One question that keeps coming up is “Didn’t the Christians steal their holidays from the Pagans?”. The short answer is “No.”
The longer answer is still no, but with a bunch more details.
(I am not doing a fully sourced academic essay here, but I am pointing at resources with extensive sources and citations: consider this a summary, rather than independent research.)
Defining our terms
If we’re going to say a holiday is ‘stolen’, it seems to me that a couple of things have to be true:
- It has to have the same date (or method of date construction) as the holiday it’s ‘stealing’ from.
- It has to have more points of similarity than the date and “Hey, religious celebrations often involve gathering people around food.”
- It has to be stolen from a culture it could reasonably have had contact with.
- You have to take into account seasonal similarities and the nature of – well, nature – when it comes to the outward implications of a particular holiday. (For an example, see my discussion of greenery at Christmas, below.)
So, given those points, let’s look at three holidays: Christmas, Easter, and All Saints Day
It is not until the fourth century that we see the birth of Jesus given as late December (and in the Eastern church, it was January 6th for a long time.) Before then, it was just not a celebration of interest.
As for the eventual selection of December 25th, one popular argument is hard to support when you actually look at the evidence. This runs that the early Christians deliberately selected December 25th in order to mask their own celebrations in the general riotous celebrations of the Roman Saturnalia, and then later the celebration of Sol Invictus (as instituted by Aurelian in 274 CE.)
Here’s the problem: it doesn’t show up in any of the relevant early Christian writings.
Certainly, some of them – Ambrose, in the 4th century – talk about Jesus as the true sun, or the related symbology of Jesus and his Father outshining the Pagan gods. But what there isn’t is any hint at manipulating the calendar to take advantage of the Pagan festivals.
It’s only in the 12th century that we see this idea that the early Christians moved the date deliberately (from January 6 to December 25) – and it pretty much all comes from a minor commentator, and from much later scholars latching onto that one bit of information to demonstrate their superiority and other points. (The 18th and 19th centuries are full of this kind of thing: that it is common does not make it right. Or good scholarship.
In addition, the reason for the date is not derived from “Hey, let’s appropriate Christmas”, but rather a backward analysis.
The Christian Church for a while set the date of the death of Jesus at March 25th, and decided that because Jesus was perfect, he died on the day he was conceived. 9 months (a ‘perfect pregnancy’) from March 25th is December 25th.
Short version: some people have obsessions with calendars and making things fit into them. This does not always make for sensible theology.
Here’s the other problem: most of the references to the appropriation of Pagan customs mention customs common to Northern European Paganism. At a time when early Christianity was not in much contact with Northern European Paganism. While certainly a number of the cultural trappings have come through over time, there’s actually some very practical reasons for this.
What’s green in the winter? One of the liturgical requirements of the Christian Church has long been that you need to have living plants in the church at all times (except very briefly right before Easter.)
If you are living in northern climates, pretty much the only things that are growing in the middle of the winter are the evergreens. Thus, they make a very good symbol and decoration both for Pagans whose religions are looking for “Hey, let us make it out of this winter”, and for Christians, whose purpose is more “The light of Christ is eternal.”
As well as for people who are looking at their sacred space and going “Can’t we have anything a little pretty in here?”
Carols are an extremely complicated topic, but roughly, the appropriation of older music for newer purposes is a thing that people do and have done for millenia, as far as we can tell.
A fair number of ‘Christmas’ carols got their start as folk tunes or drinking songs or music with other purposes. This is called the folk process, and while it *can* be appropriative, it is not automatically so. (Just like the National Anthem of the United States got its tune from a previous song. That does not make everyone who sings it a member of the Anacreontic Society)
Candles are yes, a big thing in a lot of Christmas celebrations. Here’s the thing. It’s especially dark around the winter solstice (that being a reality of the physical tilt of the planet: there are as many dark hours of the day as you’re going to get ever.)
If you are going to gather together with other people, and want to see their faces, you are going to want some light. Which, for a long time, was candles. Which are an expensive resource in a lot of time periods, so you saved them for special occasions. (At other times, you’d work by the firelight you were using to heat your house, or just plain go to bed early.)
Yes, people used candles in multiple religious traditions. They’re a perfectly practical thing that makes light, before electricity. To argue that one stole from the other, I think you need a bit more here, like what those candles are doing in the ritual in specific.
A lot of our other trappings of what we think Christmas looks like – the foods, the other customs – are things brought over into England by the German-in-origin monarchy, and appropriated into Victorian habit, popularised by sources like Charles Dickens.
Again, the 18th and 19th centuries did a lot of that sort of thing, and it still doesn’t make it particularly useful. The celebration of Christmas in other places often looks quite different – all sorts of different food traditions, musical traditions, symbol traditions, and so on.
The date of Easter is fundamentally set by the date of Passover (a Jewish holiday that is based on the lunar calendar with adjustments to make sure that the ‘spring’ holidays don’t wander all over the seasons of the year.) That’s because the Christian understanding is that Jesus was killed on Passover.
For a number of reasons, the early Christians settled on a date that often relates to Passover, but does not always overlap – this is because of vast complexities having to do with the Jewish diaspora, the expansion of Christianity, and the fact that the Jews and the Christians were not sufficiently friendly as to be sharing their calendar data for quite a long time.
But they both end up on moving dates in the spring, related to the spring equinox, but not on the spring equinox.
(Orthodox calculations for Easter differ: sometimes they’re very close. Some years – like 2013 – they’re very far apart, with the Gregorian calculation being March 30, and the Julian one not being until May 5th.)
To be specific, Easter is on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Equinox.
Or sort of, because the Catholic Church uses ecclesiastical definitions for those things, not astronomical ones. Anyway, this actually makes it entirely impossible for Easter to be on the Equinox itself. At best, it can be the week after.
Likewise, there is very little evidence for a spring equinox festival of this particular kind – certainly, there might have been something, but if there was, it has been entirely lost to history. Which makes appropriation of it – well, what are we appropriating?
But there’s a larger issue here: We talk about the modern Eight Sabbat model as a common framework within modern Paganism. What many people don’t realise, however, is that there is no historical culture that celebrated all eight of those festivals, that the eight were put together by recent historical figures (Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols, primarily).
And of course that they’re relevant to only some modern Pagans (Wiccan-derived paths and many modern Druids celebrate all 8. Some traditions celebrate four of the eight. Most other Pagan paths ignore them, or tolerate them as larger community celebrations that are as good as any other way to set times for the larger Pagan community in their area to get together.)
The name Easter: One common complaint here is “But Easter is from the name of an Anglo-Saxon Goddess! It must have been stolen from the Pagans!”
The reality is that this is a very English-language-centric view of the world. In most languages, the name for Easter as a festival is derived from the word Pascha, or the Hebrew for lamb. (Which makes perfect sense for a festival in which the blood of lambs is smeared on the doors to protect your first born child.)
Beyond that, it’s not clear from the sources we have whether Eostre in the way that Bede took the word for the English term Easter was actually a goddess, or Bede misunderstanding a more general term for the season, or what. (Hutton goes into this.)
Eggs: Also with the “This is a thing that happens in nature around this time of year, and which makes a very nice religious symbol” (Ditto rabbits.)
Cultural trappings still are not the same as the theological underpinnings of a religious holy day – and spring equinox is a very minor one in the traditions that do celebrate it. If you’re going to appropriate something, why this one?
All Saints Day / All Souls Day
This is the holiday where – interestingly enough – we can document more appropriation. And yet, it’s never the one that people bring up when they rant about Christians taking Pagan holidays.
(That’s always Christmas and Easter. I wonder now if that’s because most of the people making a fuss about the topic are working with the Protestant Christian tradition in which ‘All Saints’ is naturally much less of a Big Thing, rather than the Roman Catholic one?)
Roughly, the Celtic celebration of Samhain marks the beginning of the year, the cycle of seasons, and a bridge between this world and the otherworld. We do have evidence that when Christianity took over in Britain, that there was a cohesive attempt to basically say “All those Pagan Gods and Goddesses? They are saints! Laudable people sometimes, but people! Not gods!”
And likewise, many of the customs – visiting family graves, for example, or remembering the dead – also got appropriated into the cultural practice of All Souls (November 2nd)
However, there’s actually not that much evidence of a major pan-Celtic festival. (Hutton goes into this at some length) – it was primarily an Irish one. More to the point, we don’t see it turning up in literary references or other places where lightly-glossed repurposing of cultural festivals often shows up.
There is a Scandinavian festival (earlier in October, the Winter Nights) that is also relevant, but probably didn’t influence either the British Isles, or the rise of the Day of the Dead customs in Spanish speaking countries. The “There must have been a Pagan festival here!” remarks in historical sources all come out to “Well, we sort of inferred it!” Which is not great scholarship.
Hutton goes on to explain that there was, in fact, an existing Christian holiday honouring the dead, that moved around the calendar a bit over the centuries, but mostly was in the spring.
In 998, Odilo, then the abbot of the massive monastery at Cluny (which was very influential in a lot of ways), ordered a mass for the souls of the dead. This got picked up by other churches, and finally settled on November 2nd, so it could be linked to All Saints Day, the saints being intercessors for the dead.
Beyond that, we again have the problem of 18th and 19th century flawed research practices, assumptions from insufficient data, and a general desire to make the world look the way they thought it should.
We have the additional complication that in the creation of the Church of England, a number of the practices around All Saints were firmly squashed (as too Catholic), and so there’s a lot of confusing stuff going on there that has very little to do with Paganism at all, but that feeds into some of our modern customs.
Most of our modern practices about this are quite modern – the last century or two, and the parts that are historical are not the parts that mostly got subsumed into the Christian practices (beyond the very general idea of “religious celebrations involve gathering, food, and some stuff we do together” – see my point about ‘there have to be more points of similarity than just the same day’)
A summary of the basic issues from Koi, a longtime poster (and Catholic trained theologian) on The Cauldron. This link goes to an archived board with a copy of her post from a previous archived board.
How December 25th became Christmas: An article from the Biblical Archaeology Society with excellent detailed references to the early Church fathers and other relevant writings.
Post 161 from a very long thread on the current Cauldron forum talks about some of the other issues with assumptions about modern Neo-Pagan dates and long-held Christian festivals. (The rest of the thread also has info of use, but it is very long.)
Ronald Hutton’s The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain has an extensive overview of the ritual celebrations in Britain, their historical antecedents, and so on. Well worth reading. (It’s now available in ebook form, which I find much easier to reference.)
Last edited December 26, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.