Christmas: Tradition vs Truth


Thursday, December 13, 2018

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At the outset you should know that I have advocated in print and in sermons for the removal of Christmas as a calendar event and public holiday.

The fact that the New Testament nowhere assigns a specific date (year, month, date, or day of week) to the birthday of Jesus is suggestive of the lack of weight given to our Lord's birthday. But to say that a commemoration of his birthday is sinful or pagan in origin is excessive and bears a high burden of proof. In the New Testament, “that he came” is important, but secondary to why he came.

The allegation that the post-apostolic church later 'borrowed' a birthday from a rival figure (whether Mithras or Sol Invictus) is a smelly red sprat.

First, let's note that it is not at all certain that this borrowing actually occurred — there is some lack of clarity in the data.

The December 25 date of birth was as early as Hippolytus late second-third century (AD 165–235), a date also set by John Chrysostom (AD 345–407).

In 274 Emperor Aurelian decreed December 25 as the celebration of the 'Unconquerable Sun', the first day in which there was a noticeable increase in light after the winter solstice. This is 39 years after the death of Hippolytus.

Whether this festival was celebrated earlier than the third century is unknown. Nor is it certain that December 25 was the birthday of Mithras as well as of Sol Invictus. This has not prevented some scholars from assuming that Mithraic influence upon Christianity was involved in the adoption of this date for Christmas.

The argument that Christmas is pagan in origin is philosophically juvenile and untenable; it commits what I call the source/product fallacy in logic (genetic fallacy is the more formal name).

OK, so the Christians, either as a competitive strategy or whatever, celebrated the birthday of Jesus on the same day that the pagans celebrated Sol Invictus — so what? Did they celebrate Jesus's birth the same way the pagans celebrated Sol Invictus? They capitalised on a day of popular celebration and loaded it with Christian content. What's wrong with that?

A modern, comparable event in Jamaica took place in the late 70s, if my sources are correct, when David Keane and the Sonshine Singers organised a music festival called SONsplash as an alternative to the popular Reggae Sunsplash — same time period, same kind of music event, but radically different content.

Then, as an aside, what do critics do about the days of the week all named after pagan deities of the ancient world?

Sunday: Sun's Day. The Sun gave people light and warmth every day. They decided to name the first (or last) day of the week after the sun.

Monday: Moon's Day. The Moon was thought to be very important in the lives of people and their crops.

Tuesday: Tiw's Day. Tiw, or Tyr, was a Norse god known for his sense of justice.

Wednesday: Woden's Day. Woden, or Odin, was a Norse god who was one of the most powerful of them all.

Thursday: Thor's Day. Thor was a Norse god who wielded a giant hammer.

Friday: Frigg's Day. Frigg was a Norse god equal in power to Odin.

Saturday: Seater's Day or Saturn's Day. Saturn was a Roman god.

We all call the days of the week without most of us knowing the pagan origin of the names, thus the days are emptied of origination content through our ignorance; they are simply days of the week.

If it is factual that Nero wore an early version of eyeglasses, then in all likelihood a pagan invented eyeglasses, but as a very near-sighted person I couldn't care less as long as they are available now for my visual disability. The product remains useful regardless of the source!

The Roman Empire, with the “conversion” of Constantine, knew quite clearly the difference between the Jesus of the Christians and the Sun God of the Roman elite or the Mithras of the military. There would be no confusion between the two. The fierce struggles “for the minds of men” between Christian thought and pagan thought in the 2nd and 3rd centuries kept the distinctions very, very clear. 'Converting' a holiday from Sol/Mithras to Christ would not even make sense, given the early theology of the Church.

There is a major dating problem for alleged influences of Mithraism on Christianity. Mithraism expanded into the West quite late. Historian Edward Yamauchi advises, “The only dated Mithraic inscriptions from the pre-Christian period are the texts of Antiochus I of Commagene (69-34 BC) in eastern Asia Minor. After that there is one text possibly from the first century AD from Cappadocia, one from Phrygia dated to AD 77-78, and one from Rome dated to Trajan's reign (AD 98-117). All other dated Mithraic inscriptions and monuments belong to the second century (after AD 140), [as well as to] the third, and the fourth century AD.” (Edwin Yamauchi, Africa & the Bible, 5, and similarly Ronald H Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? pp 154-155

A little knowledge can be dangerous because incomplete!

Rev Clinton Chisholm is academic dean at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology. Send comments to the Observer or

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