Who would have thought that the ancient Roman Lord of Misrule would receive more publicity today, thousands of years after his polytheistic philosophy died out, than he ever had in his own day? Yet every year, the same articles seem to get copied, pasted and reworked as if they are some new “exposé” about the “pagan” background of Christmas. One of the reasons given is that the date of Christmas was selected only because there was already a Roman feast at the same time. The Church, the story goes, chose to celebrate the Nativity in December to ride on the coattails of a celebration that was already in existence.
Don’t believe it. While Saturnalia, a pagan feast presided over by a Lord of Misrule, occurred in December (with festivities running from the 17th to the 23rd of the month), the truth is, the Romans had so many festivals that, if the Church wanted to use this strategy, they could have picked any month, and found a festival on which they could piggy-back (This also means that, regardless of the date in which Christmas took place, there was no month that someone wishing to discredit Christianity couldn’t point to and find a celebration occurring within a few days, and claim it as the “real source”). Saturnalia’s timing was a coincidence, and not the reason that we celebrate Christ’s birth.
So how did December 25 become the date we mark this great occasion? Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI offers insights about this that may surprise some readers, turning their view of the liturgical calendar upside-down. In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger addressed the issue of the timing of liturgical feasts. He points out several traditional theories hypothesizing Christ’s death was thought to have taken place on March 25, based on the Solar Calendar (This is also mentioned in an article of The Catholic Encyclopedia by Frederick Holweck).
The reasons for this included the belief that March 25 was also the date of creation, as well as the belief that this was the date attributed to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac (which also took place on a hilltop, and in the location of the city of Jerusalem). This would add a level of completion: in fulfilling what Abraham did not need to complete, God, in nearly the same place, created a new path connecting the heavens and the earth. This belief was so widely held, in fact, that Ratzinger points out that for several years, Easter was celebrated on a fixed date of March 27. This occurred before Easter was set in its current spot, based on the first full moon of spring.
If March 25 corresponds to the date of the crucifixion, though, this only tells part of the story. Ratzinger goes on to point out that March 25 was also believed to be the date that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit after the visit by Gabriel (part of this was based on a belief that some great prophets such as Abraham, David, and Moses lived exact ages, dying either on their birthday or the day they were conceived). If, therefore, Mary became with child on March 25, it stands to reason that Christmas would be nine months later.
Discovering this, I realized how backward my own perception had been: I had always assumed that, once Christmas was set in December, the feast of the Annunciation was easily figured out by moving nine months back. Instead, Ratzinger points out that, once the Annunciation was set as March 25, it was Christmas that was figured out from then.
This can be verified by other sources, not just from Ratzinger’s suggestion. For example, Holweck’s article above cites a text fixing the date of the annunciation at March 25 occurring around A.D. 240. However, Cyril Martindale pointed out in another article (also from the Catholic Encyclopedia) that Christmas was not a feast of the early Church; the earliest fixing of Christmas to December 25 was about a hundred years later, sometime between 330 and 354 AD.
“But,” proponents of pagan priority point out, “What about decorating the house with greenery, or yule logs, or decorative candles and lights, all of which have pagan origins?” In bringing up such customs and similarities with Christmas customs, they miss the point entirely. As Linus Van Pelt reminds us every year when we watch TV, go back and read chapter two of Luke’s Gospel. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown. If the meaning of Christmas were to have changed, and no longer be about the birth of Christ, but instead be about wreaths and logs, then Christmas would have “pagan roots.” Instead, we see the permanence of God in the evergreen tree, so we use this to celebrate God’s birth. We see Christ, the light that shines in the darkness, symbolized in the candles and lights on our houses.
Put differently, it is not that Christians have borrowed from pagans; pagans were already borrowing from God, but were veiled from the complete truth by their own incompleteness. C. S. Lewis was never bothered about the number of myths that had similar stories to those in The Bible. He did see a diminishment of the biblical truths. As he said in Miracles, myth is “A real unfocused gleam of divine truth on human imagination.” Perhaps the pagans, before encountering Christians were inspired to use greenery around the solstice so that when they were presented the Truth, they would have another symbol to help them understand it. Which leads us to our responsibility: we must make sure that we do share that truth with others. Even those (especially those) who believe we are no different than those celebrating Saturnalia. The next time someone mentions, or shares, or points out an article they read about the pagan root of Christmas, let them know otherwise.