Around this time of year we often hear about the "common knowledge" that the date of Christmas was in fact based on the date of a Pagan feast to do a sort of holiday one-upmanship. I have already heard this at least once this year during a television drama and often heard it from my Uncle as I was growing up.
Even in Catholic circles we often hear about Pagan holidays and practices being "baptized." Mostly we hear about this in regards to All Saints Day and Christmas. The facts are otherwise and what is not true about All Saints Day is also not true about the date of Christmas. Last year Mark Shea posted a section from his upcoming book on Mary.
Time was when I, like most people, took it for granted the winter solstice and, in particular, the Roman Feast of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun were simply pagan celebrations that hung around into Christian times. In fact, when I set out to write this book I still thought this. But I discovered the reality is far more complicated and interesting. Indeed, it turns out this widely assumed “fact” that “everybody knows” is probably another sample of pseudo-knowledge. For according to William Tighe, a church history specialist at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College, “the pagan festival of the ‘Birth of the Unconquered Sun’ instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the ‘pagan origins of Christmas’ is a myth without historical substance.”
For the fact is, our records of a tradition associating Jesus’ birth with December 25 are decades older than any records concerning a pagan feast on that day.
[T]he definitive “Handbook of Biblical Chronology” by professor Jack Finegan (Hendrickson, 1998 revised edition) cites an important reference in the “Chronicle” written by Hippolytus of Rome three decades before Aurelian launched his festival. Hippolytus said Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25.
Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendarlong before Christmas also became a festival.
Read the rest of his informative post to find out why originally the early Christians had determined that Dec 25th was the date of our Savior’s birth.
Thank you for re-linking this, Jeff. I remember reading it last year, but forgot all about it. Maybe this time it will stick… 🙂
Notwithstanding, I am fascinated by the notion of “baptizing” pagan customs.
Whether or not this went on regarding the date of Christmas, it did go on, and it is a practice of the Church that I admire.
I once heard of a stained glass window in a Scottish church depicting the baptism of Merlin.
There is good in every culture and the Church has never found it necessary to purge a culture of its goodness along with its defects.
Ratzinger says in one of his books on the liturgy that the feast of the Nativity’s date is based on the supposed date of Christ’s conception (the Annunciation) citing a Jewish tradition that saw March 25th as the date of creation. It would only be appropriate, in the minds of the Fathers, that Word would be made flesh on that day, hence the date of Christmas.
I always heard that the pagans made up Halloween to make a mockery of All Saints Day. Just look at the name it has hallowed in it. It is the Holy day’s eve. I had never heard that about Christmas, but rather about Easter. I heard that Easter replaced a holiday where they sacrificed people. So if that is true it was a very important “baptism” :O)
Also I forgot to mention that Hocus Pocus comes from the Latin consecration words HOC-EST (enim) CORPUS (meum). This is another pagan mockery of the sacred.
Thanks, Jeff. I’ll have to remember this tidbit the next time I’m accused, at a Scout trip to a Marian shrine, of having “stolen” Dec. 25th from the pagans.
Mark Shea goes into a lot of specific calculus for that one. I’m not sure I’m convinced Jesus was born in 4BC. The date is still subject to debate. There are two pieces of annecdotal evidence that would now appear to completely reside outside the realm of possiblity. That a Roman census would have been held at the beginning of the year, March. Although I suppose it could have been at the end of the year (December). Also, the gospel mentions the shepherds sleeping with their sheep. I undertood this to only be the case in the birthing season, March.
I think the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter much. The Church celebrates Christmas on 25 December, amen.
Related to this is an astronomer’s take on the issue. Craig Chester gave a talk a little over ten years ago on this subject. However, he employed aspects of astronomy in addition to the historical and theological/biblical resources.
The original talk (1993) can be found here: http://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis/archive/issue.asp?year=1993&month=12
and an updated version (1996) of it can be found here: http://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis/archive/issue.asp?year=1996&month=12
Interesting, to say the least. I originally read the transcripts a few weeks after he gave the talk and read the talk again when it was revised. What a gift and source the Internet can be! I would not have been able to retrieve this article without it. And countless others!
Thank you for the information that Christ was born on december 25. I’m a former member of the Worldwide Church of God, and it’s great to know that their claim that our saviour was not born on 12/25 is just another lie!
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