Tag Archives: Tim O’Neill

Where Did We Get Our Holiday Traditions From? (Christmas, Easter, Halloween, etc.)

It is like myths that never die. A common critique made by a number of skeptics, and oddly enough, some Christians, is that some of the most treasured holidays celebrated by Christians actually have pagan roots to them, ranging from Christmas to Easter, and of course, Halloween.

Over the years that I have been writing this blog, I have posted critiques of these memes, but it seems like every year they keep popping up, again and again and again, on various forms of social media. *SIGH*

I finally decided to dig into one of most authoritative works on this topic, to get a scholarly approach to such holidays, instead of being bothered with it every time a holiday rolls around. Ronald E. Hutton is a professor of history at the University of Bristol, in the U.K., and he specializes in the political and religious history of the British Isles, ranging from Christianity to paganism. His 1996 work, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, is regarded among historians as perhaps the most thorough work on the history of British folklore, which includes the celebration of various holidays. Since most of the holidays Americans celebrate have historical roots traced back to Great Britain, Stations of the Son is a great place to dive into such interesting history.

Is Christmas a baptized celebration of the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival? Not really. The early Christians had other reasons for dating for the birth of Christ on December 25, though much of that reasoning today is considered speculative by historians.

Was Easter derived from a pagan fertility festival? No, the date of Easter is tied back to near the Jewish Passover.

Was “All Hallows Eve,” what would become Halloween, stolen from the Druids? No, the eve of All Saints Day had other beginnings, and according to Hutton, the connection with the Samhain festival is uncertain, as we have very little evidence to be able to determine the exact nature of the ancient Samhain festival anyway.

But as with many things like this, there are particular grains of truth in all of the “Christmas is Pagan” and “Easter is Pagan” themes, much of it based on a lot of speculation. As Ronald Hutton describes it, the story is actually fairly complicated, and far more interesting than what you read on most social media postings.

Consider Halloween, for example: All Saints Day originally came out of a Germanic tradition, established on November 1, in about the 9th century. The Germanic practice varied from the original celebration of Christian martyrs, who died under Roman pagan emperors, which is first recorded to have happened on the 13th of May, in 373 C.E. This Germanic tradition should put to bed the often repeated claim that the November 1st day came from the Celts. If anything, the evidence shows that influence is the other way around. Celtic Europe followed the Germanic tradition instead.

According to Hutton, why the Northern Europeans shifted the date from May to November remains somewhat of a mystery. The connection with concerns about the status of the dead came into play in about 998 C.E., when “All Souls Day” started to become instituted on November 2, the day after All Saints Day, as a means of encouraging Christians to pray on behalf of dead friends and relatives. So, at best, it is half truths about All Saints and All Souls Days, along with some anti-Roman Catholic polemic that drives the “Halloween is Pagan” story (see Hutton, p. 364).

Supposed “evidence” for Halloween’s connection with pagan practices does not really pick up any significant traction until hundreds of years later in the 19th century, particular when Sir James Frazer popularized the idea in his The Golden Bough, though most scholars today dismiss a great deal of Frazer’s claims. But since Frazer’s work is in the public domain, Internet websites publish Frazer’s work with great enthusiasm. As a result, assured claims of the “pagan roots” of Halloween have become a type of self-fulfilling prophecy: Halloween has become a pagan holiday because we are constantly reminded that it is pagan, despite the lack of sound historical evidence to back up these claims.

It has become pretty much a losing battle, trying to set the record straight here. I am content to stick with the celebration of Reformation Day, and forgo the Halloween controversy altogether.

All of this is thoroughly documented in Stations of the Sun, but a more succinct presentation of Hutton’s research can be found at the HistoryForAtheists website, as well as in an informative YouTube documentary by the HistoryForAtheists maintainer, Tim O’Neill, or read my summary from a blog post I wrote in 2021. Nevertheless, just about every year, CountryLiving magazine runs the same article over and over again, with a subtitles like, “The history of Halloween dates back to a pagan festival called Samhain,” or some other speculative overstatement.  Good grief!

To be frank, Stations of the Son is very detailed and dense, and does not necessarily lend itself to light reading. Hutton’s research is painstaking and precise. I pretty much had to dip in and out of Stations of the Sun, in order to retain some interest over the past year. As an evangelical Protestant, I was disappointed to read Hutton’s description of the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke to be in direct contradiction with one another, right at the beginning of the book, even though a good case can be made to harmonize the differing Gospels’ accounts (Here is my analysis from a previous Veracity blog post).

However, it was fun to learn about the history of the Easter egg. Various anti-Easter memes suggest that Christians were trying to cover up some pagan fertility rite. The more accurate story, that Ronald Hutton describes, goes back to the fact that the Lenten fasts instituted by the medieval church took eggs off the menu for Christians, until the Lenten fast ended at Easter. By then, many Christians had a whole stockpile of eggs, ideally hard-boiled, that could be eaten, but that could be put to use in other ways, such as with Easter egg hunts, and paintings of eggs. Overtime, eggs became less essential foodstuffs for European Christians, but such traditional practices remained, at least among more liturgically oriented Christians.

Now I know a whole lot more about the traditions behind those Easter egg hunts I celebrated as a kid.

Mistletoe. We are often told that the practice of kissing under the mistletoe has ancient, even pagan roots. Actually, the evidence for the practice is pretty murky, prior to Washington Irving’s popularizing of the mistletoe story in the 19th century.

Ah, but Christmas is upon us now. Little did I know but the “Twelve Days of Christmas” has a long history:

The tradition of twelve days of celebration following ‘midwinter’ was firmly established by 877, when the law code of Alfred the Great granted freedom from work to all servants during that span (Stations of the Sun, p. 6).

Twelve days off of work? Now I know why the Puritans had such a difficult time justifying the celebration of Christmas, as a lot of people can get into a lot of trouble when they are not working for twelve straight days in a row!

But if there is one definite link to “paganism,” or more properly-speaking, pre-Christian European religion, it would be the association of “Yule” with the name of Christmas.

In the eleventh century Danish rule over England resulted in the introduction of the colloquial Scandinavian term for Christmas, ‘Yule’, which provided an alternative name for it among the English (Stations of the Sun, p. 6).

There is not much Christian about the “Yule log,” as it mostly has an association with some ancient midwinter festival, recognizing that late December is the darkest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. But the popular idea that the majority of today’s Christmas customs were derived from the Yule tradition is just plain bunk, according to most historians today.

Furthermore, the use of mistletoe and dressing up with greens have very little reference to Christian symbolism. But even with mistletoe, its connection with kissing and supposed origins in Druid paganism only became known through the writings of the American author, Washington Irving, in his 1819 short story, “Christmas Day.” Where Washington Irving, more well known today as the author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” got his information is a mystery, as mistletoe had become a fashionable part of church decorations since the 17th and 18th centuries, with no established record of its supposed connection to pagan religion (see Hutton, p. 37). Again, read a helpful summary of Hutton’s research in Tim O’Neill’s blog at HistoryForAthiests about “Pagan Christmas.

So, if you are interested in reading an authoritative history of where many our holiday traditions come from, particularly as they relate to their origins in the British Isles, Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain is the “go-to” academic treatment on the subject. I will be referring to this frequently whenever I hear fantastic claims about the supposed “true” or “secret” meaning of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween alike.

For a quick summary of the most popular “Christmas is Pagan” ideas, versus their most likely origins, click on the following JPEG file to view larger on your own device. Print it out and hand it to your friends, or share it with that Christmas-is-Pagan acquaintance who sends you stuff on social media.

 


Pagans: A Review

Rome’s famous Colosseum, right before dusk (October 2018)

If you have a “bucket list,” of things do in this life, consider putting a trip to Rome on there. My wife and I spent two weeks last October, walking through Rome’s ancient side streets, following tour guides underground in the Catacombs, and savoring some delicious food above ground, all while uncovering layers and layers of buried history. I could have spent a whole month in Rome, and still hungered for more.

What stood out to me the most was how this once great center of pagan, classical culture, was overtaken by the story of Christianity. How did this marbled, sculptured story of the Greco-Roman world get superseded by the painted images of the Crucified and Risen Christ, found throughout so many of Rome’s churches?

Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity, by James J. O’Donnell, tells the fascinating story of how “pagan” Rome became Christian Rome.

My wife and I took another trip recently, a bit closer to home, down to Florida and back, which afforded me a lot of time driving and riding in a car … for many hours. It was the perfect opportunity to listen to some Audible audiobooks, so I downloaded James J. O’Donnell’s Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity , and I enjoyed it immensely. I felt like I was right back there in Rome, ascending the Palantine Hill overlooking the Roman Forum.

Pagans is one of the recommended books that you will find, while viewing Tim O’Neill’s excellent website, History for Atheists. Followers of Veracity will know that Tim O’Neill has done a great service by properly educating atheists regarding the accurate history of Christianity, and Christians can learn from him as well.  As an atheist himself, to accuse O’Neill of having a cognitive bias favoring Christianity simply falls flat.

Likewise, O’Donnell, a classical scholar at Arizona State University, and biographer of Saint Augustine of Hippo, manages to correct a lot of popular errors of pagan and early Christian historiography, despite having a somewhat contrarian bent of his own.

In O’Donnell’s retelling, “paganism” as a religious system, did not exist, prior to the rise of Christianity, in the latter days of ancient Rome. The religious traditions of the Greco-Roman world were an amalgamation of various local practices, shrines, and deities, all jumbled together, to be ultimately synthesized by Greek philosophy and Rome’s politics. Christianity essentially invented “paganism” as a concept, as a convenient way of describing what the Christian faith was not. Christianity was unique, as was Judaism, from which it came, in that it claimed that the God is Israel, who raised Jesus from the dead, was the one and only true divine being. The victory of Christianity therefore made the ad hoc assemblage of pagan gods and goddesses irrelevant.

In describing the transition of the pagan world to a Christian Rome, O’Donnell skewers many common misperceptions, that all too often get tossed together along with other “fake news” of our day, propagated by social media. Take the word, “pagan” itself. Historically, to be “pagan” had no religious connotation. The root word, pagani, simply meant “country folk.” This makes great sense considering that the early Christian movement took root in cities like Corinth, Ephesus, and Rome, and not the countryside.

More “fake news” gets annihilated with O’Donnell’s prose. No, the emperor Constantine did not impose his imperial thumb on the Christian church, in order to “make” Jesus into a God, at the Council of Nicea. If anything, O’Donnell correctly shows that Constantine went along with the bishops’ decisions at Nicea, affirming the divinity of Jesus, largely as a matter of political expediency. But he  was actually more sympathetic to the Arian heresy, that situated Jesus as being something greater than merely human, but nevertheless, still not wholly divine. You can think of Constantine as a politicized promoter of Jehovah’s Witnesses-style theology, as opposed to someone who supposedly “made” Jesus into becoming God.

It was not until emperor Theodosius, several regimes later, that orthodox Christianity, as we know it today, got the full rubber stamp from the seat of political power in Rome, as affirmed by the church at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

This did not mean that Theodosius’ orthodox theology necessarily made him a nice guy. Theodosius was excommunicated from the church, by the influential bishop Ambrose, following a massacre that Theodosius ordered in Thessalonica. Only after months of penance was the emperor readmitted back into the church. Though Theodosius did crack down on pagan temples, much of the old ways of the Greco-Roman gods were already fading away.

Veracity blogger, on-site, overlooking the Roman Forum, in 2018, where the “pagan” culture of Rome reigned supreme, until the story of the Crucified and Resurrected One superseded it.

Furthermore, the greatest Christian thinkers of the 4th and 5th centuries, like Ambrose and Augustine, made use of the classical tradition, when it served the purposes of promoting the Gospel. They were not afraid of any inherently polluting influence of paganism, though such thinkers often disagreed with one another, as to what aspects of pagan culture could be redeemed, and what aspects of pagan culture should be rejected, when advancing the cause of the faith.

I appreciated O’Donnell’s frank retelling of this fascinating period, avoiding the over-romanticization of Christianity’s history, on the one side, while also correcting a lot of the misinformation, regularly propagated by atheists on the Internet, on the other. It was a relief to hear from a genuine scholar. Alas, O’Donnell’s contrarian tendency disturbed me at a few points, which I thought took away from his overall presentation.

For example, O’Donnell matter of factly describing Saint Augustine of Hippo to be entirely ambitious in using his rhetorical skills, to promote himself, as a defender of the faith. I can see this in Augustine as the young Christian, but I would certainly hope that as Augustine matured, so would his growth in sanctification. Plus, O’Donnell’s insistence that Augustine never actually “converted” to the Christian faith, came across as forced and unconvincing. Yes, Augustine had a Christian mother, and so he surely did have some basic Christian instruction as a child. But that did not mean that Augustine automatically embraced his mother’s faith. Augustine’s Confessions still tells that story of his conversion, as a young man, into the loving arms of Jesus, rather well.

But aside from a few prickly moments like these, I found O’Donnell to be generally an excellent, accurate tour guide of ancient Rome. O’Donnell does not reveal where his sympathies regarding the Christian faith really stand (based on his few, cynical digs, here and there, he probably is not), but for a work of history like this, he need not to. If you want to understand how the ancient world transitioned from “paganism” to Christianity, O’Donnell’s Pagans would be a good place to start.

 

See Don Webb’s excellent review of Pagans here, and Michael Bird’s brief review.

The Temple of Vesta, in the Roman Forum, was a site for “pagan” cultic activity, back to the 7th century before Christ. The temple was eventually closed during the late 4th century C.E., when Christianity became the official religion of Rome.


Do the “New Atheists” Get Their History Right?

“The Course of Empire: The Destruction.” Thomas Cole, 1836, showing the Sack of Rome in 410 A.D., by the pagan Visigoths.  But was the destruction of classical Greco-Roman culture, really the fault of the Christians instead?

You might have heard some of these historical claims before: Jesus never existed. The emperor Constantine colluded with church leaders at Nicea to fix the New Testament canon. Medieval Christians believed the Bible to teach that the earth was flat, until Christopher Columbus proved them wrong. Christians persecuted leading early scientists, in order to defend their erroneous Bible. And on it goes.

I have addressed some of these topics before on Veracity (Jesus “mythicism”, Constantine and Nicea, the Giordano Bruno affair). But someone could easily dredge up the ad hominem claim, that as a Christian, my sympathies are biased, and can not be trusted by any rational, thinking person. For the sake of the argument, let me concede the criticism: Why take my word for anything?

In answering this, I would suggest that readers consult a fascinating website, History for Atheists. Tim O’Neill does a great job dismantling such pseudo-historical claims, that get uncritically passed on over the Internet, and through television media, advancing the agenda of so-called “New Atheists,” along the lines of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But what makes Tim O’Neill compelling is that he is an unapologetic atheist himself. He would not find much credible to my Christian faith.

Of course, I would beg to differ. But O’Neill is actually an ally for truth, when it comes to history. Tim O’Neill addresses some of the most egregious pseudo-historical claims made by some atheists, in a very substantive and mind-opening manner. For example, in early June, 2018, the New York Times reviewed a book by Catherine Nixey, THE DARKENING AGE: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, that attempts to revive the old, worn-out thesis that the rise of Christianity in the early medieval period led to the so-called “Dark Ages,” through the wholesale violent destruction of classical Greco-Roman culture. Nixey is regarded by some as an “Edward Gibbon” of the post-modern era. In his 18th century classic, The History of the Decline and Fall of Roman Empire, Gibbon popularized the thesis that the rise of Christianity played a significant role in the decline of ancient Rome.

For example, Nixey builds on the worst claim of Candida Moss, Notre Dame professor and author of The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom , discussed here on Veracity, that the Christians made up nearly all of the persecution stories of martyrs dying for their faith, under pagan Rome. Such propaganda was used as justification for committing appalling violence against their pagan neighbors.

Those “bad” and “evil” Christians!!

Sure enough, if you go to Tim O’Neill’s website, he has a highly critical review of Nixey’s work. Yes, there were cases of violence, statues being destroyed by some Christian enthusiasts, and various Christian martyrdom stories of the early church were exaggerated. However, in the early medieval period, there was clearly a conscious attempt by early medieval Christians to recover what they thought to be the best of classical, pagan culture, that was not in conflict with the Bible. Christianity superseded Roman paganism, but Nixey greatly overplays her “violent, ruthless and intolerant” story of the Christians.  In response, O’Neill is simply brilliant.

As British historian Dan jones says, “History is a vaccine against propaganda.” Even extreme atheist propaganda. How true that is!

The next time you hear about some startling historical claim that tries to throw Christianity into the dustbin of history, you might want to “fact check” those claims by consulting History for Atheists. O’Neill has his biases, but honestly and gladly, he admits them. If only every Christian would be as ruthlessly a seeker of historical truth as Tim O’Neill is, but that is a topic for some other blog post…

 

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