Belfast Telegraph

Christmas is rooted in paganism

By Brian McClinton

Christmas was invented not by Charles Dickens, but by a sixth century Roman theologian and mathematician called Dionysius Exiguus (in English, Dennis the dwarf). He calculated that Jesus was born 525 years previously, though it was another 200 years before this Anno Domini date became dominant in western Europe.

We now know that Dionysius was wrong. The flight into Egypt described in Matthew's Gospel, if it happened at all, must have occurred before 4BC because King Herod, from whom Joseph, Mary and their baby were fleeing, died in that year. So Jesus was definitely not born in the year 1CE (Common Era).

Nor is it likely Jesus was born on December 25. The event described in Luke of the shepherds watching their flocks by night suggests a spring or summer date.

Dionysius probably chose December 25 because that date had already been recognised throughout the Roman Empire as the birthday of various pagan gods.

For the Persians it was the birthday of Mithras, and for the Egyptians it was the birthday of Osiris. For the Romans it was for a long time the climax of the winter festival of Saturnalia, which lasted for a week from December 17.

Clearly, therefore, Christians hijacked a pagan festival and used its traditions to decorate the nativity story.

Many Christians have themselves objected to this paganisation. Even before it happened, the third century theologian Origen denounced the whole idea of celebrating the birthday of Jesus "as if he were a King Pharaoh".

Much later, the 17th century Puritans in England and Massachusetts banned Christmas celebrations because they regarded the "debauchery" as a dishonour to God.

As for us humanists, we're probably in two minds about it all. Some of us think it is a stressful and costly period; others welcome an opportunity to celebrate being with family and friends.

Does Christmas really make us more aware of the Earth's appalling poverty and man's inhumanity to man? It is a moot question when we consider that the world has still a long way to go to establish permanent peace and goodwill to all men.

  • Brian McClinton is editor of Humanism Ireland

Belfast Telegraph


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