Jonathan Clark investigates whether early Christians merely piggybacked off pre-existing pagan celebrations
In a society where Christmas has become secularised and commercialised, Christians are struggling to maintain the Christian aspect of the festival. But this isn’t the only threat to a Christian view of Christmas. In recent years there’s been a resurgence in people claiming Christmas is entirely pagan in origin. This has coincided with the actions of the current generation of pagans and druids who are re-establishing their cycle of festivals in the calendar.
So where does the truth lie?
The celebration of Christmas was actually banned in 1647 during the Puritan Commonwealth period in England. It was seen as pagan, popish, wasteful and immoral. Even in America, the melting pot of many of the current secular aspects of Christmas, the feast was frowned upon in the early years of the colony.
Each cultural group across the ages has had its own series of festivals and feasts bringing people together. These have been based on beliefs, specific calendars, understanding of the seasons and the astronomical cycle, combined with special events and anniversaries. Initially, these were localised to their tribes, regions or ethnic groups and over time spread to wider faith groups, nations and empires.
Some of the symbols of these separate festivities will inevitably coincide with each other - the use of fire in the winter months for light and heat or evergreen plants following the autumnal leaf fall for colour and reminder of life returning in the spring.
The people of Israel were given feasts at different times of the year to bring them together to remember the consistency of God and what he had done for them, and many of these coincide with or developed into Christian feasts. Their winter festival Hanukkah, ‘Festival of Lights’, was instituted following the re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem in 165 BC.
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Origins of Christmas
The Christian Calendar is based around key events in the life of Jesus and the Church. It starts with the annunciation of his conception to Mary, his birth, the visit of the Magi, dedication at the temple, baptism, temptation in the desert, entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, his betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion, his resurrection, his ascension, Pentecost - the coming of the Holy Spirit, and it ends with Advent looking forward to his return.
Some of these feasts link to the Jewish festivals, although their exact dates may vary between the Jewish and Christian calendars. Some are set at fixed points relative to each other, for example, the annunciation is none months away from the celebration of the birth of Jesus giving a clear period of time representing Jesus’ time in the womb.
There are two distinct schools of thought as to which date was set first. If the date for the annunciation was first, coinciding with traditional dates allocated both for creation, and also the date of the crucifixion, then the date for Christmas is not set with reference to other winter feasts. If, on the other hand, the date for the birth was set first, then the question is why that particular date was chosen by Christians to mark Jesus’ birth.
The Christian celebration of Christmas on December 25th is at least 1,685 years old. The earliest direct written record of Christmas being celebrated on December 25th is found in 336 AD, although there are significant indicators that the date was in circulation before this time. Because there is no earlier written record for Christmas, this has led to the suggestion that it was set on December 25th to replace a pre-existing Roman feast - Sol Invictus - a festival of the sun and lights.
However, Sol Invictus was only instituted in Rome by the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD. It is worth considering the fact that Sextus Julius Africanus in 221 AD had already given March 25th as the day of creation and also the annunciation to Mary - which would link to the birth of Jesus nine months later. It is therefore possible that the Roman festival was in fact designed to compete with what we now know as Christmas - the Christian festival which was already gaining ground by that date.
We can be certain that the Christian celebration of Christmas on December 25th is at least 1,685 years old and probably older, and that it forms part of a wider Christian calendar designed to remind the adherents of the Christian faith at points in the year of the key stages of the life of Jesus Christ and the birth of the Church in the same way the feasts of the people of Israel remind them of the work of God in their lives.
In a world with a variety of faiths and festival calendars there are many that coincide or overlap. The exact origins of Christmas and the use of December 25th will never be 100 percent explained, although the Christian use of the date has as much claim to being individual and original as any other.
I believe the key issue is how we celebrate the date: the message we give, the clarity of why we do what we do, being clear about the actual events of the birth of Jesus, its meaning and consequences.
Where we have decorations or accessories, we need to know whether these have a Christian symbolism or meaning and why. If they do not, we need to be just as clear that these are seasonal or cultural additions and not part of the story of Jesus, to avoid confusion.
The underlying truth is that Christmas is a Christian festival based on a real event, the birth of a real person Jesus Christ, ‘God with us’, who came to be the saviour of the world.
Jonathan Clark is the director of Premier Lifeline.