Every year about this time, anti-Christian individuals and groups make their jabs about Christmas being pagan, celebrated on December 25 by Catholics and Protestants, and January 7 by the Orthodox. They typically bring up this evidence or that regarding Saturnalia, the winter solstice, or what have you, appealing to guilt by association rather than actually trying to understand the Christian mindset — then or now.
The thing is, regardless of whether or not the day chosen was originally pagan, what is important is that the day is set aside, and for the purposes it is set aside.
For just one example, George Washington’s birthday. According to the Julian calendar, which was in use at the time, Washington was born on February 11, 1731. Following the switch to the Gregorian calendar which we use today, his birthday “became” February 22.
Thing is, we don’t observe his birthday on either of those dates. Rather, we observe it — as well as Lincoln’s birthday (February 12, 1809) — on the third Monday in February. What’s important is NOT that we pick the right day, or what else is on the day that we pick, but the fact that we DO pick a day and set it aside for observation.
People throughout church history have been trying to peg down Jesus’ actual birthdate. Through my own research, I’ve come to the conclusion that Christ was most likely born on September 25, 6 BC — Tishri 15 by the Hebrew calendar, the first day of the Feast of Tabernacles. May be right, could be wrong, ultimately it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that when Christmas was “established,” Christians lived among pagans who had oodles of dates to celebrate this or that, whereas Christians had none — not even the Jewish holy days (because of the ignorant “the Jews killed Jesus” hatred that many had), and certainly none of those Jewish holy days recognized the birth of Someone they rejected as Messiah. So while pagans would celebrate their pagan beliefs on their given days, Christians could either choose to celebrate godly things instead or celebrate nothing at all. The church leaders, and through them, the church proper, chose the former.
That’s how Christians got the holidays we have. Just like Washington’s birthday not being observed on his actual birthday, Christmas is a day chosen to celebrate Christ’s birth, and chosen to give Christians something to celebrate instead of what else was being celebrated on that day — the winter solstice. Easter was established similarly as an alternative to the spring equinox, as well as the Jewish Passover. Halloween is the same thing — All Saints Eve (leading into All Saints Day) as an alternative to Samhain.
For non-Christians or anti-Christians to say that Christian holidays are essentially pagan is to completely disregard why people of any faith individually set aside days as holy in the first place. I completely agree that these holidays have been co-opted and commercialized to the point of them no longer being “holy” to many, but they still are to me — not because of the day they may fall on, but because of what they individually mean to me if no one else.
Editor's note: One of the main reasons December 25th was chosen has nothing to do with Saturnalia at all. If it were intended to be a replacement for Saturnalia, why was it not on the same days? (Roughly December 17-23.) The choice of the 25th of December comes from an old tradition that Christ's death and conception took place on the same date. The date for Christ's death, burial, and resurrection was placed around Easter time (around March 25th). Conception plus nine months gives us December 25th for His birth. Check out this blog for more info.