The Pagan Origins of Christmas Day

by A. R. Chowdry

(First Published in the Muslim Herald in January 1971)

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The pomp and hilarity which is attached to the annual celebration of Christmas Day is well known all over the world. It is considered by the young and old as the biggest holiday which is brimful of gaiety and merry-making in the Christian world. Illuminations and decorations on an extensive scale are seen in every street and every house. The elaborately lit trees are a sight of pleasure and beauty for many.

The business areas of each town attract crowds of visitors wishing to see the network of their multicoloured lights. Gilded Christmas bells and bulbs hang and twinkle from shop or advertisement signs everywhere. The large stores and main shops display generously the 'Merry Christmas' greetings in numerous attractive designs. Billions of greetings cards and gifts are exchanged on this occasion, while millions of pints of alcohol are consumed in commemoration of the birth of Christ. Oh! what a commemoration for a saintly man of the quality of Jesus!

The remarkable thing is that the pagans in Africa, the Japanese and the Jews in America and even Buddhists in Hawaii are found celebrating on this day. The pagans widely consider it as the occasion of feasting, drinking beer, exchanging gifts and dancing. They get whipped into a frenzy from drum beating and dancing all night long. They decorate their huts with flowers, ever-greens or banana fronds.

It is interesting to note that the Jewish Hanukkah festival has been deeply influenced by the Christmas celebrations. Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer, in his book "What is a Jew", writes:

"American Jews have transmuted the minor festival into a major one largely because its traditional customs so closely parallel the Christmas celebration which occurs at the same time ... In imitation of the general atmosphere prevailing in December, Hanukkah is now marked by exchanges of gifts for young or old and homes are gaily decorated with a variety of Hanukkah symbols."

It is not astonishing to know that the non-Christians who celebrate Christmas have a parallelism in their own history. Ancient pagans wildly celebrated at the same time of the year to welcome the winter solstice, when the period of daylight begins to get longer. In fact, Christmas, according to several ancient sources, is actually a pagan celebration, only its name and meaning having been changed.

Michael Harrison, in his book "The Story of Christmas" writes:

"Though the celebration of the Winter Solstice dates from thousands of years before Christ and was once celebrated with rites which had nothing to do with Christianity, a new significance was given to the ancient festival when the Church decided, in the earliest days of Christianity, to celebrate the birth of Christ on a date that ancient usage had made already one of universal respect. "

Several historical works recognise that the symbols in Christmas celebrations have originated from the pagan religious festival of the Winter Solicit. The Roman Saturnalia, the festival of Saturn, lasted from 14 ñ 24th December. Daniel Folcy, writing about this Roman festival in his book "Christmas the World Over" observes:

"Even as we observe Christmas today, it was a time of rejoicing, hilarity, feasting and merry- making. All work ceased, children were released from customary discipline, ill-will was forgotten, and even wars ceased at this season of the year. Evergreen boughs and berries were brought indoors to deck homes and thus dispel the gloom of winter. The exchange of presents was a common practice."

Soon after Saturnalia they used to celebrate the Brumalia, which fell on 25th of December, the day when the Mithras-worshipping Romans celebrated the Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun. As the days grew longer they considered their god of the sun and of light as conquering the darkness of winter. So this was his birthday, which became the important feast of the day of the Mithraic faith. Christianity embraced this festival of the Brumalia and labelled it as Christmas.

If we further trace the roots of Christmas, we have to go back to the pagan Babylonians. Earl W. Count, in his book "4,000 Years of Christmas", points out:

"Mesopotamia is the very ancient Mother of Civilisation. Christmas began there over four thousand years ago, as the festival which renewed the world for another year. The 'twelve days' of Christmas; the bright fires and probably the Yule log; the giving of presents; the carnivals with their oats, the merry-making and clownings, the mummers who sing and play from house to house; the feastings: the church processions with their lights and songs ñ all these and more began there centuries before Christ was born."

Let us explore the evidence of the Gospels about the dating of the birth of Jesus . Though it does not give a definite date of the birth of the Judaean prophet, there is, however, sufficient information and evidence to eliminate the possibility of any winter month as its time. Luke tells us that at the birth of the baby, the shepherds were out in the open fields near Bethlehem at night watching over their sheep (Luke 2: 8).

This conclusively shows that 25th of December could never be the date of the birth of Jesus as shepherds could hardly be out at night with their flocks in the cold, rain-lashed hills near Bethlehem during the month of December. The Book of Ezra from the Old Testament (Ezra 10: 9) confirms this fact when he speaks of people nearby in Jerusalem shivering because they were sitting outdoors on a day in the early part of December. Winter weather in Judaea did not change much from Ezra's day to Jesus' day. Sheep on 25th December must be in their folds and shepherds in their homes.

Dennis Baby, in his book, "The Geography of the Bible" confirms about the winter weather in Jerusalem thus:

"About Christmas the cold weather begins, and frosts at night upon the hills become common. Flurries of snow may occur occasionally during the year in Jerusalem because at this season the great pressure systems have rearranged themselves and cold air moves southward from the centre of Europe. About once every five or ten years there is a heavy fall and roughly every thirty years the approaches to the city are blocked."

Henri Daniel Rops, in his book "Daily Life in the Time of Jesus", relates that it was customary for the shepherds to go into the open fields with their flocks just before the Passover in the Spring and to bring them in during the Hebrew eighth month, about the middle of November, at the beginning of the rainy season. They then 'passed the winter under cover'.

In these circumstances, the 25th December cannot be the date of the birth of Jesus (a.s.). His birth must fall before the middle of November while the sheep were still in the open field.

One can easily see the inaccuracies in the character of all the events of Jesus' life as the evangelists have portrayed them in the Gospels. It appears that the truth about his life is totally lost and the husks alone remained when the realities of his life were converted into the myths of history. It is strange to see how this apparently impossible conversion from a pagan custom into church history should have transpired. It is incredible to think of the "Son of God" involving himself with pagan rites and customs and tolerating all their associated vices on his fictitious birthday.

According to "The World book Encyclopedia", in 354 CE, the December date was selected by Liberius, the Bishop of Rome, 'because the people of Rome already observed it as the Feast of Saturn, celebrating the birthday of the Sun'.

It is amazing to think why this stupendous blunder was allowed to occur and spread all over the Christian world. With the universal assumption of honesty and integrity in a people divinely inspired as the devout early Christians are believed to have been, it becomes difficult for the general public to comprehend how such a flagrant error could have gained favour and become the accepted celebration of the birth of such a noble prophet. To what extent was the crime knowingly perpetrated? Was it motivated by sincerity working in ignorance, or by intelligence working in insincerity?

Source: Review of Religions, Vol.90 No.12, December 1995, pp.42-45.

Subject: The Pagan Origins of Christmas Day
Date: Tue, 24 Dec 1996 00:28:53 GMT

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