Well we are closing in on Christmas – a special, even magical time of the year. Families will be sitting down together, table heaped rich foods, adults already slightly aglow from a glass or two of Christmas cheer, kids on their second wind after their frenzied ravine upon Christmas wrapping, aaand then some pompous boor will proclaim, with a smug air of unassailability, that Christmas is actually a pagan festival.
It is a new old claim. But how many of these boors are scholars in matters of history and religion? How many have read any source materials or researched and argued treatises? How many have thought about it at all, beyond what is necessary to memorise it and savour the rank stink it carries like a fly contemplating a particularly loathsome glistening turd. So they sit waiting form the right time, restraining the desire to break out like Mel Gibson with his face painted half blue saying “Hold! HOLD!” until they can finally unleash this mental morsal in its full caustic effect. Honestly, what kind of person would accept an invitation to Christmas with all the joy that attends the day, and then wish to tarnish it? To make it somehow illegitimate and empty? They should count themselves lucky that Christmas does not incorporate cricket bats and shallow graves in its celebrations.
But it must be true! Even the People’s Polymath, Stephen Fry, has declared it. (I must admit to not being much of a fan of Stephen Fry’s. The stupid man’s idea of a clever man as the saying goes. Abstruse tidbits delivered with dandified aplomb. But that is a matter of taste rather than an argument against his credibility in this instance.)
Too many Christians, accustomed now to apologising for their beliefs in our militantly secular society, don’t know enough to argue against it. They have already let so much slide because they have not been told better. It is all a bit like the calumnies against the Catholic Church in the story about Galileo. When I was at (Catholic) school even the Brothers treated the ‘backward Church’ elements of the story as certain and it was up to us to accept our religion’s sin in holding back science and redeem ourselves.
Where am I going with all this?
I came across a website a few years ago called History for Atheists, hosted by a fellow called Tim O’Neill who is himself an atheist but one who is willing to hunt down and call out bad history which has been distorted, skewed, and outright fabricated by what I would call atheist zealots. I do not believe that he has become religious and he is not on some voyage of self-discovery, he just doesn’t like the dishonesty and the way it infects subsequent discussions with its poison, the cumulative effect of which would be calamitous for people who are interested in truth.
So I am providing here a link to an article of his called Christmas, Mithras and Paganism.
Below I am listing the most common claims I have heard made and some rebuttals (of varying quality) that I have gleaned from the website. Hopefully they are sufficiently tantalising to get you to read the site. Anyway, what I often here and what I think about it:
Often the deity cited as having their date (and customs) coopted is Mithras, a Persian deity whose cult supposedly spread to Rome. This would seem to be a conflation of an ancient Persian deity called Mithra (himself seemingly a development of Indic Mitra), and a much later invented Roman cult to a certain ‘Mithras’ which bore little to no resemblance to the older Persian cult. It may be the Roman cult went with the name ‘Mithras’ so it would not be taken for a new ‘superstition’ which the Romans viewed with often aggresive apprehension. We know how they thought about early Christians and there were several instances of Jews being expelled from the city. Weirdos. The site also cites the experience on the Zoroastrians as a further example. Middle Eastern weirdos.
Sometimes it is claimed that Christmas was superimposed upon the Roman Saturnalia, but Saturnalia started on December 17th and although the duration of the festival fluctuated over time at its latest it finished on 23rd December. Sometimes people will claim that the gift-giving custom derived from Satrunalia. Maybe. But apart from that there really is no other similarity. Customs being the same but without an underlying conceptual parallel is a conspicuous absence of the supposed central claim that Christmas is a rebranded pagan holiday.
Or you may hear that December 25th was the day celebrating ‘Sol Invictus’ (Unconquered Sun), although it appears the deity ‘Sol Invictus’ was not associated with 25th December until Aurelian in the 3rd Century. In fact it is more likely that that Aurelian was trying to accommodate his new cult to the ascendant and better established Christian one.
Merging two of the above you might hear about ‘Mithras Sol Invictus’, but here ‘Sol Invictus’ is a title (gods usually had mutliple titles) rather than an equating of the two. According to Wikipedia (‘Epithets of Jupiter’) you can see St Augustine gives eleven titles for Jupiter. It all comes down to what aspect of the god they were seeking to highlight. Besides, as in the previous paragraph, ‘Sol Invictus’ was not associated with 25th December until much later, in the 3rd century.
There is in fact nothing that we can say ties Mithras to Christmas. We know very little about the Roman cult. Just the inscriptions and iconography, the main of the latter being Mithras killing a bull which is not found in Christianity at all, and Mithras being born fully formed and adult from rock.
Well, that is the supposed Pagan connection at least looked at. The text in the link is far more cogent than the glosses above. But where did this 25th December come from then if not from the above?
This was an eye-opener (for me, at any rate). Originally there was no set date because no one knew when Jesus was born. Births, Deaths, and Marriages was not a thing. I know, right? So there were various dates in use at different times and places. But the explanation that cuaught my eye? There was a tradition way back when that prophets died on the same day of the year they were conceived. It was accepted that Jesus died on 14 Nisan (by the Hebrew calendar) which corresponds with 25th March. Now, add 9 months from conception to birthday. I don’t know that this is the only way the date was officially arrived at or chosen. But I would note something important – that it uses at its starting point the date of Jesus’s <em>crucifiction</em>, which was a much more important event and central to Christian doctrine than his birth. Anyway, the Council or Tours established the official Christmas season in AD 567, long after the fall of the Western Empire and even longer after all the pagan gods had lost any role in the minds or beliefs of Europeans.
And after all, there is nothing in the Bible or Christmas tradition that actually forbids cricket bats and shallow graves.