Is Christmas really a transformed pagan festival?
I came across an article this morning that I think you’ll find very interesting. In short, it argues that the traditional date for celebrating Jesus’ birth (i.e. Dec. 25th) was chosen for reasons that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.
I’m sure you’ve heard that Christmas is actually a transformed pagan holiday. In my travels as a Christian speaker and teacher, I’ve had hundreds of people ask me questions about this. There is a widespread belief that Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth on Dec. 25th because the Church seized a pagan festival and deliberately transformed it into an evangelistic tool. I’m not particularly bothered by the possibility that the Church did this, but as widespread as this belief may be, there are significant historical problems with it. The greatest problem is that the association of Dec. 25th with Jesus’ birth seems to date to a time in the early life of the Church when Christians were being very careful to distance themselves from the pagan world and its festivals. While this practice of cultural separation changed somewhat in later centuries, at the time that Dec. 25th came to be associated with Jesus’ birth, it was still very much in effect, making it highly unlikely that the Church would have deliberately associated Christ’s birth with a pagan celebration. An additional problem is the fact that, while the early Church was not completely unanimous in their choice of dates for Christmas, they were all fairly close; in the west, Dec. 25th was the chosen date while in the East, Christians celebrated Christmas on Jan. 6. Obviously, these dates are close together and only one of them has any connection to a pagan festival. This suggests that the early church genuinely believed this was the appropriate time of year to celebrate Christ’s birth for reasons that had nothing to do with paganism. This, in turn, raises the possibility that it was merely coincidence that the Western Church chose to celebrate Christmas on the same day that there was also a pagan festival.
So how did Dec. 25th come to be the date on which most Christians celebrate the birth of the Savior? Was it a deliberate association with a pagan festival or was that association merely coincidence? This article from Biblical Archaeology Review argues convincingly that the Dec. 25th date was the result of historical and theological considerations that had nothing at all to do with the pagan festival that just happened to be celebrated on this same date. Read the full article here.