Co-Opted Pagan Holidays

Introduction

I recently came across a forum wherein the OP asked whether non-Christians celebrate Easter in Japan. Several people came up with fallacious answers. For example, one respondent asserted that American schoolchildren don’t get any time off from school in honor of Easter. When corrected, he kept changing his answer until people gave up correcting him.

However, the main responses that caught my attention were significantly different from each other. First was the answer to the OP that yes, the Japanese celebrate Easter, but in a secular way, the same as they celebrate other originally Christian holidays such as Christmas and Valentine’s. But secondly, and more importantly (at least, insofar as it made me think about it), was a question someone asked: How do Christians feel about non-Christians co-opting their holidays? I’ll address my answer to the question in a later post. Today, I want to discuss something else. Specifically, the idea one person gradually expressed over numerous posts that all Christian holidays are co-opted pagan holidays, and so it would be hypocritical of Christians to be irritated about non-Christians co-opting their already-co-opted holidays.

Well, there are a number of issues with this theory. The major issue is the belief that all Christian holidays are co-opted pagan holidays. In short, this is not true. However, the idea that some Christian holidays and/or some elements of some Christian holidays are co-opted from pagan holidays is true. Allow me to explain…

 

Early Christians’ Relationship with Paganism

Christianity was illegal in the early days of the church. In the Roman Empire, religions that were old and established were legal, but new religions with which Rome was unfamiliar were labeled cults and were illegal. There are theories here and there suggesting that early Christians attempted to associate their group with Judaism because if Christianity was seen as another sect of Judaism, Christianity would be legal. However, there is very clear evidence (as by the numerous passages wherein God told an apostle or an apostle told another group of Christians that the following was not true) that early Christians believed salvation involved not just belief in Jesus as the Christ but also adherence to Jewish religious custom, such as circumcision and the Kosher diet, and that very early in the first century, possibly within a decade of Jesus’ death, the apostles corrected this false belief and Christians as a whole began significantly distancing themselves from such Jewish practices. Furthermore, early Christians were apparently seen as separate from Jews by non-Christian Gentiles, as in the example of Emperor Nero blaming Christians (not Christians and Jews) for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD, the first recorded official persecution of Christians. (On a side note, some sources claim Nero initiated the fire.) Early Christians apparently also chose not to do certain things that would label them religiously Jewish; for example, when Emperor Nerva modified the Fiscus Judaicus in 96 AD, Christians were not required to pay a Jewish tax, and there is evidence that they chose not to pay it. Centuries later, in the early 300s AD, Emperor Constantine managed to simultaneously favor Christians and practice anti-Semitism, which wouldn’t have been likely if Christianity was widely understood to be just another sect of Judaism. Furthermore, Rabbinical Judaism intentionally and specifically distinguished itself from Christianity in the first few centuries.

During this time, Christians compounded their own situation by refusing to take part in pagan practices. This is an important, if not the most important, aspect of Judaism. God told the Jews numerous times that He set them apart from the rest of the world and that they should demonstrate this characteristic by following the Mosaic Law. They apparently took this command to heart, as evidenced by places in Scripture where they spoke very disparagingly of Gentiles, even throwing the word “uncircumcised” around as an insult. Christians acted similarly, refusing to take part in anything even vaguely related to paganism. In fact, the Apostle Paul was forced to dedicate a significant part of a long letter to explaining to the Christians in Corinth that eating meat that had been offered to idols was not sinful. (Of course, the idols didn’t eat the meat, so it could only either be thrown out or sold for a lower price in the markets since it would be the least fresh meat. I guess you could call it the Wal-Mart meat of the Roman Empire. Many people would try to save money by buying the least expensive meat, which happened to have been offered to idols.) There is no evidence that Christians adopted any pagan practices in the early centuries of the Church, and there is significant evidence that they severely abhorred anything even vaguely pagan. (For example, although Christians as early as the first century debated when Jesus was born, they simultaneously asserted in various ancient writings that they would not, could not celebrate His birth because the pagans celebrated their own births. This may be why Christmas was instituted so late–specifically, a couple hundred years after Jesus’ death.) In fact, their refusal to take part in Imperial cult (the belief that the emperor and certain others were divine, and practices involving respect of the individual’s “divinity,” such as making obeisance) was considered an act of treason, which was punishable by death. So when people comment as a side note that Christians were persecuted for their beliefs, it gives the impression that they were made to pay an additional tax or were deprived of certain rights. However, in reality, it meant they died—and almost always via one of the many torturous methods that were the Romans’ specialty.

In short, it was largely, if not mostly, because of Christians’ refusal to take part in anything pagan and simultaneously distancing themselves from Judaism that they were recognized as different and harshly punished, even to death, for their beliefs and practices. If Christians did take part in anything pagan, such as making reverence to the Emperor as divine, it would have been under duress and not because they willingly adopted the practice. It also would not have been an enduring practice because, as demonstrated in many passages of Scripture and in historical disputes such as that of the Donatists, Christians maintained a strong sense of community amongst themselves and adopting any pagan practices would have essentially excommunicated an individual from the rest of his community, sometimes even in spite of repentance.

 

Emperor Constantine and Church Uptake of Pagan Practices

Then something really radical happened. Constantine became Emperor of Rome. He reigned 306-337 AD, converted to Christianity in 312 AD, claimed to be a Christian, assisted Christian unity, and even enforced Christian doctrine while punishing heresy. Constantine did not make Christianity the state religion (see Footnote 1), as commonly falsely asserted in various places on the internet by people who get all their information from Dan Brown, though he decriminalized it, gave Christians certain benefits over pagans, and began persecuting pagan religions. In fact, he so favored Christianity, that any suggestion that he was not a Christian seems to me a case of a historian with ulterior motives ignoring the evidence in order to act out revisionist history. (See Footnote 2 for more details.) One specific example of how he favored Christianity is that while he hired or promoted men of all religious backgrounds (except perhaps Judaism), he denied positions of power to men who refused to profess Christianity as their religion.

In short, after Constantine’s conversion, it became politically and socially expedient and probably popular (as is anything the royalty of any country does) to claim to be a Christian. Therefore, for reasons possibly not related to actual belief in the religion (of course, it’s probable that some truly did believe the Gospel), Christian churches became flooded with new “members,” many—if not most—of whom brought with them their ignorance of and indifference toward or even scorn for the doctrine of the Church. It was for this reason that the Church began requiring all Christians to go through training in the doctrine of the church annually prior to Easter, which had previously only been required of catechumens (new converts). In fact, this is largely where the modern version of Lent (the approximately 40-day pre-Easter season) as a time of instruction and penance came from. However, as mentioned above, Constantine considered it his divine duty to enforce Christian doctrine and punish heresy, and there are numerous historical examples of his doing so. Therefore, it is unlikely that pagan practices entered the Church during his reign—that is, before his death in 337 AD.

So since pagans probably began to enter the Church following Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD, wherein he decriminalized Christianity, but because Constantine enforced Christian doctrine and punished heresy throughout the rest of his reign, pagan practices may have begun to enter the Church as early as Constantine’s death in 337 AD. However, any Christian practices or holidays that arose before 313 AD definitely, and before 337 AD most likely, would not have been based on pagan practices. We know that the adoption of pagan practices was encouraged by at least Pope Gregory the Great according to a letter he wrote in 601 AD to a missionary, recommending that he convert pagan temples into churches and pagan festivals into feasts of Christian martyrs. However, there is no evidence for and significant evidence against Christians having adopted any pagan practices prior to Constantine’s Edict of Milan or even prior to his death.

 

Myths, Lies, and Stupid Stuff People Believe

I once read a really great book by libertarian and former host of ABC’s 20/20 John Stossel called Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel—Why Everything You Know is Wrong. I love the title! However, I want to point out right now that in the case of theories regarding pagan origins of Christian commemorations, I don’t think people who disagree with me are stupid. I think most people, including very intelligent people, are completely uninformed, and those few who have done some research into the matter have either not read reliable sources or else have not connected the dots between random data points. I will give more detail in future posts on the commemorations in question (for example, I’ll talk at more length about Candlemas on the post about Candlemas), but here I will give a few brief examples of falsely-alleged co-opted pagan holidays. Arguably the most important of these is Easter.

In brief, Easter has been commemorated with fasting since at least the first century (that is, before the year 100 AD) and possibly since the year of Jesus’ death, in accordance with Christ’s command to fast when He died (Matthew 9:15). Jesus died on Passover, which begins at sunset on Nisan 14, the day before the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Mark 14:1), which begins at sunset on Nisan 15. Initially, Christians probably commemorated Easter in accordance with the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread or with an easier-to-comprehend date close to it on the Roman calendar. However, in 200 AD, Tertullian of Carthage calculated that in the year of Jesus’ death, Nisan 14 corresponded to March 25 on the Roman calendar, and so Western Christians began to commemorate Jesus’ death on March 25 and continued to do so for a little over 100 years. In 325 AD, during Constantine’s reign, and probably because of Constantine’s anti-Semitism and contempt for seventh-day worshipers, astronomers approximated the astronomical dates of the first full moons falling on or after the spring equinox (which occurs within a few days of March 25 and therefore close to both the Passover and the previous date of Easter) for the Christian church and called them Ecclesiastical or Paschal Full Moons. (“Paschal” comes from Greek “pascha,” which comes from Hebrew “pesach,” both of which mean Passover, used because Jesus died on Passover.) In 326 AD, the date of Easter was switched from March 25 to the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon on the Julian calendar. This was revised again in 1583 AD by the pope and several leading astronomers and mathematicians to fit the Gregorian calendar, though they followed the same rule that Easter occurs on the Sunday following the Paschal Full Moon. At any rate, Easter clearly had been celebrated according to the actual date of Jesus’ death—that is, according to the Passover—in accordance with Jesus’ own command to do so since a few hundred years before Constantine’s reign… therefore, not of pagan origins and not (originally) related to the spring equinox.

Another great example is Christmas. Although many dates had been suggested as the date of Jesus’ birth, the only two official dates to emerge were December 25 (in the Western Church) and January 6 (in the Eastern Church). The Western Church chose December 25 because in 221 AD, Sextus Julius Africanus wrote that the day Jesus died (which, as described above, was considered March 25) was also the day on which Jesus was conceived, and that adding nine months to this date gave December 25 as His birthdate. His theory was repeated by other early Christian writers, at least one in the 300s AD and the remainder after Constantine’s reign. December 25 was widely supported by the Western Church, and especially very vehemently supported by North African Christians called Donatists, as early as 250-300 AD. Interestingly, the Eastern Church chose January 6 for the same reason. Rather than basing it on a calculated determination of when Nisan 14 occurred in the year Jesus died, they based it on the 14th of the first spring month (roughly corresponding to the Passover) in their local Greek calendar, which translates to April 6. Nine months after April 6 is January 6. The early adoption of Christmas’s date alone should be sufficient to reject theories of pagan origins. However, when we consider its connection to the date of another Christian holiday, which was itself based on the date of a Jewish holiday thousands of years old, it becomes even more intelligent to reject the theories of pagan origins. But there’s more! Early Christian writings suggest that His birth and the winter solstice occurring so closely together was a coincidence and don’t even mention the possibility that it was engineered; they took this coincidence as proof of God’s selection of Jesus over the pagan gods. In fact, the first suggestion that the date of Jesus’ birth was set according to pagan feasts was written in the 1100s AD, about 700-800 years after the fact. So it seems quite foolish to assert that Christmas was set according to pagan holidays, though it is certainly true that many of the Christmas traditions added in recent centuries probably or definitely have pagan origins.

Perhaps my favorite example is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, a.k.a. Candlemas. This day commemorates the day on which Jesus would have been presented to the Temple, 40 days after His birth (Luke 2:22-23, Leviticus 12:2-4). The earliest recorded sermon on this Feast is by Bishop Methodius of the Eastern Church in 312 AD (coincidentally, before Constantine’s Edict of Milan and before Constantine first claimed to be a Christian), so we know the feast was established by then, therefore having come into existence no later than 311 AD. Because the event occurred 40 days after Jesus’ birth, in accordance with Jewish law, and because the event was first commemorated by the Eastern Church, the feast commemorating the event was set to February 14, 40 days after January 6 (the date the Eastern Church commemorated Jesus’ birth, as described above). When the Eastern Church brought the idea to the Western Church, the Western Church changed the date to February 2, 40 days after December 25 (the date the Western Church commemorated Jesus’ birth, as also described above). At some unknown date, but probably hundreds of years later, the tradition of lighting many candles on this day in honor of Jesus as the Light of the World entered the Church, hence the alternate name Candlemas. It just so happens that a Roman celebration of the goddess Ceres on February 1 and also a Gaelic festival called Imbolc that happened around the same time of year both involved fire as an important symbol. Therefore, many pagans and some historians suggest that the February 2 Feast of the Presentation of the Lord was based on one of those two celebrations. It has even been suggested that the date was switched from February 14 to February 2 in order to more closely coincide with Ceres’ celebration. However, (a) it’s extremely unlikely that Christians adopted a practice from a pagan religion belonging to a group (the Gaels) they had not yet proselytized, and (b) this feast predates Christian adoption of any Roman pagan practices, as described much earlier in the section on Constantine. But most significantly—to me, anyway—is that this feast, dated to at least 311 AD, is based on the date of Christmas, dated to at least 250-300 AD, which is based on the date of His conception, dated to at least 221 AD, which is based on the date of Easter, dated to 200 AD, which is based on the date of the Passover, which dated back to approximately 1250 BC. Furthermore, it was started by the Eastern Church, which commemorated Jesus’ birth on January 6 and therefore His presentation in the Temple 40 days later on February 14. So to suggest that the Christians based the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord on any pagan holiday is to suggest that they first went back in time some 1500 years to engineer the date of Passover, in order to engineer the date of Easter, in order to engineer the date of the Annunciation, in order to engineer the date of Christmas, in order to engineer the date of the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, all while predicting that the Western Church would both adopt the Eastern Church’s practice and change the date to fit their own calendar. At the least, I consider this an implausible scenario and I hope you will agree. 😉

 

Conclusion

Like I said earlier, one respondent in the forum I read asked how Christians feel about non-Christians co-opting their holidays and another answered that all Christian holidays are already co-opted from pagan holidays. In reality, early Christians abhorred and vehemently rejected anything even vaguely pagan in the first three centuries AD. However, Constantine’s conversion to and favoring of Christianity beginning in 312-314 AD changed the status quo, making it popular and both socially and politically expedient to claim to be a Christian. Hence, pagans likely began entering the Church, falsely claiming to be Christians, and bringing with them their ignorance of and indifference toward or even scorn for Christian doctrine, as well as possibly some pagan practices. However, there’s good reason to reject the theory of pagan practices openly entering the church during Constantine’s rule and significant evidence against any such practices entering the Church before Constantine’s Edict of Milan. Though we know that the Church did intentionally adopt some pagan practices beginning at least 601 AD and possibly as early as Constantine’s death in 337 AD, and though we know that pagan elements were much later—in some cases, more than a millennium later—added to the Church and its practices, the most important commemorative events or holidays in Christian tradition long predate Constantine’s rule or are based on other events and holidays that do. Therefore, the theory breezily passed around that events such as Easter and Christmas are based on pagan celebrations is seriously misinformed.

 

じゃあまたね!

 

Primary Sources

Gowan, Andrew (2002). “How December 25 Became Christmas.” Bible Review. Retrieved from Bible History Daily. Retrieved from <http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/how-december-25-became-christmas/>

Bennet, David (N.d.). “Why is Christmas Celebrated on December 25?” Ancient and Future Catholics. Last updated 2012. Retrieved from <http://www.ancient-future.net/christmasdate.html>

Senn, Frank C. (2012). Introduction to Christian Liturgy (pp. 114-116). Retrieved from <https://books.google.co.jp/books?id=_WHCk9tyaNoC&pg=PA114&lpg=PA114&dq=De+solstitia+et+aequinoctia+conceptionis+et+nativitatis+domini+nostri+iesu+christi+et+iohannis+baptistae.&source=bl&ots=XHhuJdu-sN&sig=ZCyCXgHqh4NlXORshKcQi7Ekpus&hl=en&sa=X&ei=2Ai6VLq3BOPYmgXhoIDYBA&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=De%20solstitia%20et%20aequinoctia%20conceptionis%20et%20nativitatis%20domini%20nostri%20iesu%20christi%20et%20iohannis%20baptistae.&f=false>

Hijmans, Steven Ernst (2009). “Chapter 9: Aurelian, Constantine, and Sol in Late Antiquity.” In Sol: The Sun in the Art and Religions of Rome. Retrieved from <file:///C:/Users/Melanie.Schaab/Downloads/09_c9.pdf>

 

Footnotes

Footnote 1: Christianity as the State Religion of Rome. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, is often falsely claimed to have made Christianity the state religion of Rome. In reality, Constantine’s son and successor Constantius II’s successor Julian’s successor Jovian’s successor Valens’ successor Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica (380 AD), which ordered all people to profess the Christian faith, thereby making Christianity the state religion. This occurred 43 years after Constantine’s death in 337 AD, so he would have had nothing directly to do with it, though his example of favoring Christianity and persecuting paganism may have carried down through the successors, most of whom were Christian.

 

Footnote 2: Emperor Constantine as a Christian. Some historians argue it’s not certain Emperor Constantine actually was a Christian. For example, it has been pointed out that he set aside the first day of the week, which was known as the day of the sun (and had been known as such since the very ancient Egyptian etymology was adopted into the Roman Empire in the 1st or 2nd century), as a day of rest and it was suggested that this constitutes proof of his continued paganism and worship of the sun. However, especially considering his anti-Semitism and scorn for seventh-day worshipers, there’s no reason to believe this is proof that he worshiped the sun any more than his selection of Monday would have constituted proof that he worshiped the moon, or of Tuesday proof that he worshiped Mars, etc. Furthermore, in response to this law, Christians (whom Constantine favored in all of his actions and reforms) moved their day of rest from Sabbath (Saturday) to Sunday, which may have been Constantine’s intent. Coinage for most of his reign also held the emblem of the sun, which is also pointed out as “proof” of his worship of the sun, but I would like to point out that the presence of the bald eagle on American money does not constitute proof that we or any of our early leaders worship(ped) the bald eagle.

So, just to be extra careful and not take anyone’s word for granted, let’s look at the evidence.

Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena was a Christian and introduced him to the religion. After his success in the 312 Battle of the Milvian Bridge (6 years after he began his reign), he is said to have claimed he saw a vision of a cross with the words “in this sign, conquer” or “in this sign, you will conquer” and refused to make the customary post-battle sacrifices to pagan gods. He wrote letters in which he claimed that his successes were attributable to the Christian God alone and he called himself an emperor of the Christian people. Furthermore, in 313 AD, one year after his alleged vision, he issued the Edict of Milan, which required that church property be returned to Christians and completely decriminalized Christianity, making practice of it legal and, by extension, persecution of Christians on the basis of religion illegal. He also apparently eliminated the requirement for Christians to revere the emperor as divine, meaning that he favored Christians to his own dishonor (though this requirement still applied to non-Christians). In 314 AD, two years after his alleged vision, at the age of 42, he publically declared himself a Christian. During his reign, he gave money, land, and other wealth to the Church, built many churches, gave certain privileges to the clergy (such as exemption from certain taxes), and promoted Christians to high-ranking offices. In fact, men who refused to convert to Christianity were not given positions of power. He is said to have written to Shapur II, king of Persia, in 324 AD, instructing him to protect Christians under his rule. From 324 to 330 AD, he built a new imperial capital (later named Constantinople), within the walls of which no pre-existing pagan temples stood and many Christian churches were built. To build this essentially Christian capital city, Constantine required non-Christians to pay money, reportedly “to accustom them to despise their temples and the images contained therein,” which directly led to the closure of pagan temples for lack of financial support. In 331 AD, he paid for 50 Bibles to be prepared by 340 Alexandrian scribes (recall that they were copied by hand in those days) and delivered to the Church of Constantinople. Initially, Constantine prohibited the building of new pagan temples but tolerated their practices. However, toward the end of his reign, he began ordering the pillaging and tearing down of pagan temples. He abolished crucifixion and ordered that condemned men could no longer be branded on the face, only on the feet, because the Christian God made man in His image. He even eliminated gladiatorial games in 325 AD. Furthermore, though he did not determine Christian doctrine (he left that to Christian bishops), he enforced it, apparently considering it his duty in addition to rooting out heresy and upholding Christian unity. For example, in 316 AD, he acted as judge in a dispute between Christian sects in North Africa (called the Donatist controversy) and summoned the First Council of Nicea in 325 AD to have the bishops settle another dispute over a matter of doctrine (specifically, between the Arian and Trinitarian sects). Shortly before his death in 337 AD, he was baptized; there’s no record of whether he was privately or publically baptized by himself or by another prior to this date. Although his narcissism informed his behavior in virtually every other area of life, in anything related to Christianity, he always acted in favor of Christians, even following the lead of the bishops where there was a matter of doctrine.

In summary, Constantine acted like a Christian in areas related to Christianity, called himself a Christian, and favored Christians while distancing himself from and persecuting paganism. Regardless of whether the alleged vision during the Battle of the Milvian Bridge really happened, I think his words and actions are pretty strong evidence that he actually was a Christian or at least believed himself to be so.

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4 thoughts on “Co-Opted Pagan Holidays

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