I was happily living my Christmas dream when one day I was told that Jesus was not born on the 25th December and that I was celebrating the pagan festival of Saturnalia.
Talk about ruining someone’s day!
The onus was then on me to investigate those claims, which I did. After all, I did not want to do anything that was contrary to my Christian faith. It took a couple of years of researching, and now I’m ready to share my thoughts on Christmas.
I hope my research will help people who might be struggling with the same dilemma as I was. Perhaps it’s your family, friends or even your church that is accusing you of celebrating Saturnalia. Whichever the case might be, the Christmas Police are out in force, and they grow stronger every year.
It’s time to kick them and Saturnalia to the curb.
We have Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code to thank for popularising Sol Invictus the Unconquered Sun. Since then as Christmas nears, certain ones become overally concerned about spiritual welfare and pagan practices. Every religious festival has its roots in paganism and that’s the truth. As someone who reads a lot of ancient near east literature, I find that most festivals originate from Babylon and are extremely ancient.
But since I am focusing on Christmas in this article, let’s just concentrate on that. It’s true, there was a Pagan Temple, Sol Invictus, built by Emperor Aurelian (AD 270-275) and Saturnalia was part of Sol Invictus worship. Since the ancients were primarily agrarian, they celebrated the Roman gods of agriculture during the Winter Solstice (Saturnalia) in December.
Experts differ in respect to the dates for Saturnalia celebrations. Some experts say 17th to 23rd December, while others say 21st to 25th December. Unlike Christmas, Saturnalia lasted many days (7 days), and it culminated in Sigillaria which is the children’s Solstice festival. It was the Sigillaria date that was chosen to commemorate the birth of Jesus the Christ. When Jesus was on earth, He said many wonderful things about children including that their Angels see the face of the Father in Heaven and that Heaven itself belongs to the little children. It’s not surprising then that the early Christians chose this day to honour our Lord and Saviour.
Christmas falls on the Winter Solstice: there’s no disputing that. I mentioned ancient festivals earlier, well, they all fell on either the Equinox or the Solstices. That’s why we cannot claim any of them are less or more pagan than the others.
Christmas like the others is a very ancient festival. Nearly 2000 years old and it replaced another ancient festival, Saturnalia, which dates to Babylon. Yep, that Babylon! If you research long enough, you’ll find that everything dates to Babylon. It says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecc. 1:9). Other festivals fell on times of sowing, harvesting, enthronement, etc., such as mentioned in the book of Psalms. All of them date back to Babylon as well.
We need to understand that the ancients lived very different lives to us. We take many things for granted: like planning a future holiday, booking a cruise, buying a new house or starting a new career. The ancients had little confidence in their future, their focus was on the mundane, day to day survival. When to sow their crops, when to harvest, how to survive the long cold winter. But mostly how to appease the gods. The gods were temperamental beings back then, easily offended and quick to anger. They could even turn off the sun if they so desired, leaving the subjugated humans to wallow in darkness.
When looking for people to blame the Christmas Police often turn their attention to Constantine. Constantine gets the blame for a lot of things he didn’t do. And, he played a very minor role in the decision-making processes of the Church. It is true though that Saturnalia was abandoned by most during his reign (AD 312-337), and 25th December, established as a date to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. By then the Roman Empire had been Christianised, and I say that with some pride ─ fancy that? It took Christianity to bring down the mightiest empire that ever was. Kudos to us for kicking Roman butt.
Here’s where it gets interesting though, the third century is not the first mention of Christians celebrating Jesus’s birth. Steven Ware (Prof. of Historical Theology; Chronology; Paschal Calendar and Historical Foundations of the Christian Faith) has found evidence of Christmas and other festivities in the early Church before Aurelian’s Sol Invictus (Ware, 2013).
Documents such as the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles indicate such celebrations although they were more sombre in nature and often celebrated with fasting rather than feasting. Furthermore, Aurelian persecuted Christians and was, therefore, their enemy. It’s hard to imagine they would’ve been keen to worship in his temple. And, Constantine supressed Sol Invictus, but who cares about such details when connecting the dots between Christianity and Paganism.
It’s difficult for us to understand the reasoning behind decisions made over 1700 years ago, but it had a lot to do with unifying the Christian Empire. I’m not saying that all the decisions made then were correct, but I believe most people who celebrated Christmas then and now celebrate it not as a pagan festival but rather to commemorate the birth and life of Jesus Christ.
Christmas can only be a pagan festival if you celebrate it as the pagans did. Take away the sun worship, sacrificing of children, gorging, drunkenness, gambling and frivolous nudity and it’s not a pagan festival anymore, it’s that simple.
Christmas has been unnecessarily singled out as a pagan festival, whilst at the same time other Abrahamic festivals that also date back to Babylon are celebrated as ‘holy’. Ultimately, it must be what’s in your heart. If you as a Christian choose to set aside one day in the year to be with family, share a meal, drink some wine, give gifts, sing carols and do it in remembrance of Jesus, I don’t believe anyone has the right to deny you that experience.
© Cheryl Mason (2016)
Myers, Jeremy. Christian Redemption: Why Christians Should Celebrate A Pagan Holiday. 1st ed., 2012.
Schmitz, Heinz, ed. The Dark History Of Christmas: The Pagan Origin Of Our Winter Festival. 1st ed., n.d.
Small, Maria. The Forgotten History Of Christmas. 1st ed., 2016.
The Holy Bible. 1st ed. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1982.
Ware, Steven L. When Was Jesus Really Born?. 1st ed. St.Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2013.
All images are Getty Images and subject to copyright.
The significance of being born under A Star:
I have studied the importance of being born under a Star for some time. What I discovered was, it was not just superstition in Abraham’s day. The relevance of being born under a star is emphasized in Matthew’s Gospel even in the Christian era. The story of the Three Wise Men who followed the star 2000 years ago is no doubt a Christmas favourite. Throughout the Ancient Near East, ‘Watchers’, watched the night sky for signs, one such sign was a bright Star. Any child born during the phenomenon of the bright Star was destined to change the world in an extraordinary way. Matthew alluded to it in his Gospel. He stated the Three Wise Men (Jewish sages) sought out the baby Jesus, when they saw the Star in the East (Matthew 2:9-10).
There is a good reason to accept that Matthew’s celestial event happened. Astronomers believe Jupiter stood still in the night sky on December 25, 2 BC. Quoting from Pursiful’s Bible & Faith Blog, “Amazingly, one possible answer is that the visit of the Magi took place on December 25, 2 BC. On that date, Jupiter stopped in its path and began its yearly retrogression through the heavens. Remember: It was Jupiter that, in the previous year, highlighted the star Regulus by in effect tracing a crown above it, likely alerting the Magi to the birth of the King. According to Matthew 2, when the Magi left Herod, the star they were following “stood still” over the place where Jesus was to be found (Mt 2:9)”.
“Astronomical calculations reveal that in the predawn hours of December 25, 2 BC, Jupiter indeed stood still in the sky. Observed from Jerusalem, it did this at 68 degrees above the southern horizon, directly over the city of Bethlehem. This date may have been memorable even to those unfamiliar with the astronomical observations because, by Roman reckoning, it fell on the exact date of the winter solstice. (When Julius Caesar instituted the new Julian calendar in the first century BC, the winter solstice festival was celebrated on December 25. This date continued to be observed for many years.)” (Pursiful, 2021). The reason Matthew mentioned the Star in the East was because of a long-expected belief in Messiah’s Star.
Pursiful, D., 2021. When Was Jesus Born? Clement of Alexandria. [online] Dr. Platypus. Available at: <https://pursiful.com/2006/12/19/when-was-jesus-born-clement-of-alexandria/> [Accessed 21 July 2021].
Cheryl Mason 2021