Are Christmas and Easter Pagan Holidays?

 

I wonder what percentage of the Internet is actually good and helpful and true.

This thought occurs to me each time I encounter the common criticism that Christmas and Easter have pagan origins. Such claims are plastered online and used in a philosophical sleight of hand to conclude that Christianity is rooted in paganism and thus nothing more than myth…or at least that Christians should have nothing to do with the holidays.

We discussed general parallels between Christianity and paganism in a previous blog, and found that the so-called similarities are often extremely shallow and, where they run deeper, it is an intentional usage by the authors of Scripture to demonstrate that the God of Scripture surpasses the so-called “gods” of the nations.

But what of these holidays? Are Christmas and Easter rooted in paganism? If so, would that actually imply that Christianity is mere fable or that Christians should not celebrate them?

The Birth of Christmas

Wishing Christ a happy birthday was not always seen as the reason for the season. In fact, some in the early church opposed the celebration of Christ’s incarnation on the grounds that recognition of the birth of a deity was a pagan practice.

However, not all fathers agreed. As for why, we shall return to that in a bit. For now, suffice it to say the holiday entered into Church tradition as Christ’s Mass, a worship service dedicated to observe His birth. By the fourth-century emergence of Christianity as the imperial religion, the Church officially celebrated Christmas.

But what of the pagan roots? Everything from the date of Christmas to the particular practices of gift giving to decorated trees has been questioned.

It is the dating of the holiday that has received the most criticism and it is often taken as a historical fact that Christianity simply stole the date from pagan holidays. However, there are various theories as to why Christmas was associated with December 25, and none is thoroughly conclusive. Anyone who claims to know why Christmas was originally celebrated on this date is speculating. Below are a few common theories:

Pagan Holidays

The Roman Empire was rampant with polytheism. Within this amorphous blend of religion were pagan celebrations sometimes posited as influencing the Christian decision to commemorate December 25. These celebrations included the birth of the sun (natali solis invicti), the birth of Mithras (the “sun of righteousness,” a popular Roman god) and Saturnalia (a popular Roman holiday).

Even if Christianity originally chose this date to coincide with pagan festivals, which remains unproven, this is no skeleton in the closet for the Church. There are good and biblical reasons why it might have been done as we will consider shortly.

If pagans can celebrate the birth of the sun, can’t Christians celebrate the birth of the One Who created and sustains the sun? If pagan gods were celebrated, how much more the true God?

Constantinian Conspiracy

Critics love to manufacture Constantinian conspiracy theories. If these skeptics are to be believed, not only did Constantine choose December 25 to unite the various religions occupying his empire, but he also created the Bible and invented the Trinity. Though this makes for great historical fiction, such a picture of Constantine does not fit the historical evidence.

Far from the caricature often painted by skeptics, the Emperor had little authority over Church beliefs and practices. When Trinitarian controversy threatened his empire, Constantine did not personally decide the matter; he called an ecumenical council and charged the bishops to preside over Nicaea. His chief concern was not theological precision but rather imperial harmony.

While it is possible that Constantine took initiative in setting the date of the holiday, such a theory is completely speculative. Plus, even if he did, it would not further the claim that Christianity is mere myth.

Calendar Calculations

Although many today conclude that Christ was actually born in the spring, many of our forefathers believed, whether mistakenly or not, that December 25 was the proper date or at least season for the incarnation. Historical evidence indicates that many early teachers believed it to be the correct date and sought to demonstrate that mathematically and biblically. Various equations were posited to prove that Christ was actually born on or around December 25. Whether they were correct or not, it is important to know that this was indeed a driving consideration for many early believers.

So, why did the Church actually choose December 25? We may never know all of the motivations, but it is likely that many did so for various reasons, none of which having to do with merely stealing from other traditions.

The Dawn of Easter

Choosing the date of Easter was much easier given precise biblical data. The Scriptures not only declare the day of resurrection as Sunday – the first day of the Jewish calendar – but also speak of the season as coinciding with the Jewish feast of Passover.

Though the Church originally divided on whether the holiday should be observed in strict relation to the Passover, the modern formula for calculating Easter was eventually accepted as the first Sunday following the full moon on or after the vernal equinox.

But what of the name? Surely the word “Easter” is as pagan as can be.

Granted, it is probable that the word “Easter” originated from reference to a pagan god such as Ishtar, Astarte or Eostre. But so what?

Does the fact that the English word “Easter” might relate to a pagan god imply that Christians cannot celebrate it? If so, what of the fact that every single day of the week derives its English name from a pagan god/festival? Does the fact that Thursday was originally “Thor’s day” prohibit Christians from using modern calendars? Or should Christians abandon worship on a Sunday since we do not worship the “Sun.”

The name may have pagan roots, but the worship of Christ as the risen Lord is decidedly Christian.

The Establishment of Traditions

It appears likely that Christian celebration eventually borrowed certain traditions from pagan holidays. For example, the use of a tree with lights, the giving of gifts, feasting and the use of Easter eggs and bunnies were all common pagan practices. But what does this imply?

The question is why Christians did so - to cover up some great conspiracy or to uncover some great truths?

The people of God have always held that He has embedded certain themes and truths into the world that even pagans recognized. Perhaps the early Church merely saw in paganism certain truths and joys woven into the fabric of the universe and sought to accommodate and communicate them more clearly in light of the gospel.

  • Pagans celebrated the birth of Mithras, the “sun of righteousness.” Is Christ not the true son of righteousness born to be worshiped?

  • Pagans decorated trees with lights. Is Christ not the true Light hung upon a tree?

  • Does paganism have exclusive claim on gift giving and feasts? Is there something inherently sinful or unbiblical about decorating a tree or eggs?

We cannot simply denounce all that is derived in paganism. After all, the authors of Scripture often took pagan words and concepts and redeemed them with truth.

For example, the word “gospel” was a common term with rich Roman usage to describe conquest by an earthly king. Archaeologists have found an ancient first-century inscription that reads, “the beginning of the gospel of Caesar Augustus.” This is fascinating considering that Mark begins his gospel, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Why? Why borrow a phrase with pagan roots?

Because the early church found in that word a common link to communicate God’s superior victory. They weren’t blindly borrowing, they were engaging in subversive theology. If the ascension and conquest of Caesar is “good news,” how much more that of Jesus the true and better king? What better way to communicate that than to leverage an existing concept and expand its meaning?

While certain elements of the holidays probably take root in paganism, Christmas and Easter were ultimately founded upon the historical realities of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ who is the substance to which all the shadows of earthly religion vaguely point.

Should Christians Celebrate Christmas and Easter?

As was stated before, Christians cannot simply dismiss everything that has pagan roots. To do so is not only impractical, but, more importantly, unbiblical. As we have seen, there is a pattern in Scripture of accommodating and redeeming pagan roots for the fruit of Christian truth.

Although there are no commands in Scripture to celebrate Christmas and Easter, neither are there prohibitions. In fact, we find the opposite trajectory in Scripture. Rather than prohibiting celebration, the Scripture forbids universal prohibition of such things.

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. (Romans 14:5–7)

Furthermore, there are explicit calls to remember and rejoice in the work of the Savior. A Christian might find it unappealing to utilize certain elements of modern Christmas and Easter traditions (such as Christmas trees and Easter eggs) and they have freedom to do so, just as others have biblical freedom to redeem them. Regardless, the exclusion of certain elements should not cause us to discard the celebration of the holidays entirely or pass judgment on our brothers or sisters who choose to celebrate differently.

Christ became flesh. Christ died for our sins. Christ rose from the dead.

What could possibly be better truths to celebrate?

 

For Further Study

Good responses to popular culture’s claims of conspiracy can be found in:

Reinventing Jesus by J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, & Daniel B. Wallace
Dethroning Jesus by Darrell K. Bock & Daniel B. Wallace

 
Geoff Ashley