Info on 2011 Holy Land Pilgrimage

The Old Archives

« Virgil: the Aeneid pt 11: Aeneas, the underworld, and the destiny of Rome | Main | Help Ian fill his online Salvation Army Christmas Kettle »

December 04, 2008


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

William Tighe

A friend brought this to my attention. I am glad that my article continues to attract interest. It has also attracted its share of criticism, although the only thing in it about which I was clearly mistaken was my off the cuff remark that the Emperor Aurelian might have had a connection with the ancient Roman clan the Gens Aurelia (which did practice sun-worship), whereas he was a Spaniard in origin, and wholly unconnceted with that Roman family.

I hope that the next few months may see the appearance in Touchstone of analogous articles which I have written on the "Origins of Lent" and the "Origins of Easter."


Dr. Tighe, I'll keep an eye out for the next two articles you mention. Geneological error aside (and understandable in the context of 'off the cuff'), a very interesting piece. I hope it continues to be circulated.

William Hood

Um, this article ignores some pertinent facts in order to make its point. It is true that the date of the specific date of Dec. 25th may have been due to Christian origins, but there was still the Roman holiday of Saturnalia that was celebrated around Dec. 17th to the 23rd (modern calendar) that predates Christianity and had some of the common elements of Christmas, such as gift-giving, lighting of candles, and feasting with family and friends. (Lesley and Roy Adkins, "Dictionary of Roman Religion," Oxford University Press) The following quote, then, is flat out incorrect: "But in fact, the date had no religious significance in the Roman pagan festal calendar before Aurelian’s time." The time of the winter solstice had been the time for Saturnalia since the early Republic. So while the issue of the exact date is not necessarily a direct borrowing from pagan Europe, it's dishonest to imply that there are no pagan origins for some common Christmas elements or to state that there was no pagan festival that pre-dated Christianity around the time of Christmas. Christmas's mythology, meaning, etc. are purely Christian, but people are kidding themselves to think that the wider pagan society had no effects on Christianity and that it stayed some sort of "pure" religion throughout history.


Thanks for your comments William H. Just as a precursor to your last sentence, let me say that today (at least in our church) we celebrated the feast of Cyprian of Alexandria. He died around the year 210. He was influential in his use of classical philosophy as preparatory to the Christian faith. While there are some who think that for Christianity to be authentic, there can be no association between Jerusalem and Athens, I don't think you will find that view here. Reading back into Christian history one can see numerous examples of Christianity intentionally using and incorporating helpful and useful things from the culture in which it finds itself. Christianity is, after all, a religion and not in itself a culture. Augustine could write about "despoiling the Egyptians" (from the Exodus story) as an example of how the Christian faith can and does use things from culture. You might see Jaroslav Pelikan's book "Christianity and Classical Culture" over in the sidebar on the left. (The title was taken from another excellent book, written by C.N. Cochrane - well worth reading).

There are many things about the contemporary celebration of "Christmas" in the west which have pagan overtones: the dating is not one of them. That was the main thrust of the article. And then one can look at the winter solstice, itself not a religiious invention, but primarily a phenomenon of nature. As such it si the common property of all cultures which observe such phenomenon of nature. Which is another way of saying that we "obeserve" certain holidays. Some of them are simply based on the way the world works, the rythms of nature itself give rise to solstice observations; the Romans, Celts and Goths did not simply invent it out of whole cloth. Ancient Judaism as well had observances based on the rythms of nature, or, I would say, based on the order of creation. Rituals such as gift giving, use of light and feasting are common currency across the board for the experience of being human: there is nothing particularly Roman or pagan about them. Light, for example, is a natural symbol - used in the early Christian texts (John's gospel comes to mind) as well as numerous other texts, both Christian and pagan. It is interesting to note that the Christian observance, while close to solstice, does not itself fall on solstice, and that in the Christian festal calendar, the season of Christmas moves forward several days, rather than reaching back to incorporate solstice.

The difficulty comes in trying to establish influence. It is fairly common lay-opinion in some circles that Christmas is celebrated on date X because of reason Y. I think the article debunks the notion that there is an absolute influence in terms of date. One of the other possible grounds for dating, wholely unaddressed here, is the dating based on records and dating of temple service - the idea that a date can be established for the birth of Jesus from the duty rosters of priestly attendance in the temple. I haven't investigated that claim very much, but it would be interesting to do so. (From what little I've read, the technique has at least a few problems).

ps JE Harrison (Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion) discounts the Saturnalia theory. One argument is that Christians would hardly have an interest in taking over a festival which had declined by the late 300's.

Are there "Christmas" traditions which derive from pagan sources? Surely in the west there are. Yule logs? Keeps me warm in the midwinter.

And if I spot my wife under a piece of mistletoe over the next few weeks, I'm sure I won't hesitate to give her a kiss.

Happy festivus everyone...

William Tighe

Saturnalia was celebrated "around December 17 to the 23rd" -- but how does this affect a date of December 25? The fact is, that December 25 was not, and had nothing to do with, Saturnalia, and so Saturnalia provides no basis whatsoever for Christians attributing significance to that date.

Some Roman customs associated with Saturnalia may have carried over into the Roman Christian celebration of Christmas, especially in the Fourth Century, but that should occasion no surprise in the circumstances. My article was not, however, concerned with "Christmas customs," but with the origin of the December 25 date. I cannot see that William Hood's exceptions have any bearing whatsoever on my article.


Thanks for your comments, Dr. Tighe. FYI, we've been doing a study of the early church in our parish this fall (mainly readings of original texts from the Fathers) and I'm planning to use your article as a discussion starter for this evening's study group.

The comments to this entry are closed.

September 2011

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29 30  

blank stare...

  • Copyright Rev. Joseph Walker, St Timothy's Anglican Church

Subscribe in NewsGator Online

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz

Add to My AOL