Oh Lighten Up Christians, Christmas Is Kinda Sort of Pagan

Progressive Christians are our allies. If “Christianity” were out to get all of Modern Paganism we’d be in deep shit. We are completely outnumbered, have no lobbying group in Washington, or even a Senator or Congressperson to call our own. So be glad for Progressive Christians and all of our other friends from the various faith traditions that make up the United States who value our right to worship as we see fit.

But for all the love I have for Progressive Christians, that doesn’t mean they aren’t wrong on occasion, even the best of them. One of the best, Benjamin L. Corey, recently wrote something on Patheos called Oh Lighten Up, Christmas is NOT a Pagan Holiday, but it is, kind of, sort of, mostly, in a whole host of different ways. Christmas is most certainly a Christian holiday when it’s celebrated by Christians who use the day to honor the birth of Jesus. But most Christians don’t really make that the primary focus of their day, and most likely never have.

"Happy Christmas" by Viggo Johnson.  Notice the lack of Jesus.   From WikiMedia.
“Happy Christmas” by Viggo Johnson. Notice the lack of Jesus. From WikiMedia.

Does it matter whether or not Christmas is a Pagan or a Christian holiday? Not one bit to be honest, but I like history, and I love that there are some December traditions that are literally over 2000 years old. That some of these things have survived for so bloody long is truly amazing, and it’s worth a shout-out every year. There’s also the fact that I think The Holiday/Christmas Season is the most Pagan time of the year. Oh not every holiday tradition is Pagan, but a whole lot of ’em are, and I write that as someone who is often criticized by other Pagans for giving Christians too much credit.

The central argument in Corey’s Lighten Up piece* is that if Jesus was conceived of a virgin on March 25, he would have been born on December 25. Fair enough, the parallels between Jesus and a whole host of pagan gods has been overstated quite a bit over the last 200 years (something I’ve written about on this blog), and in this instance Corey is probably correct, here’s an abridged version of his thoughts on the matter:

“As early as the 2nd century Christians attempted to pin-point the dates of the birth of Christ and the date of his execution . . . . by the end of the first century/beginning of the second century, it was widely believed/accepted that the crucifixion occurred on the 25th of March, AD 29 . . . . .

There was the common belief in Judaism and early Christianity that saints died on their birthday or the day they were conceived. This means, for these early Christians, that March 25 was not only the date of the crucifixion but was also either Jesus’ birthday, or the day that Mary conceived him. Eventually, viewing March 25th as the day Jesus was conceived became the accepted view– adding 9 months to this would make the date of his birth December 25th.

Thus, the early Christians were not attempting to hijack a Pagan holiday at all– they just had a really weird way of figuring out when your birthday was.

Now, that brings us to the Pagan holiday that did exist on December 25th. This holiday was introduced by Emperor Aurelian in AD 274, after the acceptance of December 25th being the day Christians celebrated the birth of Christ. As Tighe states:

‘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… Thus the ‘pagan origins of Christmas’ is a myth without historical substance.’”

The problem here is that Christmas is more than just the sum of its parts. Christmas is a great holiday today because it retains bits of ancient paganism and evolved into something more than just a birthday party for Jesus. I’m sure there are some Christians who celebrate Christmas with no presents and no greenery, but I’m guessing that most do. And the problem there is that so many of those traditions are pagan. Not all of them, and I’ll readily admit that the Christmas Tree is probably a more modern invention than some give it credit for, but certainly some of them. If you took out all the pagan present at Christmas you wouldn’t have much left, just a boring Bible story.

Religions (and by extension holidays) don’t exist in a vacuum. They pick up customs and traditions that are probably not what their founders had in mind, and they absorb things from the greater culture they exist in. Christianity has often existed side by side with ancient paganisms, and as a result holidays like Yule, Saturnalia, and the January Kalends have influenced Christmas. None of the trappings we tend to associate with today’s celebration of Christmas are in the Bible. Even the birth narrative of Jesus that many Christians try and recreate every late December isn’t really in the gospels (it’s totally true, the Jesus origin story is mish-mash of Matthew and Luke, with some later tradition thrown in).

"The Roman Saturnalia" by John Reinhard Weguelin.  Like Christmas, but with no Jesus.  From WikiMedia.
“The Roman Saturnalia” by John Reinhard Weguelin. Like Christmas, but with no Jesus. From WikiMedia.

For most of its history, the major focus of Christmas has always been firmly on the Pagan side of things. Misrule, wassail, mumming, and presents all have likely Pagan origins, and even if they don’t, they certainly aren’t things found in the Bible. Perhaps the argument could be made that Christmas provides an excuse for Christians to do Pagan things? And when traditions like mumming and misrule began to decline in the early 19th Century they weren’t replaced by Christian traditions, they were replaced by more Pagan trappings or new secular traditions.

Santa Claus for all the talk of Saint Nicholas (and we aren’t even sure if Nicholas was an actual historical personage) still has a bit of Pagan in his DNA. But I think that’s what makes him so effective, he’s a combination of everything. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most important Christmas stories ever, and one of its central characters (The Spirit of Christmas Present) is more Bacchus than baby in a manger. Even after Paganism’s torch had been effectively extinguished people were still drawing from it for inspiration.

So go ahead Christians, enjoy your date, and continue to enjoy all the stuff you’ve absorbed from Paganisms past and present too. Unless you take all the fun out of Christmas and the Holiday Season your holiday will still kind of sort of be Pagan.

(In fairness to Corey after reading the comments section on his article he does admit that Christmas contains a lot of Pagan elements, it’s a shame he didn’t make that clear in his article.)

*Corey’s article was its self inspired by Calculating Christmas The Story Behind December 25 by William J. Tighe.

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