Christmas & Roman Paganism

One of the old chestnuts concerning Christmas (and I don’t mean the type roasting on the open fire) is the charge brought by old-fashioned Protestants and new-fangled atheists is that Catholicism is old paganism dressed up in new clothes. These critics notice similarities between certain Roman Catholic customs and the old Roman religion and snipe that our faith is no more than paganism revisited.

One of their favorite examples is the celebration of Christmas. These theological scrooges attribute the date of Christmas, and all its trappings–like mistletoe, gift-giving and Christmas trees–to pagan customs warmed up and served again like so many religious left-overs. The story goes like this:

The Romans had this ancient feast called the Saturnalia. From December 17-23 they partied with feasting and foolishness of all sorts. When the Emperer and his mother converted to the Christian faith, people felt under pressure to convert to Christianity. However, they knew hoi polloi wouldn’t want to give up their favorite Saturnalia festival– so the Christians came up with a solution. Instead of celebrating the god Saturn in the bleak midwinter, they would mark the birth of Christ.

It all sounds plausible enough, but like the solution to a murder mystery–the obvious answer is rarely the right one. The first objection to the idea that Christmas is simply an adapted pagan festival is the simple fact that the early Christians were adamantly opposed to paganism in all its forms. They had inherited from the Jewish first Christians the conviction that the pagan gods and goddesses were demons, and if you worshipped them you were demon possessed. That’s why the catechesis for converts took so long and involved so many careful exorcisms. That’s why the early Christians would not offer so much as one grain of incense to the pagan gods. That’s why, rather than do so, they were willing to be deprived of their property, exiled, imprisoned, tortured and killed. So we’re supposed to believe that in the early fourth century the Christians did a complete about face and decided, “I guess we were wrong about paganism. Gee, what a waste all those martyrdoms were. You know, it’s going to be real popular to adopt that Saturnalia festival, and we’re going to get lots of new converts that way. Let’s do it!” I doubt it.

The second objection to such seemingly sensible theories is that the theorists fall into the error of believing that resemblance proves causation. That is to say that if two things are similar, one must influenced the other. Resemblance might suggest causation, but they do not demand it. Primitive people may have worshipped the sun in Mexico and the Middle East, in Egypt and Asia, in Norway and New Zealand, but it doesn’t mean that all the ancient religions influenced each other. It might just be that human beings everywhere have a natural inclination to worship the sun. Just because the Romans had a mid-winter festival honoring Saturn does not demand that the Christians copied it–even if the similarities suggest it.

When trying to solve the mystery of the relationship between Christmas and the Saturnalia we have to consider not only the similarities, but the differences. The Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17 – 23. Okay that’s pretty close to the December 25 date for Christmas–but if they were copying the Saturnalia, why didn’t the early Christians celebrate the Nativity of Christ on December 17? At the Saturnalia they had a feast. Good. Christians had a feast too. The Romans gave each other gifts as part of the celebration. There’s a match. Christians did too. However, the Romans also wore silly hats, got drunk, danced naked in the streets, propped up the statue of Saturn on a couch to observe the revelries, reversed roles between slaves and masters, and put green drapes around their doorways. None of those fun activities are part of Christmas.

The most glaring difference is in the meaning of the celebration itself. If there were some sort of link with the birth of Christ you would expect that the meaning of the Saturnalia might have something to do with the coming of light in the dark time of the year or the birth of new life in the midst of the cold and dark. The Saturnalia has none of those themes. Instead, Saturn was the god of agricultural plenty, with the shadow side, (in the earlier myths) of being associated with human sacrifice. It’s roots are in the old, “Let’s sacrifice some of our kids to appease the god so he’ll make our crops grow” type of paganism. Nothing there about the light dawning in the darkness or the blessing of new life in the midst of the bleak mid winter. So in fact, about the only things that are similar between Christmas and the Saturnalia are that they both happened in December, people had a nice meal and gave gifts to each other.

Not so fast. The plot thickens. The Saturnalia may not have had any meaningful link with Christmas, but there was a pagan festival for the solstice which did celebrate the coming of the light and victory over darkness, and it was celebrated on December 25. Instead of a link between Christmas and the Saturnalia, some scholars suggest that the date of Christmas was a Christian takeover of the feast of Dies Natalis Sol Invictus–the birthday of the Roman sun god Sol.

The problem is– this Roman feast is a late innovation. In the year 278 AD (well after Christianity began to burgeon across the empire) the Emperor Aurelian started promoting the cult of Sol Invictus. There is no evidence that the birth of Sol Invictus was celebrated on December 25 until around 360 AD. This is well after the date of Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 315, and shows the influence of Julian the Apostate–who attempted to turn back the tide of Christianity and return Rome to its pagan origins. Therefore it is arguable that the celebration of the Nativity of Sol Invictus was a late pagan attempt to compete with the celebration of the Nativity of Christ the Lord–the Dayspring from on High and the Sun of Righteousness– on December 25 rather than the reverse.

So where did the date of Christmas originate? In 386, St John Chrysostom preached a sermon linking the date for Christmas to the date of the Annunciation. He does so in a way that suggests that this was already an established belief. The date of the Annunciation was based on a Jewish tradition that the world was created on March 25, or Nisan 15, according to the Jewish calendar.  The Jews also believed that a great man would die on the same day as his conception. The early Christians (who were of course Jews) therefore concluded that Jesus had been conceived on March 25. This made it the date of the world’s creation, and the start of the world’s redemption (and therefore the new creation).

It’s easy. If the Lord Jesus Christ was conceived on March 25, then he was born nine months later on December 25. The date for Christmas is therefore determined by the date of the Annunciation and has nothing to do with the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia or the celebration of the birthday of Sol Invictus.

So Christmas Day cannot be separated from Ladyday–the medieval term for the Feast of the Annunciation. While we now (sadly) celebrate New Years’ Day on the pagan date Jan. 1, it was not always so. From the apostolic age through the Middle Ages, the church continued to battle the vestiges of paganism. So right through 1752, the new year was celebrated in Europe not at the outset of the pagan god Janus’s month, but on the Annunciation, March 25.

Source: “Christmas, Pagan Romans, & Frodo Baggins” by Rev. Dwight Longenecker (December 23, 2011)

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