The Truth About Christmas – Pagan Roots and Christianization (Part 1)

The Truth About Christmas – Pagan Roots and Christianization (Part 1)

This is the first post in a three-part series discussing the Truth about Christmas.

  • Part one: The ancient history of Christmas and how it was celebrated by the pagans throughout history.
  • Part Two: Why was Christmas banned by the Puritans and the beginnings of Christianizing this holiday.
  • Part Three: Should believers in Christ continue to celebrate Christmas?

Christmas time, for so many of us, is a time of warmth, joy, fellowship, good food, and gifts. For Christians, it is a time to remember Jesus coming down to earth as a child to later die for our sins. It is a time to be thankful to God for saving us. For non-Christians, this is a time to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the season, to relish all the holiday festivities, to look forward to spending time with family and friends, and Santa’s return from the North pole. 

While Christmas invites warm and fuzzy feelings for all, throughout this three-part series we will dive deeper into the pagan roots of Christmas.  As well as try to answer a few questions I believe we should ask ourselves before celebrating:

  • Is this truly a Christian holiday? 
  • Does the pagan roots of Christmas matter?
  • Should we keep “Christ” in Christmas? 
  • Should we celebrate it at all?

Where does the name Christmas Come From?

The name Christmas or Christian mass is a shortened form of “Christ’s mass”. The word Christ comes from the Greek Khristos– a translation of Masicah in Hebrew meaning “Messiah or anointed”. The word Mass comes from Latin meaning “the celebration of the Eucharist (communion)”.

Christmas is also known as “midwinter” by the Anglo-Saxons. “The Nativity” means “birth” and “Noel” means “birth(day)” in Latin.  And lastly, the term Yule corresponds to the time between December and January, which was later tied to “Christian Christmas” (Wikipedia “Christmas“).

History of Christmas

Medieval Sculptures on a building

Early Church views on the date of Christ’s birth

For the first few hundred years following Christ’s ascension, the date of his birth was not on the table. The Hebrews and early Christians celebrated Passover and Christ’s Resurrection. However, during the time of the Church Fathers (A.D. 100 – A.D. 400), as the Catholic Church started to distance itself from the Hebrews and their traditions, new discussions surrounding the birth of Christ were presented. During this time the Church began to discuss and search for their own ways to worship totally distinct from the Hebrews. This was done because the Hebrews were seen as totally unfit to teach and instruct the Church on matters of faith and worship because of their role in the crucifixion of Christ. 

As reflected in a letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church by Emperor Constantine in A.D. 325 during the Council of Nicaea.

We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Saviour has shown us another way; our worship follows a more legitimate and more convenient course (the order of the days of the week); and consequently, in unanimously adopting this mode, we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews, for it is truly shameful for us to hear them boast that without their direction we could not keep this feast.  How can they be in the right, they who, after the death of the Saviour, have no longer been led by reason but by wild violence, as their delusion may urge them? Phillip Schaff NPNF2-14 “On Keeping Easter

Before this time the early Christians had celebrated all of the life events of Jesus during Passover, in a time called Quartodeciman. This was based on the Jewish belief that righteous men died on the same day they were born. As a result, Jesus’s birth, life, and death were all honored during the Passover. March 25th or 28th were deemed to coincide with the Passover and thus was determined to be the date of Christ’s birth and death. 

Later, in A.D. 325 during the Council of Nicaea, the celebration of the Resurrection was moved permanently to a Sunday and was celebrated instead of Passover by the Holy Roman Empire. Emperor Constantine I did this in order to remove any dependence of the Church on the calculations of the Hebrews. He wanted the Church to be distinct and separate in any way it could be. 

Christ’s Birth Connected to the Spring Equinox 

Another reason why Christ’s birth was determined to be in the spring, was its proximity to the spring equinox. The phrase “Sun of Righteousness” found in Malachi 4:2 was determined to connect Christ’s birth to the Sun which was believed to have been formed during this time.

wooden cross on a hill

In A.D. 200 Clement wrote that some Egyptian theologians had calculated the date of Christ’s birth. 

“There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20] … Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”

New Advent “Christmas

On the other hand, others such as Sextus Julius Africanus (A.D. 160 – 240) believed the spring equinox to only be Christ’s conception date, and therefore placed his birth to be on December 25th. His reasoning would become the dominant belief, giving rise to the celebration of the Annunciation

The Annunciation is a holiday that celebrates when the angel announced to Mary that she would bear Jesus. In the seventh century, this date was assigned to nine months before Christmas, which corresponds to the spring equinox. By this time the Quartodeciman was forgotten by Christians.

(Pope History “Pope St. Soter“, New World Encyclopedia “Pope Soter“, Wikipedia “Christmas“, Britannica “Christmas“, “History of Christmas“). 

The Winter Solstice and The Birth of Christmas

As the years progress, we see a gradual shift in belief from the spring equinox to the winter solstice as being the time of Christ’s birth.

Church father Augustine of Hippo, stated that the winter solstice was a fitting day for Jesus’s birth in his Christmas sermon in A.D. 192:

“Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase. By such a coming, though silent, He urged us, as with the sound of a mighty voice, to learn how to be rich in Him who became poor for us; to accept freedom in Him who took the form of a slave for us; to possess heaven in Him who sprang from earth for us.”

Dec 25th Info “Augustine’s Christmas sermon

The Festival of Sol Invictus

For the first two hundred years of Christianity, Christmas was not celebrated by Christians. However, as the Catholic church continues to distance itself from the Hebrews, the rituals and celebrations of Christianity continue to change as well. This change is not just felt with the omission of Passover in favor of Easter celebrations, but with the inclusion of Christmas festivities. 

Many Church leaders such as Syrian bishop Jacob Bar – Salibi, German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski, Hermann Usener, and others believed December 25th was chosen because it was the date of the Roman festival Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, which was dedicated to the Sun god Sol Invictus. Emperor Aurelian (reigned A.D. 270 – 275) elevated Sol Invictus to the main god of the Roman empire and dedicated his temple on December 25th. 

Many religious writers would make the connection between the rebirth of the sun during the winter solstice and the birth of the Son or Christ.  There are differing views as to whether the celebration of Christmas predates the Festival of Sol, or if Christmas was its Christian replacement. In any case, in the past Christian leaders wanted to remain distinct from pagan rituals and traditions, however, during this time we now see them blending Christianity with paganism.

(Wikipedia “Aurelian“, Wikipedia “Christmas“, Britannica “Christmas“). 

Winter Solstice Celebrations Around the World

Many cultures had their own festivals to celebrate the end of the dark days of winter. In many areas of Europe, the wintertime was the perfect time for feasting. The animals were slaughtered, and the beer and wine had finished fermenting and was ready to be enjoyed. 

close up of snow on a pinecone and pinetree

Festival of Yule Celebrated in Scandinavia

The Anglo-Saxons and Norse celebrated Yule from December 21st (start of the Winter Solstice) through January. As part of this celebration, the men would bring home large logs and set them on fire. Feasting would last until the log burned itself out, which could be up to 12 days long. Each spark of the flame was thought to represent a new pig or calf to be born in the coming year. 

The celebration of Christmas by modern pagans is referred to as “Yule”. This ancient Yule festival may also be where we get the current celebration of “the twelve days of Christmas”.

Saturanila and Juvenalia Festivals Celebrated in Rome

Out of all the European winter festivals, the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Juvenalia are the most believed to be the origins of modern Christmas celebrations. 

At the beginning of the winter solstice, Saturnalia was held in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. In this month-long festival, feasting and drinking were plentiful, slaves were given temporary freedom, and businesses and schools were closed so everyone could enjoy the holiday.

Juvenalia honored the children of Rome, and it was celebrated, along with the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun, on December 25th. She was an infant god that was believed to have been born of a rock. For the Romans, her birthday was the most sacred day of the year.  

As we can see, the ancient pagan celebrations of Rome look very similar to the modern way of celebrating Christmas.

It is believed that Pope Julius I in the 4th century chose December 25th as Christ’s birthday, to ‘Christianize’ the pagan Saturnalia festival. As the Holy Roman Empire gained greater power over Christendom, paganism was less prominent. During the Middle Ages, Christmas was celebrated by a church service followed by lively drunken festivities in the streets. A poor beggar was chosen to be the “lord of the misrule” who would then go to a rich man’s house and demand the best food and drink. If he refused, his household would be terrorized with mischief. During Christmas, in almost a Robinhood- like fashion, the rich were expected to “repay” their debt to society by hosting and entertaining the poor. 

Nowadays we see this concept manifested as year-end charitable donations. We should always give to the poor, but there is a huge push during this time of year, that I believe came out of this Christmas tradition.

(Wikipedia “Christmas“, “Christmas“, New Advent “Christmas“, Italy on This Day “Pope Julius I Christmas“). 

Oftentimes when the subject of the pagan roots of Christmas is brought up, many believe it doesn’t matter anymore and that the focus of Christmas is removed from its pagan origins. You might say “what does it matter? I celebrate in honor of Jesus’ birth”, however, this is done regardless if the day is correct or not. 

As we have seen above, the celebration of Christ’s birth was never a festival celebrated by either the Hebrews or the early Christians. Its practices and origins as we have seen and will continue to see throughout this series, are more closely connected to the pagan winter festivals of Europe than Christ or the Bible. 

But what does it matter? Christmas is a Christian holiday… but why was it banned?

Read More

Truth About Christmas Part 2: Why was Christmas banned?

The Truth About Christmas series

The Truth About Halloween

Introduction to the Spring High Holidays

Introduction to the Fall Feast Days

Why Keep Shabbat under the New Covenant?

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