Christmas is NOT based on the feast of Sol Invictus

In another in his series on the historical roots of Christmas (see our post on why he says it takes place on December 25), Pastor Joseph Abrahamson explodes the scholarly myth that Christmas was a Christian attempt to co-opt the pagan feast of the sun god known as Sol Invictus.

The claim is that Sol Invictus “Invincible Sun” is a more ancient pagan holiday in Rome celebrated on December 25th. The claim assumes that this pagan holiday was so popular and dangerous that the Christian Church sought to suppress it by establishing the celebration of Christ’s Nativity on December 25th. By doing this, the claim continues, the Christians adopted the pagan day and some of the practices of that pagan festival to make the celebration of Christmas more appealing to pagans. . . .

While pagan worship of the sun certainly existed in Rome before the spread of the fulfillment of that promise in Christ came to the city; the celebration of Sol Invictus as a god in Rome actually came as pagans attempted to suppress Christianity. This early attempt as suppressing Christianity by means of the pagan worship of Sol is found in the Historia Augusta, a pagan history of Rome compiled in the fourth century AD.

The Historia Augusta in The Life of Elagabalus (1.3) relates events from the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus, a particularly twisted man, who reigned from 218-222 AD. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus came to be called Elagabalus after the name of the Syrian sun god, and was himself initiated as a priest of that false god. He viewed himself as the personal manifestation of the Syrian sun god. After coming to Rome and being established as emperor at the age of 14, the Historia states:

4 Elagabalus [established himself] as a god on the Palatine Hill close to the imperial palace; and he built him a temple, to which he desired to transfer the emblem of the Great Mother, the fire of Vesta, the Palladium, the shields of the Salii, and all that the Romans held sacred, purposing that no god might be worshipped at Rome save only Elagabalus. 5 He declared, furthermore, that the religions of the Jews and the Samaritans and the rites of the Christians must also be transferred to this place, in order that the priesthood of Elagabalus might include the mysteries of every form of worship. [Latin]

And, coincidentally, very shortly after Elagabalus tried to establish worship of the Syrian sun god, Sol Invictus, he was thought to be too licentious and was assassinated by his own people, pagan Romans, at the age of 18 years old.

From that time there is no mention of the celebration of Sol Invictus in Roman history until the rule of Aurelian (A.D. 270-275). Aurelian did try to re-introduce the worship of Sol Invictus by decree in the year 274. But there is no record of this festival being held on December 25th. “The traditional feast days of Sol, as recorded in the early imperial fasti, were August 8th and/or August 9th, possibly August 28th, and December 11th.”(Hijmans, p. 588 )

Aurelian did declare games to Sol every four years. But there is no record from the period or early historiographers that these games were associated with December 25th in any way. The best evidence suggest that the games were held October 19-22 of their calendar. Anyway, on another coincidence, a year after Aurelian declared these games in honor of Sol Invictus, he was assassinated by his own pagan Roman officers out of fear he would execute them based on false charges.

The earliest calendar to mention that Invictus as a specified date for Roman religious life comes from a text of the Philocalian Calendar, VIII Kal recorded in an illuminated 4th Century manuscript called The Chronography of 354. In this late manuscript the date is listed in Mensis December (The Month of December) as N·INVICTI·CM·XXX.

Many scholars through the years have assumed that INVICTI in this calendar must mean “Sol Invictus.” This is possible. However, elsewhere the calendar does not hesitate to make explicit mention of festivals to Sol, for example: on SOLIS·ET·LVNAE·CM·XXIIII (August 28th) and LVDI·SOLIS (October 19-22).

Even if INVICTI does refer to Sol Invictus on December 25th of this calendar, all this shows is that the celebration of Sol Invictus was placed on December 25th after Christianity had already widely accepted and celebrated December 25th as the Nativity of Christ.

There are many historians and people following them who will still assert that December 25th is Sol Invictus in ancient Rome. Some will even claim that another religion, Mithraism, has close connection to this December 25th celebration. In actual fact there is no ancient documentation tying Mithraism to December 25th or Sol Invictus. The Christian celebration of the Nativity of Christ as December 25th predates anything in the earliest actual documentation for Sol Invictus on December 25th.

via Steadfast Lutherans » Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies — Christmas and Sol Invictus.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    This may well be, but I have a general observation:

    What could be more Christian than apprehending a previous pagan thing – be it festival, date, gold or whatever, and “converting” it, using it to the glory of the Saviour?

    And, what could be more pagan than fearing association with festival, date, god or whatever, due to perceived influence of some religious use, which is entirely fictional?

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    This may well be, but I have a general observation:

    What could be more Christian than apprehending a previous pagan thing – be it festival, date, gold or whatever, and “converting” it, using it to the glory of the Saviour?

    And, what could be more pagan than fearing association with festival, date, god or whatever, due to perceived influence of some religious use, which is entirely fictional?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    I never minded the notion of Christians co-opting pagan festivals, and, indeed, I’ve advocated doing it on this blog with Labor Day (Vocation Day) and others. The point here is that, at least in this case, against what has become conventional wisdom, it didn’t happen with Christmas.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    I never minded the notion of Christians co-opting pagan festivals, and, indeed, I’ve advocated doing it on this blog with Labor Day (Vocation Day) and others. The point here is that, at least in this case, against what has become conventional wisdom, it didn’t happen with Christmas.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I remember that, Veith. But it is a curious phenomenon that among the more fundamentalist stripe of Christians, including Fundamentalist Baptists, as well as some hyper-Calvinists, this type of thinking is not uncommon.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I remember that, Veith. But it is a curious phenomenon that among the more fundamentalist stripe of Christians, including Fundamentalist Baptists, as well as some hyper-Calvinists, this type of thinking is not uncommon.

  • SKPeterson

    KK @ 3 – I think it is more a result of a rampant anti-Romanism that tars anything associated with “Catholic” as anathema, for little good and much ill. I always find it sadly amusing that many evangelicals want to “get back to the Church of the Apostles” unless that means looking too Roman Catholic or Orthodox, but they’ll still end up adopting the same basic, flawed Roman theological principles that led to the Reformation in the first place. In their quest for the “authenticity” of the ancient Church, they adhere to a non-papal version of late medieval Roman theology: popism without the Pope, as it were.

  • SKPeterson

    KK @ 3 – I think it is more a result of a rampant anti-Romanism that tars anything associated with “Catholic” as anathema, for little good and much ill. I always find it sadly amusing that many evangelicals want to “get back to the Church of the Apostles” unless that means looking too Roman Catholic or Orthodox, but they’ll still end up adopting the same basic, flawed Roman theological principles that led to the Reformation in the first place. In their quest for the “authenticity” of the ancient Church, they adhere to a non-papal version of late medieval Roman theology: popism without the Pope, as it were.

  • Orianna Laun

    I had learned that the date was set based on an old belief that one died on the date of one’s conception. Someone somehow calculated the date of the Friday of Passover that year to be March 25. Count nine months from March 25, and you get December 25.
    How the people who held to that theory explained folk who died near their birthdays, I do not know.

  • Orianna Laun

    I had learned that the date was set based on an old belief that one died on the date of one’s conception. Someone somehow calculated the date of the Friday of Passover that year to be March 25. Count nine months from March 25, and you get December 25.
    How the people who held to that theory explained folk who died near their birthdays, I do not know.

  • Orianna Laun

    Uh, sorry. Guess I should have read other posts on the blog before commenting. Looks like it’s already been said. :)

  • Orianna Laun

    Uh, sorry. Guess I should have read other posts on the blog before commenting. Looks like it’s already been said. :)

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    SKP – there is an element of that. But I have personally experienced the “don’t do it, it’s pagan” argument – including against Christmas tree, or comments about Saturnalia, etc etc.

    Mt favourite comeback is a quip about Wodin’s Day prayer meetings… :)

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    SKP – there is an element of that. But I have personally experienced the “don’t do it, it’s pagan” argument – including against Christmas tree, or comments about Saturnalia, etc etc.

    Mt favourite comeback is a quip about Wodin’s Day prayer meetings… :)

  • Booklover

    Good one, KK. If anyone tries to take the joy out of things, I just hand them a gift card to the liquor store.

  • Booklover

    Good one, KK. If anyone tries to take the joy out of things, I just hand them a gift card to the liquor store.

  • Michael B.

    @Klassie

    “But it is a curious phenomenon that among the more fundamentalist stripe of Christians, including Fundamentalist Baptists, as well as some hyper-Calvinists, this type of thinking is not uncommon.”

    I always felt sorry for their kids, knowing how special Christmas time is for children. They are good at taking the joy out of things. Perhaps they replace their children’s joy will a self-satisfied attitude that they are God’s chosen, and that they are going to heaven and pretty much everyone else is going to hell.

  • Michael B.

    @Klassie

    “But it is a curious phenomenon that among the more fundamentalist stripe of Christians, including Fundamentalist Baptists, as well as some hyper-Calvinists, this type of thinking is not uncommon.”

    I always felt sorry for their kids, knowing how special Christmas time is for children. They are good at taking the joy out of things. Perhaps they replace their children’s joy will a self-satisfied attitude that they are God’s chosen, and that they are going to heaven and pretty much everyone else is going to hell.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Michael B, having been there, that is exactly what’s happening.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Michael B, having been there, that is exactly what’s happening.

  • Eric Ash

    Doing some research for the Eve of the Name of Jesus, I found that the church was hesitant to have a celebration on January 1 because of its rioteous secular assocautions. Then some people say that the church co-opted Dec. 25 for the very same reason. Thes inconsistency in the logic of those who criticize church just reveals some people will create reasons to be critical no matter what.

  • Eric Ash

    Doing some research for the Eve of the Name of Jesus, I found that the church was hesitant to have a celebration on January 1 because of its rioteous secular assocautions. Then some people say that the church co-opted Dec. 25 for the very same reason. Thes inconsistency in the logic of those who criticize church just reveals some people will create reasons to be critical no matter what.

  • Patrick kyle

    Have any of you seen ‘The Star of Bethlehem’ documentary? The author uses astronomical software and reconstructs the night sky over that area of the world during Christ’s birth. What he found literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It utterly destroys the ‘pagan origin’ myth of Christmas.
    http://www.bethlehemstar.net/

    Honestly, it is worth a look.

  • Patrick kyle

    Have any of you seen ‘The Star of Bethlehem’ documentary? The author uses astronomical software and reconstructs the night sky over that area of the world during Christ’s birth. What he found literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It utterly destroys the ‘pagan origin’ myth of Christmas.
    http://www.bethlehemstar.net/

    Honestly, it is worth a look.


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