Guess who has been calling Christmas a pagan holiday for the last 500 years? Christians.
If it feels like the “War on Christmas” is getting really old, it is. Over ten years have passed since Bill O’Reilly first opened December with a segment called, “Christmas Under Siege”—ten long years in which his cadences and refrains and echoing chorus have become as familiar to most Americans as Handel’s Messiah. More familiar, in fact.
Not that O’Reilly invented the idea. During the 1920’s, Henry Ford’s newspaper published a series of anti-Semitic articles titled, “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.” Among the complaints:
“Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth. . . . People sometimes ask why 3,000,000 Jews can control the affairs of 100,000,000 Americans. In the same way that ten Jewish students can abolish the mention of Christmas and Easter out of schools containing 3,000 Christian pupils.”
In 1959, the far right John Birch Society warned Americans of a plot to replace Christian symbolism with United Nations symbols on Christmas ornaments. In 1966 Christian minister Gerald Smith roused Christian outrage by proclaiming that the abbreviation Xmas had been created by “world Jewry”—even though the symbol X (chi) has been used as an abbreviation for Christ since ancient times.
Complaints about unsavory outsiders “taking the Christ out of Christmas” or forcing beleaguered believers to say “Happy Holidays!” are transparently privileged and xenophobic. They put Christian persecution complex on stark display. But here is the real irony: For almost 500 years, the folks trying to get rid of Christmas—trying to put distance between Christian worship and mid-winter solstice festivities—were Christians themselves.
Early Christians Probably Didn’t Celebrate the Birth of Jesus
Early worship of Jesus focused not on the nativity story but the crucifixion and resurrection. In fact, the Virgin Birth narrative is now considered a late addition to the gospels, one that fused ancient Sumerian mythic tropes, Hebrew tropes and cult of virginity, and the Greco-Roman belief that an extraordinary man must have an extraordinary birth. In the third century, the Church Patriarch Origin wrote a list of Christian holy days that did not include Christmas, suggesting that the holiday hadn’t yet emerged during his time.
What did exist was a wide variety of winter solstice celebrations associated with pagan religions across the Northern Hemisphere. People whose precarious existence depended on the agricultural cycle celebrated the return of light with song and dance, feasting and festive elements that are a part of our midwinter celebrations to this day: yule logs, mulled wine, decorated trees, gift giving, and more. Long before Christianity existed, Latin peoples celebrated Saturnalia and marked December 25 as the birthday of the unconquered sun.
Christianity Absorbs Other Religions
Christianity spread in part by embracing a practice called “syncretism,” in which local traditions and religions were simply absorbed and reinterpreted within the Christian tradition. In 606 A.D., Pope Gregory wrote to Abbot Mellitus in Britain and outlined this approach:
“The temples of the idols among the people should on no account be destroyed. The idols themselves are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God.”
Pagan temples became churches, indigenous gods became saints, and pagan festival days got repurposed as Christian holy days. The earliest existing documentation of December 25 as Christmas derives from the fourth century and is tied closely with the merger between Christianity and imperial Rome. Over time, Christmas came to rival Easter in the Catholic tradition, and the cult of Mary as the most perfect of all perfect virgins rose to rival the Trinity.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the strongest and most vociferous backlash against Christmas came from Protestant reformers who rejected all things Roman Catholic (except, ironically, the Bible itself, which they substituted for the very hierarchy that had compiled it.)
Calvin and Followers Reject “Pagan” “Papal” Christmas Holiday
Protestant Reformer John Calvin saw himself as debriding the Body of Christ, excising layers of rotten flesh so as to revive the wholesome form that God himself had created. Trusting only the sacrosanct Bible and his own righteous conviction as divine authority, he scraped all the way back to the fourth century, discarding indulgences, ritual, iconography, ecclesiastical hierarchy and Catholic holidays as man-made rot.
Calvin laid out a concept that later theologians called the regulative principle of worship, meaning that the only valid forms of worship are those laid out in the Bible. Christmas doesn’t meet this bar. In 1550, under his influence, authorities in Geneva issued an edict banning “all festivals, with the exception of Sundays, which God had ordained. ” Not surprisingly, some people were less than thrilled, and even Calvin himself seems to have worried that the edict went too far, too soon. But he never compromised on the principle.
Scottish Presbyterians Follow Suit
As the Reformation spread to the British Isles, the Presbyterian church took up the case against Catholic holidays. Reformer John Knox echoed Calvin’s dour condemnation of holidays, mentioning Christmas by name and calling down punishment on “obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations.” Another Scottish minister, David Calderwood reiterated Knox’s scathing indictment of Christmas:
“If it had been the will of God that the several acts of Christ should have been celebrated with several solemnities, the Holy Ghost would have made known to us the day of his nativity, circumcision, presentation in the temple, baptism, transfiguration, and the like.” . . . . “This opinion of Christ’s nativity on the 25th day of December was bred at Rome.”
England Bans Christmas Festivities
In England the increasingly powerful Puritan movement challenged the liturgical calendar of the Anglican Church, again claiming that holidays were anti-biblical, papal, and superstitious. In 1647, the British Parliament outlawed Christmas and other holiday festivals.
“Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding.”
America’s Pilgrims Reject Christmas
American children are taught that the Pilgrims traveled from England in the Mayflower seeking religious freedom, but the freedom to celebrate Christmas was apparently outside the range of acceptable practice for the Plymouth Rock colony. In 1621, new arrivals had to be brought into line:
On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used. But the most part of this new company excused themselves and said that it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, they found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.
Two generations later, Puritan leader Increase Mather condemned Christmas again as a pagan tradition:
“The early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”
Catholics Push Back
Catholics have long resented Protestant allegations that Christmas was, from the beginning, a repurposed pagan solstice festival. To this day some insist that the tradition dates back much farther than the fourth century and even that the December 25th date is based on actual historical knowledge. Contemporary Catholic apologist Marian Horvat makes the laughable claim that we can know from the biblical record the date of the annunciation and therefore the date of Christ’s birth. Horvat concludes with a tour de force of rabbit-hole reasoning:
“We can be certain that the first Catholic apologists and Fathers of the Church, who lived very close to the time of the Apostles, were fully aware of the dates associated with the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They had all the calendar sources at hand and they would not allow any untruth to be introduced in the Catholic liturgy. The date of Christ’s birth was transmitted by them as being December 25, a Sunday.”
American Protestants Hold the Line
For generations, a range of Protestants found claims like these unconvincing. In the mid-19th Century, Princeton Professor of Theology Samuel Miller echoed the persistent Presbyterian position that “the observance of uncommanded holy-days is ever found to interfere with the due sanctification of the Lord’s day. Adding to the appointment of God is superstition. ”
In 1871, famed Baptist evangelist Charles H. Spurgeon used his time in the pulpit on December 24 to exhort his flock against observing Christmas:
“We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas: first, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be said or sung in Latin or in English; and, secondly, because we find no scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and, consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority.”
In a sermon titled “Christmas, Easter, Lent, And The Cross (Pagan/Roman Catholic/Antichrist Holy Days [Holidays] In The Church, Family, And Society)” preacher Morton Smith states that the Southern Presbyterian church resisted adding Christmas and Easter to their official calendar until the 1940’s and 1950’s. Thanks in large part to Protestant misgivings, Christmas didn’t become an official American holiday until 1870.
Today’s Christian War on Christmas
Today most Christians have forgotten this history, but a conservative remnant still sees the celebration of Christmas as a concession to worldly influences. Retired Presbyterian minister G.I.Williamson complains that stores are open on Sunday but closed on Christmas. “There is no command to have a special day called Christmas. . . . If my church history books are correct there was only one day that was celebrated faithfully in the early Church. It was the Lord’s Day. And people used to greet one another by saying “Jesus is risen.”
Freelance fundamentalist Christopher J.E. Johnson of Creation Liberty Evangelism echoes the old complaint that Christmas is fundamentally pagan: “God hates paganism and he hates idols and he hates the concept of false Gods, and that’s what Christmas actually represents.” He preaches that “one of the big problems in Christianity today is the DENIAL of the pagan origins of their traditions, or in other words, they lie to themselves (and to others) in order to keep from knowing the truth, and thereby preventing themselves from receiving conviction from the Holy Spirit that would force them to give up their fleshly lusts. To understand the abomination of Christmas being brought into the Church of Jesus Christ, we need to understand its origin.”
Beyond the Forced Choice
As a former Evangelical, I too believe there is value in understanding the ancient origins of the Christmas story and related traditions. I too find some aspects of Christmas abominable, though my reasons are very different. Seen through 21st Century eyes, the Bible’s virgin insemination, like other stories of gods impregnating mortal women, is “more than a little rapey.” Its adulation of virginity harms young women by soiling female sexuality. The obsessive (though conflicting) genealogies that accompany the story convey that a person’s bloodline matters more than his or her character. And the idea of a baby born to be a human sacrifice is about as morally repugnant as any concept humankind has concocted. If Christmas were merely, exclusively Christian, I would find little to recommend it.
Fortunately, for almost 500 years, Christian critics of Christmas have offered an alternative view, one that is rather beautiful, even though they themselves regard it darkly. It is the view that our mid-winter celebration reflects, more than anything, the Pagan and universal yearning to embrace hope in the dead of winter, our impulse to celebrate with abandon the return of light and the promise that spring—and new life—will come again.
Most certainly that is true of my own favorite Christmas traditions, which draw from a wide range of cultures and—yes—superstitions. Fortunately, we humans are incorrigible scavengers and endlessly innovative, taking whatever bits of culture and tradition we have inherited and weaving them together into a fabric of our own making.
Fundamentalists on all sides may argue that we must either embrace or reject Christian teachings and traditions as a package. For them, bound by the constraints of their worldview, that may be true. Happily, the rest of us are free to glean through the Bible and Christian history—including Christmas lore—discarding what is ugly or useless and claiming whatever is timeless and wise. And come mid-winter, we are free to assemble whatever rituals and traditions create a sense of wonder and delight and bring us closer to people we love.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.