The Myth of a Pagan Christmas
Three times a year – Easter, Halloween, and Christmas – I find myself assaulted by claims of how Christian practices and beliefs were entirely cobbled together from pagan sources. There are filters I put on certain searches in order to limit my annoyance, but I still run into them.
First, they are generally written with a tone of superiority and contempt. They aren’t neutrally providing information but instead putting forth arguments meant to ridicule and demean. OK, Christianity isn’t your thing. Why try ruining it for those who believe?
Second, is the fact that most of the arguments you find out there are simply wrong. Not only are they factually wrong, but some don’t even make much sense if you think about them.
Third – and this is my favorite – at least half the time when I attempt to object, I am accused of being overly defensive about my faith by people who don’t know my faith, which becomes comical as Christianity isn’t my thing either. People just presume, because heaven forbid someone would actually be interested in facts. I just don’t like people being mean-spirited about dumb things.
Syncretism is the blending of multiple schools of thought into a single system. Christianity absolutely does it. So does every other culture on the planet. The Romans were spectacular at it. Some of it is deliberate. Some of it is organic as converts bring cultural norms into their new faith. And neither of those facts makes Christianity phony.
It is absolutely true that the Church decided to time Christmas with another holiday, the Nativity of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus). People think they are so very clever in pointing out the Bible doesn’t say when Jesus was born, as if they are the first to figure it out. Early writers acknowledged this. Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, whenever that birth might have been. Having to choose a day, they decided to have it coincide with a known holiday rather than just throwing a dart at a calendar.
December 25 is not, however, the birth of either Horus or Mithras, which are common claims. Neither of them have a celebrated birthday.
Jesus and Horus
There is a copy-and-paste list running around the internet comparing Horus and Jesus which varies between wrong and laughably wrong. Horus did not have twelve disciples, he was not crucified, and he was not resurrected three days later. Such stories simply don’t exist.
My favorite, however, is the claim that Horus was born of a virgin. Horus was born of a fertility goddess, and they are not known for being chaste. Kind of counterproductive, really. Even better, after Osiris, Horus’s father is killed and torn apart, his mother, Isis, puts him back together. However, she can’t find his penis, so she makes one out of gold, and then she has sex with him which leads to the birth of Horus.
So not a virgin.
The claims of Horus come from a 19th century, self-taught Egyptologist named Gerald Massey. Don’t ever trust the historical writings of someone from the 19th century. Heck, be suspicious of the first half the 20th century, at the very least. Again and again, these writers are just flat-out wrong, drawing connections that don’t exist, interpreting individual pieces of evidence without considering larger contexts.
Jesus and Mithras
Mithras gets some similar, although less lengthy, claims. He was not born of a virgin. Instead, he sprang forth from a rock. I suppose, technically, the rock never had sex, but that’s as close as you’re going to get to virgin birth here.
He didn’t have twelve disciples, although he is sometimes depicted with the twelve signs of the zodiac. There is no implication, however, that those are supposed to represent people. It probably has more to do with the idea of totality in a culture that was very influenced by astrology.
He was not crucified, nor was he buried in a cave (although he was born in one), and he did not resurrect three days later.
The Saturnalia was a period of time starting on December 17 and extending several days, although length varies throughout the Roman period. People connect it with Christmas for a couple big reasons.
The first is the giving of presents. Really, only one culture can decide giving presents is a nice thing to do, and then the practice is tainted for anyone else?
The second is the idea of role-reversals, where masters served a meal to slaves, commoners could speak out against betters, and so on. This became quite a medieval practice as well. But it’s not specifically a Christmas tradition. It’s a tradition that happens in roughly that portion of the calendar.
Furthermore, how does that in any way invalidate the story of Christmas? Yes, it was probably borrowed from a pagan culture, but it doesn’t speak at all to the meaning of Christmas or any of the religious practices associated with it. People decided they liked continuing to have an excuse to misbehave.
This is an argument that only makes a bit of sense if you come from a northern European culture such as that of the English (from which much of American culture descends). English-speakers tend to greatly over-emphasize the importance of northern European practices, because those are the practices with which they are most familiar.
But Christianity didn’t develop in northern Europe. It developed around the Mediterranean. Christmas had been celebrated for centuries before anyone had heard of the northern European celebration of Yule, much less felt a need to co-opt it.
Moreover, we’re not sure if there was a specific religious component to Yule, or if it was simply a winter celebration. It was, at the very least, culturally important to Germanic cultures, and so it has stuck around and today is strongly associated with Christmas. But that doesn’t mean Christmas is based on it.
Finally, Yule was not a single day, unlike how many neopagans today celebrate it. It was a series of days roughly corresponding to the end of December. Yuletide means Yule time, and Christmas does, in fact, occur within that period.
Jeremiah 10:3-4 gives the following passage:
For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter.
Christmas-haters insist this passage is proof that pagans celebrated…something (they’re never specific on what) with ornamented trees.
First, even if they did, who cares? Ancient pagans wore clothes and ate food. Does that mean Christians should avoid such “pagan” things?
Second, the passage is referencing a practice done by specific groups, the “practice of the peoples.” So it’s addressing a specific situation. Maybe we just shouldn’t be decorating trees for the purpose addressed here.
Third, and this is the kicker, the passage isn’t describing tree decoration at all. People want to ignore that “a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.” This describes the creation of an idol, where a statue is fashioned (out of wood, in this case) to resemble the god in question, and then it is richly decorated as befits a god, which is understood to reside within the figure. In fact, the very next verse reads:
Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak.
The Bible was not meant to be read in one sentence pieces. Context is important. While those little numbers (which most certainly were not originally part of Biblical books) make reference so much easier, it has given some people the impression that you can grab a single verse and find something profound in it. For example, Ezra 2:47 reads “Giddel, Gahar, Reaiah”. Not really helpful.
The first record we have of a Christmas tree is in 16th century Germany. That’s very far away from the Middle East, which is the location being addressed in Jeremiah, and many centuries after paganism had vanished from Germany.
Also, evergreens simply make sense for winter holidays. Flowers are dead and trees have lost their leaves. Evergreens, including Christmas trees and holly, are the only colorful things in nature this time of year. Sprucing up your home with a dead twig wouldn’t make much sense.
Purpose and Meaning
Besides all this, purpose is important. If you are celebrating the birth of Christ, then you’re celebrating the birth of Christ. Your celebration doesn’t magically redirect to some pagan god. So, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what day you do it. Christians just standardized it by placing it on December 25.
If Christmas isn’t your thing, that’s all well and good. But, please, stop trying to ruin it for everyone else, and certainly stop repeating unsupported fallacies.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Edit: If you’re interested in more supposed pagan/Christian mash-ups, check out the history behind Valentine’s Day.