The Myth of a Pagan Christmas (Or, a Theology of the Seasons)

In the late 1800s, Rev. Alexander Hislop published a book called The Two Babylons. Its purpose was the to trace the pagan origins of Catholic worship and warn believers away from such things.  Growing up in the 80s, that book was the birth of every fear related to pagan origins of Christian holidays. Even today, some say that they are all rooted in paganism and therefore we should not embrace them at all or try to tie Christ to them in any way. Others say we should jettison all of the “pagan” parts and keep the Christian aspects. Others don’t know what to do and an even smaller group simply don’t care!  

Well, I hope you’re not in the latter parts. But maybe you still have lingering feelings of unease when December 25 rolls around. After all, didn’t Christians pick this date after the pagan worship of the god Saturn?  Well, to begin with, The Two Babylons has been shown to be a spurious work with dubious scholarship—i.e., the author gets lots of things wrong. So, we shouldn’t rely solely on it for anything related to such a belief.  

Second, I don’t think Christians should worry so much about December 25 being the time we celebrate Jesus’ birth.  Rather than being rooted in Roman pagan ideas, it probably goes back to an older tradition in African Christianity. Meaning Christmas predates the typical argument that it was under Constantine’s rule that the date was set.  More specifically, the older tradition is based on the belief that Jesus died on the same day he was conceived. Since we know the day of his death, it’s not hard to work forward on the math on nine months and come up with December 25 or January 6 if you are in the Eastern Church. 

Was Jesus really born then?  I’m not so sure. But my main point is that we need not be threatened by anti-Christian secular arguments or well-meaning Christian arguments that are promoting a pagan origin for December Christmas celebrations. It’s clear that the myth of the goal of making Christianity more acceptable to Romans and thus “Christianizing” their feasts is just that–a myth

Beyond that, I think there is even something profoundly theological about celebrating Jesus’ birth when we do. 

When we think about creation itself, Adam and Eve would’ve been brought into the world in a kind of summer state. Everything was growing and vibrant. There was fruit on the trees and vegetables on the ground. It was a literal paradise with everything open to them and their wellbeing (save one tree). And yet there’s a reason we called the next season Fall. It was after Adam and Eve rejected God‘s command (and ate of that one forbidden tree!) that sin entered the world and death through sin (Rom 5:12). Now, every year we’re forced to remember this dreadful event as those beautiful trees lose their leaves and summer fruit turns rotten in the bleakness of cold, dreary weather. We long for Spring and Easter Sunday’s reminder of Jesus’ resurrection and our new life in him! 

But when do we celebrate Jesus coming into the world? Right in the middle of Winter. We may even say he comes right into the middle of the depths of our sinful condition. It’s cold, it’s dreary, it’s lifeless, and we’re longing for hope. And this is the exact time when we celebrate the coming of Jesus promised Messiah. What a glorious providence of God’s working in history! And what a reminder of the kindness of God that when humanity was steeped in sin and life was bleak, he offered a ray of gospel hope through the birth of his Son.  

Is December 25 the day of Jesus’ birth?  Who knows? But I can hardly think of a better time to celebrate it.  

2 Comments

  1. Good read brother. We watched a documentary last night that was interesting , Star of Bethlehem by Frederick Larson. Set aside an hour. It held my interest.

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