Every year the same topic comes around to divide Christians right around this time. A portion of the church, often the most committed Christians, loudly condemn celebrating Christmas because it is a pagan holiday. Many less committed Christians simply don’t care if it had pagan origins and simply want to celebrate and enjoy their holiday season. However, Christians more committed to their faith are troubled, rightly, by this charge. Is Christianity borrowing from pagan myths or is something fishy going on?
Generally, there are two accusations made about Christmas, when it comes to borrowing from paganism. Most people claim Christmas is pagan because it borrowed from either Saturnalia or Sol Invictus. These claims are different enough that they will be examined separately. Saturnalia existed at the time of Christ. However, Saturnalia, a festival to honor the god Saturn, lasted from December 17th to December 23. It did not encompass the date that Christmas is celebrated today and thus cannot be mistaken for the holiday we celebrate today.
Because Saturnalia does not overlap with the modern date of Christmas, it can be dismissed as a possibility for pagan borrowing. However, Sol Invictus does share the same date as Christmas, December 25th. This has lead to Sol Invictus, a Roman holiday honoring the sun, to being considered the origin of Christmas, thus making Christmas of pagan origin. The truth is the exact opposite. Sol Invictus was founded in AD 274 and there is no evidence it was celebrated until AD 354, likely under the influence of Julian the Apostate, a post-Constantinian Emperor of Rome who abandoned Christianity and attempted to return Rome to paganism, though Julian had not yet become Emperor. According to Hippolytus of Rome, Christians were observing December 25th as the birthday of Christ in AD 202. Julius Africanus makes the same statement in AD 220. Both of these dates are well before the establishment of Sol Invictus and both these men were orthodox as far as their preserved writings show, with Hippolytus having a reputation as a rigid conservative unafraid to challenge the church leadership of his time. Clearly, Sol Invictus is not the origin of the Christmas celebration. In fact, Sol Invictus is a Roman counter to the rise of Christianity. Sol Invictus is the pagan copy cat of Christmas.
Some other Christians propose that the title “Christmas” itself is pagan because they associate the suffix “-mas” with the Catholic mass. This is spurious for two reasons. One, the early church was celebrating Christmas before the Catholic church came into being. Second, the suffix “-mas” has nothing to do with Catholicism. It comes from the Latin “missa” which means “dismissed” but in the early church came to represent being sent on a mission. Thus Christmas came to mean “Christ on a mission”, with the mission being to redeem lost humanity. It had nothing to do with a Catholic mass.
Some people object that Christ could not have been born December 25th. This objection has more weight than Christmas being pagan. It is impossible to know precisely when Christ was born. The early church clearly believed it was on the current celebration date. If He was conceived in March, as Africanus believed, then December would be a perfect nine month gestation period. There is no Jewish feast day on December 25th so there is no reason to place Christ’s birthdate there unless they thought it fell there. It is possible that the ancient authors got the date wrong, but this seems less likely. The date is not what matters however. What matters is that we remember the birth of Christ!
With regard to some of the other aspects of Christmas, such as giving gifts, the Christmas tree, Santa Claus and so on, even these are not pagan in origin. Giving gifts is following the example of the Magi who gave gifts to Christ. Santa Claus is based, very loosely these days, on Nicholas, a Christian bishop in Asia Minor know for his fiery defense of the deity of Christ (he once supposedly slapped the heretic Arian for denying that truth) and his incredible generosity. He is supposed to have provided for a poor family by leaving money in stockings, starting the tradition of today. His name also remains attached to Santa Claus as the colloquial “St. Nick”. The Christmas tree as part of Christmas did not really originate until the Middle Ages, but had nothing to do with paganism. Pine trees were used for their herbal remedies and were brought indoors because of their perceived health benefits. The modern association with Christmas comes from Prince Albert, husband and Prince Consort of Queen Victoria, who brought them with him from Germany to England when he married Victoria. They then made their way into mainstream Christian culture. They most certainly have no pagan influence.
Now what you choose to do with this information is up to you. We would recommend not telling your children that Santa Claus comes down the chimney on Christmas. But, if you want to tell them that the man behind the Santa Claus legend slapped a man who said Christ wasn’t God….well use your discretion on that. The Christmas we celebrate today has been hyper-commercialized and atheists are desperately attempting to paganize it. In fact, it is the atheists who formulated the rumor that Christmas was pagan in the first place. It’s all part of the playbook of the New Atheist’s to undermine any connection Christianity has to real history so it can be refuted easier. So if you want to celebrate Christmas, put up a Christmas tree, or tell your kids about the real St. Nick, you can do so with a clear conscience. Christmas is not a pagan holiday.
For further reading/watching: