Easter, Sunday and Christmas

(We are at the end of what is often termed, “the holiday season.” The word holiday means “holy day.” What makes a day holy? The Bible says, “And GodHoliday season blessed the seventh day, and sanctified [Hebrew: qadash—to observe as holy, or to make holy] it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” (Genesis 2:3) The Fourth Commandment says, “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy [qadash]. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed [qadash] it.” (Exodus 20:8-11) God is the only one who can make a day holy, man cannot do this. We cannot keep a day holy that was not made holy by God first. Did God ever make Easter, Sunday or Christmas holy days? Please consider this as you read the following article.    Editor)

The Roman Church was mostly composed of pagans, and heathen influences surrounded it. Consequently it had no care to conciliate the Jews, but found it expedient to lean towards paganism; and the pagans had a festival which they celebrated in honor of the return of spring, about the time of the vernal equinox. This was adopted by the Church of Rome and the churches which it influenced. The bishop of Rome commanded the Eastern churches to celebrate their spring festival at the same time that he did. They refused. But Jewish influence could not prevail against the great body of pagans, and at the Council of Nice, A. D. 325, the Roman custom was made universal. Easter was henceforth celebrated by all the churches. The time was fixed, as now, to the first Sunday after the full moon which followed the 21st of March.

Green, in his History of the English People (book 1, chapter 1, section 20), says that “Eostre, the god of the dawn or of the spring, lends his name to the Christian festival of the resurrection.” This is true, but not the whole truth. The truth is that Eostre, the heathen god of light, gave not simply the name but the festival itself. The so-called “Christian festival of the resurrection” is nothing else but the old heathen festival. Dr. Schaff is very free to note the adoption of heathen festivals by the church, because he does not think that the practice is to be condemned. He says:

The English Easter (Anglo-Saxon easter, eastran, German Ostern) is at all events connected with East and sunrise, and is akin to hwV [eos], oriens, aurora. The comparison of sunrise and the natural spring with the new moral creation in the resurrection of Christ, and the transfer of the celebration of Ostara, the old German divinity of the rising, health- bringing light, to the Christian Easter festival, was the easier, because all nature is a symbol of spirit, and the heathen myths are dim presentiments and carnal anticipations of Christian truths. (History of the Christian Church, volume 2, section 61, note 320)

The word “Easter,” from Eostre or Ostara, is by some traced to Ishtar, or Astarte, the Assyrian counterpart of Baal, the sun-god, corresponding to the Latin Venus. Sacred eggs were connected with her worship. But whether Easter may or may not be traced to Astarte, with her licentious worship, it is certain that it is nothing but a relic of sun-worship.

All we care for in the above is the admission that Easter is only a relic of nature-worship. We do not accept the suggestion of the identity of Christianity and pagan nature-worship; but we note with sorrow that the pagan worship of the creature rather than the Creator very early corrupted the Christian church. The reader will not fail to note that it was sun-worship, and that alone, that fixed the time of the Easter festival, and that in this concession to heathenism there was a long step taken toward the exaltation of “the venerable day of the sun,”—the weekly sun festival, Sunday.

This spirit of concession to paganism was manifested in the adoption of the heathen festival which now bears the name of Christmas. The following is from Dr. Schaff:

The Christmas festival was probably the Christian transformation or regeneration of a series of kindred heathen festivals—the Saturnalia, Sigillaria, Juvenalia, and Brumalia—which were kept in Rome in the month of December, in commemoration of the golden age of universal freedom and equality, and in honor of the unconquered sun, and which were great holidays, especially for slaves and children. (History of the Christian Church, volume 3, section 77)

Let the reader note that it was sun-worship that the church was adopting in joining in the celebration of the winter festival. Dr. Schaff, although he defends the Christmas festival, plainly declares that it was borrowed from the heathen, and that it was in honor of the birthday of the sun, the orb of day, and not the Son of God. He says:

Had the Christmas festival arisen in the period of the persecution, its derivation from these pagan festivals would be refuted by the then reigning abhorrence of everything heathen; but in the Nicene age this rigidness of opposition between the church and the world was in a great measure softened by the general conversion of the heathen. Besides, there lurked in those pagan festivals themselves, in spite of all their sensual abuses, a deep meaning and an adaptation to a real want [this by way of excuse]; they might be called unconscious prophecies of the Christmas feast. Finally the church Fathers themselves confirm the symbolical reference of the feast of the birth of Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, the Light of the world, to the birth festival of the unconquered sun, which on the twenty-fifth of December, after the winter solstice, breaks the growing power of darkness and begins anew his heroic career.” (Ibid.)

This feast celebrating the birthday of the sun (dies natalis invicti solis) “is the feast of the Persian sun-god Mithras, which was formally introduced in Rome under Domitian and Trojan.” (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, volume 3, section 77, note 722) This is all that Christmas is, for, as Schaff truly says, “The day and month of the birth of Christ are nowhere stated in the gospel history, and cannot be certainly determined.” (History of the Christian Church, volume 3, section 77) But this would not be the case if the Lord had designed that it should be celebrated. The fiction that Christmas is the birthday of Christ was invented by the church in order to conceal the fact that out of wicked compliance with paganism they were celebrating the birth festival of the heathen sun-god. Besides it was very easy for a church that was more than half Christian to fail to distinguish any difference between the Son of God—the Sun of Righteousness—of whom they heard as the Christian Divinity, and the sun which was the center of heathen worship. And, as we have seen, the Neo-Platonism which Clement and Origen foisted upon the church held that there was really no difference between Christianity and paganism. Thus the church Fathers contributed to the confusion.

In such a time, when, as Wylie says, “Instead of reaching forth to what was before, the Christian church permitted herself to be overtaken by the spirit of the ages that lay behind her” (The History of Protestantism, volume 1, book 1, chapter 3), when paganism was coming in like a flood, and over-whelming the church, it was inevitable that “the wild solar holiday of all pagan times” should be adopted along with other heathen customs. The logic of events would necessitate this conclusion, even if facts did not warrant it. Sunday was the chief pagan holiday, in honor of the sun-god; the church was modeling its legitimate ceremonies as nearly as possible after the plan of the heathen “mysteries,” and was boldly adopting everything pagan that was in sight; so, as in ancient times the church of God rejected the Sabbath when it joined the heathen in their licentious revels, it could not be otherwise than that when, in the early centuries of the Christian era, it apostatized to heathenism, it should forsake the Sabbath of the Lord for the day of the sun.

But, as in the case of Christmas, the church found an excuse for adopting Sunday. The Bible calls Christ the “Sun of Righteousness,” and the people could easily be made to think that in celebrating the festival of the sun, they were doing homage to Christ, especially since their knowledge of Christianity came principally through the philosophers, who taught them that Christianity was simply a modification of their old superstition.

In nothing is the church’s conformity to paganism more clearly manifest than in its adoption of Sunday. Tertullian was a voluminous writer for the church against the heathen, yet in his address, Ad Nationes, he defends the growing observance of Sunday on the ground that it was nothing more than the heathen themselves did. Thus, after answering the charge that Christians worshiped the cross, by showing that the heathen did likewise (for the figure of a cross was an object of worship by the heathen before the church began to pay idolatrous worship to it), Tertullian proceeds to say:

Others, with greater regard to good manners, it must be confessed, suppose that the sun is the god of the Christians, because it is a well-known fact that we pray towards the east, or because we make Sunday a day of festivity. What then? Do you do less than this? Do not many among you, with an affectation of sometimes worshiping the heavenly bodies, likewise, move your lips in the direction of the sunrise? It is you, at all events, who have even admitted the sun into the calendar of the week, and you have selected its day, in preference to the preceding day as the most suitable in the week for either an entire abstinence from the bath, or for its postponement until the evening, or for taking rest and for banqueting. (Ad Nationes, book 1, chapter 13)

Here we find not only that Sunday was the chief heathen festival-day, but also that one of the foremost “Fathers” in the church boldly pleaded heathen custom as an excuse for adopting it. If it be said that the fact that the Christians also regarded Sunday as well as the heathen was only a coincidence, and that there must be some Scripture authority for it, we can refer the reader to the light estimation in which the Scriptures were held by those “church Fathers.” Not only may we refer to what has already been quoted from Clement and Origen [earlier in this book], but we may quote Tertullian’s own words to prove that the absence of Scripture authority was not a bar to any practice which the church of the philosophers thought fit to adopt. In his treatise on The Chaplet, he speaks as follows concerning the propriety of wearing the laurel wreath:

How long shall we draw the saw to and fro through this line, when we have an ancient practice, which by anticipation has made for us the state, i.e., of the question? If no passage of Scripture has prescribed it, assuredly custom, which without doubt flowed from tradition, has confirmed it. For how can anything come into use, if it has not first been handed down? Even in pleading tradition, written authority, you say, must be demanded. Let us inquire, therefore, whether tradition, unless it be written, should not be admitted.… To deal with this matter briefly, I shall begin with baptism. When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Hereupon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the gospel. [They thought that they could make an improvement on the Lord’s plan.] Then, when we are taken up (as new-born children), we taste first of all a mixture of milk and honey and from that day we refrain from the daily bath for a whole week.… As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead [a heathen custom] as birthday honors. We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilege also from Easter to Whitsunday. We feel pained should any wine or bread, even though our own, be cast upon the ground. At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the cross].

If, for these and other such rules, you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer. (The Chaplet, chapters 3, 4)

Here Scripture is disregarded and set at naught for custom; but where appeal was had to custom, it was always a custom originating with the heathen. And now to what we have already read concerning churchly conformity to heathen customs, read the following:

Leo the Great speaks of Christians in Rome, who first worshiped to the rising sun, doing homage to the pagan Apollo, before repairing to the basilica of St. Peter. (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, volume 3, section 74.

When the church not only perpetuated the worship of the heathen gods and goddesses under different forms, but openly worshiped the heathen sun-god Apollo, and even the sun itself, is it at all surprising that they continued the heathen sun-festival, Sunday, along with other festivals?

The watchword of the age seemed to be unity. Cyprian had declared unity to be more essential than orthodoxy. It was not, in general, thought worth while to consider the particulars of any views held by one who differed with “the church.” The fact that he was not within “the pale of unity” was sufficient to mark him as a heretic. But the idea of “the church” was that it ought, like the Jewish theocracy, to be identical with the State. The fact that the State was pagan could not long stand in the way, when the ideal became prevalent that there was really no essential difference between Christianity and paganism; and we have already seen how the church was practically demonstrating that identity by adopting all heathen customs. We shall now proceed to show that paganism on its part was apparently approaching Christianity, thus rendering the union the easier, and that when at last the marriage was consummated, the weekly heathen festival of the sun was the bond of union.


(This article was taken from Ellet J. Waggoner’s book, Sunday: The Origin of its Observance in the Christian Church, pages 70-79. Some editing has been done for this publication.    Editor)