Bible Q&A: Is Christmas really a pagan festival?

Our Bible Q&A series explores the questions you’ve asked us about the Bible.

This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.

Question:

Is Christmas really a pagan festival? 

Answer:

Christians haven't always been keen on Christmas. Oliver Cromwell famously banned it during his time as Lord Protector (1653-58) – markets were ordered to stay open on Christmas Day, and in London soldiers went on patrol seizing Christmas dinners. Even earlier, on December 19, 1643, a solemn ordinance condemned 'the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights'. 

Cromwell and his Puritans might have been good examples of Mr Scrooge and the Grinch, but they weren't the only ones. All through history, there have been Christians who've been uneasy about seeing Christmas as an excuse for a party – and ministers today who urge their congregations to remember 'the real meaning of Christmas' are following in their footsteps.

But what is that 'real meaning'? Look back into history, and it's complicated. There have been midwinter feasts since the dawn of recorded time. Yule was kept as a festival by Germanic peoples before they were ever Christians. The Romans had Saturnalia, which was a riotous time for everyone, slaves and free, to let their hair down and enjoy themselves.

But that's not the same, of course, as saying that Christmas has 'pagan roots', as we commonly hear nowadays. The Church has been deeply embedded into the culture of historically Christian countries for many centuries, so it's a bit of a misleading question. The question Christians began to ask was, 'When is the right time to celebrate the birth of Christ?'

Of course, no one knows exactly when Christ was born, so the answers were, well, a bit creative. In his book, Hark! The biography of Christmas (Lion, 2017), Paul Kerensa points out that the early Church Fathers had various suggestions: Clement of Alexandria in AD 200 thought it might be 20 May or 20 or 21 April, for instance. Or he might have been born on 25 March, because that was the first day of spring and Jesus came to bring a new creation. Or – and this is complicated – the Jews had a tradition that prophets had an 'integral age', so their lifespans were perfectly designed to have their conception (or possibly birth) and death on the same date. So Tertullian of Carthage, using John's Gospel, calculated that if Jesus was conceived on 14 Nisan (25 March in the Roman calendar) he would have been born on 25 December. And this just happened to be the date of the popular Roman 'natalis Invicti' festival (the 'birth of the Unconquerable Sun), on the winter solstice in the old Julian Calendar.

It's not surprising, then, that the Roman-centred Church should have taken it over for Christian purposes. In AD 350, Pope Julius made it official – and Christmas was born.

Is Christmas Christian – or pagan? At one level, it's obviously Christian. European countries have been culturally Christian for at least a thousand years, and some for much longer. But midwinter festivals go back even further than that. 

So how should Christians respond to what's seen as the increasing 'secularisation' of Christmas – cards without nativity scenes, rampant consumerism, religion squeezed off the TV schedules? Perhaps the answer isn't to complain about it – 25 December is an artificial date, after all ­– but to make the very most of the opportunity it brings. We ought to be able to out-compete the world on this. After all, we have the best stories, the best music, the best venues – and the best message. Christ is born to be the saviour of the world ­– and we don't need to know the date to be joyful about it.

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