortigurn

    There was no hijack. Christian writer Julius Africanus suggested December 25 as the birth of Christ long before it was connected with pagan festivities for Sol Invictus or Mithras.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

    This date was not connected with the birth of Tammuz. Tammuz’s death and descent into the underworld was commemorated during the summer solstice[6] [7] (nowhere near December 25), and there is scant evidence for any commemoration of the god’s return;[8] whether or not there are any references to the ‘resurrection’ (not ‘rebirth’), of Tammuz, is a matter of scholarly dispute.[9] [10]

    Current scholarship typically dismisses the idea that identification of December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth was predicated on adoption, co-option, or replacement of pagan equinox festivities such as those for ‘Sol Invictus’,[11] [12] especially given the lack of evidence for such a pagan festival on this date prior to the Christian fixation on December 25 as the birth of Jesus.[13] [14] [15]

    Compounding this is the fact that during the very time that December 25 was adopted widely by the Church as the date of Jesus’ birth, the key dates for festive activities in celebration of Sol were in October and August, not December.[16] Intriguingly, Hijmans points out that in fact the possibility of the pagans adopting December 25 in response to the already established Christian festivity, cannot be ruled out.[17]

    This date was not connected with Saturnalia. Saturnalia wasn’t on December 25, it was typically celebrated on December 17, sometimes from December 14 to 17,[18] [19] and even when it was later extended to a week it still ended on December 23, not December 25.[20] We don’t have any historical evidence indicating that Saturnalia was influential on the choice of December 25 as the date of the birth of Jesus, still less the much later celebration of the feast of the nativity which came to be known as Christmas. This absence of evidence isn’t positive evidence that Saturnalia was not influential in such a way (that would be an argument from silence), but it is negative evidence contra-indicating the theory that Saturnalia was influential in such a way.

    The date was not connected with festivities for Sol Invictus.[21] Nor was it connected with the birth of Mithras. That association was widely popularized in the 19th century literature by Hermann Usener,[22] and has remained influential ever since.[23] However, Usener’s lines of evidence were extremely tenuous,[24] [25] and modern scholarship specifically in the field of Roman religion and Mithraic studies, has debunked his theory comprehensively.[26] [27]

    __________________
    [1] ‘Sextus Julianus Africanus, before 221: 22 March = the (first) day of creation, 25 March = both the annunciation and the resurrection.’, Roll, ‘Toward the Origins of Christmas’, p. 87 (1995).

    [2] ‘But a North African Christian named Sextus Julius Africanus had a different idea. He contended that the Son of God became incarnate not at his birth but at his conception, so if Mary conceived him on March 25, he would have been born nine months later on December 25.’ , Kelly ‘The Feast of Christmas’, p. 16 (2010).

    [3] ‘while the winter solstice on or around December 25 was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas, and none that indicates that Aurelian had a hand in its institution.’, Hijmans, ‘Sol, the sun in the art and religions of Rome’, pp. 587–588 (2009).

    [4] ‘It is not until the last decade of the twelfth century that we have documentary evidence of any attempt to derive the Christian from the pagan festival.’, Baldovin & Johnson, ‘Between memory and hope: readings on the liturgical year’, p. 266 (2000).

    [5] ‘This is in an anonymous marginal gloss on a manuscript of a work of Dionysius Bar Salibi published by Assemani in Bibliotheca Orientalis II, Rome 1721, 164, cited by B. Botte, Les origines de la Noel et de l’Epiphanie, Louvain 1932, 66.’, Baldovin & Johnson, ‘Between memory and hope: readings on the liturgical year’, p. 266 (2000).

    [6] ‘the rites of weeping for Tammuz, which took place around the summer solstice,’, Prosic, ‘The development and symbolism of Passover until 70 CE’, p. 84 (2004).

    [7] ‘What is involved is a myth of a god descending to the underworld at the time of the summer solstice in Tammuz, and remaining in the underworld until the winter solstice six months later.’, Livingstone, ‘Mystical and mythological explanatory works of Assyrian and Babylonian scholars’, p. 257 (1986).

    [8] ‘Wailing for Tammuz at the time of the autumnal festival would mark the end of the summer period. Unfortunately, it is virtually unknown whether such a ritual at that moment of the season existed. Only a few suggestions gleaned from foreign rituals and cultic calendars elsewhere may show that such laments also took place shortly before the expected return of the disappeared god.’, Hemmes, Becking, & Dijkstra, ‘On reading prophetic texts: gender-specific and related studies in memory of in Memory of Fokkelien Van Dijk-Hermmes’, Biblical Interpretation Series , No .18, p. 101 (1996).

    [9] Yamauchi, ‘Tammuz & the Bible’, Journal of Biblical Literature (81.283-90), 1965; Yamauchi, ‘Additional Notres on Tammuz’, Journal of Semitic Studies (11.10-15), 1966; Kramer, ‘Mythology of Sumer and Akkad’, Mythologies of the Ancient World’, pp. 94-137 (1961).

    [10] ‘Tammuz was also originally worshipped only as a dying god, and whether the idea of his resurrection was added to his cult before our era is still disputed’, in ‘Did Jesus Exist?’, p. 183 (1975); ‘Tammuz was also originally worshipped only as a dying god, and whether the idea of his resurrection was added to his cult in pre-Christian times is still disputed.’, Wells, ‘J.M. Robertson (1856-1933): liberal, rationalist, and scholar : an assessment’, p. 162 (1987).

    [11] ‘The specific nature of the relation of Christmas to the then-contemporary feast of the birth of the sun, Natalis Solis Invicti, has up to now not been conclusively proven from extant texts, no matter how much some sort of causal relation might make perfect sense.’, Roll, ‘Toward the Origins of Christmas’, p. 107 (1995).

    [12] ‘History of Religions proponents who try to demonstrate further that the young Christian church consciously chose to adopt festal dates and practices from heretofore abhorrent pre-Christian (and even heterodox Christian) sects run up against the sharp polemics of the top church administrators of the time. Moreover, some standard arguments found in the literature up to approximately the 1970′s which drew analogies with putative pre-Christian solar antecedents for Epiphany in Egypt and elsewhere have run aground with the definitive refutation of these theories.’, Roll, ‘Toward the Origins of Christmas’, p. 107 (1995).

    [13] ‘All this casts doubt on the contention that Christmas was instituted on December 25th to counteract a popular pagan religious festival, doubts that are reinforced when one looks at the underlying understanding of Sol and his cult. ‘, Hijmans, op. cit.

    [14] ‘The contention that December 25th was an especially popular festival for Sol in late antiquity is equally unfounded, as is as the notion that this festival was established by Aurelian when he supposedly instituted a new cult of the sun.’, Hijmans, op. cit.

    [15] ‘In short, while the winter solstice on or around the 25th of December was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas, and none that indicates that Aurelian had a hand in its institution.20 One might think that celebrating the sun on the winter solstice is so self-evident that we need hardly doubt that such a festival had a long tradition, but what evidence we have actually belies that notion. The traditional feast days of Sol, as recorded in the early imperial fasti, were August 8 and/or August 9 , possibly August 28 , and December 11. These are all dates that are unrelated to any important celestial alignment of Sol, such as the solstices and equinoxes.’, Hijmans, op. cit.

    [16] ‘This means that in the early fourth century, when Christmas was established by the church on December 25, anyone surveying the calendar of festivities in honour of Sol would identify the period from October 19 to October 22 as far more important than December 25, and the festival of August 28 as far older. If the aim was to “neutralize” the cult of Sol by “taking over” its major festival, December 25th seems the least likely choice.’, Hijmans, op. cit.

    [17] ‘On the evidence currently available we cannot exclude the possibility that, for instance, the 30 chariot races held in honor of Sol on December 25 were instituted in reaction to the Christian claim of December 25 as the birthday of Christ. In general, the extent to which late pagan festivals copied, incorporated, or responded to Christian practices, elements, and dates deserves far more attention than it has received; cf. Bowersock 1990, 26-7, 44-53.’, Hijmans, op. cit.

    [18] ‘But all our surviving calendars that preserve the month of December mark 17 December as the date for the Saturnalia. In his discussion of the origins of the Saturnalia, Macrobius explains that the Saturnalia was often celebrated over three days from 14 to 17 Decemver, since the former was the date given by the Numan calendar, the latter the date given by the Julian calendar after Caesar added two days to the month’, Newlands, ‘Statius’ Silvae and the poetics of Empire’, p. 236 (2006).

    [19] ‘The Saturnalia occupy a position exactly between the Consualia of the 15th and the Opalia of the 19th of December.’, Versnel, ‘Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion: Transition and reversal in myth’, p. 165 (1993).

    [20] ‘Eventually, the carnival expanded to a full seven days, December 17 to 23.’, Littleton, ‘Gods, goddesses, and mythology’, volume 11, p. 1255 (2005).

    [21] ‘In short, we have no firm evidence for a festival for Sol on December 25th until Julian wrote his hymn to Helios in December of 362. The entry in the calendar of 354 is probably for Sol, although only the epithet invictus is used (above, n. 4), and probably dates to 354, although it was possibly added later. Circumstantial evidence suggests that a festival of Sol on the winter solstice was not yet included in such calendars in the late 320s. As the Christian celebration of Christmas on December 25th can be attested in Rome by AD 336, at which point it may already have been well-established,34 and the celebration of Sol on that day cannot be attested before AD 354/362 and had not yet entered the calendar in the late 320s, it is impossible to postulate that Christmas arose in reaction to some solar festival. There is quite simply not one iota of explicit evidence for a major festival of Sol on December 25th prior to the establishment of Christmas, nor is there any circumstantial evidence that there was likely to have been one.’, Hijmans, ‘Usener’s Christmas: A Contribution to the Modern Construct of Late Antique Solar Syncretism’, in ‘Die Metamorphosen der Philologie. Hermann Usener und seine Folgen’, (2011).

    [22] Usener, ‘Das Weihnachtsfest und Christlicher Festbrauch’ (1889), cited by Roll, ‘Towards the Origins of Christmas’, p. 131 (1995).

    [23] ‘And indeed, ever since Usener’s studies of the feast of Christmas, the idea that December 25 was chosen as Christ’s birthday to counteract this important pagan festival has received wide acceptance.’, Hijmans, ‘Sol Invictus, the Winter Solstice, and the Origins of Christmas’ (2011).

    [24] ‘That a specific cult or festival of Sol played the role in the establishment of Christmas on December 25 that Usener postulates for it is ultimately based on three pieces of evidence. The first is the date itself, December 25th and evidence that there was a pagan solar festival on that day. The second is a very late and polemically anti-catholic gloss on the 12th century Syriac scholar Bar Salibi.16 The third is an out-of-context passage from an anonymous homily of unknown date, but believed to be of the early or mid fourth century A.D. Usener and others also adduce many examples of solar imagery linked to Christ – as the true light, the sun come down to earth, the sun of justice, the true sun, etc. – but none of these offer any direct evidence of an important festival for Sol on December 25th giving rise to the establishment of Christmas.’, Hijmans, ‘Usener’s Christmas: A Contribution to the Modern Construct of Late Antique Solar Syncretism’, in ‘Die Metamorphosen der Philologie. Hermann Usener und seine Folgen’, (2011).

    [25] ‘Mithras’ birth is generally supposed to have occurred, and been celebrated, on 25 December, but that rests solely on the assumption that it coincided with the Natalis Invicti, the birthday of the official Sun god. Ths assumption is reasonable but not self-evidently correct. A valiant attempt was made by I. Toh (‘Das lokale System der mithraischen Personifikationen im Gebiet von Poetovio,’ Artheoloki vestnik 28 (1977), 385-92) to correlate other events in the story of Mithras with the seasonal cycle and hence with a liturgical year, but it was not, in my opinion, persuasive (R. Beck, ‘Mithraism since Franz Commont’, ANRW II.17.4 (1984), 2002-115, at 2040-1). More cautiously and convincingly, R. Merkelbach (Mithras (1984), 141-5) suggested several dates as potentially significant, arguing principally from the zodiacs with which Mithraic icons are so liberally endowed.’, Beck, ‘Beck on Mithraism: collected works with new essays’, p. 55 (2004).

    [26] ‘There is no evidence of any kind, not even a hint, from wihin the cult that this, or any other winter day, was important in the Mithraic calendar. Although three seasonal zodiacal signs are singled out in the iconography (Taurus, Leo and Scorpius), Aquarius, the sign that would correspond to notional mid-winter, being diametrically opposite to Leo, is never paid special attention.75 No Mithraic votive is dated 25th December (VIII A.D. KAL. IAN.). Nor is there any mention among the dipinti in the mithraeum of S. Prisca of Mithras’ birthday, though the first line of a zodiacal poem was written up on the wall, starting, quite unconventionally, with Aries, the first sign of Spring.76.’, Alvar, ‘Romanising oriental Gods: myth, salvation, and ethics in the cults of Cybele, Isis and Mithras’, in Gordon (ed. trans.), Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, p. 410 (2008).

    [27] ‘Of the mystery cult of Sol Invictus Mithras we know little with certainty, and even if we leave aside the problem of the relationship between the Mithraic mysteries and the public cult of Sol, the notion that Mithraists celebrated December 25th in some fashion is a modern invention for which there is simply no evidence.’, Hijmans, ‘Usener’s Christmas: A Contribution to the Modern Construct of Late Antique Solar Syncretism’, in ‘Die Metamorphosen der Philologie. Hermann Usener und seine Folgen’, (2011).

    • Julian

      I think his point was, all of that doesn’t really matter. There are obviously other holidays celebrated around the world in December. Christians aren’t the only ones celebrating. One way or another, complaining about people not saying “Merry Christmas” is fairly shallow and shows the lack of understanding of the world as a whole.

    • Bobert

      Nice joke post. Revisionist history kind of defeats the purpose, no?

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  • B D

    The people that are gullible enough to accept what they’re told by others without thinking on their own are the same ones that try to bully others about Christmas.

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