Did Christians Really Steal Christmas From the Pagans? – The Daily Beast
A cursory online search reveals theories about the origins of Christmas that range from the historical to the hysterical. Do any hold water?
It’s that time of year when families get together, we put trees in our living room, and we exchange gifts in honor of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. But a careful reader of the infancy stories will note that the Bible never mentions the date of Jesus’ birth. Perform even the most cursory of online searches and you’ll be confronted by a wealth of conspiracy theories about the origins of Christmas. There are no fewer than three different ancient pagan festivals around this time of year, and many people claim that Christians scheduled Christmas to erase and monopolize the season. All of which leads many to ask: did Christians steal a pagan holiday?
If celebration of Christ’s birth is based on a pre-existing festival, then there are at least three prime candidates: the birthday of the ancient Sun God (Sol Invictus), the Roman festival of Saturnalia which takes place around this time, and the widely celebrated Winter Solstice.
Perhaps the most superficially similar festival is the birthday of Sol Invictus (the “Unconquered Sun,” also known as Helios). Sol Invictus was one of several “sun gods” that were worshipped in the Roman Empire, and according to an ancient calendar known as the Chronograph of A.D. 354, his birthday was celebrated on Dec. 25. A Sun God and the Son of God shared a birthday? What are the chances?
From the medieval period onwards, people have speculated that Dec. 25 was selected because of Sol Invictus. The Syrian Bishop Jacob bar Salibi (d. 1171), who celebrated Jesus’ birth on Epiphany, wrote “The reasons for which the Fathers transferred the said solemnity [the Nativity] from the sixth of January to December 25 is…[that] it was the custom of the pagans to celebrate on this same day … the feast of the birth of the sun.” As an Eastern Christian who celebrated the Nativity and Epiphany in January, Jacob had a clear motive for undermining the December date, but was he right?
It's unlikely, primarily because the chronology is a bit off. On his TikTok channel, popular religion YouTuber and scholar Dr. Andrew Henry (@religionforbreakfast) explains that Sol Invictus only became popular during the later third century. It was only in 274, after the Emperor Aurelian credited Sol Invictus with assisting him in battle, that resources were dedicated to the god’s cult. Aurelian dedicated a new temple to Sol Invictus and founded what Henry calls the “Sol Olympics.” But before this point Sol Invictus was a bit-player in the Roman pantheon. Because Christians had begun observing Christmas in December in the early third century, the two celebrations seem to be independent. It’s a coincidence, but one that probably worked to the advantage of early Christians.
Then there’s the winter solstice. This year, you probably noticed, the shortest day of the year was Dec. 21, but Roman authors like Pliny the Elder placed it on Dec. 25. The event was cross-cultural: whether you were at Stonehenge or the Pantheon, anyone interested in time, the seasons, and the cosmos saw the solstice as a special event. As Dr. Eric Vanden Eykel, author of the new book The Magi, told me, the winter solstice “was broadly understood in the Roman world to have cosmological significance.” It was observed by a variety of ancient groups including the Druids, who (according to Pliny) marked the day by sacrificing bulls and gathering mistletoe. Some of that feels familiar.
Finally, there’s Saturnalia, the agricultural festival honoring the god Saturn. Just like Christmas today, it was part religious festival and part opportunity to skip work and drink too much. According to the agricultural writer Columella, it was officially celebrated on Dec. 17, but by the time of Cicero (first century B.C.) it lasted three or even seven days. It was a raucous affair with people greeting one another with the traditional “Io, Saturnalia.” Catullus called it “the best of days” complete with food, drink, games, gambling, and gift giving. Homes were decorated with evergreen wreaths and berries and, on the final day (Dec. 23), candles and small terracotta figurines (sigallaria) were given as gifts, particularly to children. The noise of the celebrations became so loud that the Roman statesman and writer Pliny had to construct a special writing chamber to block out the din.
A religious festival that involves candles, gift-giving, evergreen decor, songs, and food, it all sounds a touch familiar but was Saturnalia the source of Christian revelry? There’s no shortage of memes and videos out there but, once again, the timeline is a bit off. Saturnalia finished by Dec. 23 and while we might be tempted to say “well, close enough” the precise date was enormously important because it said something about the importance of Jesus.
This brings us to Christians themselves, what do they say about the date of Jesus’ birth? The Bible isn’t a huge amount of help here. Yes, the fact that in the Gospel of Luke shepherds were watching their flocks at night when the angel appeared suggests a date in the spring, but there’s not a lot of information. As a result, Christians had to calculate the date of the events and here they exhibited a little bit of creativity, much of it based around the ambiguity in the Greek word genesis used in the Gospel infancy stories. Does it mean conception, or does it mean birth?
According to a broad swath of ancient thinking, a person who lived a perfect life would die on the same day as their birth. Christians, who were more focused on the date of Jesus’ conception than his Nativity and clearly believed that Jesus was perfect, started with the death of Jesus and worked their way backwards. Here they had better evidence. According to the Gospels, it seemed to have taken place on the 14th of Nisan, the day before Passover.
Getting the Jewish lunisolar calendar to correspond to the Julian solar calendar involved some number crunching, but in the mid-third century Hippolytus of Rome calculated the date of Jesus’ death as March 25. This, according to some Roman writers, was the date of the spring equinox. In an academic article published in 2015, Dr. Thomas Schmidt an assistant professor of religious studies at Fairfield University, compellingly argues that Hippolytus selected March 25 because it also corresponded (in his calculations) to the date of creation. Thus, March 25 was the date of creation, the date of Jesus’ conception, the day of his death, and the spring equinox. Very tidy and, more importantly, very auspicious.
Assuming a perfect nine-month pregnancy, Hippolytus and others put the date of Jesus’ birth as Dec. 25 and came to celebrate the nativity on this day. Dr. Dan McClellan, a debunker of myths about the Bible on Instagram and TikTok and scholar of religious studies and theology, told The Daily Beast that the proximity of the key events in Jesus’ life to the spring equinox and winter solstice “seemed loaded with cosmic significance.” What was more important to Christian theologians wasn’t lining up the date of the nativity with a pagan festival, but rather lining up the date of Jesus’ conception with his death and the creation of the universe.
Although bishops could get snippy about Christians who participated in pagan religious activities, Christians leaders don’t seem to have been that concerned about competing with Sol Invictus, the Solstice, or Saturnalia. McClellan said that while the actual date of Christmas probably wasn’t determined by the Solstice or Saturnalia, the celebration of pagan festivals probably did affect how Christians marked their holidays. There may have been “some incentive, whether conscious or otherwise, [for Christians] to commit to that date.” In his video, Henry notes that if Christmas is related to these other festivals, it was “not in the sense of stealing a Roman holiday.”
When I asked McClellan why it is that people today think Christians stole the winter festival McClellan told me that it’s obvious that many of the traditions associated with Christmas (think mistletoe) don’t have clear ties to Jesus or Christianity. The mythology of Christians "stealing Christmas," said McClellan might be a form of resistance that helps people makes sense of things: “It offers a way to ‘punch up’ against the oppressive and imperialist institutions of Christianity by exposing them as appropriators of the traditions of marginalized groups. I imagine there are also folks who enjoy feeling like they have insider knowledge that bucks the conventional wisdom, even if in this case it’s more the ‘conventional wisdom’ than the insider knowledge.”
The close association of pagan festivals with Christmas, though, allowed Christians to amplify certain elements of the Jesus story and capitalize on the celebration’s similarity to more familiar holidays that elicited warm and fuzzy feelings in people. Some late ancient Christians like Gregory of Nyssa and Paulinus of Nola explicitly linked the death of Jesus to the winter solstice because of the symbolism of darkness and light. The idea of Jesus as a light breaking into the world on the darkest day of the year was too good to pass up.
Saturnalia, too, resonated with the Gospel portrayal of Jesus as a messiah who came to save the downtrodden. In essence, Saturnalia was a brief period of role reversal when lower status people did not work, and enslaved people were permitted to dine with their enslavers. Adults would serve children and the cap of freedom (the pilleum) could be worn by anyone. The equality was only temporary, of course, but it resonated with the Christian message of future salvation for the marginalized. Christian scripture regularly looks forward to Judgment Day, when the poor, hungry, meek, and persecuted will see God, eat their fill, and inherit the Kingdom of God. If you squint a little, Saturnalia was a debauched X-rated pagan version of that; that principle of role reversal could be exploited in narrations of the birth of the Christ child.
What this means is that Christians didn’t steal Christmas so much as they swam in the waters of ancient Mediterranean religious imagery and celebration. The knowledge that Christian celebrations were influenced by contemporary religiosity doesn’t invalidate Christian holidays or Christmas. Even in antiquity, Christian teachers remarked upon how pagan mythology and philosophy contained kernels of truth.