Christmas, Pagan Romans, & Frodo Baggins

One of the old chestnuts concerning Christmas (and I don’t mean the type roasting on the open fire) is the charge brought by old-fashioned Protestants and new-fangled atheists is that Catholicism is old paganism dressed up in new clothes. These critics notice similarities between certain Roman Catholic customs and the old Roman religion and snipe that our faith is no more than paganism revisited.

One of their favorite examples is the celebration of Christmas. These theological scrooges attribute the date of Christmas, and all its trappings–like mistletoe, gift-giving and Christmas trees–to pagan customs warmed up and served again like so many religious left-overs. The story goes like this:

The Romans had this ancient feast called the Saturnalia. From December 17-23 they partied with feasting and foolishness of all sorts. When the Emperer and his mother converted to the Christian faith, people felt under pressure to convert to Christianity. However, they knew hoi polloi wouldn’t want to give up their favorite Saturnalia festival– so the Christians came up with a solution. Instead of celebrating the god Saturn in the bleak midwinter, they would mark the birth of Christ.

It all sounds plausible enough, but like the solution to a murder mystery–the obvious answer is rarely the right one. The first objection to the idea that Christmas is simply an adapted pagan festival is the simple fact that the early Christians were adamantly opposed to paganism in all its forms. They had inherited from the Jewish first Christians the conviction that the pagan gods and goddesses were demons, and if you worshipped them you were demon possessed. That’s why the catechesis for converts took so long and involved so many careful exorcisms. That’s why the early Christians would not offer so much as one grain of incense to the pagan gods. That’s why, rather than do so, they were willing to be deprived of their property, exiled, imprisoned, tortured and killed. So we’re supposed to believe that in the early fourth century the Christians did a complete about face and decided, “I guess we were wrong about paganism. Gee, what a waste all those martyrdoms were. You know, it’s going to be real popular to adopt that Saturnalia festival, and we’re going to get lots of new converts that way. Let’s do it!” I doubt it.

The second objection to such seemingly sensible theories is that the theorists fall into the error of believing that resemblance proves causation. That is to say that if two things are similar, one must influenced the other. Resemblance might suggest causation, but they do not demand it. Primitive people may have worshipped the sun in Mexico and the Middle East, in Egypt and Asia, in Norway and New Zealand, but it doesn’t mean that all the ancient religions influenced each other. It might just be that human beings everywhere have a natural inclination to worship the sun. Just because the Romans had a mid-winter festival honoring Saturn does not demand that the Christians copied it–even if the similarities suggest it.

When trying to solve the mystery of the relationship between Christmas and the Saturnalia we have to consider not only the similarities, but the differences. The Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17 – 23. Okay that’s pretty close to the December 25 date for Christmas–but if they were copying the Saturnalia, why didn’t the early Christians celebrate the Nativity of Christ on December 17? At the Saturnalia they had a feast. Good. Christians had a feast too. The Romans gave each other gifts as part of the celebration. There’s a match. Christians did too. However, the Romans also wore silly hats, got drunk, danced naked in the streets, propped up the statue of Saturn on a couch to observe the revelries, reversed roles between slaves and masters, and put green drapes around their doorways. None of those fun activities are part of Christmas.

The most glaring difference is in the meaning of the celebration itself. If there were some sort of link with the birth of Christ you would expect that the meaning of the Saturnalia might have something to do with the coming of light in the dark time of the year or the birth of new life in the midst of the cold and dark. The Saturnalia has none of those themes. Instead, Saturn was the god of agricultural plenty, with the shadow side, (in the earlier myths) of being associated with human sacrifice. It’s roots are in the old, “Let’s sacrifice some of our kids to appease the god so he’ll make our crops grow” type of paganism. Nothing there about the light dawning in the darkness or the blessing of new life in the midst of the bleak mid winter. So in fact, about the only things that are similar between Christmas and the Saturnalia are that they both happened in December, people had a nice meal and gave gifts to each other.

Not so fast. The plot thickens. The Saturnalia may not have had any meaningful link with Christmas, but there was a pagan festival for the solstice which did celebrate the coming of the light and victory over darkness, and it was celebrated on December 25. Instead of a link between Christmas and the Saturnalia, some scholars suggest that the date of Christmas was a Christian takeover of the feast of Dies Natalis Sol Invictus–the birthday of the Roman sun god Sol.

The problem is– this Roman feast is a late innovation. In the year 278 AD (well after Christianity began to burgeon across the empire) the Emperor Aurelian started promoting the cult of Sol Invictus. There is no evidence that the birth of Sol Invictus was celebrated on December 25 until around 360 AD. This is well after the date of Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 315, and shows the influence of Julian the Apostate–who attempted to turn back the tide of Christianity and return Rome to its pagan origins. Therefore it is arguable that the celebration of the Nativity of Sol Invictus was a late pagan attempt to compete with the celebration of the Nativity of Christ the Lord–the Dayspring from on High and the Sun of Righteousness– on December 25 rather than the reverse.

So where did the date of Christmas originate? In 386, St John Chrysostom preached a sermon linking the date for Christmas to the date of the Annunciation. He does so in a way that suggests that this was already an established belief. The date of the Annunciation was based on a Jewish tradition that the world was created on March 25, or Nisan 15, according to the Jewish calendar.  The Jews also believed that a great man would die on the same day as his conception. The early Christians (who were of course Jews) therefore concluded that Jesus had been conceived on March 25. This made it the date of the world’s creation, and the start of the world’s redemption (and therefore the new creation).

It’s easy. If the Lord Jesus Christ was conceived on March 25, then he was born nine months later on December 25. The date for Christmas is therefore determined by the date of the Annunciation and has nothing to do with the Roman celebration of the Saturnalia or the celebration of the birthday of Sol Invictus.

So Christmas Day cannot be separated from Ladyday–the medieval term for the Feast of the Annunciation. While we now (sadly) celebrate New Years’ Day on the pagan date Jan. 1, it was not always so. From the apostolic age through the Middle Ages, the church continued to battle the vestiges of paganism. So right through 1752, the new year was celebrated in Europe not at the outset of the pagan god Janus’s month, but on the Annunciation, March 25.

What about Frodo Baggins? Tolkien fans the world over celebrate March 25 as a day of celebration by the reading of Tolkien’s work. Why is that? Because the day Frodo Baggins saves his world by delivering the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom was (you guessed it) March 25. Ladyday–the feast of the Annunciation and the beginning of our world’s redemption.

Merry Christmas!

Rev. Dwight Longenecker

By

Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

  • Sarto

    Great article, exploring some things most people, including myself, did not know.

  • Mr. Patton

    Interesting! One should make an argument as to the validity of Christmas by comparing it to the day that the world celebrates Frodo Baggins victory on Mount Doom. Well played sir…LOL

  • Michael PS

    The earliest mention of a feast of the Nativity is in Clement of Alexandria, who says that some people observed it – on 20 May!

    The present date was not adopted until the 4th century. Now, at that time, the Winter Solstice fell on 21 or 22 December (depending on the leap year cycle).

    Why, if the celebration was connected with the solstice, hold it three or four days later? To link it to the 15 Nisan (which falls on the day of the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox and which, at that time fell on 21 or 22 March, not the 25th) would have made Christmas, like Easter, a moveable feast. Moreover, the Romans took the period of gestation to be 273 days, which, counting from Lady Day, would put Christmas on the 24th, not the 25th

    The rather older feast of the Epiphany was always kept on 6 January.

    The link to the solstice is as tenuous as the link to the Saturnalia.

  • Daniel Molinaro II

    JM, you are the one stating nonsensical falsities. Christianity as a religion is only 2,000 years old. Paganism is historically much older.

    • Mary

      “Paganism” as a religion did not exist. It always was a grab bag of practices, and many of them are later than others — some, indeed, post-Christian.

  • paris-dakar

    Outstanding read. Makes me appreciate the celebration of the Annunciation more.

  • Dr. Eric

    You’re incorrect, Michael PS, the Vernal Equinox is when the sun transits the first point of Aquarius around the 20th of March. The Vernal Equinox in Aries hasn’t happened in 2000+ years.

    • Dr. Eric

      Which means that your “sign” is off by 2 signs when you read your horoscope.

    • Michael PS

      The First Point of Aries is simply the zero-point for defining right ascension. It moves along the ecliptic, from East to West, (the opposite direction to the sun) about one degree every 70 years, producing the phenomenon known as the precession of the equinox.

      It entered the constellation of Pisces around 70 BC and, of course, the first point of Libra, which defines the Autumnal Equinox and has a right ascension of 12 hours, is now in Virgo.

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

    I assume that Jesus was born on the shortest day of the year, regardless of what calendar system is/ was in use or how accurate it is/was. I’d be happier if Christmas was a movable feast like Easter, tied to the motion of heavenly bodies instead of a fixed date.

  • Howard

    “While we now (sadly) celebrate New Years’ Day on the pagan date Jan. 1, it was not always so.”

    Yes, but it was a Pope who made that change! I wish I knew his reasons.

    Of course, January 1, traditionally the Feast of the Circumcision, is now the Feast of Mary Mother of God. It may not be Ladyday, but it is one of Our Lady’s days.

  • Howard

    Here’s another mystery: the ordering of these comments. It’s not according to time; it’s not alphabetical; it’s not according to some rating system.

    • Daniel Molinaro II

      It is based on which post one hits the reply button for.

  • Tek

    I’m somewhat surprised that there’s not really any scriptural bases here. Anywho, Christ couldn’t have been born during the winter period of december because that is when Israel had their rainy seasons and would not have taken their sheep out to pasture. Ezra 10:13
    But we all know that shepherds and not wisemen/magi were the first to see Christ, aside from His parents. Luke 2:8-12
    And have you not read Jeremiah 10:1-5? Clearly shows we shouldn’t celebrate christmas.
    And know that the Israelites served God for most of their existence; even when bowing down to golden calves, ashera poles, they still thought they worshipped God. Clearly from the hindsight given from the bible, they were not…

  • Emilio Perea

    Not only was The Ring destroyed on March 25, the Fellowship started their quest when they left Rivendell on December 25.

  • Fr Longenecker

    Tek, for more Scriptural background on the date of Easter I recommend you check out Taylor Marshall’s blog–Canterbury Tales. He has an excellent article there which computes the date for Christmas from the priestly service of Zechariah in the temple. It’s not too hard to work out. We know from the priestly schedule of duties that he would have served at the end of September. The birth of John the Baptist would have therefore been at the end of June. We know that Mary went to visit Elizabeth when she was in her sixth month–which makes it the end of March. This helps us pinpoint the Annunciation (using Scriptural evidence) to around March 25–and therefore Christmas for December 25

    • http://www.DefendingTheBride.com John Hellmann
    • http://www.DefendingTheBride.com John Hellmann

      We might not know with certainty when Christ was born, but December 25th is just as good as any other day, so I say, “Let’s CELEBRATE it.”
      The accusation that Christmas was adopted from a pagan feast only goes back to the seventeenth century. No early church writer ever made a connection between those two feasts. A typical Catholic response has been, “So what? There are still valid symbolism because Jesus is the Light of the world. The hours of light get longer as they days get longer from this time period going forward into the calendar year.”

      Here are some quotations from a few websites:

      The idea that the date was taken from the pagans goes back to two scholars from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Paul Ernst Jablonski, a German Protestant, wished to show that the celebration of Christ’s birth on December 25th was one of the many “pagan-izations” of Christianity that the Church of the fourth century embraced, as one of many “degenerations” that transformed pure apostolic Christianity into Catholicism. Dom Jean Hardouin, a Benedictine monk, tried to show that the Catholic Church adopted pagan festivals for Christian purposes without paganizing the gospel.

      Support from Dead Sea Scrolls

      http://www.fisheaters.com/customschristmasnotes.html

      Some say that the birth could not have happened in the deep winter, because the Bible says that shepherds spent the night outdoors with their flocks when Jesus was born (Luke 2:8).

      Mediterranean climates such as Judea’s (like Southern California’s) have mild winters reaching their coolest in late February. Thus December nights can be quite balmy and warm enough to graze sheep. Moreover, December/January would have been an ideal time to graze sheep to take advantage of the winter rains. During the hot months, conditions can be quite barren and the grasses dry. But the end of December was the time when the perennial grasses began to turn green again and the annual grasses had sprouted anew. Thus, climatically the ecclesiastical practice of placing Christ’s birth between December 25 and January 6 is plausible.

      See Christmas Card showing relevance of Christ and the New Year

      http://www.defendingthebride.com/cc/card.html

  • Titus

    Well, there are some . . . interesting . . . comments here.

    Why keep Christmas a fixed feast? It seems that the better question is why keep Easter a moveable one. Christians adopted solar calendar: maintaining a solar civil calendar and a lunar liturgical calendar is difficult and unnecessary. Of course, Easter has to be moveable because it has to be a Sunday: Triduum only makes sense if the celebrations fall on the same days of the week each year. The celebrations for Christmas are not attached to given days that way: better, then, to fix the date and make it easier.

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

    Tek, I must be reading a different Jeremiah 10:1-5.

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

    Re Christmas and Easter dating, harmonizing religious events to the rhythms of God’s Creation is more substantial than tethering them to Gregory’s derivative and patchwork calendar.

    Not that anyone has to agree with me.

  • http://www.treehenge.org ThemonTheBard

    Several technical problems with this post.

    First, calendrics: our modern Gregorian calendar was adopted in a piecemeal fashion around the world from 1582 to as late as 1927 (in Turkey). Any immediately pre-Gregorian calendar dates (e.g. October 1, 1582) will be 10 days later in the year than an equivalent post-Gregorian date. (Trick question: what happened in Rome on October 10, 1582? Absolutely nothing — there is no such date. The last day of the Julian calendar was October 4, 1582, and the next day dawned October 15, 1582). The difference becomes less severe the further back in time you get, all the way to 45 BC, when the Julian calendar was first adopted.

    However, that doesn’t mean October 15, 45 BCE was the same day of the year as October 15, 1582. Nor is lining up any historical event with a modern calendar a trivial matter. One of the reasons that Christ’s birth is estimated to have occurred between 7 and 2 BCE — rather than CE 1 — is due to ever-new information and more accurate dating of certain other events in antiquity, such as the death of Herod the Great or the beginning of Emperor Augustus’ reign.

    Although the complete overhaul of the pre-Julian calendar was started in 45 BCE under Julius Caesar, it wasn’t completed until Augustus’ reign, and precise dates floated about during that period. The month of Sextillus was changed to August as late as 8 BCE. In outlying regions of the Roman Empire, particularly places like Palestine which used a lunar or lunar-influenced calendar, only best guesses can be made as to exactly what year or day any particular event occurred.

    Second: It is my understanding that the earliest Christians celebrated only Easter, which still carries the blend of solar and lunar calendars (first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox) that would still have been common in the Roman provinces around 1 CE. Because Easter is locked to the Jewish Passover, which has its own established history, it is fairly easy to say that the date of Easter is known.

    The Dies Natalis — Christmas — is a different story. The Catholic Encyclopedia contains an article with extensive detail (see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm) and makes it clear that the very early church did not celebrate the birth of the Christ, and that its celebration was a rather late addition. Its earliest reference to the celebration comes from Alexandria in the early 200’s, and placed it sometime in May. Origen was contemptuous of this practice, and Arnobius, writing in the late 300’s, still made fun of worshipping the “birthdays of the gods” — which would presumably include the birthday of the Christ. It seems that the best guess as to why December 25 was chosen was, in fact, the Natalis Invicti, the Roman syncretistic celebration of the rebirth of the Sun God, a primary feature of the Cult of Mithras which was very popular in fourth century Rome. The fact that there was no celebration of the birthdate prior to CE 200, and that it took nearly two more centuries to become anchored to even a season, much less a specific date, establishes that there was no tradition of any “real date” going back to year one.

    Third: It is also my understanding that “Christmas” was traditionally celebrated with wild, drunken, and even violent partying until very recent times (in the US in recent years this sort of thing has been shifted to New Year’s Eve, though the traditional celebrations sound more like Mardi Gras on steroids than New Year’s Eve.) This certainly sounds like its tradition comes from the Saturnalia of Rome.

    Moralists condemned Christmas for centuries. Oliver Cromwell (the Puritan) banned it outright during his brief reign. Christmas was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. After the American Revolution, Christmas was considered an “English” tradition and fell out of favor throughout the US.

    The point of all this detailed critique is to establish one and only one thing: Christmas is whatever we choose to make of it — it has always been that, and will always be that. We can, if we choose, turn it into a bone over which to snarl and snap at each other, as Fox News with its “culture wars” likes to encourage. Or we can turn it into a time of peace and goodwill — something I grew up with, and have always loved about the season.

  • Cord Hamrick

    Re: When the sheep are out in the pastures:

    Folk, please recall that Israel is a hot country.

    There are sheep outside, with shepherds beside them, in the Middle East, farther north than Judea, RIGHT NOW. Even in December 2011. (Go look.) And sometimes “unseasonal” lambing occurs (same reason).

    This of course never happens that way in Northern Europe (save possibly during the Medieval Warm Period, when monks were writing about the late autumn flowers in Germany and Greenland was green and Labrador Coast was Vineland and whatever). Lambing is exclusively in the Spring and thus with shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.

    But Israel is not Denmark. And sheep are stupid, and need their shepherds, who’re out in the fields with them more often than not.

    • Michael PS

      I live in South-West Scotland and I have sheltered winter pasture for my sheep, who come off the moor in October and go back there after lambing, usually in late February/early March.

      We only put them into folds in very bad snow, to make feeding easier.

  • finishstrongdoc
  • Deacon Tom

    Merry Christmas!

    According to the lore passed on to me on the day before Christmas break while I was in the Fourth Grade, the celebration of Christmas took nothing from but was offered as an alternative to the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and the birthday of Sol. I have no source but the “little “t” tradition” passed on to me by Sister Michael Ann, IHM some 55 years ago. “Sister said” (which in the household of my youth carried the same weight as “The pope pronounced”) – that it is part of human nature to want to celebrate – and this she spake unto us fourth graders – and she said unto us that the celebration of the birth of Jesus came , in part, from our need for a feast to celebrate while those pagans were having their celebration of “things we were not supposed to do”- perhaps she did not feel it appropriate to enumerate the goings on of Saturnalia to a bunch of 4th graders. She then read from Luke and showed us how the Annunciation was set at 9 months before the date that we celebrate as Jesus’ birthday, and that the birthday of John the Baptist was established as the 24th of June, not quite six months before, because to be born exactly six months before would have seemed to be too perfect for a mere prophet. (By the way: This constituted the entirety of “reproductive health education” at Blessed Sacrament School in those days.) Then, she scandalized us by telling us that Santa Claus was invented by Coca Cola, that the closest thing to a “real Santa Clause” was either St. Nicholas the bishop or Good King Wenceslaus. She then offered us some relief by saying that to pretend about Santa Claus, especially if we had younger brothers and sisters, was not lying but just having fun and sharing and acting in a story and that we could do the same when we grew up. Sister then said that it really didn’t matter exactly when Jesus was born and that we had no real way of knowing for sure, and that it could have happened in December or March or in between, but that the important thing was to know that God became a child just like us, who would grow up, learn from his parents, do his Father’s will and save us because he loved us. – Much to think about on our Christmas break.

    So: I would not make a really big deal about exactly how the celebration of Christmas came about, nor would I get my knickers in a twist over establishing the date and time of Jesus’ birth. We do not have the data. To me, what matters is that we understand that God chose to break into the flow of human history and end the estrangement caused by Adam, that God so loved the world that, some 2 millennia ago, he became one of us out of a saving Love that could no longer be bottled up. What matters as well is that we radiate the Joy and Hope of this Mystery.

    Do not be afraid.

    Nothing is impossible with God.

    Emmanuel! God is with us!

  • ellie ragasa

    Interesting comments here. Whether it was March, December or whenever, the fact is that on a certain special day 2000 years ago, God did send LOVE to dwell among us – His Son Jesus Savior and Redeemer.

    Tomorrow may you all share LOVE with your family and friends and may God’s LOVE and Blessings continue throughout the new year 2012.

  • Fr Cesar Guzman

    …all this hogwash…the “certainties” of science and the “hopes” of blind faith…the Truth of the Matter is that God so loved the World that the Son was sent unto us to show us a better Way of Life rather than to continue LIVING in the arrogance of Adam and Eve to become like gods…Celebrate the Divine Love DAILY…NOT JUST ON A DESIGNATED DATE…and may your daily Christmases be bright!!!! PAX ET AMOR SEMPER…FrCsar

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  • TomD

    “And another pure coincidence is that of Easter, which just so happens to align perfectly with the Summer solstice . . . For anyone to state falsities, like those mentioned above, is to insult the very profession of these people.”

    Better get your facts straight and not “state falsities” yourself when you choose to insult others on websites. Easter has nothing to do with the Summer solstice . . . it is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox in the spring. The Summer solstice is in June in the northern hemisphere, while the vernal equinox is generally in March or April in the northern hemisphere.

  • Michael PS

    The Vernal Equinox (when the sun transits the first point of Aries) occurs either on the 20 or 21 March.

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