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Does Christmas Reflect Pagan Traditions?

Posted December 1, 2020
Christmas

Some might ask, but wasn’t Christmas moved to December 25 from January 6 to match the celebration of the winter solstice? If the early church was already defending themselves from critics that accused them of paganizing Christianity, we might expect those same critics to make a big deal out of moving Christmas to December 25. However, this criticism didn’t arise until much later. One pastor writes,

There is no suggestion that the birth of Jesus was set at the time of pagan holidays until the 12th century, when Dionysius bar-Salibi stated that Christmas was moved from January 6 to December 25 to correspond with Sol Invictus. Centuries later, post-Enlightenment scholars of comparative religions began popularizing the idea that the early Christians retrofitted winter solstice festivals for their own purposes. For the first millennium of the church’s history, no one made that connection.

For the first thousand years of church history, not even the critics of Christian celebrations of Christmas associated December 25 with a pagan holiday. Church historian Andrew McGowan notes that the church father Augustine, writing in the 5th century, wrote about a Christian sect known as the Donatists who kept Christmas festivals on December 25. What’s more, the Donatists were staunchly opposed to the pagan practices of the Roman Empire.

At the very least, we can conclude that the early church wasn’t ripping off pagan practices in order to make Christianity more appealing. McGowan also makes a convincing case that early Christians chose to celebrate Christmas on December 25 because they were borrowing from an ancient Jewish tradition that said that the most important events of creation and redemption occurred at the same time of the year. Because of this, many Christians in the early church believed that Jesus died on the same day he was conceived. No matter how speculative that may seem, it fits with the ancient Jewish tradition and makes sense of the move to celebrating in December. If Jesus was conceived around March-April, that would put his birth in December.

All of these details underscore that the early church was careful not to merely adopt pagan practices into the church, but had many other reasons for celebrating Christmas festivities.


Footnotes

  • Kevin DeYoung, “Is Christmas a Pagan Rip-off?”https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/is-christmas-a-pagan-rip-off/.

  • Andrew McGowan, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/how-december-25-became-christmas/

  • McGowan, “December 25.”

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Caleb Wait

Caleb Wait (MA, Westminster Seminary California) is the Associate Producer of Core Christianity. He and his wife Kristin have two young children and live in Southern California. You can follow him on Twitter at @calebwait.