Sunday, December 21, 2008

December 25 And Paganism

Valerie Tarico has written an article for Debunking Christianity on "Ancient Mythic Origins of the Christmas Story". The article consists mostly of an interview with Tony Nugent. I've already addressed much of what Nugent claims elsewhere. The interview ignores some of the most significant issues involved in judging the historicity of the infancy narratives, makes a lot of dubious assumptions and assertions with little or no supporting argumentation, and ignores many better counterarguments that have been circulating for a long time.

What I primarily want to do in this post is address some comments by Tarico. She writes:

"Most Americans know how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25: The Emperor Constantine chose the date because it was winter solstice in the Julian Calendar, the birthday of dying and rising gods like Mithra and Sol. Some people also know that our delightful melange of Christmas festivities originated in ancient Norse, Sumerian, Roman and Druid traditions - or, in the case of Rudolph, on Madison Avenue."

In an article at The Huffington Post earlier this month, Tarico wrote:

"That said, the Catholic Church chose December 25th (Winter Solstice in the Julian Calendar) to honor the birthday of the Christ for a very specific reason: It was already a well loved holiday -- a time of revelry, gift giving, and yes, celebrating the birthdays of gods....The Fourth Century is our first record of a December Christ-mass celebration....Christmas appears to have its roots in two Roman holidays: Saturnalia (December 17-23) and Sol Invictus (December 25) Saturnalia , the feast of the god Saturn, is said to have been the most popular holiday of the Roman calendar....At the time of Constantine, the cult of Sol Invictus was the official religion of the Roman Empire. Small wonder, then, that he pronounced the 25th as the birthday of Jesus, center of the new official religion."

Elsewhere in her article at The Huffington Post, Tarico cites opposition to Christmas by groups like the Puritans and the Jehovah's Witnesses. I addressed Christian arguments against Christmas in an article I wrote a few years ago.

What about Tarico's claims concerning the date of Christmas? The December 25 date was chosen for multiple (and sometimes unknown) reasons, and it was adopted in different places at different times. It's misleading to claim that "the Emperor Constantine chose the date" or "the Catholic Church chose December 25th".

Joseph Kelly writes:

"In 274 Aurelian [a Roman emperor] instituted the cult of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun....Aurelian made December 25, the winter solstice, the birthday of Sol Invictus and thus a major feast day throughout the Roman Empire....In 336 the local church at Rome proclaimed December 25 as the dies natalis Christi, 'the natal day of Christ,' that is, his birthday. The document which says this does not justify or explain it. It merely says that this is the day, that is, the date had been accepted by the Roman church some time before and since everyone knew about it, discussion of the date was not necessary. But how long before 336 was the date for Christmas accepted? Historians have wondered whether the Christians in the late third century had waged a propaganda war against Aurelian, promoting their Sun of Righteousness [Jesus in the context of Malachi 4:2], the Sol Iustitiae against his Unconquered Sun, the Sol Invictus....We should also recall that Sextus Julius Africanus [a Christian who wrote during the first half of the third century] had already proposed December 25 as the date of Christ's birth. Aurelian's opponents may have plausibly reasoned that if the date already existed [in Christian circles], why not use it against the imperial cult of the Sun?...The second piece of evidence for a third-century propaganda struggle is a work of art, a mosaic on the ceiling of a tomb of the family Julii and now preserved in the necropolis (Greek for 'city of the dead') under St. Peter's basilica in Rome. It portrays Christ driving a chariot through the heavens, just as the pagan sun god Helios did, and Jesus, like the god, has rays of light emanating from his head....They date the mosaic to the late third century, that is, at the time when the emperor Aurelian was promoting the cult of the Unconquered Sun. Significantly, this is the only ancient portrayal of Christ as the sun. Historians find it impossible to believe that this portrayal was just coincidentally produced in the city of Rome at the very time when the pagans were promoting the cult of their sun." (The Origins Of Christmas [Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004], pp. 65-68)

William Tighe summarizes:

"Rather, the pagan festival of the 'Birth of the Unconquered Son' instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians. Thus the 'pagan origins of Christmas' is a myth without historical substance....Thus, December 25th as the date of the Christ’s birth appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences upon the practice of the Church during or after Constantine’s time. It is wholly unlikely to have been the actual date of Christ’s birth, but it arose entirely from the efforts of early Latin Christians to determine the historical date of Christ’s death. And the pagan feast which the Emperor Aurelian instituted on that date in the year 274 was not only an effort to use the winter solstice to make a political statement, but also almost certainly an attempt to give a pagan significance to a date already of importance to Roman Christians. The Christians, in turn, could at a later date re-appropriate the pagan 'Birth of the Unconquered Sun' to refer, on the occasion of the birth of Christ, to the rising of the 'Sun of Salvation' or the 'Sun of Justice.'"

Earlier this month, Tighe wrote the following in an online forum regarding another line of evidence not discussed in his article:

"St. Augustine observes somethere that the Donatists 'differ from us' in not observing the day [January 6], which was not the case with regard to 25 December, and which in turn implies that 25 December was a 'liturgically significant day' before the Catholic/Donatist split of 310 and onwards."

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