In our recent posting on the Ember Days, we discussed the Church's love and interest in nature, the harvest, and the seasons; the Church's fascination with Creation doesn't end with this world as we seek the New Creation of the world to come. In a pagan world which was mainly concerned with agriculture for work and sustainability, it would make sense that the various cultures through the centuries would be concerned with the weather and crop yield. In pagan societies, these concerns would be given over to various false deities with sacrifices, prayers, and offerings being given in order to obtain favor for the coming season or to ask for relief from drought or floods. These prayers for relief or celebrations of blessings would sometimes give themselves over to various festivals and celebrations. In parts of Northern Europe, where the winter months could be brutally cold with very short periods of sunlight available, the pagan cultures would make offerings or celebrate festivals in the hopes that the winter would be short and that the warmth and bounty of spring would soon be upon us; therefore, winter festivals were quite common in the pagan and Christian world.
The Church recognizes that "[f]rom ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history (NA, 2)" and that since God is Truth, all truth must be from him and return to him - that is why truth can never be subjective or arbitrary, because God is never-changing, so neither is eternal truth. Therefore with non-Christian religions the Church "rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men (NA, 2)." The Church believes that the truths found in earlier pagan cultures were ways in which God was starting to reveal himself to the Gentiles, preparing us in our long Advent towards his full revelation in Jesus Christ; therefore, we see that some truths in pagan thought point towards Christ, not the other way around (as so many present-day atheists think). Early Christian evangelists would use the writings of Aristotle and Plato in order to lead pagans to Christianity, as parts of their writings were not in opposition to the faith. Even St. Paul in his arrival in Athens shows that there was a bit of truth in the beliefs of the pagans.
So was Christmas originally a pagan holiday? Some Catholic scholars say yes, others say no, and still others say it's a little bit of both. It's true that the Church has often rebranded customs in order to evangelize; the Catholic Encyclopedia explains: The Church, when converting heathen nations, has always tried to sanctify any practices which could be utilized for a good purpose. This is probably what Puritans found so offensive, but as we read earlier, the Church does not reject truths that come from other groups of people because ALL eternal truth comes from God; to rebrand something in order to teach pagans the truths of the faith is nothing new or offensive. Quite honestly, I don't care where Christmas came from - it's one of my favorite times of year and I love the liturgy during Christmastide. At Christmas we get to contemplate the great mystery that God Himself became man, humbling himself as a newborn; this Creator of the Universe was now helpless in the arms of his mother, nursing at her breast, and completely dependent upon Joseph and Mary to raise and protect him. Isn't that incredible? And he lived amongst us, laughing with us, crying with us, learning with us. He learned the psalms, he went to temple, he bumped his head and scraped his knees. He endured temptation in the desert and would sacrifice himself upon the Cross, so obedient was he to God's will. Out of love he did this, dying and then rising again to return to his place in heaven. ALL of this began to take form at Christmas and is so significant that we restarted how we count our years. The Bible doesn't say, "Thou shalt celebrate my birthday," or perhaps it's a rebranded pagan holiday - personally, I don't care because the birth of Christ is so much bigger than these arguments.
One of the pagan holidays that has always been mentioned as the "original" Christmas is the celebration of Saturnalia. This is a winter festival from Italy, dedicated to their god of agriculture, Saturn (Saturday, by the way, is also named after Saturn). The celebration originally began on December 15 in the original Roman calendar (the Kalendas Ianuarias), but when the Julian calendar was created in 45 BC, the holiday was shifted to December 17 and ran until December 23. Although this is close to the day of Christmas, it doesn't quite match up; even still, many modern-day atheists (and some extreme Calvinists) like to mention Saturnalia as the origin of Christmas.
Others like to mention the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the Birth of the Unconquered Sun). Roman Emperor Aurelian established this feast on December 25 in 274 AD, and the earliest calendar we have that shows Christmas being celebrated on December 25 was in 354 AD - many have interpreted that to mean that Christmas came after people were celebrating Dies Natalis Solis Invicti - however this is not supported by the historical evidence. For instance, Pope Saint Telesphorus (who died in 137 AD) instituted the Midnight Mass at Christmas, so one can assume that Christmas was being celebrated at least by the second century, earlier than the feast of the Unconquered Sun. Other Church Fathers have also attested to the early celebration of Christmas and you can read all about this in Dr. Taylor Marshall's free e-book God's Birthday: Why Christ Was Born on December 25 & Why It Matters.
So where did the rumor of Christmas being Saturnalia or the Birth of the Unconquered Sun come from? Sadly, the charges became most popular after the Reformation. We read in When Christians Banned Christmas that throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries, various Puritan and Presbyterian ministers routinely condemned Christmas as a pagan holiday and invention of the pope. This continued in the 18th Century as Lutheran minister Paul Ernst Jablonski also tried to popularize the idea that Roman Catholicism replaced a pagan holiday with Christmas. However, the Rev. Dr. Thomas J. Talley, professor of Liturgics at the Episcopalian General Theological Seminary in New York, wrote in his book The Origins of the Liturgical Year that there is good reason to believe that the Emperor's establishment of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun was actually in response to the celebration of Christmas; it was created to diminish Christmas.
Probably the best book on the Roman Empire that I've ever read is Caesar and Christ, written by Will Durant - a man who believes that Christianity is mainly warmed-over paganism - and even he lends credence to the idea that the Empire was trying to make Roman paganism more attractive than Christianity:
The old religions still claimed a majority of the Empire's population...under Aurelian a modified Mithraism [cult of the ancient Indo-Iranian Sun-god Mithra] captured the Roman state. Around the year 178...paganism made a lusty attempt to defend itself against Christianity. We know of it only through Origen's book 'Against Celsus'...[Celsus] felt that the civilization which he enjoyed was bound up with the old Roman faith, and he resolved to defend that faith by attacking the Christianity that was now its most challenging enemy.
In other areas of the book, Durant repeats that various emperors saw the Empire's only chance of survival was to return to her ancient faith and several attempts were made at squelching Christianity so that paganism could thrive again. Honest research is starting to show that Christmas more than likely existed before the establishment of the Sun feast, which itself was established in order to compete with Christmas.
So, was Jesus really born on December 25? And if so, how do we know that? Early theologians in Rome came up with the date of Christ's birth using Scripture and the writings of the earliest Christians. In St. Luke's Gospel, he writes that Zacharia was serving in the temple during the "course of Abias” (Lk 1:5). Dr. Taylor Marshall explains that "Scripture records [the course of Abias] as the eighth course among the twenty-four priestly courses (Neh 12:17). Each shift of priests served one week in the temple for two times each year. The course of Abias served during the eighth week and the thirty-second week in the annual cycle...Josef Heinrich Friedlieb has convincingly established that the first priestly course of Jojarib was on duty during the destruction of Jerusalem on the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av. Thus the priestly course of Jojarib was on duty during the second week of Av. Consequently, the priestly course of Abias (the course of Saint Zacharias) was undoubtedly serving during the second week of the Jewish month of Tishri—the very week of the Day of Atonement on the tenth day of Tishri. In our calendar, the Day of Atonement would land anywhere from September 22 to October 8."
Scripture says that John the Baptist was conceived after Zacharia finished his course in the temple, about the end of September, which would make John's birthday sometime in June (the Church celebrates it on June 24). When Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John, the Virgin Mary went off to stay with her (Lk 1:24-27, 36); this makes John the Baptist six months older than Jesus. June 24 plus six months equals December 24/25; December 25 minus nine months equals March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation (the day that the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary and she said 'Yes' to being the Mother of God). The Church treated this day as SO important in the Western Christian world that at one time March 25 was celebrated as NEW YEARS! In fact, England celebrated New Years' on March 25 up until as recently as 1752!
The calculation that the birth of Christ was on December 25 seems very convincing, but we don't know the date of his birth for sure (although some are completely convinced it was 12/25). Additionally, the evidence against Christmas being an early pagan celebration seems equally convincing. The Puritans and other Calvinists were willing to reject Christmas simply because it was Catholic and not specifically addressed in the Bible, missing the entire point of the holy day. I think Pope Francis did an excellent job explaining the significance of Christmas the other day and it bears repeating here:
Christmas is the celebration of the presence of God who came among us to save us...The birth of Jesus is not a fairytale! It is the story of a real event, which occurred in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. Faith allows us to recognise in the Child born to the Virgin Mary the true Son of God, made man for our love. In the face of the child Jesus we contemplate the face of God, who did not show Himself to us in strength, in power, but in the weakness and fragility of a newborn. This is our God, who comes so close to us, as a child. This Child shows the trust and tenderness of the boundless love with which God surrounds each one of us. This is why we celebrate Christmas, reliving the same experience of the shepherds of Bethlehem. Along with many fathers and mothers who work hard every day, making many sacrifices; along with the young, the sick and the poor, we celebrate, because it is the celebration of our encounter with God in Jesus”.
That is why we celebrate Christmas. Christianity isn't just a book - it's a relationship, a living out of our baptismal promises. And so if it's not in the Bible, or it was once called Saturnalia or the Birth of the Unconquered Sun, or if it was invented by a pope, so what? The fact remains that God loves us so much that he became one of us and lived amongst us in order to save us. Shouldn't that be celebrated?