(Unherd) Tom Holland–The myth of ‘pagan’ Christmas

Part of the reason for Dan Brown’s astonishing success is clearly that he was telling lots of people what they were ready to hear. That Christmas is a fraud, a festival stolen by the Church from pagans, has become a staple of many an atheist meme. Fuelling this trend is the fact that backing for it is to be found in distinguished works of history as well as in thrillers. “The Church was anxious to draw the attention of its members away from the old pagan feast days, and the December date did this very well, for it coincided with the ‘birthday of the invincible Sun’ of Mithraism, and the end of the Roman Saturnalia (December 24).” So writes John North in his book Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos.

Similarly, in his seminal study of the ritual year in Britain, Stations of the Sun, the great historian of paganism Ronald Hutton quotes a Christian writer whom he names “the Scriptor Syrus”, and dates to “the late fourth century”. This Scriptor Syrus — in the passage cited by Hutton — notes both that the birthday of the Sun was celebrated on 25 December, and that Christians as well as pagans took part in the celebrations. “Accordingly, when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.” The case would seem open and shut.

But is it? In reality, the notion that Christmas is a festival stolen from pagans is quite as much a compound of confusions and inaccuracies as anything believed about the feast day by Christians themselves. There is no evidence — absolutely none — that the birth of Mithras was celebrated on 25 December. The confusion seems to have arisen because Mithras had Sol Invictus, “Unconquered Sun,” as one of his titles, and — according to an ambiguous entry in a mid-4th century almanac — the birthday of a quite different god called Sol Invictus may have been celebrated on the same date. What, though, of the evidence provided by the Scriptor Syrus? This, too, is not what it is widely assumed to be.

Far from providing contemporaneous evidence for the Christian appropriation of the Sun’s birthday, “Syrus” was in reality an anonymous medieval scribe who, back in the 12th century, had annotated a manuscript by a local bishop. “Scriptor Syrus” — literally, “Syrian writer” — was the name given to him in a 19th century edition of this manuscript. The passage quoted by Hutton was not, as has been widely assumed, a reference to the origins of Christmas. Rather, Syrus was trying to explain why Christians in Rome celebrated the birth of Christ on a different date to Christians in the eastern half of the Mediterranean — a date which the scribe himself, unsurprisingly, took for granted was the accurate one. Such, refracted by a process of Chinese whispers, is the origin of the claim so confidently asserted by Sir Leigh Teabing that nothing about Christmas is original. One more winter solstice myth, in short, to add to all the others.

Read it all.


Posted in Christmas, Church History