Q6: Every year I see articles on Facebook that say Christmas was just a pagan festival that Christians took over. Is that true?
This is a situation where it appears a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing in the hands of people on the internet with very little knowledge! Because a very little knowledge makes some people way more certain than they should be.
Celebrating the birth of Jesus on the 25th of December, and calling it Christmas, is a very difficult tradition to pin down.
There are written references to Christians doing this as early as the 4th Century (the 300s), although there appear to be slightly different traditions around the date. It appears that most churches used December 25, although it seems that January 6 was originally used and later changed over.
Christmas in these early traditions was celebrated as a feast (similar to many other feast days on the church calendar), and gift giving seems to be a much later (18th or 19th Century) innovation.
As for the selection of the date itself, this is a little mysterious, and we aren’t entirely sure.
December 25 (or January 6) is unlikely to be the actual date of Jesus’ birth, given it is mid-winter in Palestine, and there are shepherds outside watching over their flocks! So why December 25? Was it just taken over from a pagan festival?
There are competing theories about this.
January 6 appears to have been chosen initially because it was the date the church celebrated Jesus’ baptism. This doesn’t mean Jesus was baptised then (similar mid-winter problem!). But the church had a calendar of feast days where they remembered significant events from Jesus’ life. While some dates (like Easter and Pentecost) were actually linked to events it seems that others weren’t, and instead were spaced out throughout the year.
The reason December 25th became dominant has two theories. The first is that it occurs 9 months after the 25 March celebration of the Annunciation (Mary being told by the angel she will have a baby). The second is that it took over and Christianised a popular pagan festival to stop Christians joining in the celebration of that one.
In the end, it doesn’t actually matter. There isn’t good evidence for either, and while the internet conspiracy theorists like to pretend that Christianity was made up by copying bits of pagan religions, and cite this as a piece of evidence, that idea is historical nonsense.
Christians were proclaiming Jesus’ birth as part of their creed (statement of belief) from the early first century (Philippians 2:8 probably the earliest NT document referring to Jesus being born, likely written in 60-62 AD when it was already a firm oral tradition).
Why they chose a particular date to mark and celebrate the event doesn’t actually matter. Just as it doesn’t matter for more and more non-Christians in Australia today that Christmas is (or was) a celebration of Jesus’ birth. For most of them, they want to ignore its Christian origins, and just make it about family, food and going into debt by buying too many presents.
What the surrounding culture thinks or does doesn’t impact on our faith. Jesus was born – and so we celebrate the incarnation when God became a human being to save us. We don’t know the exact date – Jesus’ birthday was obviously overshadowed by Jesus’ death for our sins, and it does appear that no-one thought to ask Mary about the actual date before she died (back then birthdays were not universally celebrated or given the prominence they are today).
Christians didn’t copy other religions or practices – that much is abundantly clear from the historical record, and if someone chose the date of a pagan celebration to also celebrate Christmas, it doesn’t say anything one way or the other.