Your Seasonal Reminder that Christianity Is Not Warmed-Over Paganism

Every Christmas we are doomed to hear from this year’s crop of internet-educated people that Christmas is “really” just the Winter Solstice. From this we are supposed to conclude that Christmas really only mattered to the early Church because of the Solstice, or something like that.

Now if that is so, then the Summer Solstice, as well as the Spring and Fall Equinoxes should likewise be the loci of huge feasts like Christmas. So it’s only fair to take the occasion, this week, of noting that here we are at the Autumnal Equinox and you know what? There’s not a huge feast or much of anything special happening. Sure it’s the feast of Matthew today, but that’s not really that big a deal. (Also, the equinox this year falls on September 23). (Quick! Without asking Google, when are the feasts of the other three evangelists! You don’t know. Because they aren’t a very big deal.)

The reason that matters is because the myth that Christianity is a warmed-over pagan religion reliant on things like solstices and equinoxes for its real underpinnings is just not so. Easter, the most important feast of all, looks to Passover, not the vernal equinox for its dating. Christmas is tied to a Jewish, not pagan, tradition that a true prophet died on the date of his conception (March 25 being the date the western Church tied to Good Friday and April 6 being the date in the Eastern Church.) By no coincidence at all December 25 and January 6 are therefore Christmas in West and East, respectively. And John the Baptist’s birthday, six months older than Jesus, is accordingly celebrated on June 25. But because the equinox was not per se important, nothing especially big is made of the autumnal equinox.

You can, of course, note that Jewish feasts were (sometimes, not always) tied to the cycles of nature. Passover happens around (very roughly) the Spring Equinox (if by “around” you mean “within a month of”). So Easter, following the Jewish calendar, is likewise tied to the natural cycle. But that’s pretty dang far from paganism. Likewise, Pentecost is tied to the first harvest (of crops in the Jewish tradition and of souls in the Christian tradition). But calling that “pagan” is to stretch credulity to the breaking point. The great driver and key to understanding Christian imagery is not pagan, but Jewish.

People who think that merely because something Christian is associated with a pagan day equals “worship of pagan deities” or “practice of pagan religion” need to pause and ask themselves if saying “Today is Wednesday” makes them worshippers of Woden. When they realize the speciousness of that, they should then go back and reflect on the fact that when the Christian tradition encounters pagan forms and images (as it does throughout its history) the process of incorporating them into its Tradition is never to empty a Christian form and fill it with pagan content and is always to empty the form of pagan content and either leave it empty (which is why “Wednesday” no longer has any religious significance at all), or to fill it with Christian content, (which is why Christmas trees now refer to the birth of Jesus, rings now signify the sacrament of marriage, the Pantheon in Rome is now the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs, and Easter now refers to the Resurrection and not Eostre).


7 Responses

  1. > Quick! Without asking Google, when are the feasts of the other three evangelists!

    John is December 27th and Mark is April 25th. But I only know because John is my son’s second name and Mark is my name. If I have another son and name him Luke (first or second name), I’ll find out when Luke’s feast is.

  2. If the name “Easter” came from the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess, why did the “warmed-over pagan” Christianity not venerate the other equinox and solstices? Specifically, if Christmas is a winter solstice celebration, why is it called Christmas and not “Norther” (since the name “Easter” derives from “east”)?

    Additionally, it’s an extremely Anglo-Saxon-centric (or at best Germanic-centric) view. Why is Easter called “Pâques” in French, “Pascua” in Spanish, or “Páscoa” in Portuguese, “Πάσχα” (“Pascha”) in Greek, “Pascha” in Latin or “Cásc” in Old Irish (and derivative forms in Gaelic languages descended from it) (=Passover)? Why is it called “Wielkanoc” in Polish (=”Great Night”), “Великдень” in Ukrainian (=”Great Day”)?

    I mean, if this was a feast celebrating some Anglo-Saxon goddess, then:
    – why was it celebrated before Britain or Germanic tribes were christianized?
    – why is it universal in the Church?
    – why do names in other languages not reflect this supposed origin?

    I mean, those are pretty salient questions, especially considering how important they were to some people (and how asking them got some people expelled from university).

  3. All good points and all correct. But a tad early to bring up. Shouldn’t we be discussing how that old truism “Halloween came from the Celtic festival of Samhain when the Church decided to change it to All Saints Day” is not, in fact, true at all?

  4. Thanks Mark! I continue to enjoy your posts, especially these “the Church is actually more practical and straightforward than people give it credit for” posts. I’m not sure why people like to play Da Vinci Code so much.

  5. And let’s say the Church did put Christmas near the solstice on purpose. So what? Are we to believe that all pagan religions, collectively, hold a monopoly on solstice celebrations the way that (according to legend) cutthroat competitors Marvel and DC share the trademark rights to the word “superhero”?

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