Happy Belated Christmas, everyone!
Around this time of year, the memes and comments start flowing around the Internet about how Christmas is the co-opting of a pagan holiday and various common practices we see at Christmas are vestigial pagan practices or deliberately maintained pagan practices designed to sort of “take over” these ancient practices with a Christian veneer.
I, too, thought this for a long time. In the Church’s historical missionary efforts, syncretism is not uncommon. When it comes to getting some headway into a society that already has an existing folk religion, one of the more effective things you can do is demonstrate how their folk religion is really yours or is at least compatible with yours, and you’re fleshing it out with fuller truth.
One could argue this is what the Apostle Paul does in Athens as told in Acts 17. He notes the religiosity of the people, notes some insights from their poets and playwrights, and explains to them the “unknown god” to whom they have built an altar, which is the God of Israel.
Whether you agree with this tactic or not, it shouldn’t bother anyone today if Christmas were meant to supplant native pagan beliefs and practices over a millennium ago. Nobody having a Christmas service today is thinking, “This’ll really rope in the Mithraic cults.”
For some time, I also thought Christmas was intended to displace pagan beliefs, holidays, and practices, and this didn’t particularly bother me other than noting that this was a pretty jerky thing to do nearly 2000 years ago in ancient Rome.
It turns out, however, that there doesn’t seem to be much historical support for the idea that Christmas is derived from pagan beliefs and practices.
One of the things that seriously challenged this notion I had was from an atheist – Tim O’Neill – who refers to this as one of the Great Myths that gets summoned in atheistic critiques of Christianity. The article deals primarily with the alleged similarities between Christmas and Mithraic beliefs and practices, but it also touches on other popular misconceptions.
This year, Tim revisited the theme, focusing a bit more on specific practices like Christmas trees, mistletoe, etc.
Both the articles are good reads (make sure you have a few minutes to spare) as are the links they contain.
How did this idea of Christmas being pagan get so pervasive? It’s not simply the pet belief of people angry with Christianity who will latch on to anything that makes it look bad. It’s more or less pop history. It’s such a common conception that it’s virtually the default. I even had one person, when I asked them for sources establishing the pagan roots of Christmas practices, say I was positing an “alternate history” and told me I had the burden of proof – even though I had only asked him for sources. The idea is that obviously Christmas is derived from pagan practices, and to even question it is seen as highly eccentric.
Historian Tom Holland suggests that this idea emerged from Christianity itself. Specifically, it was part of the Puritan criticism of holy days inherited from the Roman Catholic church. He does not cite any particular sources for this (this is a common issue with virtually every article going around the Internet discussing Christmas’ origins), but a case for this is made in Bruce Daniels’ Puritans at Play. The revelries around Christmas made them think of ancient pagan celebrations, so they just made the accusation that Christmas was a continuation of those practices.
Outside of the specific issue of Christmas’ pagan origins, what we see here is an important principle that is good to keep in mind, not just with history, but with everything we hear or read: the ability to come up with an explanation does not mean the explanation is true.
Driving out to visit my parents, yesterday, I drove by a homemade sign that read “Trump 2020 – Stolen Election.” Despite the consistent failure to produce any evidence of this by the very people who have a vested interest in Trump’s election, a fairly decent amount of people believe that he lost the election due to widespread fraud and conspiracy.
The story about widespread fraud has explanatory power. If Trump losing simply due to most Americans not wanting to re-elect him doesn’t make sense to you, the fraud story makes sense of it all. This is also behind the popularity of QAnon – there are stories here that “explain the truth” behind current events.
The problem is that almost anyone can come up with a theory or a narrative that, if true, would explain something. But the fact that a narrative explains something does not make it true, and similarities do not automatically imply connections.
For instance, take a list of thunder gods from various cultures and pick two. The similarities are such that you could come up with an explanation how one culture’s thunder god is an appropriation of another culture’s thunder god. But you can see how quickly this can become absurd.
I could argue, for instance, that the Mayan Chaac with his thunder-axe is very similar to Scandinavia’s Thor with his thunder-hammer, so obviously the Norse pantheon was heavily influenced by the Mayans. This has explanatory power and is also highly implausible. The idea that an ancient civilization on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico influenced the religion of a collection of islands half a world away is something that would require further argumentation.
It completely explains where Thor “really” came from, but there is absolutely no evidence for this, and anyone would rightly ask for such evidence in light of such an unlikely contention. It isn’t enough that my explanation explains things. I have to substantiate it.
We need to be very careful that we are not seduced by the power of a clever explanation. We need to be careful not to assume connections where there are similarities. This is true whether we’re looking at memes on the Internet, listening to a news story, talking with our neighbors, or reading a history book.