Francis Young

Is Christmas really a pagan festival?

Bringing Home the Yule Log by A. Hunt (Getty)

It’s as much a part of the season now as baubles, tinsel and the Christmas Number One: those articles, blogs and memes that pop up during the festive season claiming that Christmas, in spite of the name, is actually a pagan festival. Certainly, the visitor to contemporary Britain would be forgiven for thinking that Christmas has little or nothing to do with the birth of Jesus Christ; and indeed there are many things we do at Christmas, and have done for centuries, that seem to have scant connection to any sort of religious celebration. What does decking the halls with boughs of holly have to do with Jesus? Or Christmas pudding? Or Christmas ghost stories? Or the older traditions of misrule, riotous mumming and reversing positions of authority? Clearly the festive season’s sometimes tenuous relationship to the Christian faith is not just a recent outcome of secularisation. There simply never was a time when Christmas was a purely religious festival, blissfully uncommercialised and holy, as some earnest clergy might like us to believe. Its ambiguous nature as a festival both sacred and profane is a feature of Christmas, not a bug.

But does that mean that Christmas is pagan? The claim that Christmas is pagan usually takes two interconnected forms. One is the argument that, in the early centuries of Christianity, the Roman church selected the festival of the deity Sol Invictus (‘the Unconquered Sun’) on 25 December as an arbitrary date on which to celebrate Christ’s birth. Christianity thus co-opted a pagan festival and tapped into the power of pagan midwinter celebrations, Christianising them over the course of the centuries. Another form of the argument focuses more specifically on England, holding that the midwinter celebrations of Geola (Yule) and ‘Mothers’ Night’ (modraniht) were ostensibly Christianised as Christmas, but the old celebrations continued under cover of the new faith.

Its ambiguous nature as a festival both sacred and profane is a feature of Christmas, not a bug

The idea that Christmas is essentially pagan is not only advanced by neopagans – who are, understandably, keen to lay claim to the season in their own terms – but also by humanists, atheists, secularists and sometimes even by evangelical Christians who object to the celebration of Christmas, Oliver Cromwell-style, on the grounds that 25 December is nowhere mentioned in Scripture as Christ’s birthday.

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