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The myth of ‘pagan’ Christmas Why does the idea that this Christian festival was stolen from heathen tradition persist?

Some Christians have always been suspicious of Christmas. They shouldn’t be. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Some Christians have always been suspicious of Christmas. They shouldn’t be. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images


December 25, 2020   10 mins

In AD 932 the most powerful ruler in Britain spent Christmas on the edge of Salisbury Plain. Never before had a unitary kingdom been fashioned out of all the various realms of the Angles and the Saxons. Never before had all the other kings of the island, from the northernmost reaches of Scotland to the mountains of Wales, been compelled to acknowledge the overlordship of a single man.

That December, taking the road that led through the West Saxon heartlands of his kingdom, and arriving with his court in the fortified settlement of Amesbury, Athelstan could be well satisfied with the scope of his power. Across the Channel, in the lands of the Franks, it had long been the custom of emperors to sit in state at Christmas, publicly wearing a crown. Athelstan, a king who had won for himself his own imperial dignity, was the first of his dynasty to do the same. His greatness made for a dazzling show. There was feasting, drinking, gift-giving. Sat on his throne, wearing his diadem, the King of the English bestowed largesse. On Christmas Eve he made generous grants of land. One was to an abbey, another to a lord named Alfred. Such munificence was widely seen as appropriate to the season. The radiance of the king’s hospitality blazed all the more brilliantly for the cold and darkness all around.

Athelstan did not know it, but the festivities he presided over at Amesbury that Christmas of 932 had a pedigree that reached back millennia. Beyond the light that spilled and flickered out through the doorways of his hall there lay a pool of water. Fed by a warm spring, the waters of this pool — which today we call Blick Mead — never freeze. Back in an age unimaginable to even the greatest scholar at Athelstan’s court, 8,000 years before the birth of Christ, it was discovered by nomads moving northwards in the wake of retreating ice sheets. The constant warmth of the spring, even amid snow and ice, doubtless served to endow it, in the minds of those who found it, with an eerily sacral quality.

Certainly, the site seems to have become a significant one for the people of Mesolithic Wiltshire. Thousands of animal bones have been found there. Since the majority of these are from aurochs, a breed of wild cattle so enormous that a single carcass would have served to feed 200 people, it seems likely that Blick Mead was a great feasting place. Perhaps, as at Athelstan’s court millennia later, these feasts were staged when the days were at their shortest. What gods the people of Blick Mead might have worshipped, and what patterns they might have tracked in the turning of the seasons, we cannot know for certain. Even so, it does not seem unreasonable to imagine them craving in the dead of winter what Athelstan too, when he came to Amesbury, made sure to provide for his court: heat amid the cold, light amid the darkness.

Another monument provides more solid evidence for just how enduring this tradition was on Salisbury Plain. Stonehenge, which stands two miles from Amesbury, is famously aligned to the movements of the sun. Although the stones that would have framed sunset on the shortest day of the year are gone, the bones of pigs and cattle slaughtered around the same time, and left discarded at the nearby settlement of Durrington Wells, suggest that the winter solstice was indeed, for the builders of Stonehenge, a time of feasting. Again, of course, no one at Athelstan’s court would have had any notion of this. The standing stones that dotted the landscape of Britain were generally assumed to be the work of giants. This did not mean, however, that the memory of every pagan god worshipped in the depths of midwinter had been lost to oblivion.

The influence of Rome on Athelstan’s emergent empire was a strong one. It was manifest in the crown he wore, in the Latin used to write his charters, and in the name given to one of the seven days of the week. SĂŠternesdĂŠg — Saturday — was not, as the other days of the Old English week were, named after a heavenly body or one of the gods once worshipped by Athelstan’s ancestors. Instead, it commemorated a god who, so the Romans believed, had reigned over a golden age, and whose festival on 17 December was praised by poets as “the best of days”. The entire week that followed it might be given over to merry-making. People would gamble and hand out gifts; masters serve their slaves; lords of misrule be appointed to preside over the festivities. Saturnalia, this celebration was called: the feast of Saturn.

It might seem fitting, then, that the festival we call Christmas — Cristes Maessan, as it came to be known in the 11th century — would have been described by Athelstan and his courtiers simply as Midne Winter: Midwinter. They knew perfectly well that pagans in the benighted times before the coming of Christ had marked the darkest time of the year, just as they did, with great celebrations. Bede, a scholar who had lived two centuries previously, and whose works were much valued by Athelstan and his dynasty, recorded that prior to the conversion of the Angles and Saxons their most important annual festival had been held on 24 December. Whether or not this information was accurate, it caused Bede himself no concern or perplexity. To note the echoes of pagan practise in the Christian year signalled, not a surrender to relativism, but its rout.

Bede, more clearly than any Christian scholar before him, had recognised that there was only the one fixed point amid the great sweep of the aeons, only the single pivot. Drawing on calendrical tables compiled some two centuries earlier, he had fixed on the Incarnation, the entry of the divine into the womb of the Virgin Mary, as the moment on which all of history turned. Years, by Bede’s reckoning, were properly measured according to whether they were before Christ or anno Domini: in the year of the Lord. The effect was to render the calendar itself as Christian. The great drama of Christ’s incarnation and birth stood at the very centre of both the turning of the year and the passage of the millennia. The fact that pagans too had staged midwinter festivities presented no threat to this conceptualisation, but quite the opposite. Dimly, inadequately, gropingly, they had anticipated the supreme miracle: the coming into darkness of the true Light, by which every man who comes into the world is lit.

In time, however, there were Christians who found themselves doubting this. “A perpetual forge of idols.” So Calvin described the human mind. This conviction, that fallen mortals were forever susceptible to turning their backs on God, to polluting the pure radiance to his commands, to practising in his very sanctuary pagan rituals, was a dread that constantly shadowed Calvin’s more committed followers in England. To Puritans, as they were called, the riotous celebrations that accompanied Christmas appeared a particular abomination.

It made the festival seem, as one of them disapprovingly noted, “some Heathen Feast of Ceres or Bacchus.” This anxiety fused over time with another deeply-held Protestant conviction: that papists, in their cunning and their deviancy, had been altogether too ready to compromise with the legacies of idolatry. Rather than clear away the brambles and nettles of paganism, they had instead tended them, and encouraged them to grow. What, then, was all the revelling, and dicing, and feasting that marked the celebration of the Saviour’s birth, all the “Licencious Liberty,” if not the Saturnalia by another name?

Today, the doubts about Christmas originally articulated by Puritan divines continue to flourish — as does so much Protestant anti-popery — in polemics that target not merely Catholicism but the Christian Church tout court. “Nothing in Christianity is original.” So opined the distinguished symbologist Sir Leigh Teabing. “The pre-Christian god Mithras — called the Son of God and the Light of the World — was born on December 25
” Dan Brown’s take is one well suited to a capitalist age. The Da Vinci Code, by portraying the early Church as an institution that had knowingly and cynically appropriated the feastdays of other gods, was able to cast Christians as predatory monopolists, asset-stripping the cults of their rivals.

Part of the reason for Dan Brown’s astonishing success is clearly that he was telling lots of people what they were ready to hear. That Christmas is a fraud, a festival stolen by the Church from pagans, has become a staple of many an atheist meme. Fuelling this trend is the fact that backing for it is to be found in distinguished works of history as well as in thrillers. “The Church was anxious to draw the attention of its members away from the old pagan feast days, and the December date did this very well, for it coincided with the ‘birthday of the invincible Sun’ of Mithraism, and the end of the Roman Saturnalia (December 24).” So writes John North in his book Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos.

Similarly, in his seminal study of the ritual year in Britain, Stations of the Sun, the great historian of paganism Ronald Hutton quotes a Christian writer whom he names “the Scriptor Syrus”, and dates to “the late fourth century”. This Scriptor Syrus — in the passage cited by Hutton — notes both that the birthday of the Sun was celebrated on 25 December, and that Christians as well as pagans took part in the celebrations. “Accordingly, when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.” The case would seem open and shut.

But is it? In reality, the notion that Christmas is a festival stolen from pagans is quite as much a compound of confusions and inaccuracies as anything believed about the feast day by Christians themselves. There is no evidence — absolutely none — that the birth of Mithras was celebrated on 25 December. The confusion seems to have arisen because Mithras had Sol Invictus, “Unconquered Sun,” as one of his titles, and — according to an ambiguous entry in a mid-4th century almanac — the birthday of a quite different god called Sol Invictus may have been celebrated on the same date. What, though, of the evidence provided by the Scriptor Syrus? This, too, is not what it is widely assumed to be.

Far from providing contemporaneous evidence for the Christian appropriation of the Sun’s birthday, “Syrus” was in reality an anonymous medieval scribe who, back in the 12th century, had annotated a manuscript by a local bishop. “Scriptor Syrus” — literally, “Syrian writer” — was the name given to him in a 19th century edition of this manuscript. The passage quoted by Hutton was not, as has been widely assumed, a reference to the origins of Christmas. Rather, Syrus was trying to explain why Christians in Rome celebrated the birth of Christ on a different date to Christians in the eastern half of the Mediterranean — a date which the scribe himself, unsurprisingly, took for granted was the accurate one. Such, refracted by a process of Chinese whispers, is the origin of the claim so confidently asserted by Sir Leigh Teabing that nothing about Christmas is original. One more winter solstice myth, in short, to add to all the others.

Why, then, did Christians in the West come to celebrate Christmas on 25 December? The answer seems to lie, not in paganism, but — as one might expect — in the great seedbed of Jewish tradition. Rabbis and Church Fathers in the early centuries of the Christian century shared a conviction that the great events of creation and salvation were framed by an essential symmetry. Jewish scholars, tracing this symmetry, could argue that both the creation of the world and the birth of Abraham and his immediate heirs had occurred on the same day of the year that Israel was destined to obtain redemption.

Christian scholars, drawing on similar traditions, came to believe that Jesus had died on the anniversary of his incarnation. And the date of that anniversary? First in Carthage, and then in Rome, it came to be identified with what, according to the Roman calendar, was 25 March. Then, once that particular date had bedded down — and operating on the assumption that Christ had been born nine months after his conception — it required only a simple calculation to arrive at the date of his birth. By the 4th century, 25 December was coming to be enshrined across the western half of the empire as the anniversary of Christ’s birth.

By 597, when missionaries from Rome arrived in Kent to attempt the conversion of the pagan Angles and Saxons, it had become an irrevocable part of the calendar of the Latin Church. As Bede, a hundred years later and more, would teach his countrymen, the rhythms of time were not random, but structured by the purposes of God. The birthday of Christ was joined by a fateful and divinely-ordained patterning to the day of his death. Athelstan, celebrating Christmas at Amesbury, would have known, contemplating the birth of his Saviour, to remember as well His death.

Doubtless that is why, in the charter the king issued on Christmas Eve to Shaftesbury Abbey, he specified that the monks should hold him in their prayers, and sing fifty psalms daily for the repose of his soul. Yet it is evident as well that Athelstan, celebrating the Christmas season in Amesbury that December of 932, had not neglected to ponder the precise details of his Saviour’s birth. When making grants of land, he did not forget the poor and those without shelter. In a second charter issued that Christmas Eve, he imposed on its recipient, the lord Alfred, a legal obligation to provide daily for 120 of the destitute.

Other charters with similar stipulations followed in a steady succession. Athelstan’s determination that no one living on his own lands be permitted to starve saw him issue a particularly prescriptive ordinance. The officials responsible for his estates were warned by their royal master that fines would be levied on those who failed in their duty to the needy, and the proceeds donated to charity. “My wish it is that you should always provide the destitute with food.”

At the Saturnalia, when, for a few brief days, hierarchies might be upended and all was joyous misrule, did those who celebrated it issue similar ordinances? It seems unlikely. The golden age of Saturn lay far in the past. To resurrect it for a few fleeting days implied no moral obligations. Even as masters waited on slaves, no broader subversion was threatened. The first were still first, and the last were still last. Athelstan, however, could enjoy no such assurance. Sat on his throne that Christmas season in Amesbury, crowned with his diadem, he knew how unsettling for the wealthy and the mighty were all the implications of his Saviour’s birth in a stable.

The subversion of it was not something that could be framed safely within the limits of a festival. The implications reached out across time and space. The divine had become flesh. The Son of God had descended to earth and been born amid straw and the stench of the barnyard. The mystery of it was at once beyond the comprehension of even the greatest scholars, and a cause of wonder that even the least educated could feel. To a king it served as a summons to remember the needy, the homeless, the poor. And so Athelstan, conscious that in time he would be called to answer for himself before the throne of his Maker, did his best to keep them in his mind, and to care for them.

The foundational story of Christmas, that of the birth of the Son of God amid poverty and danger, gives to the festival its own very particular flavour. The feasting, the gifts, the brief liberation from their sufferings of those ground down by poverty, or oppression or war: all, in the case of Christmas, are endowed with a very culturally distinctive resonance. It is a resonance that derives, not from timeless and universal archetypes, but rather from a specifically Christian narrative. All the other myths and narratives that, over the course of the centuries, have become a part of the festive fabric, from Santa Claus to Scrooge, from football matches in no mans land to the Grinch, endure because they go with its grain.

This year of all years  — with a clarity denied us in happier times — it is possible to recognise in Christmas its fundamentally Christian character. The light shining in the darkness proclaimed by the festival is a very theological light, one that promises redemption from the miseries of a fallen world. In a time of pandemic, when the festive season is haunted by the shadows of sickness and bereavement, of loneliness and disappointment, of poverty and dread, the power of this theology, one that has fuelled the celebration of Christmas for century after century, becomes easier, perhaps, to recognise than in a time of prosperity. The similarities shared by the feast day of Christ’s birth with other celebrations that, over the course of history, have been held in the dead of winter should not delude us into denying a truth so evident as to verge on the tautologous: Christmas is a thoroughly Christian festival.


Tom Holland is a writer, popular historian and cricketer. He is not an actor. His most recent book is PAX

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Jon Walmsley
Jon Walmsley
3 years ago

To think of ‘Christmas’ as being ‘stolen’ from pagan Winter Solstice traditions seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding of how cross-cultural and religious mixing works and is the kind of warped logic that underpins this post-modern nonsense about ‘cultural appropriation’.

It’s incredibly insidious in fact to consider any cultural tradition to be ‘pure’ in any sense of the word, as this opens up the way for ethnocentrism to rear its ugly head. The merest glance at a history or anthropology book will show you that human cultures across time have bled into one another again and again, as they continue to do today, and this is neither a bad nor a good thing – it’s just how culture works!

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Walmsley

I agree totally with the crux of what you say but not the bit about ‘post-modernism’. ‘Cultural appropriation’ has nothing to do with post modernism. A post modernist view would be much more akin to your understanding of the way cultures bleed and blend into one another rather than there being any original truth or meaning behind any particular event or belief. Poor old post modernism unfairly gets blame for an awful lot these days!

David Morley
David Morley
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

“Cultural appropriation’ has nothing to do with post modernism”

But could we say that it has a lot to do with identity politics, in that it is conceived as a dominant group “stealing” from a less powerful (or oppressed) group?

And it’s hard not to see identity politics as, at the very least, the illegitimate child of post modernism.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Walmsley

It is not likely that any day can be found on which some “pagan” isn’t already
celebrating something. If a day is rendered “off limits” because a pagan
holiday already exists on that date, then there aren’t any days left to celebrate anything!

Ian Thorpe
Ian Thorpe
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Walmsley

It seem to me Jon, that claims of modern pagans about Chistians stealing Chistmas and other festivals from the earlier religious traditions are often prompted by the certainty of Christians that they have an exclusive claim on truth and historical accuracy.
There is no evidence that Jesus (if he existed at all,) was born on December 25 and lots of evidence that he wasn’t, while it is certain that the pagan winter solstice was celebrated on December 21st.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Thorpe

That’s your opinion and it happens to be based on ignorance. Read the Da Vinci Hoax.
“The Christian Faith taught by Paul was grounded in real, historical events, not mythic or allegorical stories.” Historian A,H.M Jones

Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

You’re overreaching there: that quote is indeed from the Da Vinci Hoax – but it is written by the author – who is the editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight, not historian AHM Jones.

The assertion comes after a section which quotes Jones on ancient attitudes to Christians, but it is vey clearly a new paragraph and not a quote.

Helen Moorhouse
Helen Moorhouse
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Thorpe

In the New Testament Zechariah is told of the arrival of John the Baptist while entering the Holy of Holies. A selected Priest of the Temple did this only once a year on Yom Kippur – 25th September. Nine months later was 25th June. John is 6 months older than Jesus. Ergo Jesus was born on around 25th December.

Gerard Havercroft
Gerard Havercroft
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Walmsley

I don’t thi k it’s about cultural appropriation. People that reference theft of pagan rites probably don’t see the actions carried out by the church in its quest for a stranglehold on our salvation and our mortal souls in a positive light. hence they aren’t likely to use positive words in their descriptions of church activities. I can’t stand the cultural appropriation police any more than the next person but these notions regarding paganism were around long before “CA” became trendy.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago

If you had trouble following the argument in this piece, that was the author’s intent. It’s a work of sophistic obscurantism. Holland tries to argue that Christians didn’t just pick the 25th of December because it was clever and convenient owing to the fact that people already partied big around then. But he can marshall no evidence, so he spirals up and away into flowery, abstract associations.

The fact is, Christian theology began to cohere and build out when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, which it was under Constantine I by 325AD, when the Romans were still governing and mixing with Britons, Germanic peoples and all the rest ““ all of whom observed the winter solstice, as the Romans themselves had when they were pagan.

Sisyphus Jones
Sisyphus Jones
3 years ago

I prefer ‘sophistic obscurantism’ (you should put that on a T-shirt, btw. It’ll sell big in Korea) to reasoning which is so circular as to invoke a spiral. I have a particular fondness for people who follow “the fact is…” with something not so much factual as like graffiti. Listen, bubba, we can try to skate around it, but The Savior is born. We all need to get our heads around that.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago
Reply to  Sisyphus Jones

He’s not the Saviour, he’s a very naughty boy.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

As well as being a Member of the Judean People’s Front, or was it the People’s Front of Judea?

opn
opn
3 years ago

What you say about Christian theology would be news to Origen (died ca. 250) not to mention Justin Martyr (martyed ca. 165) Tertullian (ob. ca. 235), Cyprian (martyred 258 AD), Minucius Felix, Clement of Alexandria (ob. ca. 215) and quite a number of others.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
3 years ago

Thanks, Jaunty. I just logged in to say something similar – but you said it better. Tom takes us on a complex path which leaves us disoriented and (unless we spot the trick) thinking that the reason we don’t understand him is because we aren’t clever enough.
The idea that early Christians did not align their birth story with the mid-winter feast (and the re-birth story with Oestre) is simply absurd.
Even in the 19th/20th centuries christian missionaries in colonies continued to align and mix Christianity with local customs.
As an atheist I am happy to share my turkey feast and Easter eggs with the Christians.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

That’s a good way of putting it. It’s all, “Look into my eyes, look into my eyes…”.

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Mike Bell

They did not align them. Saturnalia was over on December 25th and the Kalends of March were a week away. As for Eostre, we know almost nothing about her – she is mentioned once in passing by Bede. The significance and the principles for dating both Easter and Christmas were established in the Mediterranean Basin long before Christianity impinged on the northern barbarians.

Ian Thorpe
Ian Thorpe
3 years ago
Reply to  opn

That would explain why Easter Sunday (a Christianised version of the feast of Eostre is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. One – nil to the northern barbarians.

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Thorpe

Almost nothing is known about Eostre. The name is mentioned once in the course of a chronographical discussion by Bede. The criteria for setting the date of Easter were set long before any Germanic peoples were converted to Christianity (first by Ulfilas in the mid-4th century), let alone the Anglo-Saxons (AD 597 ff.). It is fixed by reference to the Jewish Passover as the events which it commemorates and re-enacts (which have nothing to do with German goddesses and everything to do with the Resurrection of a young Jewish rabbi) took place at the time of the Passover. The continuing core of Easter observance is not chocolate eggs or baby chickens, it is the celebration of the Mass at a vigil on the Saturday/Sunday night. Were you to attend such a celebration you might discover how little this has to do with the bloodthirsty rites of Anglo-Saxon paganism. In the meantime, I commend to you the entry “Easter, date of” in the new Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity – a secular reference book which records simple facts.

incornsyucopia
incornsyucopia
3 years ago

It’s not true that Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, before or after 325AD. That didn’t happen until 380AD with the Edict of Thessalonica. The Edict of Milan, issued by Constantine in 313, merely gave Christianity legal protection. https://en.wikipedia.org/wi

conrad.bate
conrad.bate
3 years ago

Jaunty, I disagree. You’re seeing this wrong. And Tom spells it out. He takes the opposite path From the same data. He properly goes into the past as real characters, deduces from their perspective, not via a lens of superimposed modernism.

He specifically says that Christians were wholly focused on the Incarnation, and 9 months after. And that they knew the 21st wasn’t the 25th. But they didn’t mind because they felt that celestial serendipity was divine. They felt these festive were prototyping Christs arrival. Its a pretty sane argument.

Had the early church thought the incarnation been at any other time, rest assured they’d have used it. Tom makes this plain.

Winter solstice wasn’t needed. It wasn’t causal. Modernists just superimpose too eagerly. Christendom has subsumed every religion it buttressed against. Pagan, Animist, Polytheist. Every colour and stripe. Many hundreds. Many continents. Countless generations.

Tens of millions of converts from tens of thousands of systems of religion. To pick, as evidence, some co equal religion encounters, to see some serendipity and to imbibe meaning due to annual festival collisions, is to allow divergent inevitability beget proof. A conclusion that is not possible to avoid: that it is simply sheer random inevitability some festival of some other would bump.

After all, the burden of proof is on your side, if you make a pagan ancestry claim.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago

For the first three centuries of Christianity, Christmas wasn’t in December”or on the calendar anywhere. If
observed at all, the celebration of Christ’s birth was usually associated with Epiphany, January 6, one of the church’s earliest established feasts. Some church leaders even opposed the idea of a birth celebration.

rgalarza2
rgalarza2
3 years ago

“Jaunty”, I feel like you take this subject as a whole to be a type of ace in the hole, when in fact, it is pretty inconsequential. Surely you know that the Bible does not give the exact date of Christ’s birth, and surely you know that Christians know that. For centuries, Christian scholars have debated this subject as a scholarly pursuit, not as an article of faith.

Jaunty, CHRISTIANS DO NOT ACTUALLY BELIEVE THAT JESUS WAS BORN ON DECEMBER 25TH. This is not taught objectively in any church or seminary. It is the date that has been selected to commemorate his birth, but few of us would actually defend December 25th as his actual birthday. And even if there are some, the date of Christ’s birth is neither an article of faith nor critical to any doctrine whatsoever.

Perhaps the celebration of Christmas was timed to coincide with the winter solstice, or was adapted from a pagan celebration, or perhaps something else. What does it matter? If Christ was born on December 25, or the 4th of July, or Cinco de Mayo, how would that change anything about Christianity? Christ was born; that’s the point. His birthday is an interesting question, but irrelevant as to the distinctive truth claims of Christianity in the Bible.

So, you may be right…but does it really matter?

George Wheeler
George Wheeler
3 years ago
Reply to  rgalarza2

It is also very debatable that Jesus Christ was actually ever born; That’s the point!

Martin Harries
Martin Harries
3 years ago
Reply to  George Wheeler

Christ’s existence is not the point; the point of interest is whether Zeus was his father and whether Jesus was… Zeus … his…. own… father*. Had to be I’m afraid, otherwise there was a time before God existed!* no wonder the Classical Greeks rubbed their hands in glee once they learned their debate opponents were Christians!

Gerard Havercroft
Gerard Havercroft
3 years ago

Can you suggest any reading on the matter for a interested person?

Benjamin Sharkey
Benjamin Sharkey
1 year ago

I disagree, it is not obscure at all. The first part of the argument is pointing out how obscure pre Christian paganism actually is, and how absurd it is to make the claims some authors have based off so little evidence. The second point is in line with Holland’s wider thesis in Dominion, that Christianity represents something fundamentally new and revolutionary, and therefore Christmas, which cannot be satisfactorily linked in its exact dating to any pagan festival, also represents something fundamentally new in terms of its meaning when compared to pagan mid winter festivities.

Barry Coombes
Barry Coombes
3 years ago

Odin smiles wryly as he gets on with the job of slowing the world’s slide into Ragnarok. Happy Yule!

George Wells
George Wells
2 years ago
Reply to  Barry Coombes

Hail Odin!

K Sheedy
K Sheedy
3 years ago

Great obscure history lesson, but the thesis is flawed. In the northern hemisphere the shortest day of the year (roughly) was very significant, so every religion (pagan or monotheist) hitched a ceremony and celebration to it. Christmas is just the christian version.

Eugene Norman
Eugene Norman
3 years ago
Reply to  K Sheedy

You should probably read the article.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Eugene Norman

Could you perhaps expand on that critique Eugene?

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  K Sheedy

Except that 25th December is recorded as the day of Jesus’s birth in a document associated with the City of Rome itself called the Codex-Calendar of 354, probably first drafted in the 330s, well before Ulfilas took Christianity to the northern barbarians.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  opn

Is this per chance the Resurrection of “Old Nick” of TQ 9?

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago

My rule of thumb is that the more pompous and overbearing an author’s prose is, and the more complex and elaborate his argumentation, the flimsier is his case. Also, the murkier are his motives. This essay is a prime example of that.

Holland begins by seeming to argue against the claim that Christian theologians co-opted a widespread pagan winter festival opportunistically. But he can’t actually do that. All he does is unpick one potential source of the claim, which he feels is enough to proceed to his triumphant conclusion, which departs from his initial argument: namely, that Christmas is now Christian. Nobody would argue against that because, as he is forced to admit, it’s a tautology.

His case that Christian theologians arrived independently at the 25th of December as Jesus’ birthday is hazy, magical, and he seems to get the maths wrong. December 25th is not nine months behind March 25th.

P C
P C
3 years ago

Re your final sentence: true enough. But 25 December is nine months after 25 March, which is the point Holland makes.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago
Reply to  P C

Yes, I see my error. I understand his claim now. Still, to claim that Christian theologians came up with December 25th as Jesus’ birthday independently, and by some process of reasoning, can’t be supported.

Sisyphus Jones
Sisyphus Jones
3 years ago

Nor can it be refuted. Unless you’re a atheist who fears the Lord more than a Bishop, in which case, the only authoritative refutation necessary is that of your strong desire to deny the Savior of the world.

Eloise Burke
Eloise Burke
3 years ago

Well, it can if you assume that Passover could plausibly be assumed to be March 25. We may not believe his “incarnation date” was the same as his crucifixion date, but if the early Christians did – and had done so for many years – then that is some support for the idea that his birthdate was arrived at by a process of reasoning.

opn
opn
3 years ago

It can be supported, because early Christian theologians themselves say that this is how they came up with it. Here is Augustine, writing ca. 400: “For he is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, on which day also He suffered… He was born, according to tradition on December the 25th….”. Plenty of earlier authors say similar things – I just happen to have Augustine to hand. This is not a matter of unbelievers vs. believers, it is a simple matter of scholarship needing to represent the thinking of early Christian authors accurately.

Dominic Rudman
Dominic Rudman
3 years ago
Reply to  opn

Thanks for that Oliver. I found the original piece quite interesting but many of the comments have been even more enlightening.

Dominic Rudman
Dominic Rudman
3 years ago

On the maths part, he’s arguing that early Christians believed that Jesus’ *conception* occurred on 25 March, the same day as his death (the symmetry concept he described). They would therefore have believed his birth to occur exactly nine months after, on 25 December. It seems a reasonable argument on that point at least, and doesn’t preclude Christians co-opting whatever pagan festivals were being celebrated.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago
Reply to  Dominic Rudman

Yes you’re right about December to March. But how did they decide on 25th of March for conception/crucifixion? It’s a convenient date to pick if you want him born on December 25th.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago

I think the two views of Christmas: that it reflects an archetypal winter solstice versus it is uniquely Christian aren’t really either/or. I see the Christian festival with its unique morality layered on indescribably ancient beliefs that solstices and equinoxes are central nodal points for human affairs.

Why 25 March was picked for Christ’s death I do not know, but suspect that the vernal equinox at round the same time might have been an influence. The ancients saw us as part of the cosmos and cosmic round. What happened in the heavens and the changing seasons were seen as signs and signals pointing to human and divine events.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

So do I. But for whatever reason, Holland dislikes that idea, though he struggles to discredit it.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago

What he wants to discredit is that Christmas is ‘nothing but’ an iteration of ancient midwinter festivals.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

If he wanted to say that, he could have said it. But he didn’t. He sets out to discredit the notion that Christians opportunistically appropriated the solstice. And he fails.

opn
opn
3 years ago

No it is a matter of chronology. Christmas was fixed on 25th December in the early 4th century in the Western Mediterranean world, where the Solstice was not a significant festival. Saturnalia was, of course, but that was the week before Christmas. And the Kalends of January was, but that is the week after Christmas. In fact 25 December is one of the least festive options for a pagan holiday in the Western Mediterranean world. This is all about 400 years before Bede and 600 or so before Athelstan

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

I think he is pushing a point a little bit beyond its bounds. What he wrote in Dominion was quite right, and a corrective to some of the historically illiterate guff about the ancient world that gets passed around recently. But the corrective went to far and he seems to want to place everything into a Roman vs Christian values, when in reality, the shift and consequences of ideas were quite complicated, and often difficult to disentangle from each other.

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
3 years ago

Because Jesus was crucified, according to all the contemporary records, on the eve of the Jewish Passover, which always occurs between 21st March and 18th April (according to the date of the Spring Equinox full moon in any given year). So if he was thought to have been conceived on the same date as his death, that would have been soon after the Spring Equinox – hence his birth soon after the Winter Solstice.

Whether or not this is historically/literally true is beside the point. Traditional cultures such as Judaism aren’t based on literalism but symbolism. Symbolically it makes perfect sense.

Karen Lindquist
Karen Lindquist
3 years ago
Reply to  Hilary LW

And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that they pick his conception to be the vernal equinox, when spring is born, to be the conception. The SUN of god, and all that. And Easter has nothing to do with ancient fertility rites, either. That rabbit is just an arbitrary symbol…

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Hilary LW

Does an Immaculate Conception really need a nine month gestation period? Surely such mundane mortal matters do not apply to the Son of God?

mathew jackson
mathew jackson
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

I laughed at this response; all that PR over the last two millennia and all the war and strife would have been wasted if we had had an instant pop-out saviour, dispensing miracles to the masses after that one visitation by a very naughty possibly deviant angel. Poor Joseph though, or was he the world’s first PR executive?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  mathew jackson

Sadly just a poor Cuckold I would guess. Still he certainly seems to have had exceptional PR talent.

mathew jackson
mathew jackson
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Starting with his wedding speech! Poor? If only his PR firm had published their audited accounts which would show a very expensive deduction for that celestial seduction.

ranulphdiggins
ranulphdiggins
3 years ago
Reply to  mathew jackson

Bro you are not funny

kevinwflynn
kevinwflynn
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Note that “Immaculate Conception” is a dogma relating to the conception of the Virgin Mary, not Jesus. While one may or may not believe in Jesus’ virginal conception, Christians believe that Jesus in his humanity was subject to the human condition in every respect, including nine months of gestation.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  kevinwflynn

Extraordinary, thank you for that explanation.

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

The “Immaculate Conception” refers to the conception of Mary, not of Jesus. She is believed to have been conceived free from the propensity to sin.

The whole point of the incarnation of the Son of God is to participate in the messy, painful, constructed state of
being a human organism, to redeem humanity from the inside, to “become human so humans could become divine”. “He emptied himself, and took upon him the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”.

Of course you don’t believe that, and why should you, but before you make snide comments maybe you should at least be educated in what Christians actually believe.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Hilary LW

The preposterous nature of Christianity, and its ridiculous pomposity are bound to produce snide comments.
Surely you have got used to that by now? Or is this a case of outrage for the sake of outrage?

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

What rubbish! Do you really believe that any beliefs other than yours are ridiculous ie that you are always right (especially in areas that can be neither proved or disproved)?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

Tut, tut “don’t get your knickers in a twist” as we used to say.

Listening to the Nine Lessons and Carols Service from King’s College this afternoon,I was struck by just how ludicrous the whole thing is. How on Earth did it ever get traction is the the fascinating subject.

Incidentally I don’t have any beliefs concerning “what can be neither proved or disproved”. In fact what a sterile subject, which probably explains why I am agnostic.

Many years ago when I came across Pliny’s opinion my curiosity ceased. He had said it all.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

That’s your opinion. Read the Da Vinci Hoax.
“The Christian Faith taught by Paul was grounded in real, historical events, not mythic or allegorical stories.” Historian A,H.M Jones

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

You are a it behind the curve
here, I’m afraid.
Presumably your are referring to the late Arnold Jones’s ‘The Late Roman Empire’? Then you will recall his passage on the economic cost of Christianity on an agrarian economy? The ridiculous numbers of parasitical monks etc?

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

“My God created laws”Š His universe is
not ruled by wishful thinking but by immutable laws.” Albert Einstein

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

Albert Einstein was not God incarnate!
Give me Bertram Russell or Aldous Huxley any day.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Enrico Medi, chair of geophysics, University of Palermo “Why do I believe in God? As a physicist, I look at nature from a particular perspective. I see an orderly, beautiful universe in which nearly all physical phenomena can be understood from a few simple mathematical equations. I see a universe that, had it been constructed slightly differently, would never have given birth to stars and planets, let alone bacteria and people. And there is no good scientific reason for why the universe should not have been different.

And “Just because you don’t believe in
something doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” Albert Einstein

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

As you well know neither would have survived in Plato’s Academy with such an ambiguous, illogical position as that.

Let us not drift into the sterile “what is truth” debate. PP answered that well enough for all of us.

johngrant4est
johngrant4est
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

He was referring to the Pantheistic god of Spinoza, about as far as you can get from the genocidal Yahweh.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  johngrant4est

Einstein was very religious; he wrote, “Thus I came ““ despite the fact that I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents ““ to a deep religiosity.”
“genocidal Yahweh”? You wouldn’t be a radical bigot, by any chance, Grindlay?

johngrant4est
johngrant4est
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

Radical bigotry aside, the gist is that Einstein’s “deep religiosity” wasn’t founded in belief in a personal god.

Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

No more “preposterous” than any other religion.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Giulia Khawaja

Correct, and people may believe what they like, but should not feel that they are entitled to be publicly funded, nor have the right to kill those they disapprove of.

jkabala1980
jkabala1980
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

I rarely give downvotes, but anyone who misdefines the Immaculate Conception does not belong in this conversation.

And although not really a major feast (in part since it often conflicts with Holy Week or Easter Week and is bumped as a result), the Annunciation is still commemorated on March 25 to this day. (And in pre-1752 England it was considered the start of the new year, which makes sense – if the Christian era began with the incarnation of Christ, then the year should begin on that day, not January 1.)

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  jkabala1980

Thanks for that vote of confidence!

Incidentally I asked two questions, and made no definition of the IC, correct or incorrect, or are your powers of comprehension failing?

Do you, by chance, have the misfortune to live in Quislington?

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
3 years ago
Reply to  Hilary LW

There are no contemporary records of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Or his existence.

opn
opn
3 years ago

No, it’s the other way around. They decided on 25th March as the day of the Crucifixion (or in some cases the Resurrection) because they had worked out that in (the equivalent of) AD 29, the year of the consulship of the Two Gemini that was the actual day on which it happened – calculated from the Gospels.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

“Christians of ages past believed Jesus died on March 25 and ascribed a number of other important events to that day. March 25 was thought to be both the day of the creation of Adam and Eve as well as the day of their disobedience in the Garden. It was also counted as the day when Lucifer fell from Heaven and when the Israelite people passed through the Red Sea to begin their journey to the promised land. Not surprisingly, tradition claims that it was also the day when Isaac was to be offered as a sacrifice by his father Abraham.” So it was logical, as Tom says, to take March 25 as the date of Christ’s crucifixion as well. This isn’t historical logic, of course, but religious logic. The historical logic would point to April 3, 33 AD. But that wasn’t the way that Jewish religious leaders and early Christian religious leaders saw things. That was Tom’s point. And the date of Christ’s conception would have been chosen according to the same kind of logic as March 25. Hilary Llewellyn-Williams has already made the same point in her comment.
Rather than ascribing cynical motivations to the people who chose December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth, don’t you think they might not have seen the coincidence of December 25 with the end of Saturnalia as another part of the Divine plan, to encourage the rapid spread of the true faith, an act of divine intervention, not human mass-marketing? It would be just one more reason for them to believe that ascribing the conception of Christ to March 25 made perfect sense.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
3 years ago

Since Jesus died during Passover, I guess it is possible to know through knowing when Passover was the year 33AD

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago

Zechariah was in the temple when he was told his wife would have the son they had longed for so John the Baptit would have been born about nine months later on June 25th. He was six months older than his cousin Jesus (Yeshua)

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Dominic Rudman

It is also the line of reasoning overtly adopted by early Christians themselves, e.g. Augustine De Trinitate IV, 5, 9.

vince porter
vince porter
3 years ago

Agree. Definitely trying too hard

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago
Reply to  vince porter

The interesting question is why he does.

Mike Bell
Mike Bell
3 years ago

You say: “My rule of thumb is that the more pompous and overbearing an author’s prose is, and the more complex and elaborate his argumentation, the flimsier is his case. Also, the murkier are his motives. “
I agree.
there’s a nice video here “The language of lying”.https://youtu.be/H0-WkpmTPrM
Although I am not accusing Holland of lying, similar techniques are applied

Robin Banks
Robin Banks
3 years ago

According to our current calendar 25th of December is 9 months after 25th of March. However, I am led to believe that December was the tenth month at that time.

charles.baily
charles.baily
3 years ago
Reply to  Robin Banks

The word ‘December’ means the 10th month, and the same reasoning gives us September, October and November. This is because the Republican consular year started in March. Quintilis and Sextilis were renamed in the early Empire in honour of Julius Caesar and Augustus.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
3 years ago

Most Christian academics know that it is not possible to put an exact date on the birth of Jesus. However, wanting to celebrate his birth which is of enormous significance for Christians (as King Herod realised) they chose an approxiamation.
Because it is known that He died the day after the first night of passover, it is possible to be more accurate about the crucifixion.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
3 years ago

Err….. it is!! If you are going to critique the argument, at least do the math(s)….

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago

I did’nt find the article “pompous” or “overbearing”, I enjoyed it, it’s a well presented argument backed up with interesting details.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Interesting essay, but bringing Dan Brown and his turgid bodice-ripper prose into any serious discussion is not a path to clarity, at least for me.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
3 years ago

Wonderful, fascinating article. That such a detailed and passionate defence of the unique meaning of Christmas comes from an agnostic rather than a member of the contemporary clergy is telling.

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Here is an article by a member of the contemporary clergy who also happens to be a professor at Yale University. It makes many of the same points:
https://www.biblicalarchaeo

John Mcalester
John Mcalester
3 years ago

I’m always surprised by how defensive Christians get over Christmas. Basically the winter solstice has been celebrated by people for thousands of years, enjoy it whatever way you want.

Paul Boizot
Paul Boizot
3 years ago

“Athelstan’s determination that no one living on his own lands be
permitted to starve saw him issue a particularly prescriptive ordinance.
The officials responsible for his estates were warned by their royal
master that fines would be levied on those who failed in their duty to
the needy.” Some folk commented on the article “Who is behind Marcus Rashford”, to say that his campaign was wrong because it was parents’ responsibility to feed their children, and/or the social security budget was too high. I am waiting for them to comment here and criticise Athelstan’s actions. Merry Midwinter!

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Boizot

No doubt Athelstan should have castigated the poor and hungry for their fecklessness while denying the existence of hunger or poverty in his England.

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Boizot

Athelstan would undoubtedly have approved of Food Banks. Hallelujah

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

It really doesn’t matter when we celebrate it-it is what we are celebrating that truly matters.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Records of Roman tax gathering, and other facts strongly suggest that the birth was in August.

Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Luke’s global census is a fiction.

Terry M
Terry M
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter McKenna

What? You mean requiring all the people in Roman lands scurrying back to their ancestral homes is not the most convenient way to count them? I’m shocked.

Pierre Whalon
Pierre Whalon
3 years ago

This is a fascinating article, especially from a nonbeliever. I am not certain the argument holds up completely, but I will have to investigate.
What I was taught is that Epiphany (“manifestation”) was the original celebration of Jesus’ birth, and that December 25 was co-opted because it was the feast of Sol Invictus. As for the meaning of the virginal conception of Christ, it has nothing in common with earlier virgin-birth myths. Irenaeus’ second-century saying sums it up: “God became human so that humans could become divine.”
As for the meaning of Christmas, it would seem that good king Athelstan understood it quite well.

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Pierre Whalon

The first mention of a feast of (Sol) Invictus, by no means the most significant Roman Sun festival, actually occurs in the same Codex-Calendar of 354 which first places the nativity of Christ on December 25th. The “natalis Invicti” is not some deeply-
rooted Roman observance.

Janet G
Janet G
3 years ago

“The similarities shared by the feast day of Christ’s birth with other celebrations that, over the course of history, have been held in the dead of winter “

Christmas is for Northern Hemisphere dwellers only?
Wot about all those southern hemisphere folk who swelter on this day of extended sunlight?

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago
Reply to  Janet G

At last! Someone perceptive enough to detect the limitations of traditional celebrations. Thankyou.

Dr Rudolf Steiner, the modern spiritual teacher who brought into the public sphere teachings which formerly had been esoteric, thus making them exoteric and accessible to all, explained this as follows:

Christmas is above all an earthly festival, as distinct from Easter, which is aligned to the heavens. So, Christmas is a fixed festival, occurring at the same time in the course of the seasons of each earthly year: namely, at midwinter. Easter, by contrast, being attuned to the positions of the heavenly bodies, is thus a moveable feast in terms of earthly life. The earthly calendar date of its celebration changes from year to year. The Church came up with the so-called “golden number” to keep track of these heavenly cycles determining the date of Easter.

To celebrate the true significance of Christmas in an inward spiritual way, it is necessary that those dwelling in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate Christmas at their own midwinter season, namely around their June winter solstice.

The original missionaries who evangelised the southern hemisphere did not understand this. Therefore, they exported the northern hemisphere calendar dates unchanged, not only carrying the misapprehension with them to other white colonisers of the south, but also forcing it upon indigenous peoples of the south whom they encountered, thus forcing an untruth upon so-called primitive peoples who actually knew better than their new overlords, at least in this matter.

Against the overwhelming force of ignorance and superstition that now surrounds this matter, the following compromise has been proposed for those who wish to join with other loved ones in the opposite hemisphere in celebrating Christmas:

If you live in the south, think of your Christmas celebration as a commemoration of the historical event of Jesus’ birth. This is an external observance only, but it enables you to join in empathetically with those in the north for whom it is the truly spiritual time of year.

This has the added advantage for southerners that you can also go out and spend money, indulge your materialistic appetites, including for booze, sex and wild dancing, as well. For midsummer was originally the diametric opposite of Christmas, representing the ascendancy of the senses and the sense world.

Of course, you also have an alternative option, if you prefer to do something spiritual, of celebrating the proper midsummer festival of St. John at this time.

So don’t feel abandoned, you have not been left out! Glory in the rich abundance of choices you have been vouchsafed, and experience life to the full.

And feel sorry for those sad buggers up north who are still unable to distinguish between a reified, atavistic, colonising religious imperialism and true modern living global spirituality. It may be a while yet before they wake up to themselves and deign humbly to offer us good wishes on our own spiritual time of June solstice celebration. But don’t let that deter you. That’s their problem, not ours!

Chris Hudson
Chris Hudson
3 years ago

Thanks Tom.

Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna
3 years ago

“Why does the idea that this Christian festival was stolen from heathen tradition persist?”

Perhaps because the case against it is not robust?

That pagan parallels weren’t a threat, that Christmas has distinctive features….in no way refutes the idea.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter McKenna

“In vain the gods battle against stupidity. Gothe.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

The old, much vilified 11Pus exam revealed that about 75% of the population were stupid,
.
As Aristotle put it “nature does nothing without a purpose”, or to update that, Bertram Russell said “most people would rather die than think, and most do”.

Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

It is always more civil and productive to set out a case rather than to dismiss someone as stupid.

e.g. how you think setting out distinctive features of Christmas refutes the idea that it was stolen or borrowed from ‘heathen tradition’.

I guess Tom Holland’s own use of the pejorative ‘heathen’ hasn’t particulaly helped keep things respectul here.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago

Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and not in paganism.
The Church did not choose December 25th because it was an ancient heathen holiday, but because of the Jewish feast of Chanukkah that occurred on that date, and the added significance that Jesus gave to it. This date eloquently testified to the fact that at the birth of Jesus deity was dwelling in a human body (Temple) and shining out to give light in the midst of dark­ness. The great Hebrew-Christian scholar, Alfred Edersheim stated: “The date of the feast of Dedication (Chanukkah), the25th of Kislev, seems to have been adopted by the ancient church as that of the birth of
our blessed Lord”Christmas.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

Doesn’t Judaism have it’s roots in paganism?

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Could you provide relevant fact and quotes to support that notion?

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago

Interesting article, and some great history/theological history – but the premise itself is a bit of a straw man.

Yes some people have tried to overstate how “stolen” from Paganism Christmas is, alongside a lot of Christian symbology. Nobody can say for certainty when Jesus was supposed to have been born, nor how 100% how the original Yuletide was practiced.

What is apparent though time and again in the iconography of Christianity and the Roman gods before (stolen in large part of course from the Ancient Greek ones etc and back) is that so much is borrowed. From images of God looking much like ones of Zeus, Minerva and Sulis being virtually interchangeable in Roman Britain, to modern day Scandinavians calling Christmas “Jul”.

I think the point you’re making – that so much of Christmas is now Christian is a fine point to make – given the cultural longevity of it – but is a tad overstated.

Anyway sounds moaney! Was a really well-researched and educative article!

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Claims that Jesus was invented from Egyptiam mythlogy, and that Horus and Jesus share “remarkable
similarities” are false.
The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur makes the claims: only a few examples, Harpur asserts that both Horus and Jesus were born in a cave – this is false, Horus was born in the Delta swamps and Jesus in a stable; both births were announced by an angel – also false, as the concept of the angel, a messenger of God, is absent from Egyptian beliefs; Horus and Jesus were both baptized – false, baptism was not practiced by Egyptians; both Horus and Jesus were tempted in the wilderness – false, Horus battled Set in many different regions,Horus and Jesus both raised the dead back to life – false, Horus had nothing to do with raising Osiris or anyone else from the dead.
Further, Egyptian religious beliefs would have rejected any such concept as a dead person returning to life on earth. Even Osiris, the great god and first king, was not allowed to return to his place on earth after death.

Mark Robertson
Mark Robertson
3 years ago

1. One of the first things that the Scottish Reformers did when they came to power was to abolish all Christian festivals, including Christmas, as idolatrous popery. In 1640, a law was passed in the Scots Parliament that made “Yule vacations”, i.e. Christmas, illegal. Yule of course being also the name of the pagan mid-winter festival. Christmas was not reinstated as a public holiday in Scotland until 1958.
2. Christianity itself has strong pagan roots. For example, the idea of virgin birth was often applied in the ancient world to important people, who were also regarded as demi-gods, e.g. Alexander the Great (Zeus and a virgin), Romulus (Mars and a virgin), Caesar Augustus (Apollo and his mother Atia), Pythagoras (Apollo and a virgin).
3. Virgin birth is not referred to in the Old Testament, despite Matthew’s mistranslation of Isaiah 7:14.

ccauwood
ccauwood
3 years ago

It’s still a winter booze up and a bit of mixed awe and fun for the kids. No shortage of pagans. The Highway Code that is Christianity seems to stumble on alongside OK but very little thought is given to some Middle Eastern passive anarcho syndicalist.

Johnny Sutherland
Johnny Sutherland
3 years ago

Its nice to know that Athelstan was the first liberal leader to provide unemployment benefits.

Pure Christian charity, keeping his sub-lords spending to reduce their challenge to him, or a ready source of sword fodder?

Good Reason
Good Reason
3 years ago

Beautiful essay; thank you for posting this. (Even though I don’t believe Christ was born on 25 December.)

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Good Reason

Does it matter what day it was?

torgnycar
torgnycar
3 years ago

What a coincidence that Christmas by pure chance is the same day as Jul ( which we still call it in Sweden), roman saturnalian and iranian shab e yalda. Well, if you belive that anyone can make wine out of water, or walk on water, it makes perfect sense.

Sorry mr Holland, I havet enjoyed most of your books, but this is nonsense. (Excuse my English.. ..and Farsi).

Michael Upton
Michael Upton
3 years ago

Athelstan was not “sat on his throne”. He was seated on his throne.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

Interesting piece, and agree with the general premise. However, I’d always thought that the date for the Annunciation was chosen because it was nine months before the date already adopted (for whatever reason) for Christmas. Tom suggests it was the other way round. He may be right, but I’m not sure that he makes the case clearly.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

He needs it to be the other way around because that provides a route to his claim that theologians somehow worked out by a process of reasoning, and almost as an afterthought, the date of Jesus’ birth.

In fact, the date of 25th December was first proposed in writing as Jesus’ birthday by the Roman Christian historian, Sextus Julius Africanus, in 221AD, some 100 years before the Roman Empire officially adopted Christianity.

Jarlath Killeen
Jarlath Killeen
3 years ago

Tom Holland is an atheist and an historian, so he doesn’t ‘need’ it to be any particular way.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago

Why, then, does he put forward such a biased and counterfactual account?

Jarlath Killeen
Jarlath Killeen
3 years ago

He doesn’t. He sifts through the available evidence, and puts a case together that indicates that the version of the historical ‘progression’ needs to be updated and more nuanced. If you have better evidence than Holland, who is a professional historian, and who is engaged in a scholarly disagreement here, let’s hear it, but suggesting he is making this argument because he ‘needs to’ (because…why?) is not particularly insightful.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago

It is a highly selective sifting. What he ignores is that Christian theology began to cohere and build out when it became the
official religion of the Roman Empire, which it was under Constantine I by 325AD, when the Romans were still governing and mixing with Britons, Germanic peoples and all the rest ““ all of whom observed the winter solstice, as the Romans themselves had when they were pagan.

Jarlath Killeen
Jarlath Killeen
3 years ago

It’s a relatively short article, and does exactly what it is trying to do. If you want the longer version about the development of Christianity itself, go to his book Dominion. You don’t seem to be responding to anything he actually writes in this article – and appear intent on either misunderstanding what he is saying (because you have a fixed version of how the history of the festival developed that you don’t want challenged) or because you want to have a fight with people on the internet. Any basic historian is aware of the scraps of history that you keep mentioning in your posts as if it is some kind of debunk of what Holland is arguing for in the article. Please move on to something slightly more sophisticated.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago

I won’t be reading Dominion, because Holland is more a spinner of popular tales than a serious historian, as I’ve shown here.

Jarlath Killeen
Jarlath Killeen
3 years ago

You’ve shown nothing here, just repeated things everyone already knows and which have no bearing on what Holland is arguing. That you won’t read Dominion, one of the best works of popular history written in the last few years, is enough for me. Thanks for your contribution.

opn
opn
3 years ago

I do not know what Roman observance of the Solstice you are referring to. And it was Roman Christians who fixed the date, the northern barbarians accepted it as a fait accompli.

Jaunty Alooetta
Jaunty Alooetta
3 years ago
Reply to  opn

The period of Saturnalia, from 17 December, includes the Solstice.

opn
opn
3 years ago

But not Christmas !

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago

It is not likely that any day can be found on which some “pagan” isn’t already
celebrating something. If a day is rendered “off limits” because a pagan holiday already exists on that date, then there aren’t any days left to celebrate anything!

Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna
3 years ago

Not sure it’s correct to say he’s a “professional historian”: his qualifications are in English…he turned his hand to history while doing research for a fictional novel.

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter McKenna

Well here is professional historian doing the same job:
https://www.biblicalarchaeo

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

The ancient texts support the priority of the Annunciation, because of its connection to the Passion – the date of Easter was a matter much discussed in the Early Church. You are right that calendrical/ liturgical (as opposed to theological) observance of the Annunciation is not attested before the 7th century – in a passing reference in a Constantinopolitan chronicle called the Chronicon Paschale (ad ann mund 5506).

Terry M
Terry M
3 years ago

Early Christians were persecuted and shunned for not practicing the state religion of Rome. They practiced in secret, hence the Catacombs. In order to celebrate Christian holidays a bit more openly, they merely aligned their celebrations with those of the state religion, hence Easter is near the Jewish feast of Passover and Christmas is near Saturnalia.

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

The juxtaposition of Easter and Passover was dictated by the historical circumstances of the Crucifixion and Resurrection and the two were differentiated as early as Melito of Sardis (ca. 180 AD). Christmas Day coincides precisely neither with the Saturnalia or the Kalends of January. And we know that Christians were concerned to observe anniversaries accurately – Cyprian of Carthage (martyred 258) instructed his deacons in a surviving letter that they should note the days on which Christians died in prison, so that they could commemorated in the liturgy on the correct day in the same way as those who were martyred in the arena.

Terry M
Terry M
3 years ago
Reply to  opn

It is not easy to celebrate a day precisely when one does not know when that day was, as with Christ’s birth in obscurity. And yes, Passover and the Crucifixion are connected historically, but celebrations of tiny, despised sects draw attention, unwanted attention, so are necessarily hidden or disguised.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

“Early Christians were persecuted and shunned for not practicing the state religion of Rome”

The actual evidence for this is slim. Even in c.110 AD the Emperor Trajan had never heard of them (when he received a letter from Pliny the Younger, who also seems to have never heard of them before), surprising for a Roman ruler in a cult whose members had allegedly been thrown to the lions and publicly crucified in Rome itself, not that long before. It’s rather like Harold Wilson never having heard of WW2.

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

Try reading Eusebius Martyrs of Palestine. Or Ignatius of Antioch’s letters. Or those of Cyprian of Carthage. Or…. There is plenty of evidence for early Christians being persecuted. The fact that many of the accounts of individual martyrdoms is overlaid with tall tales does not the more general truths obtainable from authors we can rely on because we know plenty about them. As for Pliny, it could certainly be argued that until his appointment to Bithynia he had lived a fairly sheltered at Rome itself and in northern Italy. Trajan appears to have been familiar with the Christian problem and the way to deal with it !

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago

From Russia to Israel, scores of countries celebrate Jesus’ birth on January 6, the traditional Orthodox date. It’s all down to a difference in calendars. In the West we use the Catholic-created Gregorian calendar, which was introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582.But, in much of the Soviet bloc and Middle East, they still use the Julian calendar – which was created by Julius Caesar in 45 BC.
The Eastern church celebrated Christ’s birth and baptism on
January 6 until the middle of the 5th century, when the December date for Christmas was adopted there as well and Jesus’ baptism was celebrated on January 6.

Lord Rochester
Lord Rochester
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

Yes, this fact of fundamental disagreement on dates within Christianity itself seems oddly absent in everything above.

Similarly, the fact that the Church of Scotland previously, and 9 million Jehovah’s Witnesses presently, rejected Christmas precisely because of ‘pagan’ carry-forward…

So, it’s not really refutation of ‘atheist memes’, it’s a refutation of a big chunk if Christendom’s thinking, too.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago

Maybe this time next year we will be celebrating UK Independence day at this time of year. I will reserve judgement on whether that will be just another myth until I have seen the detail behind Boris’s triumphalism.

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago

Good article!

pkelly20
pkelly20
3 years ago

If I were given the job of picking a date on which to celebrate the birth of the most important man who ever lived, I’d probably choose a date which stood out, not one that competes with half a dozen other festivals. I live in the USA, where we have to put up with that vomit-inducing “Happy Holidays”.

conrad.bate
conrad.bate
3 years ago

I wrote a church pantomime all about this a few years ago, I called it “Nicholas Wondermaker” what is amazing to me is, even though I’m a IT guy who stopped History at 16, almost all the true facts I dragged into the panto, as pebbles in the feet of those watching, (some of which I got more than a little derision from, even among believers) are all listed here. It’s fascinating how rich and strong the solid rock of church history is.

But belittling our history seems to pass for good manners. That is a mistake. Truth matters. Even when you benefit from it, do not let faux humility stop you from being for truth

Max Power
Max Power
3 years ago

It persists because liberals want to undercut everything in history that brought them (us) to today. Another way of doing this is to associate the origins of pagan Christmas to the Nazis, as Joe Perry did in his article “How the Nazis co-opted Christmas”.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

It seems equally plausible to argue that if December 25th is chosen for the Nativity, the counting back nine months puts the Incarnation on 25th March.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

It seems equally plausible to argue that if December 25th is chosen for the Nativity, the counting back nine months puts the Incarnation on 25th March.

Terry M
Terry M
3 years ago

For a discussion of Jesus life and myths from a real historian, read anything by John Dominic Crossan, particularly Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography or The Historical Jesus.

Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

They are interesting reads. Though Crossan is qualified as a theologian, not a historian.

Terry M
Terry M
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter McKenna

His degrees are in theology, but his books are meticulously researched and presented. It’s history as good as, or better than, any historian with a sheepskin that says ‘history’.

Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna
3 years ago
Reply to  Terry M

Interpretations of religious texts, based on theology, do not constitute “history”.

Sure, there will be solid contextual field knowledge of ancient history, but that doesn’t make the various hypotheses derived from overlaying the history of the time onto religious texts, ‘history’ as such.

Crossan has interesting ideas and a particular view of the ‘historical’ Jesus – many of which diverge from mainsteam christology – but they aren’t ‘history’.

johngrant4est
johngrant4est
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter McKenna

Indeed. This a core theme of some of the debates between Bart Ehrman and others. I hesitate to mention Richard Carrier as his views may be considered ‘extreme’ but they are well articulated and founded in historical evidence rather than theology.

Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna
3 years ago
Reply to  johngrant4est

Carrier is unusual in that he is an ancient historian (not a theologian whose entry into ‘history’ was religiously motivated) who has seriously studied the evidence.

pwgallo
pwgallo
3 years ago

So one myth, the virgin birth and all that, replaces another? But the original meaning, tied to astronomy, and the joy of life, remains. Amen.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Sol Invictus, (the Invincible Sun), to use the vernacular, ‘got there first, and it did it best’.
Who can seriously dispute that?

valleydawnltd
valleydawnltd
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Probably the builders of Stonehenge…

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  valleydawnltd

I would disagree and propose it was built by a bunch of Mesolithic Beta males. The progenitors of the present ‘Woke’.

The females were otherwise engaged in multitasking back in the communal cave.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

Once again we see a false polarity conflict created from fundamental misunderstandings. Is this to be the hallmark of our age? That we fight over everything and understand nothing?

The author is not quite setting up an Aunt Sally here, since those in ignorance of Christianity, or opposed to it, have undoubtedly dismissed Christmas as a case of the same old emperor wearing a new set of clothes, the implication being that it therefore has no unique value, represents nothing truly new, but merely repeats age-old winter solstice celebrations.

One of the basic teachings of formerly esoteric spirituality is that everything evolves, everything changes”the idea of becoming is taught alongside that of being: Being and Becoming.

Thus when the psychologist Carl Jung said that eventually we return to the place of our beginning and know it for the first time, he was not describing a closed circle of eternally recurring repetition, as many have superficially tried to maintain. Rather, he was outlining a spiral. At each full turn of the screw, to take a mechanical analogy, we pass over the place where we were before. But the operative word here is over: we pass above that first place, so it vibrates within us, but since being at that first place we have moved on, we have gained in experience and wisdom, and so we are not the same as we were before, we have evolved. The spiral of evolution contains infinite places which vibrate with the place immediately below in space, one circuit before in time.

This is how Christmas is to be understood. Yes, it shares with predecessors in all major spiritual traditions of the past a veneration for the time of winter solstice. This stems from the fact that winter solstice is connected with the original “fall” into the flesh of Adam, i.e. the first descent of the human soul into an earthly physical body. The 24th December is the date on which the festival of Adam and Eve was celebrated in Europe in mediaeval times.

At the same time, however, Christmas represents something entirely new. For the Christ came to redeem the human race from all those problems arising from the fall from grace. The Christ brought Love, and forgiveness of sins, which were to replace the endless revenge vendettas of earlier ages. No longer an eye for an eye, but rather, turn the other cheek. Thus, according to the teaching of one of the most advanced Christian initiates of modern times, Dr Rudolf Steiner, the coming of the Christ indeed represented a unique turning point in time, and Christmas, in heralding the birth of Jesus, who provided the physical vehicle for the Christ being, can legitimately claim to celebrate something without parallel in the previous history of the human race.

Moral of the story? It’s both/and, not either/or.

Andy Clark
Andy Clark
3 years ago

Who doesn’t feel like taking a break in the middle of winter, there’s been a lot of work preparing for the cold months.

The solstice gives a clear marker. Obviously the heavens, and the inhabitants thereof, will want to join in.

Someone will explain, just lend them your ears.

AB Tyagi
AB Tyagi
3 years ago

So what is issue if Christmas has some borrowed traditions from pagan (pre-conversion) religions? How come birth of Virgin’s son in remote deserts of Israel came related to a pine tree ðƾƒÂČ from colder European climates? Latvia, Estonia and Germany have different stories about Christmas tree.

It looks like you are trying to defend something which needs no defence, it is well established festival, and is celebrated beyond boundaries, centuries. If this is attempt to convince some “wokes”, then they will always come back with another artificial, theoretical facts to state the opposite.

By the way, where are pagans now? Why we don’t see them on TV, or hear on radio? Were they systematically converted, peacefully or not? Why are they called by derogatory terms such as “heathen”, were they lesser humans? Does Christianity decided for them that their existence was so impure that they must be eradicated? Anyway, not the main focus of discussion, but related.

johngrant4est
johngrant4est
3 years ago
Reply to  AB Tyagi

Modern paganism is alive and well, with many traditions and offshoots such as Wicca etc. You can argue that Pantheism is a form of paganism and increasingly, followers of organised, ‘orthodox’ religions are abandoning them in favour of more encompassing world views, based on better moral frameworks than those put forward by the abrahamic religions.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago
Reply to  johngrant4est

better moral frameworks

What on earth (literally) can “better” mean here other than that you like them more?

Athena Jones
Athena Jones
3 years ago

Probably because Christian Christmas has borrowed many symbols and traditions from older, pagan religions. This is no bad thing. It is what makes Christmas relevant to people of all religions and even atheists.

The attributes of Jesus are pretty much word-for-word those for Mithras, a Roman God, and the attributes of Mary, those translated from hieroglyphs for the Great Egyptian Goddess, Isis who also gave birth to a saviour/redeemer son.

The Christmas Tree is Pagan in origin, as is Father Christmas or SinterClaus. What does it matter? The gift of Christmas is that it can be celebrated by everyone including all non-Christians and it often is.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Athena Jones

Christianity had its basis in Judaism, and followed the pattern of the Jewish festivals. “I come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it”, said Jesus. To the early Christians their festivals represented the fulfillment and perfection of the ancestral Jewish ones, in keeping with Christ’s status as the promised Messiah. That is not “stealing” anything.
The fact that most of the ancient Jewish festivals had a seasonal significance makes it obvious that there would be some seasonal parallels in the pagan world.
As for claims that Christianity’s beliefs were copied from pagan religions, I suggest you read Lee Strobels’s “The
Case For The Real Jesus”, which convincingly shows these to be without foundation. Mithras for instance was not born of a virgin, he was born out of a rock. He didn’t die and rise from the dead, there is no mention of his death anywhere. Osiris was chopped up into thirteen pieces which Isis buries, but he doesn’t come back into this world.

Unlike the pagan myths Christianity is grounded in historical events.

Claire D
Claire D
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

Excellent, thank you.

johngrant4est
johngrant4est
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

“Loosely grounded” might have been more accurate. Regardless of the comparisons between older gods and traditions, all religions have common themes and most (if not all) can be traced in some form or other to Zoroastrianism. If you’re starting a new religion, a good mantra might be “Repeat, Re-Use, Re-Cycle”. Alignment to seasonal and celestial events is also essential. One can argue that christianity is a re-working of Judaism, with the addition of a human sacrifice, much more potent than the animal sacrifices of the Jewish tradition. There is also reason to believe that oppression by the romans of traditional Jewish rituals and rites forced the re-think of the whole “sacrifice” concept, sparking what became a new religion.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago
Reply to  johngrant4est

all religions have common themes and most (if not all) can be traced in some form or other to Zoroastrianism

That seems quite wrong. Zoroastrianism is recorded from about 500BC, so even among living religions, Hinduism is older, and Judaism is of at least equal age to Zoroastrianism. The religions of the ancient world, such as those of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome predated Zoroastrianism. The pre-Columbian religions of the New World cannot possibly be traced to Zoroastrianism. The notion that the monotheistic religions, or the non-theistic religion of Buddhism, say, can be traced to a dualistic religion is implausible to say the least. And so on.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago
Reply to  Athena Jones

The attributes of Jesus are pretty much word-for-word those for Mithras, a Roman God, and the attributes of Mary, those translated from hieroglyphs for the Great Egyptian Goddess, Isis

Neither of these claims is correct.

Mithras was one of many gods in the Roman pantheon, making no claim to be some form of a unique god. He is born from a rock. His characteristic action was killing a bull. He is not portrayed as dying and rising again.

Isis was herself a goddess, the spouse of one god and the mother of another. Again there is no claim that any of these gods were unique. It is her husband not her son who is portrayed as dying. She is not supposed to have been a human virgin.

These seem to me rather important differences.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Pinch

How come you failed to see my comment above?

djeffrey083
djeffrey083
3 years ago

It is interesting that you use the word myth in your opening title, as ALL of the Christian religion is based on mythology, not only Christmas. You worship what is in essense a Hebrew god invented by the ancient Hebrews as well as a false history to give an identity to their people. That imaginary god has only done things to help the Hebrew people and was not known or worshipped anywhere else in the whole world other than that tiny area in the middle east. It was Christians that forced that god on other races as well as making them believe in characters that never existed such as Moses, Noah, Abraham, Solomon, David etc etc. Even their own Jesus was a Hebrew and although based on a real character his acts and words were the inventions of later followers and writers of the Bible. He was just a man and the story of Bethlehem was an invention after his death, So even ifall the celebrations of Christians are adopted from Pagan dates the fact is, the Christmas story is based on myth also. Even Mary, the mother of your so called Christ, denied her son was the son of God and also they had never been to Bethelhem where he was supposidly born.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  djeffrey083

Your bigoted and ignorant attacks on Christianity lead me to believe you are a militant atheist.
The first Christian writings to talk about
Jesus are the epistles of St Paul, and scholars agree that the earliest of these letters were written within 25 years of Jesus’s death at the very latest,while the detailed biographical accounts of Jesus in the New Testament gospels date from around 40 years after he died. These all appeared within the lifetimes of numerous eyewitnesses, and provide descriptions that comport with the culture and geography of first-century Palestine. It is also difficult to imagine why Christian writers would invent such a thoroughly Jewish saviour
figure in a time and place ““ under the aegis of the Roman empire ““ where there was strong suspicion of Judaism.
Unlike the pagan myths Christianity is grounded in historical events.
Incidentally, what have you got against Jews (Hebrews)?

johngrant4est
johngrant4est
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

Criticism of christianity would be more correctly termed ‘blasphemy’ wouldn’t it? As for ignorance, the points made are best refuted by counter-argument rather than ad-hominem attacks. Atheism is a point of view on a single claim – namely that a god or gods exist. It says nothing about the veracity of christianity (or indeed any religion) or the historicity of Jesus. I look forward to your argument that the nativity (not referenced in the bible) was a historical event, as opposed to one of the many christian myths. I’d add that as a piece of fiction, it works really well.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago
Reply to  johngrant4est

Criticism of christianity would be more correctly termed ‘blasphemy’ wouldn’t it?

No, there’s quite a difference. Let me illustrate by an imaginary example. My friend John is very fond of his mother. He admires her and thinks very well of her. If I said to John, “I lent your mother £10 and she hasn’t repaid me yet” he might be upset, but he would, I think, accept it as rational criticism even if he did not immediately believe it: he might respond to the effect that she had lost her bank card. If I said “When I met your mother she seemed to have puncture marks along her arm, is she OK?” he might be upset, if grateful for the warning, or might respond to the effect that she’s a diabetic who has been having trouble with a new set of syringes, or indeed, to the effect that it was none of my business. In any case there is the possibility for a rational, if perhaps somewhat tense, conversation.

Now suppose that I make a film in which John’s mother, identifiable by name and played by an actress who closely resembles her, is portrayed as dishonestly borrowing money from her friends to feed her drug habit; and then I put that film up in a popular social medium. In some sense that’s the same formal content as the imagined conversation, but is that the same sort of thing? I would say not: it isn’t a rational conversation, merely an attempt to make people, not least John, think badly of someone John thinks well of.

James Joyce
James Joyce
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

detailed biographical accounts of Jesus

They’re devotional and evangelical religious texts, not dispassionate biographies.

Nor are they ‘detailed’: the bioi written by Plutarch and Suetonius are rich in the sort of personal detail that’s conspicuously absent in the gospel texts. The latter focus instead on supernatural wonders, prophecy fulfilment, preaching, and life after death.

Neil John
Neil John
3 years ago

Happy Yule!

Neil John
Neil John
3 years ago
Reply to  Neil John

Now lets party, like a Pagan!

Andrew McGee
Andrew McGee
3 years ago

Are all these dates Julian calendar or Gregorian calendar? And how does the change of calendar in 1752 affect our calculations?

Ian Thorpe
Ian Thorpe
3 years ago

Athelstan may have declared himself (Rex totius Britanniae (King of all Britain,)but I don’t think the Scots and Welsh ever acknowledged this. Wales was never completely subdued by the Saxons and not under English rule atthe time of the Conquest (1066) and history tells us that in 937
Constantine, King of Scots and King Owain of Strathclyde invaded England
in support of a bid by Olaf Guthrumsson to claim the throne of Jorvik
(York) and re-establish that independent kingdom. Athelstan put down the
invaders and the Scots returned home, but the English did not follow
through by invading Scotland.
This whole article is built on some very big historical assumptions.

Peter Dawson
Peter Dawson
3 years ago

I read something similar here – Andrew McGowan’s article “How December 25 Became Christmas” as it originally appeared in Bible Review, December 2002.”(Ed Biblical Archaeology Society) – I can’t post a link – but you should be able to find it from that data – there was more focus on the Hebrew Bible and the Kabbala. But I thought Tom’s was a more entertaining read.

gerrardwinstanley
gerrardwinstanley
3 years ago

The whole argument here seems to rest on the date – December 25th. For most of us, certainly in Britain, Christmas srarts a few days before that and continues until New Year. So any pre-christian tradition from the period – yule logs, indoor trees, wreaths, presents etc – count as borrowed or stolen or appropriated or whatever.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

The myth of ‘pagan’ Christmas

To understand this apparent riddle, it is necessary to be aware that evolution does not only apply to Charles Darwin and the natural sciences, but also describes progress in the spiritual sciences, as taught by the Christian initiate Rudolf Steiner at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Evolution through time can be conceived as an ascending spiral. Each circuit contains multiple points which pass directly above a corresponding point on the circuit below. Passing over but above a particular point, that point reverberates and echoes up into the point directly above. It is in this sense that we can indeed have a “pagan” Christmas. The mistake would be to assume, however, that our modern Christmas comprises a mere repetition of what has gone before.

There is no such thing as a circle of eternal return, where the same thing repeats over and over. Always, things have moved on since that last time. So there will be similarities but never identity. We live in a world of Becoming.

St Augustine spoke of the Christ before Christianity. This is easy to understand as long as the Christ being is not confused with the religion of Christianity. The Christ being had been descending to earth for aeons; that process culminated finally in the incarnation of the Christ in the body of Jesus the Nazarene at the Baptism in the Jordan. Later, a religion sprang up worshipping the Christ Jesus.

So the Christ was known to all major spiritual traditions around the earth long before the events in Palestine. Initiates in various traditions, not only the Hebrew, knew of his predicted coming. So there were many pagan Christs, all the same Being, but perceived by different spiritual traditions at different stages of advancement, at different points in time.

It is in this way that certain Christian scholars were able to assert that the world began in 4000 BC: that was when we were passing over a point in the zodiacal constellation of Taurus where echoes were perceived of events from bygone ages when the world was still young.

It should be noted that these festivals of the birth of Christ were always celebrated at midwinter. That was when the earth was receptive to spiritual forces. According to Steiner, the 13 Holy Nights began on 24 December, which was the festival of Adam-Eve commemorating the Fall, i.e. the human spirit’s first descent into an earthly body of flesh. It culminated on 6 January with Epiphany, when those who had been suitably prepared received an inner revelation of the spiritual Christ light shining in the world darkness at midnight. This is the origin and true meaning of the “midnight sun”.

At first, according to Steiner, early Christians celebrated only the birth of John the Baptist. It was only later, in AD 454, when the Roman church was gathering force, that the festival of the spiritual birth of Christ in Jesus was moved from 6 January back to December 24, in the process being changed to commemorate the physical birth of the physical Jesus child. Knowledge of the old spiritual initiation was lost to the people at large, and the Festival of the Magi, the three kings who came to pay homage to the infant Jesus, was put in its place on 6 January.

Adrian Grant
Adrian Grant
3 years ago

Another fundamental flaw in the argument is the failure to stand up the supposed (and erroneous) date of March 25 for the crucifixion – and particularly given that it is erroneous, when it was arrived at/plumped for and by whom – and why. Thus there a danger that the argument becomes circular.

Another mistake is to single out Christmas/Yule/Saturnalia/whatever. The same process of laying a so-called Christian veneer on pagan festivals lies on July 25th – the feast of Neptunalia/Salacia, bowdlerised as that of St James the Great (I’ll not do a full list). You will note the “coincidence” of the 25th – which makes me smell a rat wrt the March 25 argument.

Because he leaves the matter so open it may well be that self-styled Christians may have landed on March 25th from the starting point of December 25th.

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Grant

On what basis do you claim that the 25th March date for the crucifixion is “erroneous”? It may not have been that exact date, but it wouldn’t have been far off. It’s likely that Jesus was crucified around the years 30 to 33 CE. Passover occurred early in April in 30 (5th April if I remember the facts rightly) – and similar dates in the next couple of years. So the principle argument remains valid – or are you just nitpicking for the sake of it?

Adrian Grant
Adrian Grant
3 years ago
Reply to  Hilary LW

Sorry, but you cannot have it both ways. The author claims Dec 25 from March 25, so if March 25 was really sometime in April that destroys the Dec 25 argument. You say April 5 – which would I suppose approximately yield the date when the orthodox churches celebrate Christmas, but my understanding is that this is to do with calendars, not the date of the Crucifixion.

The author tries to claim that celebrating Christmas on Dec 25 is NOT piggybacking on a pagan festival, but is directly related to March 25. So if March 25 cannot be stood up the argument is in tatters – this is not nitpicking, this goes to the heart of his thesis.

So as I asked in my piece above, who dreamed up the March 25 date – and when and why…..? The author takes it as a given. It isn’t.

Actually I say the crucifixion was in 28AD/CE – when Passover was Wednesday April 28th – which according to the author should yield January 28th for Christmas (I don’ accept this part of the argument either). So too I think that the most likely birthdate for Jesus was late August/early-mid September 6BC/E.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
3 years ago
Reply to  Adrian Grant

But the point is not what date Jesus really died, but what date the church fathers som hundreds of years later believed He died.

Adrian Grant
Adrian Grant
3 years ago

Ish…. I thought the point of the article was to claim that it “proved” that Christmas was NOT pagan because it followed logically from March 25th. The problem is that Christmas HAS overlain all sorts of midwinter festivals and because the author cannot stand up the March 25th date we have no reason to accept his argument. I think it more likely that Christmas was chosen because it was a pagan festival and then the author’s logic could have been used to settle on March 25th (although it does broadly coincide with the equinox, so I am not committed to this line).

So the Pagan origin of Christmas is NOT a myth and the March 25th date for the crucifixion is a myth also – it is not true.

As for which Christian leaders believed what, I am very dubious. I am sure that those Christians who made this stuff up knew perfectly well what they were doing and did not believe a word of what they were telling their congregations – but later naive leaders may have come to believe it genuinely.

Karen Lindquist
Karen Lindquist
3 years ago

So, are you able to make a solid case for a virgin being impregnated by an unseen God?
Please, write another pompous essay detailing that event. I need a chuckle.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago

It was Stolen from the Romans,! In Julian Calendar December 25 was rebirth of the sun, Saturnalia .Shortest day…Holly &Ivy ,Mistletoe were Druid or pagan flowers at Christmas…

richard84
richard84
3 years ago

I think much of this article misses the point. Christmas on 25th December is extremely close to the winter solstice (in the northern hemisphere anyway) and people have celebrated that time of the year for millenia – long before Christianity or indeed Judaism (or any of the “isms”) were even thought of.

It is also unarguable that Christianity has a very long history of persecuting anyone who didn’t choose to sign up to their belief system – people such as pagans, “witches”, those in touch with nature. The planting of churches on ancient ceremonial places is also a well known part of this practice. The chance of the Christmas date not being part of this purge of beliefs and practices alien to Christianity is remote.

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago

Nine months prior to March 25 is May25. Please, explain.

Duncan Hibberd
Duncan Hibberd
3 years ago
Reply to  robert scheetz

March 25 is the date of conception, 9 months later 25 December

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago
Reply to  Duncan Hibberd

But the Feast of the Immaculate Conception is on Dec. 8?? It all works if based on a sun god calendar; but I’m still failing to see his thesis, …how it is rooted.

takzula
takzula
3 years ago

Because the Catholic Church decided they needed something around the Winter Solstice FFS!!

Gerard Havercroft
Gerard Havercroft
3 years ago

I always liked the idea that we had a little bit of something from our pagan past left over. I’m sure, like me, many people who feel the church(es) is guilty of more evil than it is good draw a small comfort and vindication from hearing stories of the theft and ‘asset stripping’ of other religions. It backs up many of my feelings and is easy to accept if you aren’t careful about evaluating your sources. Nowadays, I still romanticise that connection but I honestly just think of it as a time of rest and many glasses of bubbly. More Bacchus than saturn for me!

Paul Pritchard
Paul Pritchard
3 years ago

Reading all your reasoned comments and deeply held opinions, it seems extraordinary how clearly intelligent and well read contributors can cling to unproven events.
Jesus wasn’t even considered divine during his lifetime, just a charismatic and gifted teacher and healer, possibly with connections to the Hasmonean Royal family. How about that for another unproven fact along with the stable, the virgin birth, the magi etc. Engaging story though.
Whatever the story, dogma, tenets of any religion, at its most important heart is Spirituality and Faith. To argue over anything else seems a pointless and divisive waste of time.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Pritchard

it seems extraordinary how clearly intelligent and well read contributors can cling to unproven events

A comment that applies quite widely. It is immediately followed by this

Jesus wasn’t even considered divine during his lifetime, just a charismatic and gifted teacher and healer, possibly with connections to the Hasmonean Royal family.

Presumably the writer views this as proven as opposed to the “unproven events” he mentions. Perhaps we might be favoured with the proofs that the writer possesses for his assertion?

david.wm.rodgers
david.wm.rodgers
3 years ago

“Christmas” evergreen trees, kissing under mistletoe, wreaths, “Yule” logs, the Christmas-eve ghost story…there were pagans in there somewhere, for sure. I have heard (unverified) that early Europeans believed spirits lived in trees, and that the sun died and was reborn on the Winter solstice; thus evergreens brought indoors and a fire kept lit.

mike otter
mike otter
3 years ago

Very true, James Fraser covers much of this in the “Golden Bough” but because he was a white male writer 120 years ago his writing shows the thinking and language of his age, and a such his work is now largely ignored.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

According to Dr Rudolf Steiner, the Christmas tree was a very recent introduction, first appearing in central Europe less than 200 years ago. You can read his lectures on the subject in the anthology: Festivals of the Seasons, available online at RSArchive.org.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

Surprisingly, the custom of the Christmas tree was only introduced to Central Europe about 200 years ago.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

Re my comment below: I had posted it earlier with a reference to the source of the information. Unfortunately, it appears that any reference I make to the work of Dr Rudolf Steiner provokes an instant deletion as spam. Has Dr Steiner been de-platformed? I have had no fewer than five carefully worded comments automatically deleted over this Christmas/ New Year period.

Penelope Lane
Penelope Lane
3 years ago

So far, so good. With reference to my two comments below, here goes with a final attempt to do the right thing academically and give you a source you can follow up (this website supposedly encourages people to cite sources).

People put together an anthology of Dr Steiner’s lectures which dealt with the history and meaning of the Christian seasonal festivals. Its title is, festivals of the seasons”I have avoided caps and italics here so the robot won’t pick up a book title. You will find information in this anthology that goes far beyond anything else publicly available, in both breadth and depth. And the information is accurate and reliable: Dr Steiner was a high initiate in the western Christian esoteric tradition who taught at the beginning of the twentieth century. He made public, hence exoteric, much information which had previously been esoteric and reserved for the few.

Now I’ll try to give you the online website where you can access most of Steiner’s voluminous works free of charge. I will insert surplus spaces to try and avoid the robot again: r s archive . o r g. Just delete those spaces and you should be fine… hoping this survives the posting…

rex007can
rex007can
3 years ago

Every single “official” Christian celebration was, in fact, stolen from another religion… Every single one of them.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  rex007can

“Stolen” is rather harsh…

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
3 years ago
Reply to  rex007can

Christianity had its basis in Judaism, and followed the pattern of the Jewish festivals. “I come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it”, said Jesus. To the early Christians their festivals represented the fulfilment and perfection of the ancestral Jewish ones, in keeping with Christ’s status as the promised Messiah. That is not “stealing” anything.
The fact that most of the ancient Jewish festivals had a seasonal significance makes it obvious that there would be some seasonal parallels in the pagan world. Those are natural parallels – nothing to do with theft.
Christian belief in the incarnation of God into our material world gave extra significance to physical nature and our human relationship to the rest of creation. So Christianity is embedded in human life and history, not removed from it and certainly not “stealing” anything.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  rex007can

“Just because you don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” Albert Einstein
You are either extremely ignorant or a liar.

opn
opn
3 years ago
Reply to  rex007can

You are wrong. The discussions about the date for the celebration of Easter in the Early Church were exhaustive; none of them is determined by pagan practice and there was deliberate differentiation from Jewish practice, notably in the suppression of so-called Quartodecimanism. As Mr. Holland shows, the date of Christmas (and in the Eastern Mediterranean the Epiphany) depended on the date of the first Easter. Contemporary texts illustrate the fact that the anniversaries of the execution of martyrs were accurately observed. Any coincidence with Roman pagan feasts is coincidental.

harry.adam
harry.adam
3 years ago

Myths upon myths upon…

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  harry.adam

You’ve got that wrong.
A major part of the New Testament is the apostle Paul’s 13
letters to young churches and individuals. Paul’s letters, dated between the mid 40s and the mid 60s (12 to 33 years after Christ), constitute the earliest witnesses to Jesus’ life and teaching. Will Durant wrote of the historical
importance of Paul’s letters, “The Christian evidence for Christ begins with the letters ascribed to Saint Paul.
No one has questioned the existence of Paul, or his repeated meetings with Peter, James, and John; and Paul enviously admits that these men had known
Christ in the flesh.”

Peter McKenna
Peter McKenna
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

No one has questioned the existence of Paul

I don’t agree with them, but several people have, e.g. Thomas L. Brodie.

I doubt whether Paul actually wrote 2 Corinthians, but that epistle uses the mystical phrase ‘kata sarka’ repeatedly – and it doesn’t seem to have the mundane modern meaning of ‘in the flesh’, i.e. in person.

Andy Clark
Andy Clark
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

Ok, real person(s), but mythical existence. It’s not possible to prove or disprove the facts, hence they are somewhat a mythos.

That’s not to say the practical upshot can be considered, adopted, and acted upon, whether the mythos is fact or wishful writing.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Clark

Read Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus and it will change your mind, so long as it isn’t deluded by preconceived facts. You might also find the New Testament to be enlightening. Why do you think Christianity has survived for thousands of years, despite many attempts to stamp it out? There are millions of Christians in Russia and China.

johngrant4est
johngrant4est
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

Ah! The argument ad-populum, I was wondering when you’d get around to it!

johngrant4est
johngrant4est
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Tuite

Also, for a really good, in-depth piece on the historicity of Jesus, watch Richard Carrier’s “Why Invent the Jesus” on YT from 2017.

Akalala Sue
Akalala Sue
3 years ago

This is making much ado about nothing and ignoring how early common people probably felt about the origin of the Christmas celebration. Christianity was spread by the sword. If it had not been, most likely the majority of human beings would have simply ignored it or accepted its dogmas into a plethora of religious belief, to be belied by some and adopted by others.

valleydawnltd
valleydawnltd
3 years ago
Reply to  Akalala Sue

Christianity was spread by missionaries for the most part.

Martin Tuite
Martin Tuite
3 years ago
Reply to  Akalala Sue

Aren’t you getting it mixed up with Islam?

David Eppel
David Eppel
3 years ago

Jesus, the supposed son of a god did not exist. The Romans, well known for immaculate record keeping had no record of this fictional character. It is beyond doubt that christianity-cobbled together centuries after the fiction of Jesus, is a myth. The fables are stolen from historical sources f