Saturday, December 05, 2015

On December Five-and-Twenty

Repost from 5 years ago.

Well knock me over with a feather.

The commonly-told explanation for the early Christians choosing the date of Christmas - that it was piggybacked onto a gift-giving Roman holiday Saturnalia, in and effort to woo pagans over to celebrating the birth of Jesus? Turns out it's likely not true, according to Biblical Archaeology Review. It's a good example of how hearing a plausible theory that explains some of the data can cause you to forget what you already know. I had known that the very earliest Christians didn't pay much attention to Christmas at all. Easter was the big deal, as it should be. And if you'd asked the question in the right way, I would have answered that over the next few centuries, the Church were concerned with distancing itself from pagan customs, not embracing them and co-opting them. That came much later, when it was making a more concerted effort to convert my ancestors in northern Europe. But I breezed right by those known facts because the Saturnalia (plus a few other pagan celebrations) theory sounded so plausible.
The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.
(CWCID: First Things)

12 comments:

Sam L. said...

I've read that early Christians didn't celebrate at this time, and it recently struck me that that may have been due to their expecting the second coming to be soon. Is this a) plausible, and b) even slightly likely?

GraniteDad said...

Here's the article link I think: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/

Christopher B said...

Not sure where I read it now but I've seen a similar but less detailed argument against the date of Christmas being appropriated from pagan festivals and refering to the notion that prophets were born/concived on the date of their death.

Christopher B said...
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Sam L. said...

Soooo, it's at least 5 years I've been commenting here.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

GraniteDad - Thank you.

james said...

Depending on the dates, you might wonder if the feast of Sol Invictus was an imitation of Christmas.

a59a9528-b2e7-11e3-b557-000f20980440 said...

Paul arguably gives permission to spray paint pagan practices with a thin coat of Christianity.

And if you do that, probably not going to announce that that is what you are doing.

Christopher B said...

I noticed that too.

Christopher B said...
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Christopher B said...

The original post is 5 years old. I suspect the article AVI found (relinked by GraniteDad) was written to refute the Dan Brown-Jesus Seminar misinterpretions of Paul used to prove that Christianity became the dominant Western religion by a combination of syncretism and government suppression of older competing faiths.

It's pretty hard to buy that the man who argued against the logical inclusion of Jewish practices in Christianity and specifically instructed his converts to stop pagan practices to avoid sinning or tempting others to sin, would give wink-nod approval to the practice.

Texan99 said...

I suppose I was exposed so early to C.S. Lewis's notions of how pagan truths often were dim or distorted pictures of the truth that it never bothered me to see parallels between pagan and Christian celebrations. Why shouldn't our most important festivals echo the age-old celebration of the spring/new year or the midwinter/solstice? Should it not be important to Christians as well as pagans that God so ordered the world as to have an annual cycle that includes both the darkest, coldest time that produces the spark of hope to come, and the ravishing explosion of spring and new life?