Revising the Story of Christmas

It is an article of faith (an appropriate word here) for contemporary Pagans that Christianity stole holidays left and right from our spiritual ancestors, particularly Christmas.

Here Mollie Ziegler at Get Religion, a blog about the critical examination of religion-writing in the (mostly) American media, gets into some of the nuances in the process of critiquing a typically breezy seasonal piece from the Washington Post.

Yeah, well, it’s certainly true that when the calendar was standardized, there was a push for Dec. 25 as the date to mark Jesus’ birth. But was this because it was a co-opting of Saturnalia? It’s certainly a theory. But Dec. 25 was one of the many dates being used by Christians to mark Christ’s birth and maybe not for the reasons you hear.

Some historians argue — read her piece for details — that Jesus’ birth was placed on December 25th centuries before “Christmas” was celebrated. In the early church, Easter was much more important.

Now before somebody says “Yeah, and ‘Eostre’ was a Germanic goddess,” we are not talking about Germans but about the eastern Mediterranean region (and Rome) when we say “the early church.” The Germanic tribes were mostly unaware of Christianity until some converted in the fourth century, right? And complete conversion took another six hundred years.

It is the news media, not the Pagans, that keeps the “Christmas started out as a ‘pagan’ holiday” meme alive. Maybe that is more of a secularist position — taking organized religion down a notch — that provides a convenient bit of cover for the modern Pagans?

And let’s not forget another group that contributed to the Christmas-is-pagan meme — the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just today at the laundromat I saw a one of their Awake booklets, which made that very same argument, one that they have been making for many decades.


  1. Patrick says:

    The Puritans rejected Christmas for having pagan origins as well, and Reformed successors of the Puritans like Scottish Presbyterian Alexander Hislop in his _The Two Babylons_ attempted to go into detail linking Catholic ritual with pagan imagery and practice (which is probably where the JWs got it – they were roughly contemporaneous with Hislop). But, as Protestants (at least of the non-Lutheran and Anglican type) decided presents and Christmas trees weren’t so bad, what was Reformed anti-Catholic rhetoric seems to have been transformed into Secularist anti-Christian rhetoric.

    In any case, the birth of the Unconquered Sun, or perhaps the birth of Mithras, seems like a much more likely reason for Dec. 25 than Saturnalia, but it’s hard to tell. Worship of Sol Invictus goes back at least to the 3rd, perhaps 2nd, century. Plus, so far as I can tell, Constantine seemed to either worship both, or perhaps more likely worshiped both as the same person.

    • Chas Clifton says:

      Ah, yes, the Puritans. In America, however, they were counterbalanced by the Tidewater Anglicans and the Germans, etc., in the Middle Colonies. But maybe the JW’s have a spiritual tie with them.