Fake News: Christmas is a hijacked Pagan Festival

Tim Thornborough | Dec 21, 2017

With Christmas just around the corner, you may have started to see stories in the news, had conversations with friends, or seen internet memes popping up on your feed suggesting that Christmas, Jesus, the Virgin Birth and all other things related to the season, are simply Pagan celebrations that have been given a light dusting of Christian snow. The subtext is that Christmas is “just” a rebranded pagan festival.

Next time you come across this, give the gift of knowledge, because it turns out that none of the many versions of this objection has any substantial basis in fact. These claims are “factoids” that have become widely believed because they have been repeated so often. So when you see them, please:

• Don’t be intimidated. There is absolutely no reasonable basis for any of these suggestions.

• Try to use the opportunity constructively. Rather than trading blows with the fake news purveyors, to approach the conversation in a constructive manner. Ask questions that reveal the basis of what they are saying, and the conclusions they are drawing from it:

“Oh, that’s interesting. When did that happen?” 

“So can you help me understand what conclusion you’re drawing from that?”

“Help me out, I don’t know much about Saturnalia or Sol Invictus—what are the similarities between them and Jesus?”

The irony, as with many of the people who troll this kind of material around, is that they are blindly accepting—without evidence—half-baked lies and rumours because it makes them feel good. This is the very thing many of them accuse Christians of doing about belief in God. Here are some pointers on three versions of this objection.

1. “Christmas is just a rebranding of the Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus"

The most common version of the story is that Christians just took over the mid-winter celebration, known as Saturnalia (to the God Saturn), and in particular to the feast of  of the Victorious Sun (Sol Invictus)—made an official religion by the emperor Aurelius in 274AD, but his feast day was November 18th.

The early Christians were not really bothered about celebrating Christmas. There was no biblical command to do so, and no date given. But by the 4th century, when heresies were growing that Jesus was more of a “spiritual” incarnation than a physical one, the remembrance and celebration of Jesus' physical birth became more important to underline the truth of the incarnation. In all likelihood, the 25th December was chosen as being 9 months after the date of his death, as some commentators believed that it seemed neat and orderly to think that Jesus was conceived and died on the same date.

The earliest reference to the 25th December as the celebration of the birth of Christ is from 336AD, in the reign of Constantine. The first mention of the same date being used to celebrate the victorious sun god is AD354, almost 20 years afterwards. So if anything, the evidence seems to suggest that it is the other way around. Sol Invictus tried to muscle in on the Christian festival celebrating the birth of Jesus.

2. “Jesus is just a re-telling of the Mithras myth"

Some people claim that there are all kinds of parallels between the myth of Mithras—a popular Roman mystery religion—and the life of Jesus. They say that Mithras was born on the 25th December; worshipped by shepherds, had 12 disciples, performed miracles, was killed and rose three days later, etc., etc. 

It would be shocking and quite faith shaking… if any of it were true. But none of these things is an accurate description of the Mithras myth. Quite literally, none … of … it.

3. "OK then, what about the Egyptian God Osiris who died and rose again…?"

Not even close. Sure there are some areas of vague coincidence. Osiris was murdered, the body cut up and spread around, and then later on stitched together again so that he could walk among the dead in the underworld. But that is a world away from saying he died and rose again on the third day. Other claimed similarities are equally thin

Pressing home the point

Even if some of these correspondences between Jesus and other ancient myths were true, this is the opportunity to move the conversation onto more fruitful ground. 

"Osiris, Mithras and Sol Invictus are no longer worshipped. Jesus is. Why do you think that is?"

The answer is because, unlike Jesus, the former three are stories with no basis in fact, or any real solid historical evidence to support them. Christians believe in Jesus not because they wish he were true, but because of the wealth of eyewitness evidence, and the historical soundness of his claims. And that’s why, even if it were true that there were similarities of date or detail, Christians would happily and without conscience put Christmas day on the same date. Because it is replacing a made-up story about a "No-God”, with a compelling true story with ample historical evidence of the one true God, revealed in Jesus.

It may be the right moment to press on and ask the telling question:

“Are you saying these things, or sharing them, because, deep down, you just wish they were true?” Oh the irony, the irony…

Have a Happy Christmas.

*I’m grateful to the excellent article on this by Glenn Peoples on his blog Right Reason

Tim Thornborough

Tim Thornborough is the founder and Publishing Director of The Good Book Company. He is series editor of Explore Bible-reading notes, the author of The Very Best Bible Stories series, and has contributed to many books published by The Good Book Company and others. Tim is married to Kathy and has three adult daughters.