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Nativity set from Peru, photographed at the Upper Room Museum in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist Communications.

Nativity set from Peru, photographed at the Upper Room Museum in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist Communications.

Ask The UMC: Does Christmas have roots in pagan beliefs?

 

The assertion that Christmas is merely a “Christianized” pagan holiday simply isn't true.

In his book "The Origins of the Liturgical Year," Thomas Talley shows that Dec. 25 was celebrated in the early church by the third century and suggests a North African rather than Roman origin for the feast and its dating.

There were both theological and historical principles at work in arriving at that date. The process began by seeking to establish the likely historical date for the death of Jesus at Passover. This was thought to have been March 25. The annunciation was set to correspond with that date, so that, theologically, the conception of Jesus and the death of Jesus are observed as part of the same whole. The date to observe the birth of Jesus was then set by adding nine months to March 25, thus arriving at Dec. 25.

This process for historical and theological dating was already in place in some of the churches in North Africa as early as the late second century and appears to have spread across the churches from there.

A typical claim one finds about Christmas as a “Christianized pagan holiday” relates to the Roman observance of Sol Invictus. The problem with this assertion, based on Talley’s findings, becomes historical. Sol Invictus dates to 274, about a century after we have evidence of some Christian churches already celebrating the feast of the nativity of Jesus on Dec. 25.

So Christmas is not from its beginnings a "Christianization" of a pre-existing pagan festival. It is instead an extension of the central Christian story of the crucifixion of Jesus, “Christ our Passover” sacrificed for us.

In making this connection to Passover explicit, we are reminded that in the conception, birth and crucifixion of Jesus the whole world finds God’s decisive deliverance from bondage, oppression and the power of sin in this life, and, in the age to come, resurrection into new creation and life everlasting.

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This content was produced by Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications. First published Dec. 11, 2018.