Is Christmas Really Pagan?
The Observation of CHRISTMAS having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN with the Offender liable to a Fine of FIVE SHILLINGS
Above, at the right, is a facsimile of a statute passed in 1660 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England, prohibiting the observance of Christmas. Similarly, in 17th-century England, Christmas celebrations were banned as “pagan and papish, Saturnalian and Satanic, idolatrous and leading to idleness.”
Though those were laws of a bygone era, they still prompt the question: Is Christmas really pagan? A closer look at the roots of some of the popular customs of Christmas may provide the answer.
All the standard encyclopedias and reference works agree that the date of Jesus’ birth is unknown and that the churches borrowed the date of December 25 from the Romans, along with their customs and festivities. Here are some typical comments: “The ecclesiastical calendar retains numerous remnants of pre-Christian festivals—notably Christmas, which blends elements including both the feast of the Saturnalia and the birthday of Mithra.” (“Encyclopædia Britannica”) “It is usually held that the day [December 25] was chosen to correspond to pagan festivals that took place around the time of the winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen, to celebrate the ‘rebirth of the sun.”’ (“Encyclopedia Americana”) “On this day [December 25], as the sun began its return to northern skies, the pagan devotees of Mithra celebrated the birthday of the invincible sun.”—“New Catholic Encyclopedia.”
Saturnalia was a seven-day Roman festival running from December 17 to 24, held in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The festival was marked by boisterous feasting, drinking, merrymaking, dancing, gift-giving and the decorating of homes with evergreens. December 25, the birthday of Mithra the sun-god, originally the Babylonian god of light, became the climax of the week-long celebrations.
In an effort to make converts of the pagans and to win back those fallen away to such worldly practices, the Roman Church, in the middle of the fourth century, ‘Christianized’ Mithra’s birthday and adopted the date and customs, but designated it as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Thus was born Christmas.
Some authorities attribute the origin of the Christmas tree to Boniface, who convinced the eighth-century Germans to abandon their worship of the sacred oak trees. According to the legend, when he chopped down one of their sacred oaks, a young fir tree grew up in its place. Boniface told the new converts that the fir would be their holy tree—the tree of Christ.
Others believe that the Christmas tree came from the paradise tree, popular in medieval Germany. The tree was the centerpiece in the paradise play honoring “saints” Adam and Eve, whose feast was on December 24. It was decorated with apples and wafers.
Indeed, the first reference to the Christmas tree as we know it came from Strasbourg, Germany, in 1531. German settlers eventually carried the custom to North America, where it was embellished and popularized. The first electrically lighted Christmas tree appeared in 1882 in New York city in the home of Edward Johnson, an associate, appropriately, of Thomas Edison, inventor of the electric lamp.
Legend has it that when Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop of Myra (now southwest Turkey), heard that a local resident lacked money for dowries for his three daughters, he secretly tossed gold pieces or coins into their home through a window or a smoke hole on the roof. The gold supposedly fell right into some stockings that had been hung by the fire to dry. All the essential elements of the Santa Claus story were there.
The image of the rotund, red-suited gift bearer, however, appeared to be the product of the fertile imagination of a series of famous New Yorkers. First, the Dutch settlers contributed the name—Saint Nicholas in Dutch is Sinterklaas. Then, in the 19th century, writers including Washington Irving and Clement Moore (famous for his poem: “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”) furnished the literary descriptions. Finally, cartoonist Thomas Nast, creator of the Democratic donkey and the Republican elephant, brought the finishing touches to the jolly old fellow seen around Christmas time.
Holly and Mistletoe
According to a New York “Times” report, “evergreens of many sorts were used throughout much of Europe long before the Christian era in midwinter pagan rites intended to insure the return of spring.”
The Teutons and the Celts of medieval Germany and England regarded holly as a symbol of eternal life because it stayed green when other trees faded away in winter. Mistletoe was sacred to the Druids of ancient Britain, who ascribed to it magical power over demons, witchcraft, poisons, diseases and infertility. In Scandinavia, mistletoe was so sacred that enemies meeting under it would lay down their weapons and give each other a kiss of peace.
Fantastic legends developed to link these plants with Jesus. One legend holds that holly was originally leafless in winter. But when Mary put the baby Jesus under a holly bush to hide him from Herod’s soldiers during the flight to Egypt, the plant immediately put out thick green leaves complete with prickly points to hide and protect the infant.
IS IT FOR YOU? Pagan rites and superstitious legends—such are the sources of the Christmas tradition. They were shunned by the early Christians, who, according to “the World Book Encyclopedia,” “did not celebrate His birth because they considered celebration of anyone’s birth to be a pagan custom.”
This package of rituals and superstitions called Christmas is but another by-product of the famous dictum of Pope Gregory I to the missionary Augustine: “Tear down their idols but consecrate their temples.” Only the labels have been changed. The contents are as pagan as ever.