One occasionally hears the accusation that early Christians derived Christmas and Easter from pagan celebrations, and that these feasts are therefore pagan (though overlaid with a thin veneer of Christianity). How much truth is there in this assertion?
Since the Western Christmas (25 December) falls near the Winter Solstice (21 December), it occurs at the same time of the year as certain pagan solstice feasts. One such feast was the Roman celebration of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (Nativity of the Invincible Sun), which commemorated the birth of the sun god Mithra. After Emperor Aurelian declared Mithra/Sol Invictus to be the patron of the Roman Empire in 274 AD, this feast in his honor became very popular.
Some say that the Christians invented Christmas, a feast in honor of Jesus' birth, as an alternative to this popular feast of Mithra's birth. Others claim that Christmas was never a separate feast, but is the feast of Sol Invictus itself, continued and adapted by pagan converts in the fourth century, after Constantine forced them to become Christians. Unwilling to abandon their beloved Mithraism, they changed Dies Natalis Solis Invicti into a feast of Christ's Nativity (since no one knows for sure what day Jesus was born).
This common theory has a few problems. First, careful study shows that Western Christians were celebrating Christmas on 25 December in the late third century, before the Sol Invictus festival was widely celebrated in the Empire1. So Christians did not create this feast to oppose a popular Roman one. As far as Christmas being a "continuation" of a pagan festival, this seems unlikely when one considers the abhorrence many Christians felt toward paganism. Believers of Jewish descent did not suddenly lose their deep aversion to idolatry after Baptism, and converts from paganism often despised the religions which they left behind. Thousands of Christians died during the Romans persecutions rather than engage in pagan rites. Why would they embrace the hated celebrations of their persecutors?
So how did Christ's birth come to be celebrated on 25 December? Early Christians believed that Jesus was crucified on 25 March (according to the Julian Calendar,* that is. See below). They also believe that this was the very same day that He was conceived in Mary's womb about thirty-four years earlier. It seemed most fitting to them that the first day of His earthly mission be the same day as his last, thus connecting the mystery of the Incarnation with that of the Redemption.
So Christians celebrated 25 March as the Feast of the Annunciation, a commemoration which continues today. Since 25 December falls exactly nine months after the Annunciation, it seemed the most natural day on which to celebrate Jesus' birth (although Eastern Christians, following a different tradition, opted for 6 January, twelve days later than their Western brothers and sisters).
There may even be a strong basis for 25 December as the actual, historical date of Christ's nativity. In a recent issue of "Osservatore Romano" (the Vatican's official newspaper), Professor Tommaso Federici, Professor at the Pontifical Urbanian University and consultant to two Vatican Congregations, says that recent archeological discoveries in the Holy Land shed light on when Jesus was born:
"As long ago as 1958, the Israeli scholar Shemaryahu Talmon published an in-depth study on the calendar of the Qumran sect, and he reconstructed without the shadow of doubt the order of the sacerdotal rota system for the temple of Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 24, 7-18) in New Testament times. Here the family of Abijah, of which Zechariah was a descendent, father of John the herald and forerunner (Luke 1,5) was required to officiate twice a year, on the days 8-14 of the third month, and on the days 24-30 of the eighth month. This latter period fell at about the end of September. It is not without reason that the Byzantine calendar celebrated 'John's conception' on September 23 and his birth nine months later, on June 24. The 'six months' after the Annunciation established as a liturgical feast on March 25, comes three months before the forerunner's birth, prelude to the nine months in December: December 25 is a date of history" 2.
Even the common argument that shepherds would not have been in the fields in December is inaccurate. That is the time of the year when sheep naturally begin giving birth ("lambing"), and the shepherds would typically stay with the sheep at night to take care of the newborn lambs. In fact, the lambing season would have been the only time of the year in which the shepherds would have stayed with the flocks during the night (see Luke 2:8).
This information seems to confirm that Jesus could well have been born on or near 25 December, perhaps even 6 January (considering the many possible normal fluctuations of gestational periods). So either of these traditional dates may be - or at least come very close to - Jesus' real birthday! The fact that December 25 happens to fall four days after the Winter Solstice is a coincidence of history (and the Eastern Christmas is sixteen days removed from the solstice, so it's harder to see a connection there).
Easter is said to be pagan because it falls near the Vernal Equinox and because many believe that the word Easter comes from "Eostra" or "Ostara", an Anglo-Saxon goddess of Spring. This would seem to make Easter a remnant of some pagan Spring festival in honor of Eostra3. Yet this theory is disputed. Some philologists say that Easter comes from the word "east", referring to the rising of the sun, a metaphor for the Resurrection of Christ (see Malachi 4:2).
The Dictionary of Bible and Religion mentions yet another possible origin: More recent studies seem to indicate that Easter may be derived from the Latin phrase hebdomada alba, the old term for Easter week based upon the wearing of white robes by the newly baptized. The octave of Easter, the following week, was known as post albas, the time when the white robes were put away....Easter may thus mean "white" and be named from early Christian baptismal practices. 4
The statement above regarding early Christian hostility toward paganism also fits well in this case. Why would Christian missionaries tolerate the syncretistic mixing of the feast of Christ's Resurrection with a spring fertility festival dedicated to a pagan goddess?
Even if Easter is derived from Eostra/Ostara, that would only prove a pagan influence on Christians who spoke Germanic tongues. For not all Christians call the Feast of the Resurrection "Easter". Byzantine Christians use the Greek term Pascha, a transliteration of the Hebrew word Pesach, or Passover. Pascha is also the name of this feast in Latin, the official language of the Roman Rite. The Romance languages reflect this usage; the Italian word Pasqua, the French Paques and the Spanish Pascua each derive from Pascha, and ultimately from Pesach. Thus the Feast of Christ's Resurrection has two names among Christians: Pascha, or Passover, and Easter, which may connote "sunrise" or "white". Either way, the feast is truly Christian, not pagan.
A final problem remains: some who believe in the pagan origin of these holidays actually state that any Christian who celebrates them is unknowingly worshipping pagan deities. We can answer this by pointing out that a Christian who celebrates Easter does not intend to worship the goddess Eostra, but to commemorate the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. God looks upon the heart and sees His child's intention to worship Him, so He does not mistake it for idolatry.
1. Greg Dues, Catholic Customs and Traditions, A Popular Guide, (Mystic, CN: Twenty-Third, 1989) 61.
2. Tommaso Federici, Osservatore Romano 24 Dec 1998.
3. Contrary to one popular opinion, Easter does not derive from "Ishtar", who was a Middle Eastern goddess. The word did not originate in the Middle East; it is definitely of northern European origin.
4. "Easter", The Dictionary of Bible and Religion, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1986) 287.
*The Julian calendar, proposed by Julius Caesar in AUC 708 (46 BC), was a reform of the Roman calendar. It took effect on 1 January AUC 709 (45 BC), by edict. It was designed with the aid of Greek mathematicians and Greek astronomers such as Sosigenes of Alexandria.
The calendar was the predominant calendar in the Roman world and most of Europe for more than 1,600 years. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII in his papal bull Inter gravissimas promulgated a minor modification, reducing the length of the average year from 365.25 days to 365.2425 days, thus correcting the drift against the solar year that the inaccuracy had caused during the intervening centuries. Worldwide adoption of this revised calendar, which became known as the Gregorian calendar, took place over the subsequent centuries.BACK TO LIST