18 December 2020, The Tablet

Merry Saturnalia, and other myths about Christmas that don’t seem to go away

Merry Saturnalia, and other myths about Christmas that don’t seem to go away

A Christmas Mass in Westminster Cathedral.

A recent episode of BBC Radio Four’s The Moral Maze was irritating as ever. But for once it wasn’t the sometimes tepid debate that annoyed me. It was the debate's framing by the programme’s host Michael Buerk. Christmas, he blithely suggested, “was a pagan holiday called Saturnalia appropriated by Christians”.

As we know, Christmas has accumulated many modern secular customs over the years, from the turning on of town lights to the Doctor Who Christmas special. One of the less joyous of these new additions is the near-liturgical round of articles, blogs and social media posts, many of them in serious newspapers and by respectable journalists and academics, repeating the same series of dubious claims about how Christmas is nothing but a sort of less than jolly deception, a feast stolen from some ancient, and more enjoyable pagan winter rite, by cunning Christians.

Fighting this disinformation can feel like a never-ending struggle for religious journalists, and it can feel pointless to debunk the same claims every Christmas. I will try to set the record briefly straight in this article, but I think we need to think more deeply about why these claims don’t go away, why apparently well-educated people make them, and just why so few people understand the real story of the relationship between Christianity and pagan Rome.

First off, the myth: Christmas is a midwinter festival invented by a fourth century Pope to supplant the rowdy pagan festivities of (variously) Saturnalia, or that of Sol Invictus. Saturnalia itself, rather inconveniently for this claim, occurred on 17 December (not the 25th) and ended on the 23rd, while Christmas occurs on 25 December and ends on 6 January.

Somewhat more plausibly, it also put forwards that Christmas was invented to supplant the festival of Sol Invictus, which was held on the 25th of December. The dating is, of course, not a coincidence, they both occur on the Roman winter solstice. The significance of Christians using this date does not, however, derive from the pagan festivals held on or around the solstice, but rather has its origins with the dating of Christ’s conception.

Whilst few dates in Christ’s life (especially his early life) can be established with any certainty, one that is clearly determinable is the date of the crucifixion, which according to the gospels occurs on the feast of Passover, a Jewish religious holiday held on the first full moon after the spring equinox.

A tradition dating to at least the early third century AD (and quite possibly going back much further) identifies Passover, or the Spring equinox just before it, as being also the date of the annunciation when Christ was conceived. It was regarded as symbolically appropriate that he should have been conceived on the very same day that he died, in accordance with several Old Testament precedents for famous men and messianic traditions.

Using the Roman calendar this gives the date of Christ’s conception as 25 March, and from there gives us his birthday nine months later: 25 December, the Roman and ancient winter solstice. For this reason it was regarded as the birthday of pagan regenerative gods like Osiris, Adonis and Dionysus, besides Sol Invictus.

But on the specific question of the dating of Christ’s birth pagan traditions cannot be definitively demonstrated to have had any bearing; rather it was Jewish custom that more plausibly determined the date. The festival of Sol Invictus may have been formalised before Pope Julian formalised Christmas, but the tradition of Christ’s birthday probably preceded that of the pagan feast occurring on the same day.

If the assigning of the Winter Solstice as Christ’s birthday seems an unlikely coincidence, then that may be only down to the quartering of the year into which the sun’s cycles divide it and the period of human gestation naturally coinciding with three of those quarters. 

In the modern world, journalists and academics like to portray themselves as heroic experts fighting a tide of disinformation, propaganda and conspiracy theories, yet time and time again on this issue in particular they indulge in all the worst tendencies of this kind. Like all the most insidious disinformation the myths about Christmas blend fact and fiction, strategically simplify complex history to fit simple pre-determined narratives, and play to the prejudices of their audience.

This kind of conspiratorial writing about a group or ideology always acts as an assertion of power, since it displaces from the group the right to have a voice and definition of their own, and frees the conspiracy theorist from having to engage with their opponent.

In the face of such gestures of dismissal, religious people must do more than just gently correct the record; we have to  push back. The right to have a voice in society is always in peril, always provisional, and can only be taken and never given. The possibility of the Christian “message” being heard in all its gentleness, simplicity and generosity is only secure if we have a voice and an identity of our own in public discourse.

Whether consciously or not, the misrepresentations about Christian holidays are a pre-emptive strike at  times of the year when Christian ideas and symbols penetrate to the mainstream of public consciousness. While rightly wary of falling into the absurdities of American culture wars over Christmas, British Christians need to wake up to the fact that they cannot any longer take it for granted that they will be respected, listened to or even allowed the dignity of their objective centrality in British and European history.

In a world of viral video clips, misleading headlines and click-bait articles, one of the real things that Christian writers can offer is breadth and complexity. Liturgically, the Christian story is told across the course of an entire year, and repeated throughout a lifetime. We look at the life of Christ not through one pair of eyes but rather the four gazes of the gospels. From the very beginning false simplicity is foreclosed to Christians, and there is no more corruptive influence upon theology and churchmanship than reductive simplification, whether it be that of literalist fundamentalists or relativising deistic liberals.

The story of Christmas, as we have already seen, is far from simple. No sinister cabal of priests pinched a much more exciting pagan festival or invented the figure of Christ in imitation of Horus, Mithras or Dionysius.

However, the harvest paganism is nonetheless everywhere in Christian liturgy and thought. The association of choral music with Christmas may well derive from the ancient Greek choirs honouring Dionysus. The earliest depictions of Christ imitate those of Apollo – the god of the sun, whilst our latter hirsute Jesus’ likely found inspiration in the depiction of Jupiter, the king of the gods.

These facts and others are frequently deployed by cynical opponents of Christianity as examples of its “invented” nature and lack of “authenticity”. Yet the irony of such critiques is that they reflect a set of basically Protestant theological assumptions about the authority of of scripture alone, and misunderstand not only Christianity but also Greco-Roman paganism.

The Romans freely invented religious holidays, and even entirely new deities, and loved to borrow and appropriate new gods and rites wherever they found them in their trading and conquests. Liturgy was treated as a state matter nearly interchangeable with issues of secular law, and was subject to just the same factors of perpetual amendment, abolition, politicisation and pragmatism. Christians were throughout ancient Roman history highly familiar with pagan rites and gods, and nobody would have missed the similarities and associations of Christian figures and holidays with pagan ones.

Far from disbelieving in pagan gods, Christians like Augustine understood themselves to be a in a state of warfare with God, his angels and saints in a cosmic conflict with the fallen angels (posing as gods) and their misguided followers. Right from the beginning pagan myths and ideas were understood as imperfect and sometimes corrupted anticipations and reflections of the ultimate truths of Christianity. Pagan philosophers were widely read and praised by the Church fathers, and friendships and debates between pagans and Christians persisted well into the era of Christian rule.

For much of Roman history Christians were by and large pagan converts, the children of pagan converts or members of pagan or partially pagan cities. They were not the usurpers of Greco-Roman pagan culture but rather its inheritors.

Those who wish to value and concentrate on the “pagan” aspects of Christmas are not  wrong in that respect: we mark the turning of the seasons, the sleeping of the forces of life beneath the earth, the warm buzz of friends and families, the silent communion with our ancestors.

But to look to only the most naturalistic and universal aspects is to refuse the most fundamental “pagan” aspect of Christmas of all:  the encounter in blood, tears, joy, fear, birth, death and resurrection with a laughing embodied divinity, piling up gifts around him, singing hymns in his name, re-enacting in plays the events of his miraculous birth.

This basic folk religion has become, however, astonishingly captured by the radical message of Christianity. The one, true God became fully incarnate, he lived a normal life for 30 years, for three years he preached an ethical vision unknown to the world, and finally was put to death on account of the sins of the world, only to rise again and pronounce that all humankind could share in everlasting life. 

This beginning of a cosmic Spring trumped paganism because it was more joyfully pagan than any paganism had dared to imagine.


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