Pagan Christmas

From UnHerd (hat tip: Paul Halsall):

“A perpetual forge of idols.” So Calvin described the human mind. This conviction, that fallen mortals were forever susceptible to turning their backs on God, to polluting the pure radiance to his commands, to practising in his very sanctuary pagan rituals, was a dread that constantly shadowed Calvin’s more committed followers in England. To Puritans, as they were called, the riotous celebrations that accompanied Christmas appeared a particular abomination.

It made the festival seem, as one of them disapprovingly noted, “some Heathen Feast of Ceres or Bacchus.” This anxiety fused over time with another deeply-held Protestant conviction: that papists, in their cunning and their deviancy, had been altogether too ready to compromise with the legacies of idolatry. Rather than clear away the brambles and nettles of paganism, they had instead tended them, and encouraged them to grow. What, then, was all the revelling, and dicing, and feasting that marked the celebration of the Saviour’s birth, all the “Licencious Liberty,” if not the Saturnalia by another name?

Today, the doubts about Christmas originally articulated by Puritan divines continue to flourish — as does so much Protestant anti-popery — in polemics that target not merely Catholicism but the Christian Church tout court. “Nothing in Christianity is original.” So opined the distinguished symbologist Sir Leigh Teabing. “The pre-Christian god Mithras — called the Son of God and the Light of the World — was born on December 25…” Dan Brown’s take is one well suited to a capitalist age. The Da Vinci Code, by portraying the early Church as an institution that had knowingly and cynically appropriated the feastdays of other gods, was able to cast Christians as predatory monopolists, asset-stripping the cults of their rivals.

Part of the reason for Dan Brown’s astonishing success is clearly that he was telling lots of people what they were ready to hear. That Christmas is a fraud, a festival stolen by the Church from pagans, has become a staple of many an atheist meme. Fuelling this trend is the fact that backing for it is to be found in distinguished works of history as well as in thrillers. “The Church was anxious to draw the attention of its members away from the old pagan feast days, and the December date did this very well, for it coincided with the ‘birthday of the invincible Sun’ of Mithraism, and the end of the Roman Saturnalia (December 24).” So writes John North in his book Stonehenge: Neolithic Man and the Cosmos.

Read the whole thing to discover why this is hogwash (although see also an earlier post on this issue). 

UPDATE: More on the topic at HillFaith