Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Pagan Origins of Christmas Cards

I'm grateful to Phil Ritchie for informing me yesterday of this page discussing the dating of Christmas. The author refers to the way in which uber-Protestants, out of a desire to diss the Catholics, made up a load of religious history. This first proposed the idea that the Christians stole the date from other Roman festivals: including the feast of Sol Invictus and, as proposed with little evidence but much gravitas by Stephen Fry on QI, Mithras's birthday.

But of course this debunking only applies to the "Roman origin" myth of the Christmas date, and the author of the article does stress that there's no reason to think that Jesus's birthday actually was 25 December. As Stephen Fry might more accurately aver, "Nobody knows".

But of course that is to ignore the "elephant in the room". For in this theory, Christmas is so-dated because it is 9 months after the feast of the Annunciation. Which is so-dated to coincide with the traditional dating of the First Good Friday. Which is so-dated because it coincides with Passover. Which is so-dated because it is just after the Vernal Equinox. So we have the conclusion that Christmas has the date it has, not because of the Winter Solstice, but because of the Vernal Equinox combined with the human gestation period. Which is, when you think about it, even odder. And I have uncovered further evidence....

The picture goes all wobbly as we cut back 2,000 years. A man who, to judge by his appearance may well be Arimathean, stands atop Glastonbury Tor with the last of the Ancient Race of Beaker Druids. They are watching the sun set on the shortest day, and watching a few hapless Beaker People trying to keep their tea lights alight in the wind.

Archdruid Enya: So, Joe - this Jesus. When's his birthday?

Joseph of Arimathea: You what?

AE: His birthday? He is your God, right? So you must celebrate his birthday?

J of A: No idea. No, we celebrate his rising from death to life every Sunday...

AE: What, every week? Can't you have a special celebration once a year, and then just drag yourself to church every other Sunday because you feel you have to?

J of A: Smart thinking. OK if I take notes?

AE: No worries. Though I won't be able to proof-read them for you as we've not invented writing yet.

J of A: Personally I'm just waiting for the Greeks to invent cursive script. These majuscule uncials are giving my wrist right gyp.

AE: So now you just need to sort out his birthday. You seriously telling me you don't know when he was born?

J of A: According to my mate Luke, it was just about the time of the census decreed for the whole Roman Empire by Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria...

AE: Well, that's a whole dating problem of its own. You're never going to nail it down from that, are you? Tell you what, why don't you make it up?

J of A: So when do you suggest?

AE: How about celebrating his birthday at Christmas?

J of A: What, this feast you're celebrating because it's the shortest day?

AE: That's right. I mean, obviously enough already with the blood sacrifice and wicker people - you don't want to go associating them with the story of a baby. But let's face it, Christmas is perfect for what you want - everybody's already got the day off. And we've even got the perfect greeting for it. "Merry Christmas!"

J of A: That will work! Because we should be merry, shouldn't we! Tell you what, to remind myself I'm going to write your suggestion on this bit of papyrus I brought with me. The one where I drew a robin on the other side when I was studying your British wildlife.

AE: Good idea. So that will be "Merry Christmas".

J of A: And I'll add "from Archdruid Enya", so I remember who suggested it. Thanks, Enya.

AE: No worries. And now I've got to get off and sacrifice a couple of prisoners.  You interested? No? OK, fair enough - maybe not for everyone. Wouldn't want to impose my beliefs...


  1. There's some pretty bad history in the article you link to. Aurelian didn't rule a collapsing empire; he rebuilt it after a near-collapse. He wasn't hostile to the church. A property dispute was appealed to him, and he decided in favour of 'Those with whom the bishops of the doctrine in Italy and Rome should communicate in writing'. It was the first recognition the state ever gave to the papacy.

  2. I heard that Christians were thinking of moving the holy festival celebrating the birth of Christ, as it clashed with Christmas?

  3. Christmas would be fine if it didn't happen at such a busy time of year.

  4. Robert, you're probably right. Which is why I've kind of hedged around the article's right-or-wrongness. As with footballers accused of racism, it's best to wait until all the appeals are settled before daring to make any definitive statements. And on this subject we'll probably all be dead before anyone really knows. My general policy is to pour scorn on the "pagans invented Christian festivals and Christian sites" theory. Except when it helps me to develop my arguments, of course.

    Steve - fine by me. Christmas is inconveniently sandwiched between Solstice and New Year, and even Beaker People can't party 11 days running. I think Lady P-F may be feeling the pressure likewise.


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