Many skeptics contend that Christmas and Easter have pagan origins. They use this claim in a philosophical sleight of hand to conclude that Christianity is rooted in paganism and thus nothing more than myth.
I discussed alleged parallels between Christianity and paganism in a previous blog, but what of these particular holidays? Are they rooted in paganism? If so, does it imply that Christianity is mere fable?
The Birth of Christmas
Origen, an early church father, 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, and the holiday soon 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.
The main criticism advanced by skeptics questions the dating of the holiday. There are various theories as to why Christmas was associated with December 25, and none is conclusive. Anyone who claims to know why Christmas was originally celebrated on this date is speculating at best. Below are a few common theories:
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. 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?
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. This 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 allowed the bishops to preside over the Council at 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 merely speculative. Plus, even if he did, it would not further the claim that Christianity is mere myth.
It is also believed that December 25 was chosen by those who sought to accurately date the birth of Christ. Historical evidence indicates that many early teachers in the Church believed it to be the correct date and sought to demonstrate it mathematically. Various equations were posited to prove that Christ was actually born on or around December 25.
Although many today reason that Christ was born in the spring, it is important to recognize the possibility that the Church believed, whether mistakenly or not, that December 25 was the proper date for the incarnation.
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.
It is, however, probable that the word “Easter” is pagan in origin as various gods are said to have influenced the name including: Ishtar, Astarte and Eostre, but the worship of Christ as the risen Lord is decidedly Christian. Does the fact that the English word “Easter” might relate to a pagan god imply that Christians cannot celebrate it? If so, what are we to do with 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 the word?
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?
It could imply nothing more than that God 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.
Is Christ not the true son of righteousness? Is He not the better Light of the world?
Did He not die on 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?
While certain elements of the holidays probably take root in paganism, Christmas and Easter were ultimately founded upon the historical events of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Should Christians Celebrate Christmas and Easter?
We cannot simply denounce all that is derived in paganism. The authors of Scripture often took pagan words and concepts and redeemed them with truth.
For example, the word “gospel” was a common term used to describe conquest by an earthly king; thus, the apostles found in that word a common link to communicate God’s superior victory. Likewise, the Christian sees in the world far greater cause for celebration than the pagan.
There are no commands in Scripture to celebrate Christmas and Easter, but neither are there prohibitions. 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.
Christ became flesh. Christ died for our sins. Christ rose from the dead.
What could possibly be better truths to celebrate?