Second and Fourth Commandment: Early Church on the Lord’s Nativity and Saturnalia The Pagan Day


The Nativity of our Lord was not celebrated in the Early Church. In fact, the Early Church actually condemned the celebration of all birthdays as something the sinners do and what the pagans did. So why would we think that if they condemned all celebrations of birthdays that they would allow the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity? But even more so was the condemnation of paganism that was so tied to Lord’s Nativity when the Lord’s Nativity was placed on the pagan day of Saturnalia with all it’s rituals and celebratory acts.

Josephus, First Century Historian confirms that families did not celebrate birthdays:

“Nay, indeed, the law does not permit us to make festivals at the birth of our children, and thereby afford occasion of drinking to excess” (Josephus. Translated by W. Whiston. Against Apion, Book II, Chapter 26. Extracted from Josephus Complete Works, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids (MI), 14th printing, 1977, p. 632).

But the Lord’s Nativity was not known before a certain date nor was it even celebrated, it was not until Roman Bishops Zephyrinus and Callistus gained power, they compromised in many ways, and thus many associated with their church choose to celebrate the Saturnalia.

The first evidence of the Lord’s Nativity feast is from Egypt. Clement of Alexandria says that certain Egyptian theologians “over curiously” assign, not the year alone, but the day of Christ’s birth, placing it on 25 Pachon (20 May). (Strom., I, xxi in P.G., VIII, 888)

Around the time of Tertullian, the Roman Bishops Zephyrinus (199-217) and Callistus (217-222) had a reputation of compromise and corruption and allowed their church to compromised with paganism. Hippolytus writings confirms the reputation of compromise and corruption of Zepyrinus and Callistus.

But was Zephyrinus and Callistus the first to start the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity? According to a 7th century Armenian scholar called Ananias of Shirak, (600 A.D.), wrote:

“The Festival of the holy Birth of Christ, on the 12th day before the feast of the Baptism, was not appointed by the holy apostles, nor by their successors either, as is clear from the canons…which is 6th of January, according to the Romans. But many years after their fixing the canons, this festival was invented, as some say, by the disciples of the heretic Cerinthus; and was accepted by the Greeks, because they were truly fond of festivals and most fervent in piety; and by them it was spread and diffused all over the world. But in the days of the holy Constantine, in the holy Council of Nice, this festival was not received by the holy fathers” (Ananias of Shirak, On Christmas, The Expositor, 5th series vol. 4, 1896, pp.323-337).

Cerinthus was an Early Church Arch Heretic! Much could be written regarding Cerinthus. He rejected the Old Testament and most of the law of God. He was one of the beginnings of Neonomianism (New Lawism). He was a Gnostic and was completely condemned in the Early Church. But why would Cerinthus choose Dec. 25 for the Lord’s Nativity? Because that was the day of celebration of the birthday of the sun-god Mithra. Saturnalia also took place during December 25th. Therefore it was acceptable to two groups of pagans. Followers of Mithra represented an influential group in the Roman Empire.

But was this adopting of paganism as well as the beginnings of celebrating the Lord’s Nativity fully accepted in the Early Church? Was there protest against beginning these innovations and ideas?

Tertullian, a Second Century Church Father wrote,

“The Minervalia are as much Minerva’s, as the Saturnalia Saturn’s; Saturn’s, which must necessarily be celebrated even by little slaves at the time of the Saturnalia. New-year’s gifts likewise must be caught at, and the Septimontium kept; and all the presents of Midwinter and the feast of Dear Kinsmanship must be exacted; the schools must be wreathed with flowers; the flamens’ wives and the aediles sacrifice; the school is honoured on the appointed holy-days. The same thing takes place on an idol’s birthday; every pomp of the devil is frequented. Who will think that these things are befitting to a Christian master, unless it be he who shall think them suitable likewise to one who is not a master?” (Tertullian. On Idolatry, Chapter X.

“But, however, the majority {‘Christians} have by this time induced the belief in their mind that it is pardonable if at any time they do what the heathen do, for fear “the Name be blasphemed”…To live with heathens is lawful, to die with them is not. Let us live with all; let us be glad with them, out of community of nature, not of superstition. We are peers in soul, not in discipline; fellow-possessors of the world, not of error. But if we have no right of communion in matters of this kind with strangers, how far more wicked to celebrate them among brethren! Who can maintain or defend this?…By us,…the Saturnalia and New-year’s and Midwinter’s festivals and Matronalia are frequented–presents come and go–New-year’s gifts–games join their noise–banquets join their din! Oh better fidelity of the nations to their own sect, which claims no solemnity of the Christians for itself!…Not the Lord’s day, not Pentecost, even it they had known them, would they have shared with us; for they would fear lest they should seem to be Christians. We are not apprehensive lest we seem to be heathens!” (Tertullian. On Idolatry, Chapter XIV.

Tertullian affirms that the Lord’s Nativity was a replacement and is placed on the days of Saturnalia. There are many today who are trying with all their might to try to disprove any connection between the day the world celebrates the Lord’s Nativity and any part and connection with paganism including the days of Saturnalia. But here we have a second century voice affirming that Christians started to adopt pagan customs and rituals and the days of Saturnalia in the midwinter at the time of Dec. 25th. Here is a voice of that actual time period who fought against these innovations and paganism into the church.

Tertullian also affirms that many of these Christians have by this time induced the belief in their mind that it is pardonable to do what the heathens do for fear that the heathens will blaspheme the Name of Yahovah.

Tertullian affirms that this is a wicked thing and highly condemns these celebrations.

Tertullian also affirms that we should not lest we be apprehensive to be seen to be heathens.

Tertullian also affirms many of the rituals and practices that went along with Saturnalia including gift giving, games and noise, banquets to their din. Including decorating with greenery and likes, caroling, etc, but also a few practices that have over time fallen into disuse.

Finally by the 5th Century we have Gregory I writing a letter to Abbot Mellitus imploring him to allow and adopt pagan rituals into the church as a whole. Mellitus was about to join St. Augustine of Canterbury on the mission to England. How to deal with a pagan culture, and its symbols. Gregory I (590-604) recommends a policy of acculturation.

The Letter in full:

Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God.

Further, since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice, they should receive some solemnity in exchange. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on the feast of the martyrs whose relics are preserved in them, build themselves huts around their one-time temples and celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated.

Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds….

Mention this to our brother the bishop, that he may dispose of the matter as he sees fit according to the conditions of time and place.” Gregory I, Letter to Abbot Mellitus, Epsitola 76, PL 77: 1215-1216

By the time of Jerome and Augustine, the December feast is established, though Augustine (Epp., II, liv, 12, in P.L., XXXIII, 200) omits it from a list of first-class festivals.

Origen asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday.

Arnobius (VII, 32 in P.L., V, 1264) ridicules the “birthdays” of gods.

As a note: I continued to use the Lord’s Nativity throughout this piece for a particular reason. The word Christmas was in non-existence by most of the history of the church. It was a term that was invented only in the 10th century and was an Anglo-Saxon word ‘Crīstes mæsse’ that first appeared in 1038 A.D..


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