Is Christmas just a pagan festival reimagined? Was Jesus really born on December 25th? Where do we even get that idea from – it isn’t in the Bible! Where do we get the idea of Christmas trees and gift-giving from anyway? Should Christians celebrate Christmas, if it is pagan? If Christmas is just a festival borrowed from paganism does that undermine the historicity of Jesus?
Two claims are often made to support the idea that Christmas is borrowed from pagan festivals: 1) that Christmas is stolen from the festival Saturnalia, a gift-giving festival in honour of the Roman god Saturn, and 2) that Christmas is borrowing from the ancient idea of Sun worship, which was supposedly celebrated on December 25th with the festival Sol Invictus.
- Did Christians borrow from Saturnalia?
Saturnalia is a festival that has changed over the years. It was originally just a 2 day affair from 19-21 December, but eventually became a 7 day one, running from December 17-23. If Christmas is borrowed from Saturnalia, Christians didn’t do a very good job stealing the festival – they got the dates wrong! Our best source for exploring the festival Saturnalia is Macrobius, and he doesn’t mention the dates being changed to the 25th of December. Plus, no early Christian authors note a connection between Saturnalia and the birth of Jesus. Finally, the idea of gift-giving isn’t exactly unique to Saturnalia – the wise men in Scripture gave Jesus gifts, after all. So the idea that Christmas is a Christmas reinvention of Saturnalia is seriously problematic. Of course, that doesn’t stop the claim being repeated in millions of places across the world at this time of the year.
- Did Christians borrow from Sol Invictus?
The claim is this: Sun worship predated Christianity, and as Christianity grew it saw the pagan festival as a threat. So Christians turned the festival into their own and used it to convert pagans by letting them continue their pagan ways. Is this true?
A significant amount of evidence seems to say no. Firstly, this was happening when Christians weren’t heavily borrowing from pagan traditions in so obvious a manner. Secondly, Sol Invictus was (possibly) moved to December 25 around 354 AD (if even it was), so it actually post-dates the Christian view of connecting December 25 to Jesus’ birth. Thirdly, it seems more likely paganism was actually trying to subvert the Christian holiday.
Even if Christianity did borrow from pagan mythology, the way Christmas is celebrated today isn’t done to celebrate paganism. It’s to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Culture changes over time, and that changes how we view different cultural practices. Even if gift-giving was originally a pagan practice (and I don’t think it was), today Christians see gift-giving as a way of recognising the ultimate gift Jesus has given us. The meaning associated with the practice has changed – and that’s fine. But all that being said, the question still remains:
Where does December 25 come from?
Church tradition believed Jesus was conceived March 25. Tertullian, the early church Father, had the bright idea of connecting that to the birth cycle of Mary, so he added 9 months to that date, and came up with the date of December 25 to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
One of the reasons we celebrate Jesus’ birth likely comes from an early document called the Apostolic Confessions. The Apostolic Confessions were written around 380 AD and was a guide to doctrine and worship loosely connected to the Apostles – and it mentions celebrating Jesus’ birth twice (Section 4, Part XXXIII; Section 3, Part XIII).
Why celebrate it?
Even if some aspects of Christmas have been influenced by paganism at points through history, its origin is pretty clearly Christian. Even today, where Christmas is hyper-commercialised and culture is increasingly trying to make Christmas religion-neutral, the birth of Jesus is still something worth celebrating. The day after tomorrow (or tomorrow, if you’re back in Australia), we celebrate that God so loved us he took on human flesh. That rather than standing far off, transcendent and aloof, God entered the human race and experienced the suffering and pain that we as humans experience. If you believe that that’s true (and I have good reasons to believe it is!), it’s definitely something worth celebrating.
Merry Christmas Eve/Eve everyone,
 The Saturnalia. Macrobius, Ambrosius Aurelius Theodosius.; Davies, Percival Vaughan. Columbia University Press, 1969.
 Hijmans, Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome [diss., University of Groningen 2009], p. 588.
 Tertullian, Adversus Iudaeos, p. 8.