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.
20 thoughts on “Guest Post: Mother Lode – A Pagan Christmas”
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Thanks Mother Lode. We had to endure the anti Christmas message from the pulpit a couple of weeks ago. The Kris Kringle portion of gifts from our present hoard have since been relabelled by the kids as being from the pagan king.
With changes to the calendar over the centuries I don’t think it really matters what date we put on Christmas. For Christians it is Christs birth. Let it be.
As to Pagan celebrations, I always thought the British Yule was the one that the early missionaries used to help convert people.
Happy Christmas all.
Possibly more important than celebratory days of the calendar is the worldview purporting to explain reality, knowledge and ethics. Everyone has one, though for some it may not be developed as others. A Christian worldview ascribes authority to God as creator, owner and sustainer of all things. God is presupposed to be true; this contrasts a humanistic worldview, in which final authority rests in man. One’s worldview needs to provide the preconditions for the intelligibility of human experience. As it proceeds to state truth, can it explain truth claims as objective knowledge that exist outside of my (world of internal) experience?
The argument for God’s existence is that without presupposing him as the absolute personality we live in a universe of chaos or chance in which the concrete particulars of human experience are made nonsense. There is no justification for being, causation and order. One cannot therefore argue that the laws of logic are self-existent, because they are abstract and do not exist in a material world. Rationalism cannot reach a real world of objects with its purported self-evident truths. Empiricism provides only observational (i.e. perceptual) certainty based on probability. Pragmatism cannot justify normative ends based on certain universal success ideals. And common sense philosophy suffers from an inability to justify what is common.
The general challenge of the sceptic is that rational thought is arbitrary and cannot be justified. Therefore, how we can be certain that a conceptual scheme corresponds to the objective world of objects? The scientific method rests on experience and observation and assumes organising (universal) principles that scientifically cannot be verified or made sense of. The sceptic uses rationality to argue that there can be no justification for rational procedure, so ironically the sceptic’s challenge cannot be justified. Thus scepticism’s challenge to rationalism, empiricism, pragmatism and common sense does no better, and all positions are thus reduced to subjectivism and therefore scepticism. (Subjectivism provides for knowledge claims that are is subjective, only related to internal experience, and which have no contact with the external world of man and objects.) This leads to anarchism, in which truth is relative, or dogmatism, in which power is the order of the day.
The “proof”, then, for God’s existence is not based on the autonomy of man, with man assuming the highest authority in the universe, but on theonomy in which God is assumed as the highest point of authority. Why? Because God claims that he is self-existent (or eternal). God is referred to as the ontological trinity. Unless God is presupposed, human knowledge claims are meaningless, at least in principle. In practice man can progress with God’s dominion mandate because it his world and he gives gifts to men (e.g. butcher, baker and candlestick maker!). Therefore if God is true, then it is no problem for him to control history (while holding man accountable), maintain the veracity of Scripture throughout human history and raise the dead. His kindness is evidenced by crucifying and raising Christ from the dead, acceptance of which redeems us from our ethically hostile state and re-unites us with him who is the true source of life: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6).
December 23, 2022
Leftist: Christmas would be nice if it weren’t for all the icky Christian stuff
I’m not Christian, but I’ve always been grateful to live in a country where people so generously share the season’s beauty with me. However, I’ve never lost sight of the fact that “the reason for the season” is the birth of the man that super-Catholic Joe Biden describes as “a child Christians believe to be the son of God.” In other words, Jesus Christ. No Christ means no Christmas. However, for one British woman, what really spoils the otherwise lovely Christmas season is all that icky Christian stuff.
Polly Toynbee, a regular columnist at The Guardian, Britain’s left-leaning newspaper, wrote a column entitled (for real), “Christmas comes with good cheer. The tragedy is the religious baggage.”
Yeah, it’s a real shame about the reason for the season.
Toynbee opens her article by celebrating that Christianity is dying in Britain. “This is the first Christmas since time immemorial [note: actually, since the seventh century] that most people in this country are not Christians.” She might be less enthused about this decline if she contemplated the fact that, as Christians vanish, the number of Muslims swells. Using data from Wikipedia, I compiled a little chart about Islam’s growth in Britain:
But then Toynbee begins to hone in on what really gets her goat: Christmas is “loathsome.” She dislikes the focus on Christ’s martyrdom, which is “a repugnant virtue.” She finds it “impossible…to worship an all-good yet all-powerful God the father, God the king, who inflicts random horrors on his people while demanding praise, thanks and glorification.”
I have no idea where Toynbee thinks the nihilism of leftism (100 million dead in the 20th century alone) or the deadly charnel house that is Islam is going to be better, yet those are her options.
To the extent she’s not comfortable with mass murder and slavery, that’s because she was raised in a modern Christian tradition, whether she believes it or not. When that ends, you choose between Hitler and ISIS.
And then, of course, there’s Toynbee’s core gripe: “The greatest myth of Christianity is that it was a force for civilisation that drove out pagan brutality.” According to what she read in Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age, a book about fanatical early Christians, “monotheistic religions are most prone to causing extreme religious terror.”
What these two ignorami mean is that monotheists have indeed waged religious wars, with Christians ending such wars in the 17th century and Muslims continuing to the present day.
You have to accept then the universe is indeed a very strange place.
nice rant Lode,
for some reason it made me think of that other Christmas tradition
… totem tennis
Many aspects of Christmas celebrations do stem from pre-Christian times, even going back into the Bronze Age. This is because December 25th occurs around the winter solstice, always important in farming communities, the time when the days start to lengthen and the dark corner is turned. The Yule festival is notably pagan, a north-western European tradition. Decorating with Holly and Ivy are ancient traditions to do with vegetation, symbolising greenery and the red berries reminding of the pagan blood sacrifices. These traditions became Christianised, and were then surrounded then with Christian meanings for teaching purposes – the holly berries for instance symbolised the blood of Christ, and the thorns of the Holly reminded worshippers of Christ’s crown of thorns. The season’s twelve days were then each attributed to a particular Christian Saint. A Medieval holy fast before Christmas ensured a plentiful feast with twelve days of rest.
The tradition of a present-bringing ‘elf’ riding across the skies in a reindeer drawn sleigh is a remnant of much older beliefs about a sun god chasing the day into night in a chariot of fire, as found in Nordic mythology and part of a maintained tradition with lost origins. I think that god was in Britain called Paternus Redrut (Red Father), who is referenced in old genealogical documents in Latin from Edinburgh. He was the northern All Father deity (similar to the Roman Jupiter; strongly cognate to Odin) supplanted by the Christian father deity. Hence that ‘elf’ wears a red suit. In Britain he is still called ‘Father’ Christmas, under an older tradition supplanted by St. Nicholas.
But why was St. Nicholas seen to be a suitable saint to Christianise this deity where celebrations just wouldn’t die out? Once Christianisation occurred, St. Nicholas was said to be that present giving person, with a story attached to the transfer – hence the name Santa Claus is a devolved form of St. Nicholas from the Dutch Sinta Nicklaus.
My view is that St. Nicholas was the chosen saint because of his important place in the Christian debates on heresy, particular on Arianism. St. Nicholas was said to have punched Arius, the theologian of this heresy, on the nose during the Council of Nicea in 325AD: hence the old All Father was punched on the nose, suitably taming his powers. Father Christmas thus always has a red nose from that punch, and if there is any doubt about this, so does his chief reindeer Rudolf (which also means Red Nose). Father Christmas has essentially also been supplanted by Santa Claus (St. Nicholas).
There is more to most long-standing traditions than immediately meets the eye.
Who could ever doubt it?
Finding faith is a gift. Not one that we all receive.
St Nicholas was a real person who was known for his Christian charity.
Christian Christmas gift giving isn’t mere exchange of like for like. It is an opportunity to see Christ in every person, it is why at Christmas many Christians quietly open their wallets and give to charity, not just in the US.
And it doesn’t matter one whit if you can point to this or that local cultural practice that has been folded in as a trivial part of the celebration of Christ’s birth.
Thank you Mother Lode for pre-empting the poison pill that inevitably gets dropped in the Catallaxy well, too.
How pagans viewed Christian charity
This old quote just seemed appropriately inappropriate.
– Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, 7 Dec 2005.
Although Christmas occurs around the winter solstice, there is another astronomical event that actually occurs on Dec 25th, which is when the midday analemma crosses true North. In essence this is the day that the equation of time, resets to zero. The time the Earth takes to make one revolution varies slightly ( +/- a few minutes) from exactly 24 hours over the course of the year, because it’s orbit is not perfectly circular. EOT also resets to zero on ~15 June, 1 Sept and 15 April.
Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare says:
December 24, 2022 at 11:21 am
How can S Nick got a red nose when he was the one delivering the punch in the nose?
more on Christmas
who is St Nicholas
Sacré bleu – I haven’t celebrated Saturnalia since about 2004. It was a thing among my peer group for about a decade beforehand – and yes, it was only ever celebrated early in the week before Christmas day.
It’s only a pagan festival if you are a pagan.
If you go to the effort to make it about the birth of Christ by say, getting your child to read aloud the relevant passages, then it’s Christian, because you are.
The only other concern is the lack of decorations in public places. Councils no longer go to any effort. And shop keeps, where they still exist make zero effort. In my childhood every town put out decorations and all the shops decorated their windows. It’s bloody sad that this generation cannot be arsed to put in the effort to make the memories for their children that previous generations made for them.
But that’s the story in almost everything now.
St Nicholas was a real person. There is no doubt about that. Also, the meaning of charitable gifting was very different under pagan thought than it was in the Christian world-view. No doubt there either.
Nevertheless, what still needs explanation is how the name and identity of St. Nicholas became identified with the old heathen deity of tribal leadership; the Germanic all-father sun god?
St. Nicholas is most famed in popular memory for punching the theologian Bishop Arius on the nose, a shocking thing to do to a fellow Christian bishop, but indicative of St. Nicholas as a fierce resister to what was regarded as the worst of heresies. The Arian heresy was one of the biggest threats to Trinitarian Christianity in the early days of Christian missionizing. It is hard to imagine how serious a threat it was at that time, the early 4th century and into the 5th. The Goths and Vandals, originally Germanic peoples, were all Arian Christians, who believed that the Christian Father was a separate form of deity to the Son. Arianism made their previous belief in an all-father god easily transferable to a new Father God, but only if that new Father God was not one and the same as Christ. If Christ was identical to the Christian Father then Arian Christians had lost an easy slide into accepting Christianity without much changing their view of their father deity. That in my opinion explains the very strong appeal of Arianism to the Germanic peoples.
The old father-god sailed as a sun-god through the skies in his chariot of fire (the sun). He was also the god of light during the darkest winter days bringing in the solstice, the turning point. He lived in popular imagination for centuries after Christianisation, and still does, as ‘Father’ Christmas. He gradually however became more known by the eroded name of St. Nicholas (Santa Claus). What is important is that the old father god was regarded by Christian explainers as having taken a king hit on the nose by the actions of St. Nicholas, which was certainly the case, for the Arian heresy died out (was stamped out) as Trinitarianism became dominant. Gradually, St. Nicholas became identified as the new ‘keeper of the sleigh at Christmas time’ but in memory that keepers nose still bore the brunt of the king hit on the old all father. The red nose was the calling card of the new religion of Christianity on the old belief in a sky all-father. That calling card remained on the old deity who officially lost his ‘father’ title and now bore the name of the man who did the most to dispel Arianism and hence knock out that old all-father: that man was known as St. Nicholas and Christmas festivities were now named after him. This is how traditions merge and then change. This theory explains the coterminous presence of both Father Christmas and Santa Claus in the one old identity.
St. Patrick, missionizing in Ireland, had the same difficulty in explaining the new Father God.
He used a Shamrock to exemplify the three-in-one idea to a polytheistic people; showing that Christ was not just another additive god to the pantheon that lived under an all-father deity.
I see no reason why Christians need to be defensive about analysis that investigates the conversion process in the face of many older strands of religous thought, including heathenism and paganism. All theologians I have read and spoken to take no issue with the history of conversions. Pope Gregory himself ordered St. Augustine in 597AD in Britain to build on what he found the people there believed and to take over their sacred sites and Christianise them. Older traditions and attachments are rarely easily lost and were often given new meanings, while new rituals and practices also developed within a Christian context. For Christians, Christ’s birth was God on Earth setting a path towards redemption. Nothing changes that.
Thankfully, Arky, Christmas is one of the most enduring of all traditions and it will not die.
Especially if we keep it ourselves and remind others to do so. Adult kids come back to it.
Councils full of atheist greenies are another matter though. Kick them out.
Campaign to vote for Christmas. Remember what The Donald said in 2016 to highlight how the celebration’s language had disintegrated into ‘Happy Holidays’:
‘We are going to wish each other Merry Christmas again’
We need to say it even more so now.