A Pagan Christ? Reflections on the Real Christmas Story


Strictly speaking, a pagan Christ is a contradiction in terms. The very concept of paganism was constructed by Christians who wanted to distinguish their faith from the old religion of Greece and Rome, which by the end of classical antiquity was observed only by peasants in remote rural areas – the pagani, or “country people,” or – to use words that are similar in tone – rustics, rubes, hayseeds. So there can be no pagan Christ. Paganism is all that Christianity is not.

Once we go past this elementary point, however, we see that the situation is not so simple. The resemblance between Christianity and its rivals could never be entirely overlooked. The Church Father Augustine (354–430) wrote, “That which is now called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and never did not exist from the planting of the human race until Christ came in the flesh, at which time the true religion which already existed began to be called Christianity.” Whatever Augustine meant by this – and it’s not entirely clear from the context – one thing it could mean is that the “true religion” is universal and has always existed; only comparatively late did it come to be codified in the teachings of Christ.

Before I go further into what this “true religion” might be, it’s necessary to stop and take a look at early Christianity in its context. Christianity, as is well known, grew up in the Roman Empire, a time of remarkable fecundity in religious belief, with a huge and dizzying marketplace of gods and cults and philosophies for the seeker to choose from, many of which bore more than a passing resemblance to one another. It’s impossible to believe that Christianity was not affected by this background. Although the Christians insisted that their religion was true and all the others were false, they still had to account for the fact that theirs was not so different from many of those they were denouncing.

Over the past century, one of the most influential views of the relationship between Christianity and paganism has been that of Sir J.G. Frazer (1854–1941), author of the classic work The Golden Bough, first published in 1890 and updated in many editions thereafter. A pioneer of comparative mythology, Frazer delved into the compendious collections of lore and legend that scholars were amassing in his time and noticed that Christianity had taken many of its elements from the religions it would eventually displace.

The most famous instance is Christmas. The birthday of Christ was not recorded and is not known; in the early centuries of the religion that bears his name it was not celebrated. But by the fourth century, Christ’s birthday came to be observed as a holiday. In the East (starting in Egypt), the date selected was January 6. But the Western church, which had never observed this date, set Christ’s birthday as December 25. Why? One Christian writer quoted (but not named) by Frazer explains: “It was a custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same twenty-fifth of December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day and the festival of the Epiphany on the sixth of January.”

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