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Appendix B: The Historical Roots of Christmas and Easter

For more information regarding the pagan roots of Christmas, Easter, and other ecclesiastical holidays, I refer my readers to the following sources:
 

Duggan, Joseph P.  “Should Christians Celebrate the Birth of Christ?”  Vienna, VA: The Presbyterian Reformed Magazine 5:3 (1990), 126-130. 

          Duggan, an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), provides some information regarding the pagan roots of Christmas.   

Grace to You: http://www.gty.org/IssuesandAnswers/archive/realxmas.htm

          This website provides some information regarding the non-pagan roots of St. Nicholas. 

Schneider, Michael and Kevin Reed.  Christmas: A Biblical Critique.  Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1993. 

           Schneider and Reed discuss the pagan origins of the nativity scene (Yes, even the nativity scene was adopted from pagan religions.  The U.S. postal stamps bearing Mary and Jesus with a halo around their heads is a concept borrowed from Babylonian mystery religions.)

Schneider and Reed also explain the pagan origins of Santa Claus and Christmas trees

Schwertley, Brian.  “The Regulative Principle of Worship and Christmas.”    Lansing, Michigan, 1996.  www.reformed.com/pub/xmas.htm

             Brian Schwertley also provides a case for the pagan origins and identity of Santa Claus, also noting the superstitious Roman Catholic attachment to St. Nicholas.  

www.historychannel.com/

             The history channel website offers information under “exhibits à holidays.”  This secular source provides an overview of the pagan origins of Christmas and its observance throughout the centuries.

Various websites are readily available that include information regarding the pagan year.  Such articles will explain the winter solstice, which has much to do with the origin of Christmas, and the vernal equinox, which has much to do with the origin of Easter.  There are detailed histories of the pagan roots of many things associated with the Christmas holiday, including Santa Claus, evergreen trees, mistletoe, the yule log, the yuletide or twelve days of Christmas, and elves.  They also provide a detailed history of the pagan roots of many things associated with the Easter holiday, including the name Easter, the egg-laying rabbit, eggs, and the date associated with Easter. 


The Origins of Christmas

The name Christmas derives from the words Christ and mass.  Schneider notes that Christmas is the Roman Catholic celebration of a particular mass in honor of Christ’s birth: 

              The Mass is the preeminent feature of Christmas celebration.  “In the Roman Catholic Church three masses are usually said to symbolize the birth of Christ eternally in the bosom of the Father, from the womb of Mary and mystically in the soul of the faithful.”  The concept of the Mass is embedded in the English term Christmas, its etymology being traced to the Old English words Christes maesse, meaning “the mass or festival of Christ.”[1]

Christmas refers to the Mass of Christ.  It is the most important holy day in Roman Catholicism.[2]

In Scandinavia, the great feast of Yule with all its various ceremonies, celebrated the birth of the winter sun-god.[3]  Similarly the Babylonians celebrated the victory of their sun god on December 25th.  Saturnalia, the feast of the birth of Sol, was the Roman copy of this Babylonian custom.[4] 

The Festival of Saturnalia was one of the most prominent and popular holidays in the Roman year, running from the 17th to the 24th of December.  It was a week-long festival with torchlight processions, gift-giving and merry-making, culminating in a winter solstice feast on December 25, called the Birth of the Unconquerable Sun.  The holiday honored the strength of the sun and the fertility it would soon bring to the earth.  The holiday celebrated the victory of Sol Invictus, or the unconquerable Sun-god, over darkness at the winter solstice, when the sun is at its lowest point and the days begin to lengthen. 

The Christmas holiday, or “Feast of the Nativity” first began to be observed in the 4th century, A.D.  It arose as an attempt by the Roman Catholic church to “Christianize” the pagan holidays of the Romans, which resembled the holidays of other pagan cultures around the world.  Duggan notes why and how the Church of Rome developed the Christmas holiday: 

          It was one thing for the church, now popular and dominant in Rome, to persuade the people to give an outward profession to her religion, but to persuade them to surrender age-old practices was another matter.  The most expedient thing to do was to let the people keep their old pagan festivals while recasting them in an outwardly Christian form. . . .

          The pagans were accustomed to emphasize the sun’s youth in that it had just surmounted its shortest day.  The Sun-god was likened to a small child.  What could be better than to substitute the Christ child!  Sol Invictus was also regarded in his role as the unconquerable.  Christ, too, was all-powerful.  A hymn once sung in the streets to the pagan god was now replaced by a similar one to Christ.  The old pagan celebration was a great time for gift giving.  Now the gifts were given in the name of Christ.[5]

Similarly, a “Grace To You” position paper, posted on their website, further notes the syncretistic origins of the Christmas holiday: 

            The fathers of the church in Rome decided to celebrate Christ’s birth on the winter solstice.  It was their attempt to Christianize the popular pagan celebrations.  But they failed to make the people conform.  Instead the heathen festivities continued, and we are left with a bizarre marriage of pagan and Christian elements that characterizes our modern celebration of Christmas.[6]

The “Grace To You” article notes some of the modern Christmas customs, which find their origins in pagan rites: 

             One of their most common customs during that festival [of Saturnalia] was giving gifts to one another.[7]  As far as we know that is where the idea of exchanging presents came from.  The evergreen wreath also derives from the Saturnalia festival, during which homes were decorated with evergreen boughs.  The Druids of England gathered sacred mistletoe for their ceremonies and decorated their homes with it.  It is believed that the first Christmas tree was instituted by Boniface, an English missionary to Germany in the eighth century.  He supposedly replaced sacrifices to the god Odin’s sacred oak with a fir tree adorned in tribute to Christ.

Schneider provides yet another explanation as to the Church’s original rationale for observing the Christmas holiday:

              [Saturnalia] was for centuries an abomination to Christians.  The celebration was an orgy of pagan revelry.  But the Church, instead of standing firm against paganism, began to compromise.  It wanted to "help" weak young Christians who didn't want to give up the fun and merrymaking surrounding the winter solstice. So the Church said, "Go on with your fun and celebration.  Only now we'll call it a celebration of the birth of the Son of God.  Instead of losing people to paganism, we'll combine the two and gradually even win some of the pagans of our day to profess Christianity.  Let's not force men to choose between the two.”[8]

Therefore, the Roman Catholic church took a festival commemorating the birth of a sun god and “Christianized” it, transforming it into a festival to celebrate the birth of the Son of God. 

Samuel Miller, the 19th century professor of church history at Princeton Seminary, also provides an explanation regarding the origins of Christmas:       

             Its real origin was this.  Like many other observances, it was borrowed from the heathen.  The well known Pagan festival among the Romans, distinguished by the title of Saturnalia, because instituted in honour of their fabled deity, Saturn, was celebrated by them with the greatest splendour, extravagance, and debauchery.  It was, during its continuance, a season of freedom and equality; the master ceased to rule, and the slave to obey; the former waiting at his own table upon the latter, and submitting to the suspension of all order, and the reign of universal frolic.  The ceremonial of this festival was opened on the 19th of December, by lighting a profusion of waxen candles in the temple of Saturn; and by suspending in their temple, and in all their habitations, boughs of laurel, and various kinds of evergreen.  The Christian Church, seeing the unhappy moral influence of this festival; perceiving her own members too often partaking in its licentiousness; and desirous, if possible, of effecting its abolition, appointed a festival, in honour of her Master’s birth, nearly about the same time, for the purpose of superseding it.  In doing this, the policy was to retain as many of these habits which had prevailed in the Saturnalia as could in any way be reconciled with the purity of Christianity.  They made their new festival, therefore, a season of relaxation and mirth, of cheerful visiting, and mutual presents.  They lighted candles in their places of worship, and adorned them with a profusion of evergreen boughs.  Thus did the Romish Church borrow from the Pagans some of her most prominent observances; and thus have some observances of this origin been adopted and continued by Protestants.[9] 


The Origins of Easter

Princeton Professor Samuel Miller also explains the origins of Easter:

          The festival of Easter, no doubt, was introduced in the second century, in the place of the Passover, and in accommodation to the same Jewish prejudice which had said, even during the apostolic age, “Except ye be circumcised, after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.”  Hence, it was generally called pascha, and pasch, in conformity with the name of the Jewish festival, whose place it took.  It seems to have received the title of Easter in Great Britain, from the circumstance, that, when Christianity was introduced into that country, a great Pagan festival, celebrated at the same season of the year, in honour of the Pagan goddess Eostre, yielded its place to the Christian festival, which received, substantially, the name of the Pagan deity.  The title of Easter, it is believed, is seldom used but by Britons and their descendants.[10]
 


[1] Michael Schneider and Kevin Reed, Christmas: A Biblical Critique (Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1993), 24.   

[2] Brian Schwertley, “The Regulative Principle of Worship and Christmas,” (Lansing, Michigan: electronically retrieved 12 July 2001 at http://www.reformed.com/pub/xmas.htm, 1996), 16-17.  

[3] Schneider, Christmas, 21.   

[4] Ibid., 9. 

[5] Joseph P. Duggan, “Should Christians Celebrate the Birth of Christ?” The Presbyterian Reformed Magazine 5:3 (1990), 127.   

[6] Grace to You: online questions and answers, electronically retrieved 10 December 2001 at http://www.gty.org/IssuesandAnswers/archive/realxmas.htm 


          [7] Schneider notes that even the gift-giving associated with the Christmas season tends toward licentiousness and poor stewardship: 
 

But isn't the giving of gifts a lovely way to remember the birth of our Lord?  Surely there is nothing un-Christian about giving to one another.  But has any other aspect of Christmas become more perverted than this?  "We spend money we don't have, to buy gifts they don't need, to impress people we don't like."  What a mockery and a madness the shopping whirl has become. Could anyone seriously suggest that what goes on in America around December 25th is honoring to Jesus Christ, the One who lived a life of simplicity, humility and self-denial, who condemned ostentation and self-indulgence, who taught us that "a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth" (Luke 12:15)?  Yet people who claim to be Christians spend hundreds and even thousands of dollars on their Christmases, and at the same time give little for the work of the gospel in our land or in the needy mission field.  Isn't true Christian giving something that should take place the year round, out of a true heart of love, and not from compulsion and with an expectation to receive in return? (Schneider, Christmas, 12-13.) 

[8] Ibid., 9. 

[9] Samuel Miller, Presbyterianism: The Truly Primitive and Apostolical Constitution of the Church of Christ (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1835), 76-77. 

[10] Ibid., 75-76. 

 


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