In recent years, many bloggers have complained that the
church under Rome adopted the holidays and customs of pagans as their own
holidays. While often true, the context of these decisions explains the
rationale and can remove some of the negative connotations associated with
Although Rome had made it illegal to worship pagan gods,
the practical task of converting people’s faith was not as easy as commanding
it. By redefining known holidays, the church redeemed them for their own purposes.
This replacement approach made it easier for new Christians to adapt to their
The celebration of Christmas (the Christ-mass or mass of
Christ) provides the greatest example of this. Many ancient religions
celebrated the midwinter solstice in one manner or another. Some cultures even
declared that the sun would disappear if their worship didn’t turn the path of
the sun on that exact date.
While Roman paganism wasn’t quite that extreme, it did
celebrate the victory of the sun god and light over darkness at the winter
solstice. The ancient pagans believed that the Unconquerable Sun (Sol Invictus)
was born on that date. Choosing this day for the celebration of Christ’s birth
allowed the church to usurp the pagan festival of the Unconquerable Sun held on
the winter solstice.
To that end, the church did indeed commandeer the pagan
Roman holiday to institute Christmas. Its action allowed an easier transition
for pagans who converted to Christianity, and it provided the church with an
opportunity to teach about the birth of Christ—the One who overcame darkness
and lives within us.
The early church similarly replaced New Year’s Day. Before
Christ, the pagans celebrated the New Year with a drunken celebration that
indulged physical passions. The church replaced this debauchery with the Feast
of the Circumcision—a day to remember the circumcision of Christ when He was
eight days old. By modern logic and counting, eight days after Christmas would
occur on January 2, but the people used the same method of counting as the
earliest church did. In the case of Easter, the Gospel writers claimed Jesus
was buried for three days, even though He was dead only part of Friday night
and Sunday morning. By similar counting techniques, January 1 lands eight days
after December 25.
In addition, the church likely redeemed symbols used as
part of these various pagan celebrations. While we’ll never know the actual
origin of the Christmas tree, many legendary stories reference how the
Christmas tree replaced a similar pagan symbol. One traditional story recounts
that Saint Boniface (c. AD 675–754) chopped down an oak tree used by pagans.
After his defiant act, he found a fir tree growing at the base of the oak tree
and used its triangular shape to exalt the Trinity.
Does the church's conscription of pagan holidays and rituals undermine their meaning? Not at all. Just as Christ takes unholy people and makes them holy (2 Cor 5:17-21), the church took pagan, unholy holidays and brought them new life and meaning.