“Christian scholars, drawing on similar traditions, came to believe that Jesus had died on the anniversary of his incarnation”
Hmm. Bit of a stretch to call that evidence.
it all seems a bit too much of a coincidence that Christmas & Easter happen at the same time as widely prevalent pre-Christian European celebrations. I’m not saying one way or the other, just that (for me) the jury’s still out.
It’s all a bit irrelevant though. I don’t really care if there was such a man as Jesus (although I believe there was) or exactly when he was born & died, or whether his mum was a virgin (though I believe she wasn’t).
What matters to me is the fact that Christian ideals, the idea that love & self-sacrifice are the highest ambitions we can have, held sway over most of the Western World is the greatest cause for hope & optimism in mankind.
“He that dwells in love dwells in God“
Easter clearly follows Jewish traditions of the Passover. It’s not a replacement for the Celtic bealtaine, that is May Day.
Fascinating Christmas Day reading in sunny Cape Town. Thank you Tom Holland!
It persists because it is true. The early Church made a habit of “annexing” the most important festivals of the peoples they were trying to convert and then they gave those festivals a christian gloss. In late December we reach the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The sun was dying. People were in a panic. But then the days started to become longer and the sun, the son of heaven, was resurrected (or born again). They did not have precise instruments in those long ago days so it took them several days to become certain that the sun was reborn. It could have been 3 days to the resurection or the 12 days of Christmas or the 8 days of Channukah which is called the festival of lights and which is essentially the same holiday. If we searched around we could probably find other survivals of this pagan festival.
Spot on. With due respect to the Christians and their beliefs, do they really think that it’s a complete coincidence that their Messiah was born at exactly the same time as the Pagans’ festivals??
These festivals were obviously timed based on the astronomical, seasonal, real, scientifically confirmed occurrence of the winter solstice, long before Christianity existed.
What would have made it even more difficult to ascertain whether the’ sun was dying’ is the fact that mornings carry on getting darker after the Solstice ( until January 3rd ish) whilst evenings can gain light from December 12th as I believe was the case this year.
Anthropology 101, the secular’s take on meaning and Christianity, and how to trivialize it, cannot get more post modern than that. Likely a follower of Ronald Hutton – but really one must go back to the source of this stuff
James George Frazer, ‘The Golden Bough’ and all that – the Victorian Anthropologist of much reading, but limited travel, who became a huge influence on the intellectual trivializing and Paganising of Christianity by his ‘pick and chose’ correlations in the exceedingly undocumented and unknown history of the ancient religions, traditions, and superstitions – and then using them to explain the religions of ‘The Book’, in fact conflation Pagan and Christianity.
He was immensely influential – the time was when King Arthur was in its heyday, and so Druidism was invented, and the Romantic, Epic, Poets who were fantastically popular then began with their ‘Benevolent Pantheism’ of Christianizing the Pagan, and Anthropomorphising of nature, wile paganizing Christianity.
Unherd’s writing to Christmas is so 2021, relative history, Critical Theory, secular-humanist……writing on religion here is about as useful as writing on Colonial History, it is such an ingrained agenda the writers and readers have they cannot even see that what they believe is Actual history is in fact ‘Correct History/culture’. What the Schools and Universities have done to the thinking of the modern people is so sad – you are all intellectually captured…. You think yourselves so clever – but are just Post-modernist Mini-Mees.
Pagan Christmas is definitely a myth.
The clue is in the name ‘pagan – it means pre / non-Christian.’
The pagan lighting of fires during the Winter solstice, stuffing their faces, drinking to excess, dancing and who knows what else and generally having a jolly good pagan time, is very likely the case.
Who can prove they didn’t do this?
What else would they have done during the darkest and coldest days and nights of the year?
All gathered at Stonehenge shivering and stamping their feet to keep warm while listening to a druid version of Justin Welby droning on about peace on earth and goodwill to all?
So not Pagan Christmas, but whatever they called it, a Pagan celebration of the Solstice, with another good knees up in Spring to celebrate fertility, all the green shoots and little lambkins taking their first wobbly steps.
In more recent years, in a Christmas Carol, Dickens depicted community-based celebrations with families getting together exchanging presents, stuffing their faces with no mention whatsoever, of going to a cold draughty church to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
This pattern is the norm for most people in the UK.
In addition we get the Xmas TV content, a Bond film or an Xmas-themed movie like ‘Love Actually.’
This year however, things are less festive including young wokesters labeling ‘Love Actually’ as ‘creepy, ‘ and ‘fat-shaming.’
The dating of Christmas was justified by St. John Chrysostom (at a time when commemorating Christ’s birth separately from Theophany, which in the East primarily commemorated the revelation of the Holy Trinity at Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, was controversial) on the basis of the chronology given in the Gospel of Luke. He argued for the dating of the conception of St. John the Baptist at the time of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (in the Orthodox Church at least it is commemorated on Sept. 23), then dating the Annuciation six month later, as per the Gospel, and then Christ’s birth nine months later, giving late December. The tradition of Annunciation and the Resurrection occurring on the same date fit with this, fixing the date of the Annunciation on 25 March, and chosing, on the assumption that Mary’s pregnancy lasted exactly nine months, 25 December for the Feast of the Nativity. That it gave Christians a celebration to compete with the pagan feast of Sol Invictus was a plus. The West moved the Feast of All Saints from the Sunday after Pentecost (when the Orthodox still keep it) to 1 November to compete similarly with the pagan Samhain.
As an Orthodox Christian, I am always slightly puzzled by the idea the Christians should be upset that we “baptized” some pagan customs. We eat sweetened boiled wheat (kolyva) in commemoration of the departed, rather than putting boiled wheat on their graves as the pagans did. When the Native Alaskans converted to Orthodoxy, the missionaries allowed them to keep their custom of building “spirit houses” for the departed, but justified it on the basis of the Orthodox tradition that the soul remains witin the earthly realm for 40 days after death before the particular judgement consigns it either to Paradise or Hades to await the Last Judgement. (Look for pictures of Aleut cemetaries — you’ll see lots of little houses on posts topped with three-barred crosses.) Orthodox hymnography explicitly recognizes that our forebearers were pagans, rather than Jews.
I think many protestants want to pretend their ancestors were never pagans, when we know (for the vast majority) that this is not the case.
I am not a believer, but I have been an enthusiastic participant in the annual festivities of my late Orthodox mother-in-law. For example, Orthodox Easter celebrations have so much in common with the ancient celebration of the Eleusinian Mysteries (or at least what we know of them) that I am tempted to think that the Byzantine church authorities just adopted them wholesale. You have the darkness as you approach midnight (at Eleusis the early parts of the ceremony are conducted in a cave or dark room), then at the appointed hour (midnight) the doors are thrown open and priests bearing lighted candles and torches approach the congregation with noise and singing to loudly announce that “Christ is Risen” (at Eleusis, the announcement is that “she is risen” – namely Persephone; having spent four months underground with Hades, Persephone has now returned to her mother Demeter, and the Earth is freed from Winter). Perhaps the most significant indicator that the Byzantines had simply adopted the pre-existing Eleusian celebrations holus bolus is that at the end of the Eleusinian ceremonies the Ancient priests handed out to the congregation little scoops of honeyed boiled wheat (which is exactly what happens Easter in Orthodox churches from Greece to Russia and Serbia today). Even today the recipe often includes pomegranate seeds – an inclusion extremely significant when we remember that in the Greek myth, it was Persephone’s ingestion of a single Pomegranate seed while in the house of Hades, that gave him the power to call her back every year for Winter.
Because it was!?
Always fascinating to see people commenting without reading an article in full. Speaking of which: As usual, Tom Holland provides a brilliant, somewhat contrarian take to what “everyone knows,” by marshaling evidence and applying keen insight.
I don’t need to read the full article to know that pagans celebrated the winter solstice. So presumably as Christianity took over, it appropriated the festival, if it so happened that the birth of Christ was around about the same time.
Sure don’t read anything.
Christianity was celebrating christmas December 25th before it came to Britain and what pagan group was celebrating mid winter before that and what was it called?
Or perhaps it’s a fusion of the 2? I imagine the early Christians found it easier to proselytise if they grafted their religion onto existing ceremonies and traditions
The story of which I am most fond (but without any claim as to its veracity) is that, to deal with a marital issue in the way only a Roman emperor could, the Emperor Constantine (a Mithraicist, with a Christian wife) commanded the Pope (head of the Christian church) and the Pontifex Maximus (high priest of Mithras) to get their acts together. In the resulting horse trading Sunday replaced Saturday as the Christian Sabbath, and Mithras’ birthday became that celebrated for Christ.
Sure, I’m convinced by the theological narrative offered here but I worry when an entire nation/country/people – Israel– needs redemption.
Also, why would those Roman ‘missionaries’ flog all the way through France in 597, cross the channel to convince the locals their pagan gods were rubbish? Those ‘missionaries’ would have to have been educated, elite and well financed with explicit instructions from Rome. The purpose of this ideological imperative had more to do with centralising power than saving souls. I vaguely remember the HRE was a pan European economic and administrative unit justifying its hegemony via Catholicism.
However deeply kings ponder mysteries and look for signs, rags to spiritual riches still looks to me like opium of the people, with little relevance to the real world either in the past or today. Objectively, the ‘incarnation of god’, however revolutionary in the way it was presented, belongs on a flat earth, albeit one informed by eclectic influences.
The moment you start talking about ideas — any ideas — belonging to the past, you lose all credibility. Either an idea is good or it isn’t. Either it’s true or it’s not. The calendar year has nothing to do with anything. The notion of “historical inevitability” is hugely seductive because it means you don’t have to work out your own salvation, but it’s a trap.