Have Yourself a Very Pagan Christmas! (not)

angry atheism history Theology / Biblical Studies

It’s that time of year. Christmas is just days away, and I’m pleasantly surprised our media in New Zealand hasn’t trotted out the same “scholars” as last time to break the scandalous story that… I don’t know, Jesus never really existed (yawn), Nazareth didn’t exist (uh huh), Israel never existed, Jesus was a gay feminist or something equally likely.

One reliable Christmas theme is that really, Christmas isn’t Christian in origins. You’ll hear things like:

“Someone keeps putting up “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Christ is the reason” signs all around my town. I’m guessing they don’t know about the celebration’s pagan roots.”

That’s the caption that was attached to this “pagan traditions” picture. If you do start hearing this sort of things from those heathen carollers of the internet, this year give the gift of knowledge.

“Christmas is just Sol Invictus with Jesus in it!”

Most of the time when somebody says this, thinking that they’ve shown Christmas is just a reheated pagan festival, what they’re just told me is that they would never have heard of Sol Invictus through their knowledge of history. They only heard those words because they heard someone trying to say that Christmas is pagan in origin. It’s like when Homer Simpson referred to a “rack and peanut” steering system because he heard experts refer to a rack and pinion steering system and was (poorly) parroting them. Just a few simple questions are useful when somebody tells you that Christmas is really just Sol Invictus with Jesus in it:

“Oh? When did people start celebrating Sol Invictus?”

“Oh really? And exactly when did the Church adopt Sol Invictus (with a new name of course)?”

“Is that so? Tell me a little about some of the similarities between Christmas and Sol Invictus, I’d love to hear about it!”

You won’t get an answer. Or at least, if you do, it will be hurriedly made up on the spot, or an absurd patchwork of claims borrowed from the Zeitgeist movie.

But maybe you’ll meet someone who has made that mistake before and learned from it. But rather than give up the game, they’ve decided to offer a more toned down, respectable version of this claim. According to this version, Christians saw that people in the Roman Empire were already holding a religious festival on the 25th of December, so they decided to celebrate Jesus’ birthday on that day, thereby drawing significance of the festival away from the Roman deity Sol Invictus and toward Jesus, as well as not making people give up their festival when they became Christians.

Once we turn away from the more sensational claim that “it’s really just a pagan holiday and ignorant Christians don’t know it!” to the more modest account above, there’s much less to write home about. Sol Invictus is not the “reason for the season” that the church celebrates, Jesus is. The festival of Sol Invictus was just the holiday that Christmas replaced, because the church believed that Sol Invictus doesn’t exist.

So that got boring quickly. But in truth even the more toned down, less exciting version of this claim is pretty questionable. Emperor Aurelian made Sol Invictus an official cult of the Empire in AD 274. But there is no record of him choosing the 25th of December – or of anybody at the time using the 25th of December – as a day on which to hold a festival of any sort dedicated to Sol Invictus.

There’s a massive collection of ancient inscriptions from the Roman Empire called Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae (edited by Hermann Dessau). You can access these for free online. Here’s volume three. In volume three you can find inscription 8940, which prescribes an offering to Sol Invictus “die XIIII kal. Decem.” Die XIIII Kalendis Decembribus, according to a translation at Wikipedia, means “fourteen days before the Kalends of December,” which is the 18th of November. The inscription dates from the reign of Emperor Licinius, who reigned from 308 to 324.

For those meme-sharers who aren’t sure why this matters, it’s because this is the period during which Christians supposedly co-opted December 25th from the holy day of Sol Invictus, using to celebrate Christmas. The first recorded instance of Christians celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December was in 336 during the reign of Constantine, just over a decade after Lucinius’ reign, at which point there still hadn’t, as far as we know, been any use of the 25th of December as a day on which to worship Sol Invictus.

What’s more, the heretical sect called the Donatists arose between AD 305 and 312. The Donatists were fiercely opposed to the corruption of the church from outside influences, which is why they did not celebrate the Epiphany (the visit of the magi to Jesus as a child), something for which Augustine chided them in the late fourth century. But the Donatists did celebrate Christmas on the 25th of December, which suggests the use of this date arose before the Donatists did, in the late third century at the latest.1 So in the early fourth century we have at least some Christians celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December and we have a Roman Emperor decreeing the worship of Sol Invictus on another day altogether. As Steven Ernst Hijmans has painstakingly shown in Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, the first connection of the 25th of December with Sol Invictus cannot be established to have been made by anyone until it appeared in a calendar in AD 354 and was subsequently proclaimed by Julian in 362.2

Where did the date of the 25th of December come from as the day on which Christmas was celebrated then? Look at what Hippolytus of Rome (AD 170-235) says:

…from Adam until the transmigration into Babylon under Jeconiah, 57 generations, 4,842 years, 9 months. And after the transmigration into Babylon until the generation of Christ, there was 14 generations, 660 years, and from the generation of Christ until the Passion there was 30 years…3

Hippolytus supposes that there is an exact number of years from the time of creation to the time of the death of Christ, an event placed on the 25th of March by the earlier writer Tertullian. The “generation of Christ” refers to the annunciation, when the angel met Mary and Jesus was conceived. This places the conception of Christ on the 25th of March (namely the same day of the year on which he died), and hence the birth of Christ nine months later, on the 25th of December.

Of course early Christian theologians could have been wrong about when these things took place. The point is just that they celebrated these events in the life of Christ at the times of year they did because they actually believed that this is when they happened, and not because of what worshippers of Sol Invictus (or anyone else) did.

If you’ve shared one of these pictures featuring a message that Christmas was a co-opted festival of Sol Invictus, or if you’ve dropped the name “Sol Invictus” into a conversation, making this innuendo, admit it. You didn’t know any of this. So why were you so confident when you clicked “share” or made that remark laughing at how little Christians knew about their own holiday? It wouldn’t be because you’d like your story to be true, would it?

“Well maybe not Sol Invictus, but Mithras, surely!”

No. When your first attempt is shown to be based completely on ignorance, you need to take a breather, not immediately have another swing with a different God.

As I’ve explained before – as have many others – some people claim there are all kinds of parallels between the earlier myth of Mithras and the life of Jesus: Born on the 25th of December, worshipped by shepherds, travelled around with twelve disciples, performed miracles, was killed and entombed only to rise again three days later.

None of this is an accurate depiction of the Mithraic myths. Literally none of it. It’s comical that the sort of people who hear, immediately believe and then repeat these alleged parallels are the same people who call themselves freethinkers or sceptics. If you read the mythology of Mithras, you’ll read that he was born out of a rock without a shepherd in sight, never had twelve disciples, was never killed (in fact he was the killer, slaying a great bull), and since he didn’t die, he never rose again, let alone three days later.

“Well Osiris then!”

Stop, already. The alleged parallels between Jesus and Osiris are very recent allegations with no serious scholarly support, just like Mithras.

“Well still, a virgin birth – that’s from Buddha, right?”

No, it’s not from Buddha. Gotama’s mother was no virgin.

“But Christmas trees, and mistletoe!”

I’m no expert on the origins of Christmas trees and mistletoe. But now you’ve got things backwards. You’re talking about how you celebrate Christmas. When’s the last time mistletoe was used at midnight mass on Christmas Eve?

It’s the silly season alright, and silly theories like these are out there again, on time as always. The irony is that people who peddle this stuff think that they are the ones exposing myths! Believing such theories is a bit like believing old Chris Kringle will be down your chimney on Christmas Eve! If people are willing to listen, share this information with them. If not, see their meme and raise them a Ho Ho Ho!

Merry Christmas, a holiday that has always been celebrated to remember the birth of Jesus.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Thomas Comerford Lawler (ed.), Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany (New York: Paulist Press, 1952), 10. The book is a collection of sermons by Augustine of Hippo. []
  2. Steven Ernst Hijmans, Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome (diss., University of Groningen, 2009), 588ff. []
  3. Hippolytus, Chronicon 686-687, cited here. []
{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Kurt Kirkpatrick December 24, 2015, 5:33 am

    Amen to that, brother Glenn. Now, if we could just remove all the pagan materialism out of the celebration of our Saviour’s birth. But that’s another lesson.

  • Richard Hesketh December 24, 2015, 6:21 am

    Before I came to faith, my Christmas celebration was more in line with Bacchus, the god of wine. And that is a very common reason for the season today. Since Christ revealed Himself to me, the reason for the season became the incarnation of the Son of God. Everyone has their own reason. Each individuals reason depends on their personal perspective. The good news is that that perspective can change. Now I find it hard to believe that I ever viewed it otherwise. Any reason but Jesus is simply a total waste of time. But if you don’t know Him then eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die. But remember that tomorrow your soul may be required of you. My prayer is that anyone reading this post will come to know Him.

  • David December 25, 2015, 1:21 am

    Interesting, Glenn, but still misses the mark. If even the earliest Christians didn’t know the date of Jesus’ birth, that is one more reason to add to the pile of his non existence. The evidence for Jesus’ existence is scant, no eyewitness accounts, no writings of his, no record outside the Gospels.

    We can be quite sure that Jesus was not born on December 25, although he could well have been conceived on that day (if he existed).

    Axial tilt is the reason for the season.

    However, I will say there are parts of the Bible I quite like, especially the bit about going in to a forest, cutting down a tree, dragging it home, standing it in a bucket of sand and hanging astrological symbols on it.

    Keep the Yule in Yuletide and keep Saturn in Saturnalia.

  • David December 25, 2015, 10:39 am

    Merry Xmas to one and all.

  • Cody December 25, 2015, 12:53 pm

    Should we just ignore people who are as unintelligent as David, or should we address them? However, I think he brings up a serious point: does the existence of intellectually subpar humans (e.g. David) make belief in God irrational? If God existed, why wouldn’t he equip David with more capable cognitive faculties?

  • Glenn December 26, 2015, 9:53 am

    Now, now, Cody….

    David, the position that Jesus never existed is not intellectually serious. I only begrudgingly wrote about it elsewhere, since a number of people had asked me to. Feel free to have a look.

  • David Brindley December 26, 2015, 11:11 am

    Glenn, I took a look, but there were no references to any evidence outside the bible.

    Your Washington analogy is flawed. You refer to five eyewitness accounts of Washington, whereas the Bible contains only hearsay. None of the Gospel authors, whose identities are not known, were eyewitnesses. Paul was unaware of the gospels when he was establishing Christianity.

    There are very many serious students of religion and myth who argue that Jesus never existed. Richard Carrier keeps smacking Matthew Flanagan over that one.

  • Glenn December 26, 2015, 11:24 am

    You can’t have taken a look, David. In that three part series there are many references to sources outside the Bible. I stopped reading your comment when I saw you say that.

  • bethyada December 26, 2015, 12:19 pm

    No. When your first attempt is shown to be based completely on ignorance, you need to take a breather, not immediately have another swing with a different God.

    Very good wordsmithing there Glenn.

  • Matthew Flannagan February 3, 2016, 11:49 pm

    Glenn not only did David Brindley apparently not read your post, which actually mentions several sources outside the bible for Jesus existence ( and he also makes the common mistake of assuming the bible ia a single source, simply because after the events it was collated into one bible)

    David seems to also invent debates the never happened, because I have never had a dialogue on the existence of Jesus with “Richard Carrier” let alone one he repeatedly “smacked me in”. I have in fact never written an article on this topic at all, so there would be nothing to critique.
    Carrier has written an ill tempered summary of a debate I have had with him on divine command ethics, a totally different topic, but anyone who thinks he repeatedly “smacked” me in that debate should just read his article and my response and see if that’s an accurate picture.

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