Greenbelt Interfaith News

    December 1998

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    Pagan-Christian Calendar
    How Pagan is Christmas?
    By Francis X. Wieser

    Wieser, while noting many instances where Christianity adopted pagan solstice customs, contends that scholars have gone too far in seeing pagan roots to Christmas.


    No official reason has been handed down in ecclesiastical documents for the choice of this date. . . . There remains then this explanation, which is the most probable one, and held by most scholars in our time: the choice of December 25 was influenced by the fact that the Romans, from the time of Emperor Aurelian (275), had celebrated the feast of the sun god (Sol Invictus: the Unconquered Sun) on that day. December 25 was called the "Birthday of the Sun," and great pagan religious celebrations of hte Mithras cult were held all through the empire. What was more natural than that the Christians celebrate the birth of Him Who was the "Light of the World" and the true "Sun of Justice" on this very day? The popes seem to have chosen December 25 precisely for the purpose of inspiring the people to turn from the worship of a material sun to the adoration of Christ the Lord. This thought is indicated in various writings of contemporary authors.

    It has sometimes been said that the Nativity is only a "Christianized pagan festival." However, the Christians of those early centuries were keenly aware of the difference between the two festivals – one pagan and one Christian – on the same day. The coincidence in the date, even if intended, does not make the two celebrations identical. Some newly converted Christians who thoughtlessly retained external symbols of the sun worship on Christmas Day were immediately and sternly reproved by their religious superiors, and those abuses were suppressed. Proof of this are the many examples of warnings in the writings of Tertullian (third century) and the Christian authors of the fourth and fifth centuries, especially the sermons of Saint Augustine (430) and Pope Leo I (461).

    The error of confusing Yule (solstice) and Christmas (the "Mass of Christ"), as if both celebrations had a common origin, occurs even in our time. Expressions like "Christmas originated four thousand years ago," "the pagan origins of Christmas," and similar misleading phrases have only added to the confusion. While it is certainly true that some popular features and symbols of our Christmas celebration in the home had their origin in pre-Christian Yuletide customs, Christmas itself – the feast, its meaning and message – is in no way connected with any pagan mythology or Yule rite.


    In spite of modern heating, the Yule log has survived in many homes as an old and cherished tradition. Its origins are disputed. Some scholars trace it back to pre-Christian times, when the Germanic tribes used to burn large wooden logs during the Yule season. There is no historical evidence, however, that the custom of the "Christmas log" existed before the sixteenth century.


    Many writers derive the origin of the Christmas tree from the ancient Yule tree or from other light and fire customs of pre-Christian times. These explanations, however, are based on mere guesswork and do not agree with the historical facts. It is true that people used to put up evergreen trees in their homes at Yule time, both in pre-Christian centuries and later, to reassure themselves that nature's life was not altogether dead under winter's ice and snow, and that spring would come again. The little evergreen tree in the home, staying bravely alive through the period of nature's "death," was a cheerful token and symbol of this assurance. The Yule tree had no direct pagan connotation, and never acquired any Christian religious meaning in later times. Decorations are alien to its symbolism, for its whole significance consists in remaining alive and green during the winter.

    Yule trees may still be found in some sections of central Europe, standing side by side with the Christmas tree in the homes of rural districts. Their symbolism has remained entirely separate and sharply distinguished from that of the Christmas tree. In fact, there is the general custom of putting up fir trees, without any decorations, in halls and even churches at Christmas time. These fir trees are not, of course, "Christmas trees"; but they are used at Christmas to make homes and halls and churches look more cheerful than at other times. They – and not the decorated Christmas tree – are the true descendants of the ancient Yule trees.

    Surprising as it may seem, the use of Christmas trees is a fairly recent custom in all countries outside of Germany, and even in Germany it attained its immense popularity as recently as the beginning of the last century. It is completely Christian in origin. Historians have never been able to connect it with ancient Germanic or Asiatic mythology. Its origin is due to a combination of two medieval religious symbols: the Paradise tree and the previously described Christmas light. . . .

    It now seems quite certain that the original home of the Christmas tree was the left bank of the upper Rhine in Germany, where this transformation took place. The first mention of the tree as it is now known (but still without lights) dates from 1521 in German Alsace. A more detailed description is given in a manuscript from Strasbourg of 1605. At that time the tree was widely accepted in those parts. The first news of candles on the Christmas tree dates from the seventeenth century. In the course of the following centuries it slowly became popular, first in southern Germany, then also in the north and east. It was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, that it spread rapidly and grew into a general German custom, which was soon accepted also by the Slavic people of eastern Europe.


    The custom of decorating homes on festive days is world-wide. It is neither pagan nor Christian in itself, but, rather, a natural expression of joy mingled with solemnity. It has been practiced in all parts of the world for thousands of years. After the time of the persecutions the Church soon approved and accepted the practice of decorating both the house of God and the Christian home with plants and flowers on the Feast of the Lord's Nativity. Pope Saint Gregory I (604) in a letter to Saint Augustine of Canterbury advised him to permit, and even to encourage, harmless popular customs which in themselves were not pagan, but natural, and could be given Christian interpretation.

    Excerpts taken from Francis (Franz) X. Wieser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York: Harcourt, 1958).

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