Before we get started, I need you to understand, dear Christian, the information presented here is not a discussion or dispute over the existence of god. I’m not going to try to talk you out of your beliefs. The following is simply some historical information that might actually help you to become a better Christian.
That being said, lately I’ve been digging into a book called “History of the Church through the Ages,” by Robert H. Brumback (1957). A fascinating book detailing the transformation of the church after the apostles died.
When I was about fifteen years old, I learned that Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter originated out of pagan traditions. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I turned away from religion and the church in the first place. But I had no idea how much of the common practices, beliefs, and traditions were of pagan decent; nor did I truly understand the way it all came about.
The real history of the blending of these belief systems is quite a bit darker and complicated than I had at first thought.
I used to have this idea that the Christians were like, “Hey pagans… you should try Christianity.” And the pagans were like, “No thank you.” Then the Christians were like “hey, it turns out we have these holidays that are just like yours!” And the pagans said, “In that case, OK!”
It was nothing like that. Not even close.
Turns out, I’m not the only one who shares this misconception. In discussing this issues with others, I’ve heard phrases like, “The Christians co-opted paganism,” and from a pagan, “Yeah, the Christians pretty much ripped us off dude.”
However, as with all human progress, it wasn’t quite that straightforward.
The Blending of Christians and Pagans
As the reigns of power transferred from one Roman emperor to the next, the state-sanctioned religion changed as well. This change would depend on the beliefs of their upbringing, their mentors, or whether it was politically expedient to follow one religion vs the other.
Hmm… Have you ever heard of a politician holding a finger up to the political winds and shifting their beliefs accordingly - we must have outgrown that, right?
Try to wrap your mind around this.
Brumback writes, “Idol worship was a part of the very life of Rome. Every home had their household gods before whom sacrifices were offered daily. All feasts and festivals called for the citizens to bow in worship before the statues of the gods. This the Christians refused to do. This caused them to be considered as atheists who rejected all gods.”
Imagine trying to attach the “atheist” label to your Christian friends today. By today’s standards, they’re polar opposites.
But, Brumback writes, “In the face of such persecution, Christianity grew and flourished. Persons of wealth and position turned from paganism to embrace Christianity. Those who came from paganism sought to bring into the church the images, the oblations, and ritualism that had been connected with the old system of religion.”
Depending on the beliefs of the emperor, people would attempt to imprint their own religious practices and adapt to the new rules; rather than reject state-sanctioned religion and risk persecution or even death.
The back and forth continued for at least a couple centuries. Christians ruled over pagans, the pagans ruled over Christians. Resentment and division escalated as they continued to pick at the scabs of the past.
In 303 AD, another shift in power occurred. Diocletian, who had once been a slave, became the new emperor of Rome. “Diocletian resolved that paganism should be the religion of the empire and that Christianity should be destroyed. To accomplish this end, all church buildings were to be demolished and all copies of the sacred writings of the Christians were to be burned. All who failed to renounce Christianity were to lose their citizenship and be without the protection of the laws of the land.”
Brumback goes on to say, “Christians of every age and rank were punished by torture in an effort to make them surrender their religion. They were assembled in their church buildings, the doors were locked and then the buildings set on fire and burned with the worshippers.”
People nowadays get their panties in a bunch if you use words that someone might find offensive. They might even threaten legal action. Although to be fair, I’ve never met a single Christian willing to lock me in my home and set it ablaze for disagreeing with them.
If the dynamics between Christian and pagan beliefs weren’t complicated enough, you’ve got the Gnostics (or as I like to call them, “the critical thinkers of their time”) attempting to blend paganism and philosophy with Christianity.
This from Brumback. “The Gnostics were the knowing ones who sought to answer every question concerning the origin of the world, of man, and of good and evil. They rejected most of the New Testament, except Paul’s letters and part of the gospels. While professing themselves to be Christians, they gathered their doctrines from all available sources.”
In 331 AD, Roman emperor Constantine abolished paganism. Six years later, he died. The heir to the throne, his son Constantius, decided he liked Christianity for political purposes. In a move to gain favor with the Christians, he proceeded to persecute the pagans in the same manner the Christians were persecuted before.
After this, as the pagan temples were fast disappearing, Brumback describes the political atmosphere of the church: “Great numbers of people were entering the church as a means of securing political advancement. They were little concerned with spiritual things but sought only to make of the religion of Christ a system that was replete with ritualistic ceremonies and human doctrines.”
“Forced church membership filled the church with unregenerated people [that is, people who were not reformed morally or spiritually]. The military spirit of Imperial Rome now entered the church; and its nature was changed. It now began to concern itself with politics and affairs of the state, influencing government official and endeavoring to mould the minds of men as it desired.”
As I pointed out in my video, “On the Importance of Being Unprincipled,” the more things change, the more they stay the same. The very same militaristic government influences that corrupted the church and pitted pagan against Christian centuries ago are the very same influences that are working overtime to convince you that “the left” and “the right” are mortal enemies today. Meanwhile, each side is manipulated to serve the needs of politicians and their donors.
It’s amazing what can happen when you attempt to force two very different cultures to live with one another under one government.
Brumback says, “When the church dropped the guidance of God’s word, pagan ceremonies found their way into the church and they are today a part of that system of worship which grew out of the apostasy. Holy water, the burning of incense, the observation of Lent and Easter, the worshipping of angels and the lighting of candles were connected with paganism.”
The word “Christmas” is derived from “Christes Masse” meaning the mass of Christ, and wasn’t widely adopted, accepted, or celebrated by the apostate church until the fourth and fifth century as the Roman Catholic church developed.
The following are a few of the most common traditions that found their way into the church as the apostolic church ventured farther and farther from God’s word
Tradition: 25th of December
It’s not an historical mystery that December 25th is not the actual day that baby Jesus was born; though if you ask any 10 year-old in the church, that’s exactly what they will tell you.
However, the celebration of the winter solstice has been widely practiced since antiquity; namely, the ancient Roman festival “Saturnalia;” (December 17th through the 23rd) where ancient people would pay their respects to Saturn, the god of agriculture, liberation, and time. Saturnalia was a time of feasting, gift-giving, free speech, and role reversals where the nobles would exchange roles and serve meals to their slaves (although the slaves still prepared the meals).
On this subject, Brumback makes an interesting point, saying, “There is no information as to the day on which Christ was born. God’s word is silent upon the subject. The logical conclusion is that if the Lord had desired that the birthday of his Son be celebrated, he would have revealed it.”
“Therefore,” he continues, “If we celebrate Christmas, we have to borrow it from the church of Rome. This day has been made a day of festivity and carousing, which is out of harmony with the spirit of Christ and his teaching. It is based on tradition and not on God’s word. In reality no Christian should observe Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Easter, or Christmas, for all originated with the church of Rome.”
Tradition: Gift Giving
Even the tradition of gift giving comes from paganism. According to most Christians, gift giving is traditionally thought to be practiced to remind us of the three wise men and their bestowing of gifts upon the newborn Jesus.
Turns out, there’s a couple things wrong with this. First, the bible does not mention how many wise men there were, and second, the tradition of gift giving predates the birth of the baby Jesus.
Sorry Christians, when you exchange gifts with your loved ones during this festive holiday, you’re only helping to keep pagan customs alive.
But what about the Christmas tree?
Tradition: Christmas Tree
In ancient times, homes were decorated with pine, spruce, and fir trees. Since these plants stayed green year-round, it reminded them of the upcoming spring and summer seasons, where all of the other green plants would grow once again.
It was common belief among ancient people that the sun was literally a god and winter came every year because that god had become weak and sick. Evergreen boughs were hung over doors and windows with the belief they would ward off evil witches, ghosts, spirits, and other things that go bump in the long winter nights.
Interesting note: According to History.com, “as late as the 1840’s [in the United States], Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.”
Even these people had their shit together -- and they didn’t even have the internet to verify their information.
The article goes on to talk about how the New England Puritans preached against the heathen traditions of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated that sacred event.
These guys were the real-deal OG Christians -- and they didn’t play around with God’s word.
They even made it illegal to observe December 25th traditions (other than church service, of course) and fined people for hanging decorations.
Oh, the audacity of hanging and evergreen bough over your door!
It kinda reminds me of that “by-the-book” supervisor who penalizes you for every little infraction of the rules.
This is what makes this research so much fun for me. Whatever the ideas I had in my mind, the reality is always so much more intense. The echoes of this painfully slow, multi-generational turmoil between the Christians and pagans is still being felt today.
Remember the misconceptions I spoke about before? How the “Christians co-opted paganism,” and how the Christians “ripped off” the pagans?
I think it would be much more pertinent to say, “The Christians and the pagans tried to shove their beliefs down each other’s throats. Violently. With the help of the Roman state.”
So before you wake up bright and early Christmas morning and start tearing into those gifts from under that beautifully lit and well-decorated tree, be sure to take a moment to appreciate the sacrifice Christ made to absolve you of your sins, of course. But also don’t forget to honor the sacrifices pagans and Christians alike made to allow you the pleasure of enjoying the holidays in their current form and function.
And remember, Dear Christian. You might be a pagan.
My name is Daniel Wagner, and you’ve been experiencing another Unframe of Mind.