I received an email from Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers today. In it he debunks 7 common myths that circulate around every year. I am only highlighting two of them. For the rest go to his secretinfoclub and subscribe!
This first one is one that especially irks me. I hear this still today form almost every Evangelical, Baptist and Fundamentalist (and a lot of Catholics too!) I meet. It is another case where instead of doing historical research, they just quote each other assuming that the guy at the top of the pyramid did his homework.
#6 Christmas Is Based on a Pagan Holiday
Sometimes Fundamentalists, secularists, and pagans argue that Christmas is just a pagan holiday that has been "baptized" by the Church. Accounts differ as to which one. Sometimes it is claimed that Christmas is based on Saturnalia or the birth of Sol Invictus ("the unconquerable sun").
But Saturnalia wasn't celebrated on December 25th. It ran from December 17th to the 23rd. It was over and done with before the 25th.
We do have records that suggest some pagans celebrated the birth of Sol Invictus on December 25th, but the first such record dates from the year A.D. 354 (on what is known as the Calendar of Filocalus or the Chronology of 354). The trouble is, even this source isn't fully explicit. It just says that December 25 was celebrated as the Natalis Invicti or the "Birthday of the Unconquerable One," without saying who that is.
We also know that some Christians had been identifying December 25th as Jesus' birthday at least a century and a half before this time. Around A.D. 206, St. Hippolytus of Rome wrote in his Commentary on Daniel that:
"The first coming of our Lord, that in the flesh, in which he was born at Bethlehem, took place eight days before the kalends of January."
In ancient Roman time reckoning, the kalends was the first day of the month, and if you count back eight days from January 1, you arrive at December 25.
It's true that we don't know for sure when Jesus was born, and early Christian writers proposed a variety of dates for his birth, including December 25th. But what is remarkable, in light of modern claims, is that when they write about Christ's birth they never say things like, "Let's schedule his birthday here so that we can convert a bunch of pagans" or "Let's put it here so that we can subvert this pagan holiday."
When they propose dates for his birth, they use arguments to support their view, and they honestly believe that he was born on the dates they propose.
#7 It Would Matter If Christmas Were Connected with a Pagan Holiday
Even if early Christians had scheduled the commemoration of Christ's birth to subvert a pagan holiday, so what?
How does that taint the celebration of Christmas today--by people who have never even heard of these pagan holidays? Aren't they honestly celebrating Christ's birth, regardless of the precise day on which it happened?
Further, isn't subverting a pagan holiday a good thing? Don't many Protestant groups celebrate October 31 not as Halloween (which they wrongly perceive as pagan) but as "Reformation Day" or "Harvest Festival"?
Helping people wean themselves off of pagan practices by providing a wholesome, alternative celebration would seem to be a good thing rather than a bad thing.
Still, there's no evidence that this is what early Christians were doing with Christmas, and in fact the evidence is against it.