Thursday, December 15, 2005

Does the Date of Christmas Have Its Origin in Paganism?

I don't get too caught up in debates about whether the date of Christmas had its origin in a pagan holiday. But in case you're wondering, it's an urban legend.

Andrew Sullivan
peddled the myth today on his blog, chiding Bill O'Reilly for being upset on the "Merry Christmas bans." Sullivan writes:

The relationship of what we call Christmas to Christianity is a very mixed one. Jesus obviously wasn't born on December 25. That date was arrived at to coincide with the winter solstice. It was early Christianity's smart cooptation of pagan rituals that helped it succeed as a popular faith....

Those who are interested in the real story may be interested in reading historian William Tighe's Calculating Christmas, or Gene Veith's summary of Tighe's article, entitled Why December 25?

Here's a recap:

  • The Christians didn't borrow from a pagan festival. Rather, it was the other way around--the pagans imitated the Christians. Further, the ancient Roman cults didn't even have a winter solstice festival!
  • Here’s how it happened: (1) there was an ancient Jewish belief that the great prophets were to have an “integral age” (where you die on the same day as either your birth or your conception); (2) there arose a consensus that Christ was conceived on March 25 (the Feast of the Annunciation, when the angel appeared to Mary); (3) therefore, it was figured that Christ was born 9 months later on December 25.

Tighe summarizes:

Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death.

And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians.

I sent Andrew a note about it. We'll see if he retracts his statement tomorrow.