Pagan Holidays on Christendom’s Calendar
THE earliest Christians made every effort to stay free from pagan practices. “Certainly,” you might say, “my church does too.”
But does it?
You may be surprised to know how many religious celebrations come, not from true Christianity, but from pagan customs. In this regard, it is enlightening to note what Louis Réau, a member of the famed French Institute who occupied the chair of Middle-Age art at the Sorbonne, France’s leading university, wrote a few years ago:
“Despite the theologians’ aversion to admitting the pagan origin of Christian ceremonies, most of them recognize however that one must look to the agrarian and funeral rites of the [pagan] Romans to find the origin and explanation of numerous Christian celebrations.”a
But why did Christendom put the pagan holidays on her calendar in the first place? “To keep from colliding with and diverting popular beliefs,” Réau says, Christendom’s leaders “maintained the date of the [pagan] religious feasts.” He points out that the adoption of heathen holidays and the continuing of them under another name “considerably facilitated the rapid Christianization of the pagan world.”b
Thoughtful persons, however, might wonder if it did not also lead to a paganizing of Christianity. Consider, for example, some of the common holidays on Christendom’s calendar, comparing your own beliefs and customs with those of the early Christians.
DAYS FOR THE DEAD, EASTER, CHRISTMAS
Due to the widespread belief in the inherent immortality of the human soul, various days for the dead were adopted by Christendom. Réau, for instance, says: “All Saints’ Day, celebrated at the beginning of November, is the Christianization by the Church of a pagan festival of the Dead.”c
What now of All Souls’ Day, November 2, the purpose of which is, by prayers and almsgiving, to assist souls in purgatory? Again it is the adoption of a pagan practice. Says a standard reference work: “Essentially, All Souls [Day] is the adaptation of an almost worldwide custom of setting aside a part of the year (usually the last part) for the dead. The Babylonians observed a monthly Feast of All Souls in which sacrifices were made by priests.”d Both the Greeks and Romans also celebrated feasts for the dead, based on Babylonish paganism.
And what about the period of fasting observed by members of the Anglican, Greek, and Roman Catholic Churches in preparation for Easter? A reference work on pagan worship tells us: “The forty days’ abstinence of Lent was directly borrowed from the worshippers of the Babylonian goddess.”e
It should not surprise us, then, that Easter also found its way onto Christendom’s calendar, not by any command of Jesus Christ or his apostles, but through pagan practices. Clergyman Alexander Hislop wrote:
“What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte . . . the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country [England]. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar. The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain. . . . Such is the history of Easter. The popular observances that still attend the period of its celebration amply confirm the testimony of history as to its Babylonian character. The hot cross buns of Good Friday, and the dyed eggs of Pasch or Easter Sunday, figured in the Chaldean rites just as they do now.”f
With Easter’s having such pagan origin, you may rightly wonder about another of Christendom’s major festivals—Christmas. By checking various standard reference works, you will find that it was unknown among the earliest Christians, but in the fifth century C.E. the Roman Catholic Church ordered a feast celebrated in memory of Jesus’ birth on the day of the Mithraic rites of the birth of the sun and at the close of the Saturnalia, a Roman festival honoring the god Saturn. That pagan time of merrymaking, with exchanging of presents, furnished the model for many of the customs of Christmas.g Thus for a time after the Reformation, Protestants rejected both Christmas and Easter as pagan,h but gradually they began to join in the pagan revelry.
Reluctant though church leaders may be to admit the pagan origin of the many holidays on Christendom’s calendar, the facts are that they originate in paganism, and the proof can be found in encyclopedias and other reference books in almost any public library. Christendom has not followed the example of the faithful Christians of the first two centuries C.E.
EARLY CHRISTIANS REJECTED PAGAN CELEBRATIONS
It is true that during the second through the fourth centuries C.E., especially after the time of Constantine, more and more professed Christians began to celebrate heathen festivals. But those Christians who adhered to the true faith as taught by Jesus Christ did not adopt any heathen holidays. A brief review of the facts shows that they did not.
They held no celebrations for the “souls” of the dead, because the early Christians did not teach the pagan doctrine of the immortality of the human soul; rather, they knew that the Bible makes clear that “the soul that is sinning—it itself will die.”—Ezek. 18:4.
And having learned that Lent is of pagan origin, you will not be surprised that Cassianus, a monk of Marseilles, writing in the fifth century C.E., contrasted the first-century Christians with the church of his day, saying: “It ought to be known that the observance of the forty days had no existence, so long as the perfection of that primitive church remained inviolate.”i
As to Easter: “There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament, or in the writings of the apostolic Fathers. The sanctity of special times was an idea absent from the minds of the first Christians. . . . The ecclesiastical historian Socrates [not the Greek philosopher] states, with perfect truth, that neither the Lord nor his apostles enjoined the keeping of this or any other festival. He says: ‘The apostles had no thought of appointing festival days, but of promoting a life of blamelessness and piety.’ . . . This is doubtless the true statement of the case.”j
Moreover, the birth of Jesus was not celebrated by the early Christians, for Jesus Christ commanded his followers to commemorate his death, not his birth. (1 Cor. 11:24-26) Understandably, The Encyclopedia Americana tells us: “The celebration [of Christmas] was not observed in the first centuries of the Christian church.”—Vol. VI, p. 622, 1956 edition.
So the many celebrations that were added to Christendom’s calendar over the years were not what Jesus Christ or his apostles commanded but the product of Christian apostasy.
INCOMPATIBLE WITH THE WORD OF GOD
Upon what basis, then, did those early Christians reject pagan feasts? On the basis of the Word of God. Many first-century Christians had come out from under the Jewish or Mosaic law, with its feasts and celebrations. They were not about to replace that God-established arrangement, which had served its purpose and then was abolished by God through Jesus Christ, with debased pagan celebrations and festivals, based on the worship of false gods. And even to Hebrew Christians who held to the Jewish festivals, once required by God as a religious obligation, Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, wrote:
“You are scrupulously observing days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that somehow I have toiled to no purpose respecting you.”—Gal. 4:10, 11.
Certainly it is impossible to imagine the apostle Paul’s giving Christian names to celebrations that honored pagan gods. Rather, Paul vigorously urged worshipers of Zeus and Hermes “to turn from these vain things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all the things in them.”—Acts 14:12-15.
So the apostle Paul would not adopt any of those “vain things,” such as pagan holidays, just to get more pagans to become Christians. No, but the Christians of the first century adhered to God’s Word and the divine command:
“What sharing do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness? Further, what harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what portion does a faithful person have with an unbeliever? And what agreement does God’s temple have with idols? For we are a temple of a living God; just as God said: ‘I shall reside among them . . . ’ ‘“Therefore get out from among them, and separate yourselves,” says Jehovah, “and quit touching the unclean thing,”’; ‘“and I will take you in.”’”—2 Cor. 6:14-17.
There is overwhelming evidence, then, as to the pagan origin of Christendom’s holidays. There is, in addition, clear-cut evidence that the early Christians shunned such pagan practices, and that the Bible warns against Christians’ taking up these customs. So, in honesty now, ask yourself: What stand do you take on these pagan celebrations? How does your church view them? Are you and your church like the early Christians? Even if your religious organization does not reject such practices, can you, knowing these things, fail to do so?
a Ionographie de l’Art Chrétien (Iconography of Christian Art) (Paris; 1955), by Louis Réau, Vol. I, pp. 50-52.
b Ionographie de l’Art Chrétien (Iconography of Christian Art) (Paris; 1955), by Louis Réau, Vol. I, pp. 50-52.
c Ionographie de l’Art Chrétien (Iconography of Christian Art) (Paris; 1955), by Louis Réau, Vol. I, pp. 50-52.
d Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (New York; 1949), Vol. 1, p. 38.
e The Two Babylons (London; 1957), by Alexander Hislop, p. 104.
f The Two Babylons, pp. 103, 107, 108.
g See, for example, The Encyclopedia Americana (New York; 1956), Vol. VI, p. 622.
h The Encyclopædia Britannica, 1959 edition, Vol. 11, p. 107.
i As quoted in The Two Babylons, p. 104.
j The Encyclopædia Britannica (New York; 1910), Vol. VIII, p. 828.