The Thinking 

Is Christmas a Solstice Celebration?

December 27, 2012


IT IS widely believed that Christmas is celebrated on December 25th because the holiday is an adaptation of popular pagan winter festivals. Two writers, The Catholic Knight  and Taylor Marshall, assail this theory, pointing out, among other things, that it is reasonable to assume that Christ, who was conceived on March 25th, was born on the 25th of December. The Catholic Knight writes:

I submit to you that everything you’ve heard about the supposed “Pagan origin” of Christmas is false. It is much hyperventilation over nothing really. Not only is it false, but it is based on such poor scholarship that it ought to be embarrassing to anyone who embraces it. Sadly, it would seem the whole modern world has embraced this error, a serious error, which ought to give us some pause.

—– Comments —-

Carnivore writes:

Abbot Guéranger, in his The Liturgical Year, writes (translated from the French, from the 1945 edition):

“And firstly, with regard  to our Saviour’s Birth on December 25, we have St. John Chrysostom telling us, in his Homily for this Feast, that the Western Churches had, from the very commencement of Christianity, kept it on this day. He is not satisfied with merely mentioning the tradition; he undertakes to show that it is well founded, inasmuch as the Church of Rome had every means of knowing the true day of our Saviour’s Birth, since the acts of the Enrollment, taken in Judea by command of Augustus, were kept in the public archives of Rome.”

Later, he mentions that the referenced homily was given in 386. The word of the “golden-mouthed” one is sufficient for me; he had access to documents which are no longer extant.

Regarding the calendar, besides the “Christmas on 12/25 is pagan” nonsense, the Fundamentalist and Evangelical hypocrisy of “keep Christ in Christmas” gets my goat. They cry about the secularization of Christmas, yet they have shifted their entire calendar to line up with the secular “Christmas” shopping tripe. The Evangelicals in my family put their Christmas tree up the day after Thanksgiving; they begin singing Christmas songs at their services the Sunday after Thanksgiving and take down their trees and decorations the day after Christmas. Who ever heard of celebrating before the event? Do we celebrate a birthday or wedding a month before the event? How ridiculous. The month before we are to spiritually prepare (Advent), not celebrate. That’s a reason why Christmas can be such a big let down for people. They burn out with all the “Christmas” exposure before Christmas in addition to the shopping and crowds. Then, the day after Christmas, when we should really concentrate on celebrating, it’s all over.

Christmastide for Traditional Roman Catholics begins with the vigil of the Nativity and ends in the temporal cycle on the Octave of the Epiphany (1/13) and in the sanctoral cycle with the Feast of the Purification (2/2). While the latter Feast can overlap with the Season of Septuagesima (as it does in 2013, with Septuagesima Sunday on 1/27 because of an early Easter), cutting celebrations short, we usually have a good five weeks of celebrations with good cheer, the high point being 12/25 to 1/13. Traddies definitely know how to party!

Thomas F. Bertonneau writes:

Taylor Marshall protests too much.  It is true that some badly-informed and invidious people have claimed that Christmas is a kind of sacred-calendar-theft from the pagan holiday schedule and that they make this claim in order to denigrate Christianity.  Those people richly deserve a prolonged raspberry.  The fact remains, however, that there were pagan holidays centering on the Winter Solstice; birth and rebirth were, moreover, themes of those holidays.  We should not forget that, almost entirely by persuasion, between the First and Fourth Centuries AD, Christianity became the majority-religion of the Roman world.  Persuasion is the keynote. Correspondences between Christian festivals and pagan ones (not only Christmas, but Easter as well) must have played an important role in facilitating Christian conversion for many people.  When one looks at the varieties of ethnic Christmas customs in the European nations, one can only be struck by the incorporation of obviously pre-Christian themes.  To remark this is not to say that “Christmas has a pagan origin.”  It is simply to say that before ancient peoples were Christian, they were every variety of heathen, and on conversion to the new faith they naturally brought features of the old holidays into the calendrically correspondent new ones.  I say that Christianity’s capacity to welcome and incorporate what was good in the previous dispensations is a point in its favor.

Marshall’s argument strikes me as an instance of what Pope Benedict has decried as the de-Hellenization of the West.  Marshall can only see the break that Christianity makes with the past; he cannot see the generous continuity with the past that Christianity enables and that the de-Christianization will subvert.

Laura writes:

Marshall in this selection only addresses the issue of the date of Christmas, not the other issue you raise, which is the melding of pagan customs with the Christian festival. There is no question that pagan customs influenced Christian traditions, but most people today go much farther than simply acknowledging this relationship and believe that pagan festivals were chosen out of convenience to serve as the occasion for the new Christian holiday.

Mr. Bertonneau adds:

Adding a point to my previous comment, plenty of Christians or (anyway) supposed Christians have presumed that Christmas was a pagan holiday – which they therefore disdained to celebrate.  Among these were the Puritans of the Plymouth Colony, who legally forbade Christmas.  Governor Bradford was zealous in his suppression of what Calvinists in England called “papist idolatry” on December 25.  I note tangentially to my main topic that the contemporary “War on Christmas” has old roots in America.

Jeanette V. writes:

When I was a pagan, I accepted the myth that Christians stole Christmas (and Easter) from the pagans. After returning to Christianity (as a result of reading the Church fathers), I began reading about the so-called pagan celebration of Christmas and discovered that it was a lie.

The biggest lie is about how Dec 25th was chosen. In fact, it was the pagans who stole the date from the Christians. See here:

The earliest historical source that exists which places a pagan holiday on December 25 is the proclamation by Roman Emperor Aurelian of a celebration of Sol Invictus on that day in 274 CE. The earliest Christian reference to December 25 as the birth of Christ, however, dates from 202 CE.

Mark Moncrieff writes:

The earliest historical source that exists which places a pagan holiday on December 25 is the proclamation by Roman Emperor Aurelian of a celebration of Sol Invictus on that day in 274 CE. The earliest Christian reference to December 25 as the birth of Christ, however, dates from 202 CE.

I’m normally a big fan but I must admit I was shocked to see you quoting “CE”on your site!

If we are going to use the Christian calender then we should use the Christian calender and not half use it or pretend it’s a harmless change. I understand it’s a quote but it still gives it a legitimacy it simply does not deserve.

I’m sorry for my fervour but if people think even Christians and Conservatives are supporting this then it becomes that one bit harder to fight this type of rot.

Laura writes:

I hadn’t thought before about what to do about quotes that use “CE” and I simply overlooked it here. I agree with your basic objection. Perhaps the best thing to do is to put the traditional dating in brackets.

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