Having once been an Evangelical, I was heavily exposed to the “Christmas is Pagan” or “Christmas has Pagan origins” movement in the Western world. The movement is heavily concentrated in the United States, with large pockets in Canada, Australia, and other parts of the Anglosphere. It’s primarily a Protestant problem, which was popularized during the Protestant religious movements of the 17th through 20th centuries. Today it is most aggressively pushed by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Church of God, Messianic Judaism (an Evangelical Christian movement) and other Fundamentalist sects. Sadly, attacks against this holiday are used to introduce suspicion of mainstream Christian denominations, and the Catholic Church in particular.
The Date of Christ’s Birth
The Fundamentalist attack on Christmas is centered around the date of December 25, and actually has a rather ancient origin. The 12th-century Syrian Orthodox Bishop, Jacob Bar-Salibi, proposed the following:
“It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. 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 solemnized on that day.”Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, Ramsay MacMullen. Yale:1997, p. 155
Even though the quote comes from an Eastern Orthodox bishop, many Western Fundamentalist groups seized upon it in the late 18th century because it fit their anti-Catholic narrative. The only problem here is that the good bishop, as wise as he may have been on many other issues, was just plain wrong about this one. We have to remember that the Eastern Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7. This has always been their custom, which is fine of course, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. The quote from Bishop Bar-Salibi above appears to be an attempt to explain why Western Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25, as opposed to January 7. It appears to be directed toward the Eastern Orthodox faithful, and it appears the bishop has some cursory knowledge of Western history on this matter. However, it also appears he made an historical error, by getting the proverbial “cart before the horse,” and (probably unintentionally) reversed the order of events. It is important to note, however, that Bishop Bar-Salibi nowhere intended for his comment to be misconstrued as a blanket condemnation of the Christmas celebration, or even the Western date upon which it is celebrated. It was simply intended to be an explanation of why Eastern and Western Christians celebrate Christmas on different dates. That is all.
Nevertheless, some Western Protestant Fundamentalists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular, took Bishop Bar-Salibi’s quote and just ran with it to the extreme. Using it as proof text for how the Christmas celebration was started, and an indictment against the Catholic Church and Western Christianity in general. So they branded Christmas a “Pagan holiday” celebrated by “Paganized” Christians who are engaging in a “Pagan celebration” whitewashed to only “appear Christian.” Of course, they argue, in order to be a “better Christian,” and please God more than others, one must immediately cease and desist from this Pagan festivity. Likewise, the Catholic Church, and mainline Protestant denominations, should receive all the blame and shame for perpetrating this “ungodly hoax” on the “poor unsuspecting people” of the Christian faith. This is usually followed with a technical lesson of how it is “impossible” that Jesus could have been born on December 25, and that he was likely born sometime in September instead. This is followed by the customary condemnations of Christmas trees, evergreen and mistletoe as “Pagan customs” that continue to “infiltrate” into Christianity. Of course, their solution is to snidely turn their noses up to such things as “unfit” for a “real Christian.” This is Fundamentalism run amok. Here we have Christians that have more in common practice with Muslims than they do their fellow Christians, and for some of them (Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular) this actually bleeds over into the doctrinal realm as well. Tragically, the propaganda has even worked its way into the Catholic Church. I cannot tell you how many Catholics I have heard repeat it, telling others that Christmas is really just a Christianized version of a Pagan celebration. That couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Now that you’ve heard the fake story about the origin of Christmas, let’s take a look at the real story. We’ll have to start with the origin for the date of Christmas, and why this is commonly misunderstood as connected to ancient Pagan observances.
All of this goes back to the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. Remember, the first Christians were all Jewish converts. Naturally they took many of their Jewish customs into Christianity with them. Contrary to popular opinion, the celebration of Jewish things (in the context of Christian interpretation) is not Judaizing. Rather, Judaizing is when you impose elements of the Mosaic Law on non-Jews (Gentiles) as if it were part of the Christian faith. Only the Catholic Church has the authority to determine which Jewish customs are binding on non-Jews, and there aren’t many. The Council of Jerusalem in AD 50 (recorded in Acts 15) recounts them in detail. So the Catholic Church, from its very apostolic beginning, adopted the principle of inculturation, which I explored in a previous essay. That being said, the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah is NOT part of the Mosaic Law. It is a celebration that developed much later in Jewish history. The celebration of Hanukkah centers around the theme of light, relating to the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean Revolt, and is customarily observed by the lighting of candles on a special type of nine-candle Hanukkah menorah, called a “hanukkiyah.” The celebration lasts eight days, and it always begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev. That’s important. Hanukkah is always celebrated on Kislev 25. The month of Kislev on the Jewish calendar overlaps the month of December on the Julian/Gregorian calendar. Sometimes the overlap is so close that Hanukkah is celebrated at the same time Christians are celebrating Christmas.
Early Jewish Christians would have associated Hanukkah with Jesus Christ in some way, as they did with everything else. They most certainly would have associated his incarnation with the re-dedication of the covenant God made with his people during the Maccabean Revolt. They would have associated his incarnation with the light entering the Jewish Temple. They most certainly would have remembered the account of Jesus entering the Temple in Jerusalem during Hanukkah, and referring to himself as the Son of God and thus revealing his full glory, or light, in the Temple (John 10:22-39).
Jewish Christians were not treated well by their fellow Jews back then, and were often “put out of the synagogue” (shunned or excommunicated). Since the synagogue was the source of Jewish life, the dates of the Jewish calendar were calculated from there based on rabbinical interpretation of Mosaic Law. Jews who were “put out of the synagogue” would gradually lose connection with Jewish life, and that would include the Jewish calendar. It is theorized that to simplify matters, many Jewish Christians of the ancient world simply used the Julian calendar along with their Gentile Christian brethren. Thus the celebration of Jesus as the incarnate “Son of God” and “Light of the world,” came to be associated with the 25th day of December instead of Kislev, which often falls pretty close to Kislev 25 anyway. Since Hanukkah is not a Biblical mandated feast, the date it falls upon would not have been as important to Jewish Christians as other feast dates. December 25 would have been seen as “close enough” to Kislev 25.
Building on the theme of dedication, this happens exactly eight days before the Julian new year (January 1). Thus Christmas, understood as a Christianized version of Hanukkah, would be an eight-day celebration, beginning on December 25, marking the Light of God coming into the world, and ending on January 1, marking the re-dedication of time with the new year. All of this would have happened within the first few centuries of the early Church. However, this eight-day (octave) of Christmas, paralleling the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah would later be overshadowed by the longer twelve-day celebration of Christmastide, from December 25 to January 6, with Epiphany on January 6. December 25 would mark the beginning of Christmastide as the Feast of the Nativity when the shepherds came to worship the Christ-Child, while January 6 would mark the end of Christmastide with the Feast of the Epiphany when the magi came to worship the Christ-Child.
There is more to this. We can see above how December 25 came to be associated with the incarnation of Jesus Christ in general, as well as the connection to Jesus as the “Light of the world.” However, how did it get to be associated with his birth or nativity? The answer again comes to us from very early Jewish Christians who believed that the world was created on Nissan 14, according to the Jewish calendar, which came to be associated with March 25 on the Julian calendar. These Jewish Christians not only associated the beginning of the world on that date, but also the beginning of the new world, meaning the conception of Jesus Christ. Thus, on a purely historical level (and I’ll explore the Biblical reasoning below), the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, came to be celebrated on March 25, and is still celebrated on that date today. Now count exactly 9 months from March 25, and you arrive at December 25, which is the associated date for the birth of Jesus Christ. According to ancient Jewish Christians, he was miraculously conceived on March 25 and born on December 25, by the reckoning of the Julian calendar. The Christian historian, Sextus Julius Africanus, who lived between AD 160 – 240, specifically held to the belief that March 25 was the day the world was created on, and the day of Christ’s conception (Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas, p. 60). Saint Irenaeus, who lived between AD 130 – 202, in his work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies), specifically identified the conception of Jesus Christ as occurring on March 25, according to ancient Church tradition, and linked it to the birth of Christ exactly nine months later, on December 25, at the time of the winter solstice. So here we have a completely different account of the reason for Christmas falling on December 25, predating Bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi’s mistaken explanation by nearly 10 centuries!
So we have two explanations for the marking of December 25 as the celebration of the birth of Christ. The first comes from a time period of the early Church, close to the event itself, during a time when Jewish and Gentile Christians were intermingling and sharing traditions. The date is associated with the early Jewish Christian reinterpretation of Hanukkah, as well as marking 9 months following the conception of Jesus Christ on March 25 according to early Jewish Christian custom. The second comes from a time period nearly 10 centuries later, in which an Eastern Christian, living far away from the West, who celebrates Christmas on an entirely different day (January 7), is trying to explain to his contemporaries why Western Christians celebrate Christmas earlier than they do.
Which one do we want to believe? Well, if you’re a Protestant Fundamentalist, you’ll believe the second explanation, because you can twist what this Orthodox bishop said, in a way he never intended, to condemn the celebration of Christmas as “Pagan” in total, and accuse the Catholic Church of perpetrating a “hoax” on the unsuspecting Christian faithful. However, if you’re a reasonable person, regardless of your belief system, you can accept the first and most ancient explanation available, believing this date was the product of blending early Jewish Christian traditions into a Gentile calendar. I don’t know about you, but I prefer the first explanation as a more rational choice. I mean, considering that Jesus and his apostles were Jewish, and a great number of early Christians were Jewish as well, I think it’s far more plausible to believe the first explanation.
Does this mean there is no association at all between Christmas and ancient Pagan observances? At the core of it, there is no association. Superficially however, there is some. It was between AD 270 – 275 that the Pagan, Roman Emperor Aurelian, dedicated December 25 as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, meaning the “birthday of the unconquered sun.” This occurs a few days AFTER the winter solstice, when the days are just starting to get longer again. It is associated with Pagan sun worship. As you can see, however, this event happened long after the dates I noted above, from Sextus Julius Africanus (AD 160 – 240) and Irenaeus (AD 130 – 202), who noted Christmas as being celebrated by early Christians, marking the birth of Christ exactly nine months after his supposed conception on March 25. The historical evidence is clear, early Christians (many of them Jewish by heritage) were celebrating December 25 as a date closely associated with Christ, long before the Roman Emperor Aurelian dedicated December 25 as the birthday of the sun. So why did he do this? Remember, we’re talking about a time period in the ancient Pagan empire when Christianity was gaining significant traction in spite of two centuries of periodic persecution. Could it be that Aurelian was simply trying to upstage the Christians? Is this a case of Pagans copying Christians and not vice versa? The historical dates seem to indicate this is exactly the case. Again, actual history (the bane of Fundamentalist propaganda), tells us that the ancient Pagans were not in the habit of associating the winter solstice with sun worship. For example, one ancient history scholar writes…
While the winter solstice on or around December 25 was well established in the Roman imperial calendar, there is no evidence that a religious celebration of Sol on that day antedated the celebration of Christmas.S.E. Hijmans, The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome, p. 588
Another similar scholar writes…
Thomas Talley has shown that, although the Emperor Aurelian’s dedication of a temple to the sun god in the Campus Martius (C.E. 274) probably took place on the ‘Birthday of the Invincible Sun’ on December 25, the cult of the sun in pagan Rome ironically did not celebrate the winter solstice nor any of the other quarter-tense days, as one might expect.Michael Alan Anderson, Symbols of Saints, pp. 42–46
Study of ancient Roman sun worship indicates the principle feast date of this particular cult fell on August 9, not December 25. There has been found some documentation of minor sacrifice dates to the sun on August 28 and December 11, but nothing for December 25. All we have is Aurelian’s late (post-Christian) proclamation of the sun’s December 25 birthday in about AD 274, and nothing more. While sun worship was popular among some of the Caesars, there is no indication that it was a major cult within the ancient Roman Empire. So what are we to make of Aurelian’s decree of December 25 as the suns birthday? Well, I think the word “birthday” gives us a clue. Christians were already celebrating December 25 as the birthday of Christ, who is the light of the world. The only way to upstage them would be to declare December 25 as the birthday of the sun, which lights up the world. History showing the dates for what they are, would seem to indicate that this is the case. So it wasn’t Christians who joined in Pagan celebrations in an attempt to hijack them, but rather the reverse! It was a failed attempt by Pagans to hijack a Christian celebration. It’s important to remember that this Aurelian declaration came sandwiched between two great Roman persecutions against Christianity. Emperor Valerian’s persecution of Christians came between AD 253 and 260. While Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians lasted from AD 284 to 305. It makes more sense for a Roman Emperor, like Aurelian, who reigned between these persecutions, to attempt to upstage Christian celebrations with his own Pagan feast on December 25, than it does for Christians to adopt a Pagan Roman feast day as their own, in between Roman persecutions that were attempting to wipe them out. Remember, Christians were going to their martyrdom because they refused to observe Pagan rituals. Why would they adopt them in between persecutions? It makes no sense at all.
Those who are particularly zealous against December being the month of Christ’s birth will point to the Scriptures that say the shepherds were tending their flocks the night of his birth (Luke 2:8). They argue that December is too cold for this to happen, that frost and snow on the ground would prohibit any reasonable grazing of sheep. Thus they fall back to their September dating for the birth of Christ. Others spring forward to March or April. While their observance of winter climate may be true in Europe, or even most of North America, it is not untenable for the area of Judea around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The mean temperature in Jerusalem during December runs between 47 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, which is plenty warm enough for green pastures. Frost and snow on the ground is extremely rare in this part of the world.
The 1963 edition of Smith’s Bible Dictionary, under the heading “Palestine: the Climate,” explained…
As in the time of our Savior (Luke 12: 54), the rains come chiefly from the S. or S.W. They commence at the end of October or beginning of November, and continue with greater or less constancy till the end of February or middle of March, and occasionally, though rarely, to the end of April. It is not a heavy continuous rain, so much as a succession of severe showers or storms with intervening periods of fine bright weather, permitting the grain crops to grow and ripen. And although the season is not divided by any entire cessation of rain for a lengthened interval, as some represent, yet there appears to be a diminution in the fall for a few weeks in December and January, after which it begins again, and continues during February and till the conclusion of the season.Palestine: the Climate, Smith’s Bible Dictionary, 1963
This would have been optimal weather for grazing sheep.
So now that we’ve allowed real history to obliterate the Christmas-Pagan conspiracy cabal, let’s review…
- 160s BC, Hanukkah established on Kesliv 25, according to the Jewish calendar, which would later overlap December on the Julian calendar.
- 45 BC, the Julian calendar was established throughout the Roman Empire.
- AD 50-65, Peter and Paul establish the Church in Rome consisting of both Jewish and Gentile believers. To avoid difficulty with conflicting calendars, December 25 was used by Christian Jews for Hanukkah on the Julian calendar.
- AD 130-202, Irenaeus writes that Christ was conceived on March 25, placing his birth on December 25, exactly nine months later.
- AD 160-240, Sextus Julius Africanus writes that Christ was conceived on March 25, placing his birth on December 25, exactly nine months later.
- AD 274, Caesar Aurelian establishes Dies Natalis Solis Invicti on December 25 in an attempt to upstage the growing Christian importance of that date.
- AD 1100s, Eastern Orthodox Bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi mistakenly assumes the Western Catholic date for celebrating Christmas is connected to Caesar Aurelian’s decree in AD 274.
- AD 1600s – 2000s, Protestant Fundamentalists declare Christmas a “Pagan celebration” that should be avoided, based on Orthodox Bishop Bar-Salibi’s historical error.
History is what it is. The timeline cannot be denied. Christians were celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25 at least a century before Caesar Aurelian’s decree, about ten centuries before Bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi’s historical error, and nearly two millennia before Protestant Fundamentalists declared Christmas a Pagan celebration that should be avoided. If we want to be intellectually honest, we must accept that December 25 was celebrated as Christmas by Christians long before Pagans tried to hijack it, and failed, and ages before Fundamentalists started calling it a Pagan celebration.
Now that we’ve established irrefutable proof that Christians were celebrating December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth, and March 25 as the date of his conception, the next logical question is to ask why March 25 was chosen as the date of Christ’s conception. While we can look to ancient Jewish tradition as a clue, the Biblical record confirms this with an even stronger case. Surely, the early Christians, many of whom where of Jewish heritage, were aware of this.
The whole thing is anchored in the conception of St. John the Baptist, which actually has a fixed timeframe in Scripture. According to the Gospel of St. Luke (Luke 1:5) the Angel Gabriel announced the conception of John the Baptist to his father, Zechariah, when his priestly division of Abijah officiated in the Temple. According to 1 Chronicles 24:5-19 this would be the eighth rotation, which at the time would have fell on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement). It was at this time that incense would be offered in the Holy of Holies of the Temple according to Leviticus 16:12–13. That is confirmed in Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:8-10). Yom Kippur falls between September 22 through 30. Thus, St. John the Baptist was conceived on or near September 22-30. We now have a Biblical starting date to begin approximate calculations for the birth date of Christ.
Now that we know John the Baptist was conceived around Yom Kippur (September 22-30), we can refer again to the Gospel of Luke, which tells us that Jesus was conceived in Mary at about the six-month gestation of John the Baptist (Luke 1:26-36). This would put the conception of Jesus Christ in the last days of March, exactly six months after Yom Kippur (September 22-30). Early Christian tradition, as we read above, pins the day of March 25 as the actual date.
Count exactly nine months from the last week of March (or March 25), which is the normal gestation period of a human baby, and you land on the last week of December (or December 25 according to early Christian tradition) as the date for the birth of Jesus Christ.
Other Christmas Customs
Now we must move on to other Christmas customs of alleged Pagan origin. Chief among these is the Christmas tree. According to Fundamentalist propaganda, the Christmas tree is actually a secret Pagan practice from ancient times, that has stealthily infiltrated the Christian faith, so as to make Christians unknowingly honor Pagan gods. To “prove” their point the cite Jeremiah 10:1-5 which describes Pagans as cutting down a tree, decking it in silver and gold, and then placing it in their homes.
Hear ye the word which the Lord speaketh unto you, O house of Israel: Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.Jeremiah 10:1-5, King James Version
It sure sounds like a Christmas tree, doesn’t it? However, he have to consider the context and what the text actually says. The text doesn’t actually say that these “Heathens” (an incorrect translation) bring these trees into their homes, and the King James Version (a wonderful translation in itself), which is preferred by many Fundamentalists, is a little clunky in its description here. Let’s look at this same passage again using a different popular translation…
Hear what the Lord says to you, people of Israel. This is what the Lord says:
“Do not learn the ways of the nationsJeremiah 10:1-5, New International Version
or be terrified by signs in the heavens,
though the nations are terrified by them.
For the practices of the peoples are worthless;
they cut a tree out of the forest,
and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.
They adorn it with silver and gold;
they fasten it with hammer and nails
so it will not totter.
Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.”
Oh, what a difference a translation can make! The New International Version captures this passage in its historical context. The Pagan Gentiles of this time were cutting down trees and carving their trunks into idols. Then they were adorning (covering) them with silver and gold, That’s it. It’s that simple. Trying to apply this passage to a modern Christmas tree is beyond a stretch. It’s more like a flying leap. Yet Fundamentalists do this all the time. It’s a violation of the number one rule of Biblical interpretation — the rule of context.
What’s the real story behind the Christmas tree? Again, real history helps us find the truth.
It is well known that ancient Germanic tribes in Germany and Scandinavia reverenced trees, oak trees in particular, which were deeply connected to their Heathen lore. They believed the trees connected our world to the world of the gods and other worlds. Thus, human sacrifices were offered on such trees, in worship of Odin. The victim (or volunteer) was first killed, and then hung from the tree upside-down. Heathens were not known to bring these trees into their houses. In fact, they never cut them at all. It was forbidden to cut down a sacred tree! The story of St. Boniface cutting down a sacred oak tree illustrates how Medieval Christians evangelized these Germanic Heathens in the early 8th century. When St. Boniface (an English bishop and missionary) chopped down a sacred oak tree to prevent a human sacrifice, the German Heathens watched in horror and then dropped to their knees in terror, fearing that Thor would soon send a lightning bolt to kill them all for such sacrilege. However, as time passed, the lightning bolt never came, and Boniface noted that a small fir tree (about knee high) was growing between the roots of the oak tree he chopped down. He used this as an evangelistic tool. He pointed out to the stunned Pagans that their Germanic (Heathen or Asatru) gods are helpless and could not stop the destruction of their sacred oak tree, but the Christian God has provided in its place this small fir tree. He explained the fir tree was triangular, symbolically representing the Trinity, and that its leaves are always green, representing God’s eternal love for us. Finally, he pointed out that the needles of the tree always point up toward God. That same year he brought a small fir tree into the chapel during the winter months to serve as a constant reminder of these truths to his newly converted Germanic flock. This is where the Christmas tree begins, but the decoration and lighting of such trees came later.
The modern Christmas tree, as we know it today, originated in Germany during the 16th century, about 800 years after St. Boniface. It was a Protestant, not a Pagan, who took St. Boniface’s winter tree and turned it into the Christmas tree. Martin Luther is said to have first added lighted candles to an evergreen tree, in an attempt to recreate in his chapel the starlight he saw shining between trees in a forest, while walking home one winter night. Decorations were later added to symbolize fruit from the tree of life. Red was the primary color initially, representing the blood of Christ, but soon silver and gold ornaments were added, among other things, and finally a star atop the whole thing, reminding us of the Christmas star that led the magi to the Christ child.
Christmas trees remained a European custom for centuries, but were considered rare in North America until after the decline of the Puritan influence. The Puritans were the precursor to modern Fundamentalists. They outlawed Christmas in the British-American colonies for a number of years, namely because it was too Catholic for their taste, and they believed it might possibly be Pagan as well, probably a reference to Bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi’s mistaken origin theory (cited above).
The association between evergreens and Paganism is a thin one at best. There is simply no reason why Christians can’t use these as a seasonal decoration, anymore than bringing plants or flowers into the home. Again, this goes back to inculturation. Is it possible that ancient Germanic Heathens decorated their homes with evergreens during the winter season? Sure, why not! Does that automatically mean that the custom is opposed to Christianity? No, of course it’s not. Ancient Pagans planted gardens too. Does that mean that Christians can never plant gardens because Pagans used to do it? Again, back to inculturation. The Catholic Church, from the Apostolic time onward, has never been interested in converting Gentiles into Jews, or making Gentiles give up their unique cultural customs. So long as those customs are no threat to the gospel, they should be kept, and whatever could be a threat is either dropped or revised (Christianized) in such a way as to make it harmless.
Mistletoe does have some Heathen connections, as do many things in nature. In Heathen cultures, it was associated with fertility simply because it bloomed during the coldest time of year while everything else was dormant. Thus, ancient Heathens ate it for medicinal purposes to assist with fertility. That’s ironic, since mistletoe is a known abortifacient. I imagine this created some frustration. The very medicine they were taking to increase fertility was actually making them infertile. However, the modern practice of hanging mistletoe and kissing under it has nothing to do with ancient Paganism. It is rather a modern tradition of the modern age, another example of inculturation, wherein symbols and traditions from the old Pagan world may be incorporated into the new Christian world, provided they in no way contradict the gospel. The idea of kissing under the mistletoe came about fairly recently, in the middle 18th century, and was associated with Christmas parties. A sprig of mistletoe was hung on a beam, and the custom was that if an unmarried maiden were to find herself standing under it, she could be kissed. It was somewhat of a party game. In another game, couples were instructed to pluck a single berry from the mistletoe with each kiss, throwing it aside, and to stop smooching once they were all gone. No Christian custom has ever called for eating mistletoe like the Germanic Heathens did. We can debate about whether or not such party customs are prudent for Christian celebrations, but there is nothing about them that is directly linked to Paganism.
Then of course there is Santa Claus. While Christians of all types have just grievance against the commercialization of Christmas using this figure, the figure himself is a legendary representation of a real person. St. Nicholas of Myra was a Catholic bishop from Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). There are many stories and legends surrounding him, but one thing is certain, he is a Christian figure of Christian origin. Should Christians engage in the Santa Claus myth as understood in Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” more commonly known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas?” That’s up to Christian parents to decide, but there is nothing about it that’s Pagan, not even by a long shot.
The Christmas/Pagan cabal is really nothing more than Protestant Fundamentalism run amok. In their desire to implicate the Catholic Church as the source of all evil and villainy in the world, and to justify their own schism with Rome, they must create elaborate conspiracy theories wherein the Catholic Church is implicated as a kind of crypto-pagan organization, seeking to stealthily impose Pagan worship upon unsuspecting Christians. Their ignorance of history causes them to implicate Martin Luther as a co-conspirator in this, which is ironic and a bit amusing when you consider the animosity between Luther and the Catholic Church. As I said though, all of this comes from people who think they understand history but really don’t. Their sources are highly sectarian tracts and books, which are filled with historical revisionism, not recognized by actual historians, and completely foreign to any original-source documentation from the time period in question. So the next time these folks knock on your door, or slip you a tract, telling you that Christmas is actually a Pagan holiday, just politely ignore them and go back to drinking your eggnog while trimming the tree.
Shane Schaetzel is an author of Catholic books and an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism. His articles have been featured on LifeSiteNews, ChurchMilitant, The Remnant Newspaper, Forward in Christ, and Catholic Online. You can read Shane’s books at ShaneSchaetzel.Com
O ORIENS !
I always enjoy and value your commentaries a great deal. You put a lot of work into this clarification of our observance of Christmas on December 25. Thank you very much. I am sure it will be appreciated by many.
I have one question/clarification. The Eastern Churches which follow the Julian Calendar observe Christmas on January 7. My understanding is that they are celebrating Christmas on December 25 according to the Julian Calendar, which, because of the differences between the two calendars, their December 25 now falls on January 7 of the Gregorian Calendar. It is not that the Western and Eastern Churches celebrate Christmas on different dates; indeed, both celebrate Christmas on December 25; but rather it is the difference between the two calendars. At some point in the future, the Eastern Churches will observe Christmas on January 8 because of the growing distance between the two calendars. Is this your understanding of the relationship between the two Calendars?
Thank you for all your good work in the vineyard of the Lord and for the Ordinariates.
Sincerely In Christ Jesus,
Larry Clarence Lewis
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Yes. That is my understanding. Thanks for clarifying that in your comment. The Julian calendar is losing time, because it lacks a leap year (once every four years), and that means December 25 is drifting a little deeper into January every four years. So you’re right, January 7 on the Gregorian (modified Julian) calendar, is December 25 on the old and unmodified Julian calendar. Theoretically, it should drift further into January as time marches on.
Rome is proposing a compromise with the Orthodox to work out a common date for Easter between the two calendars, using modern astronomical data. We’ll see if the Orthodox go for it. Who knows? My guess is, probably not. The Orthodox are permanently stuck in Christianity as it looked during or before AD 1054. That has both its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is it shelters them from the Modernist heresies the Western Catholic Church is currently struggling with. The disadvantage is that this exposes Orthodoxy to caesaropapism, with the inability to update anything, including calendars! This comment is not meant to be a criticism of Orthodoxy. I’m just pointing out the pros and cons. If I had to choose between the heresies of modernism versus ceasaropapism, I’m not sure which would be worse. I think the former is probably worse than the latter. Time will tell.
Nice article Shane. It’s nice to clarify the origins of our Christmas traditions.
Shane, another good one again, as we say in dutch, Zalig Kerstfeest en gelukkig nieuwjaar”
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