Glad You Asked: Does Christmas have pagan roots?

On this episode of the podcast, pastor and educator Kenneth McIntosh discusses the origins of the Christmas celebration.

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Do Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25 because that was the day when the Romans celebrated the feast of Sol Invictus, the “unconquered sun,” as the winter days began to get longer again? Or perhaps because that date aligns with the festival of Yule in Scandinavian cultures? Are Christmas trees a part of seasonal festivities because some pre-Christian cultures worshiped trees as deities?

Every December, it seems, people commemorate the holiday season with heated debates on these and other topics pertaining to the origins of Christmas. Some like to argue that Christmas is almost exclusively rooted in non-Christian or pre-Christian customs. Others are appalled at the notion that any of our beloved holiday rituals were once also beloved by people of other religions. So what’s the truth of the matter?

Our guest on this episode discusses about the origins of the Christmas celebration, some of our most popular holiday rituals, and whether it really matters where these customs originated. Pastor and educator Kenneth McIntosh has degrees in English and theology, and has written extensively on Celtic spiritualities. He is the coauthor, along with Lilly Weichberger, of Brigid’s Mantle: A Celtic Dialogue Between Christian & Pagan (Anamchara Books) and the author of Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life and Oak and Lotus: Celtic Christian Spirituality in the Light of Eastern Wisdom (both from Anamchara Books).

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The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic.

Emily Sanna:  And I’m Emily Sanna, managing editor at U.S. Catholic. On today’s episode, we’re going to dig into a topic that gets a lot of air time, especially among Christians, at the close of the year: Does Christmas have pagan roots? 

Rebecca: Our guest today is writer, educator and pastor Kenneth McIntosh. He has degrees in English and theology, and has written extensively on Celtic spiritualities. He and his wife recently walked across Spain on the Camino pilgrimage route.

Emily: He is the co-author, along with Lilly Weichberger, of Brigid’s Mantle: A Celtic Dialogue Between Christian & Pagan. Other books of his include Water from an Ancient Well: Celtic Spirituality for Modern Life (Anamchara Books) and the newly published Oak and Lotus: Celtic Christian Spirituality in the Light of Eastern Wisdom.

Rebecca: Kenneth, thank you so much for joining us on the Glad You Asked podcast.

Kenneth McIntosh: Thank you, Rebecca and Emily for the privilege of joining you today. U.S. Catholic really is a great magazine. I’ve got to say, I really appreciate every month. Somehow there are articles that are both authentic and intelligent, at least to my reckoning. And I really look forward to it. So it’s a privilege to be here. And also, we’re recording on Michaelmas. So, you know, hopefully we have that Archangel Michael energy flowing through the podcast today.

Emily: So to start off today’s conversation, can you clarify what we mean when we talk about something being pagan? What’s the origin of the term and what does it refer to?

Kenneth: So I think it’s fairly commonly known now that in classical Latin, the word pagan literally meant a country dweller, a rural person as opposed to an urban. Christianity took root in the late classical period in the Roman Empire in the cities, in the urban centers. And so most of the country folk, the rural people, were not baptized Christians. So that sort of as a derivative meaning, it eventually had the connotation of not being, professing the Christian religion. But in 2023, no one thinks about that when they use the terms. Nowadays, the terms are more loaded and, you know, very sadly, the culture war ethos sets people against each other and we all, and people tend to have more extreme ideas. So, I think that whether people profess Christ or they profess the various nature or polytheistic religions, people on both sides want to totalize the holiday narrative. You know, I’ve heard Christians who want to say it’s all about an historical fact of Jesus’ birth and that anyone who dares presume that there’s something besides the Bible and Jesus and this happened that, you know, you are violating their civil rights and all that, really wanting to own the narrative. But by the same token, I do know some pagan friends who are pretty strongly vehement that all the dating, the traditions, the whole, even the theology came from polytheistic, more ancient origins and that there’s just a very thin veneer of Christianized meaning and it’s all a ripoff. They question if Jesus is even a historical figure. So, you know, you get these really diametrical views and that makes it a lot more loaded. And then to really add a little more complexity, but where I think reality lies, historically, if you were in Europe, let’s put us back to say year 300, there would be an agreement about the nature of reality whether people were worshipers of Christ or worshipers of polytheistic deities and so on. But there was a general consensus that there would be a symmetry or an analogy between the realms of nature and in a transcendent and invisible realm.

There’s a pop phrase in spirituality, “as above so below,” but that pretty accurately, if you’ve heard that, that pretty accurately captures what we’re talking about here. For Christ followers, the wisdom of Solomon, verse 13–5, says, from the greatness and beauty of created things, their original author by analogy is seen. In other words, it says explicitly that there is an analogy, a symmetry, a connection between the things of God and the things of the material realm. Psalm 19, Romans chapter one agrees with that. For the Hellenists who were not professing Christ, Platonic philosophy was very popular and Plato’s perfect forms, ideal forms, very much fit the same idea. So there was a general consensus that the seen and unseen worlds existed, interacted, and corresponded. It’s a little bit like gravity, you know, you don’t have Christian gravity, you don’t have pagan gravity. Everyone agrees gravity is a thing and it works. And the consensus of understanding in, you know, late classical early medieval Europe was that there was this symmetry of visible and invisible worlds, and that kind of underlies this whole discussion of Christmas, and it transcends our categories of pagan and Christian today.

Rebecca: So this is kind of an ongoing debate, isn’t it? Going back to centuries where Christians are disagreeing over Christmas because of different views on the possibility that it might be pagan or pagan at its roots. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Kenneth: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a big thing. When my first European ancestors came to the New World in the early 1600s, I’m actually a pilgrim descendant from Plymouth. And yeah, they didn’t celebrate Christmas. They did not. That was sinful. That was horrible. That was wicked.

But this has been less of a problem historically in Catholic Europe because in my opinion the countries that avoided the Reformation and the Thirty Years War had a pretty good balance of culture and theology. But in Protestant Europe and in the UK, it was a real problem. The conflict comes down theologically to a disagreement over adiaphora, that word adiaphora, in Greek, means indifferent things. It’s the question of what do you do with something that’s not explicitly mentioned in the Bible? What do you do about something you can’t point to chapters and verses and say, hey, this is sacred because it says so in the text right here? And actually, you know, Luther, who began the Reformation, he had a lenient view. His view was, okay, you know, various things may not be mentioned in Scripture, but they’re not bad. If it’s adiaphora, then it’s permissible. It won’t hurt us. On the other hand, the Puritans took the opposite view. If it’s not explicitly in the Bible, it’s wrong. Don’t do it. Period. It’s out. So it was a much more bare bones and rigid sense. So for the Puritans, no Christmas. So also for that reason, a number of our, what we regard now as sort of universal Christmas traditions, come from Germany because in Lutheran lands, the medieval pre-reformation and Catholic customs continued sort of on through today. Where we get influence from England, the Puritans pretty well wiped out Christmas observance for quite a while and in the restitution it took a while to get them back and basically a lot of what we think of as Christmas traditions came from Victorian England because they had to kind of rediscover Christmas with the influence of Dickens and some other popular writers.

Emily: So one of those things that’s not in scripture is the date of Jesus’s birth, right? Some people say that, no, the date was chosen. It was Jesus’ literal birthday. They’ve counted back from the date the angel came to Mary. And others say, no, we chose December 25th because of preexisting Roman celebrations. So can you talk a little bit about that, the different theories there?

Kenneth: Yeah, Emily, you just did an incredible job putting it more succinctly than I could. Thank you very much. So this will be an expansion on what you said. So you say in U.S. Catholic and in the Glad You Asked column and podcast that these are questions that are easy to ask, not so easy to answer. And you’ve hit on one of the not so easy to answers.

Yeah, it’s complicated. I will do my best to clarify and hopefully shed more light than heat here. So you are correct, Emily. From the Gospels and everything written in the first century, there is no reason to believe that Jesus historically was born on the date of December 25th. The fact of Jesus’ birth is clearly asserted in the canonical scriptures, not the date. So yes, it’s a conjecture. Various scholars have various seasons, they suggest. It could be any day of the year. Any of you listening to this podcast, your birthday could be Jesus’ birthday. Who knows? It’s possible. Happy thought. Kind of universalizes it. But by the third century, there was a move towards celebrating the popular date. Now, if you just did a Google search just randomly ask AI or something, you’re going to come down with the most common answer. And the common answer you’re going to hear is that there was a Roman pagan solstice holiday, which became the celebration of Christmas. It’s all over. That came, but the actual assertion of that is fairly recent. It really comes from James Frazier’s very popular book, The Golden Bough, published in 1890. This book, which was a radical reappraisal of mythology and religion when it was published, has become absolutely orthodoxy today. Anyone in that field, like, you know, the late great Joe Campbell, who I do love and revere, you know, would riff off of Frazier and, and basically this view that the Roman celebration of the solstice became Christmas was repeated over and over and it’s repeated by a thousand websites. So it’s the popular orthodoxy, it’s the popular consensus. However, having said that, it’s not the scholarly consensus. So on that note, Dr. David Gwyn, lecturer in ancient and late antique history at Royal Holloway University of London, says, and I quote, the majority of modern scholars would be reluctant to accept any close connection between the Saturnalia and emergence of the Christian Christmas. In other words, right now, the popular consensus, yes, it’s from the pagan Roman holiday differs from the scholarly consensus. People who deal with actual primary documents and have access to those and who know the languages and who are steeped in the culture disagree with that view now. So why is that? Well, it’s because this hugely repeated view, the specifics do not work. There are two different Roman solstice holidays, which it’s claimed that, you know, if you read the sites, it’s one or the other and Frasier was kind of murky, but either the claim is that it was Saturnalia, the wild carousing holiday of the Roman god Saturn, or Sol Invictus, the wild home Roman celebration of the sun.

The problem is, here we go, Saturnalia was December 17th to 23rd. And yeah, details matter. You have to fudge a couple of days there. It wasn’t a big deal on the 25th and there’s no record it was. So it doesn’t quite fit. You know, it’s so close that you can see why people want it to work, but it doesn’t really precisely fit. And then the, the problem was Sol Invictus, which I’ll detail in another moment, but we know when the holiday began. It was decreed by an emperor in 274. The problem is Christians were celebrating December 25th as the birthday of Jesus 40 years before that date. If anything, Sol Invictus came after the celebration of the Christ Mass rather than reverse. So the details just don’t work.

So why that date? Why December 25th? Again, Emily, you alluded to this. And here again, we do have primary documents. Fortunately, we have two early Christian writers who are specific. They tell us why, and that’s what you want to look for when you’re establishing historical facticity. So we have Hippolytus writing in 235. We have Cyprian writing in 243. Again, notice this is four decades before the Roman celebration of the Sun God and both of them say this. The reason for December 25th is it’s exactly nine months from the vernal equinox and that’s why that date. The vernal equinox on the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar, the ancient Roman calendar was March 25th. You take March 25th, count days, you get December 25th and so they’re dating everything from the equinox and then the question comes why? What is it about the spring equinox? And this is where we have to go back. You have to understand this idea that was universal, this analogy between nature and sacred realities, which for us now it may seem a little strange but to people in the late classical period, this is how they viewed the universe. It was like the laws of physics. It’s what made sense to them. And so here’s the thing. The sun after the vernal equinox, the sun enters its victorious phase. The days are longer than the nights. Now they were, believe it or not, fascinated by a big question. What date did God create the universe? Nevermind Christmas, what date did it all begin? What date did God say, let there be light? Aha, let there be light. Let there be more light than dark. That’s gotta be the day after the vernal equinox. So March 25th is when God created the world. Now, still believing this idea of the analogy of sacred realities, the conception of Jesus Christ is a remaking of the world, the whole created cosmos fell and had to be started over again. Christ’s conception is the birth of a whole new redemptive reality. And so the date of the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says, that which conceived in you is of the Holy Spirit, that is going to be on March 25th, and then we’re going to count exactly nine months and Jesus is going to be born on December 25th and there you have it, that’s why we have a December 25th Christmas and exactly on time.

Emily: Because babies are always born exactly on time, as we all know.

Kenneth: Yeah well they were trying real hard to compute things with precision and again, to them, you know, this analogy of things made was seen more real, made more sense, than anything else would. It was convincing to ancient peoples. And really, what better time?

Emily: So what you’re saying is that it’s not as easy as saying, well, this Roman pagan holiday turned into Christmas, but there are similarities in how both faiths think of their relationship to creation, their understanding of time. I keep thinking of the liturgical cycle, right, that we still mark the different seasons as holy in a way, and that that’s related in a deeper way than some of the one-on-one comparisons.

Kenneth: Yeah, both. Again, I think, you know, when people ask, well, is it pagan? Well, you’re talking about something outside of Scripture. You have no mention of the vernal equinox or March 25th in canonical Scripture. It’s not in there. And you don’t have some first century historian saying this happened on that date and somebody saw it and wrote it down. But you know, the common assumption common to both polytheists and to you know Jews and Christians, there is a common assumption that as above, so below. There’s this analogy of the natural world, the movement of the cosmos, the movement of the sun and the length of the days that all connects to sacred verities because you didn’t pull apart the sacred and the profane the way that we have since then. And so, is it based on something outside of the Bible? Yes. Does that mean that it was polytheistic in its significance to those people who did that? They didn’t think of it that way. Again, it’s like gravity. Gravity, pagan or Christian, it just iis, I think that would be more the ancient conception.

Rebecca: So, what about some of the other traditions that we associate with Christmas, things like the Christmas tree that some people trace to pre-Christian traditions in various cultures? Would you say that some of those are accurate?

Kenneth: Yeah, yeah. I mean, what would Christmas be without a Christmas tree? Folklorists, to our scholars, do affirm that pagan Europeans brought greenery indoors to decorate for midwinter; that does seem to be a pre-Christian thing. And yet our contemporary Christmas tree customs come from medieval Germany, where people added candles to the evergreens to signify the light of the world. And again, I think it’s universal. Conifers symbolize undying life. It’s kind of a miracle that these things stay green and grow and are strong, you know, right through the season when everything else dies off from the bitter cold and all the leaves of the deciduous trees drop and appear dead. So it’s a perfect symbol of resurrection and what could more clearly proclaim Christ’s nature. I don’t believe that early Christians said, oh, I’m still worshiping Cernunnos or Pan, and that’s why I have a tree in my house. I think they thought Christ is still alive through death. And what better, you know, symbol of that. And again, the idea of adding lights seemed to be the Germanic Christian addition, which makes it even more appropriate.

Emily: So the big overarching question about this is, why does it matter where Christmas came from? Now, other than knowing the historical facts and getting them right, how does it affect the practice of our faith today knowing whether or not our Christmas traditions have pagan influences?

Kenneth: The winter holiday is a symbolic season and symbols are multivalent. They mean different things to different people. In practice, you know, my wife and I just walked the Camino de Santiago. We spent two months on foot and covered 600 miles. And what’s fascinating to me is this pilgrimage, hundreds of thousands of people take each year. You meet all kinds of people. And yes, it was established as a Catholic pilgrimage route around 800. And curiously, some people really, really want to make a point that it was a pagan pilgrimage to the end of the world, you know, before that. The reasons people walk it are so different today. We talked to, yes, Christians, Catholics and Protestants. We talked to Buddhists, we talked to atheists. We met every kind of person walking for every kind of reason from carrying the ashes of a loved one to wanting to prove that they could do it after an amputation to I had to switch out my world or I lost my job and I need to find myself or whatever. I mean, we heard all those and we’re all in the same space. And we’re all finding something transcendent, something life transforming in this. And I think that the winter holiday season can be a similar-ish thing. We’re all traversing the same timescape here and maybe seeing different things. For me personally, yes, I certainly know that there’s a one in 365 chance that Jesus was born on December 25th. And I think it’s very nice to have a time of year with millions of other professing Christians to celebrate that the cosmic Christ, the universal Christ became particular to a human body and that the vast universality of God becomes the singularity of one person to better display what the divine nature looks like in human form. So for me, all that traditional incarnation is meaningful, but it doesn’t have to be that for all my neighbors. I think in my opinion here, I’m preaching, the world needs to move from a divisive, a dualistic view of the world to a unitive view. We have to look for what we have in common, not what divides us, not what sets us apart from each other. And again, and I keep coming back to this, the ancient world, there was kind of a consensus that those who were polytheists, nature worshipers, and those who were Christ worshipers would all agree that there was something sacred in the ordinary. And I think that is something that we see coming back to religious thought in our time. We see it coming into Christian thought more. Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest, in his online newsletter this week, wrote, in mature religion, the secular becomes sacred. They are no longer two worlds. We no longer have to leave the secular world to find sacred space because they have come together. And he also says only one tree has to fill up with light and angels and then we never again see all trees the same way. So you know I think rather than having a big fight about you know who owns the narrative, who controls the narrative, and who contributed what to it, a great discussion would be how many people could agree that there is something transcendent and sacred and divine in even the ordinary things in all seasons, much less the holiday season. I think we need to come back to a unity of thinking on this.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for that perspective and thank you for being our guest on the podcast today.

Kenneth: Thank you. Again, a real privilege. I appreciate what you do and I appreciate making a very small contribution to that work.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.