As we enter into December, approximately 2 billion people will prepare to celebrate Christmas, a holiday dedicated to the birth of Jesus. We will also enter into a time of internet debate over the origins of Christmas. Many will stake their claim on its alleged pagan roots, claiming that the story of Christmas and its celebration on December 25th is simply a copy of paganism. Indeed, a quick look at YouTube will demonstrate just how popular it is to make videos pontificating on this subject. For many, it is an attempt to discredit a major world religion. On the other hand, one can find some videos made by Christians who think the majority of Christians are wrong and committing idolatry. One may even find videos of Muslim scholars utilizing the supposed pagan origins of Christmas to discredit Christianity. A more careful look at the history of Christmas, however, shows that Christmas was not a copy of a pagan holiday.
The strongest theory suggesting that Christians began Christmas celebrations in order to take over a major pagan holiday (allegedly dedicated to the Unconquered Sun) comes from Hermann Usener, who published his case in 1889. Yet, Usener’s theory is not the only one around. Gerald Massey (also in the 1800s) claimed Christians copied Egyptian mythology surrounding the Egyptian god Horus. There are problems with both of these theories and an honest look at each can help point us in the right historical direction.
Massey claimed Horus was born of a virgin and baptized in a river by Anup the Baptizer, who was later beheaded but there are a few problems with this. First off, what Egyptians believed and celebrated about Horus changed over time and it is only somewhat recently that archaeological evidence has allowed us access to all of this. Early Christians wouldn’t have had access to all the variations in order to try to make up what Massey claimed. Second, what we do know about the creation story of Horus is a very, very long stretch from what Massey said anyhow. Horus’ mother was a goddess (Isis) whose husband (Osiris) had been killed by Seth (the desert god) and then dismembered. Isis gathered Osiris’ body parts (here we have the mythological support for the practice of mummification) and revived him just long enough for the two of them to conceive Horus. This may be an improbable conception, but with overtones of divine necrophilia, it’s not at all what Christians claim about Mary when they speak of her conceiving while yet a virgin. As for Anup, there’s simply no evidence he ever existed. He’s made up. A few later scholars attempted to link Massey’s claim to the Egyptian god Anub. There are a few hieroglyphs that claim Anub washed the pharaoh prior to coronation, but there is no evidence this was put into any kind of practice, as it would require someone to stand in for the god Anub. Even if it had, it certainly would not be a baptism as Jews or Christians have understood it.
Usener’s theory, unlike Massey’s, has one possible piece of supporting evidence. We have a ninth century copy of a calendar document from Rome from the year 354. This document notes that 30 chariot races were to be celebrated in order to honor the birth of “Invictus,” which is normally taken to be a reference to the Unconquered Sun. This document is taken to “prove” that Christian began copying a pre-existing pagan holiday on December 25th, but in actuality, it is not proof that Christmas began being celebrated on December 25th around the year 354 in order to copy a pagan holiday. Other earlier sources give different dates dedicated to the Unconquered Sun (in August, October, and one day in December, on the 11th, not the 25th). Furthermore, pagans had begun to use chariot races rather than altar sacrifices beginning only in the 320s. This means both the date of December 25th and means of celebrating (chariot races) were recent developments. Therefore, it’s more likely that the holiday calendar from 354 actually shows a pagan reaction to a Christian holiday. Rather than showing that Christians decided to celebrate Christmas on December 25th only because a pagan god was celebrated that same day, the evidence suggests pagans likely began celebrating a pagan god on December 25th because Christians were already celebrating Jesus’ birth on that day.
So why December 25th then? Well, because of something called the liturgical calendar. Early Christians tended to assume that Jesus was born and died at the same time (normally dated March 25th). They counted an even nine months out and came to December 25th as the day he was born. It is, in fact, that simple. Now, this is not without pagan parallels. Pagans likewise believed that the acts of gods and the lives of heroes lined up. During the second and third centuries it was not only the Christians who were focused on calendars and computing holidays. Pagans were also very much into it. It was a part of society’s fabric.
So, in conclusion, what can we say about Christianity’s alleged pagan origins? Well, we can say that both Christians and pagans were a product of their time by being concerned with calendars and computing holidays and dates. What we cannot say is that Christians borrowed a story of a virgin birth from ancient Egyptian religion. Nor can we say that Christians began to observe December 25th as Jesus’ birth in order to copy (or even take over) a pagan festival. When Christians celebrate Christmas, they do so in order to celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom they believe was born from Mary, who remained a virgin. There is no evidence early Christians thought they were celebrating the birth of a pagan god. An honest look at the history of the holiday might not be as controversial as many YouTubers would have you believe, but it can help Christians and non-Christians alike better appreciate Christmas. In a season dedicated to someone called the “Prince of Peace,” (Jesus), that’s a healthier place to be anyhow.