Pagan origins and modern tinsel

Official society combines crass money-making with celebrating the birth of the man-god Jesus. Knowing their history, a few Christians dissent, refuse to join in. Jack Conrad is all for the good things in life

Christmas is peak retail. Despite squeezed incomes, 10% inflation, massive energy hikes and freezing cold weather, this year people are expected, once again, to shell out huge sums on presents, parties, decorations, rich food and lots and lots of booze. The prediction is of an £82.2 billion total spend.1 About a quarter of annual personal expenditure. And boy do parents indulge pester power. The average cost of Christmas presents for children in the UK is £1,000 (not that the average child is so lucky).2 A small fortune, accounted for by tablets, play stations and other such tech.

Because it is such a money spinner, Christmas begins earlier and earlier. For retailers, especially in the Anglosphere, the season gears up in earnest with the onset of October.3 They send out catalogues, emails, finalise adverts and marketing strategies. The Christmas lights get switched on in mid-November and sales steadily climb till the final orgy of bargain-hunting: the winter sales.

Christmas is also peak charity. Christian Aid, Oxfam, Unicef, Crisis at Christmas, the Red Cross, Shelter, etc, make an almost military push to secure donations. A good portion of which goes to pay for the costs of the staff needed. Executive salaries of 100k+ being the industry norm.

Those who want to “rediscover the true meaning of Christmas” respond in their millions … with their £2.40 monthly average (there are still cash donations from street collections). That does, however, add up to a lot of money, a total of £10.7 billion in 2021. According to the Charities Aid Foundation some 39% of the adult population donate in December.4 After all ’tis the season of “peace and goodwill to all men” (Luke ii:14).

While not quite being on a par in religious terms with Easter, Christmas comes a close second for Christians. Jesus rising from the dead being rated over having been born of a virgin. But Christmas is still a very big thing. Celebrated the world over (well apart from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and other such strictly Muslim states).

Census and state

True, as revealed by the 2021 census, the number of self-proclaimed Christians has fallen to less than half the population in England and Wales. We, the godless, have risen to 37.2%, 22 million, up from 14.8% in 2011. Cause of much rightwing hand-wringing and xenophobic anguish. The country has lost its identity. Not mine. But, despite the welcome rise in atheism, the simple fact of the matter is that the United Kingdom remains constitutionally Christian.

Charles Windsor is now head of the Church of England - a Catholic-Protestant state hybrid. Bishops sit, by right, in the upper house of parliament. There are the lords temporal and the lords spiritual. Every Christmas, state personifications, not least the (feudal) green king, read from the pulpit, say prayers begging for the forgiveness of sins and loudly sing hymns and carols, ancient and modern.

Who knows what Rishi Sunak will be doing this Christmas? It will be interesting to see. He is, after all, a practicing Hindu, and, probably, like his wife, Akshata Murthy, a high caste Brahmin.5 No less to the point, he is the first non-Christian prime minister in British history (though Benjamin Disraeli was born into the Jewish faith, he became an Anglican aged 12).

Anyway, we shall certainly have the first king’s speech on Christmas Day for 70 years. There has been much speculation about the personal faith of Charles Windsor. There was, after all, the stuff about him wanting to be ‘defender of faiths’. Then there was his infidelity, his divorce, his remarriage to a divorcee.

However, when he addressed the ‘nation’ for the first time as Charles III, that is after his accession to the throne, he not only paid tribute to his horse-corgi-church-loving mother. He also committed himself to the constitutionally enshrined way state and religion intertwine in the UK. In his own typically leaden words: “The role and the duties of monarchy also remain, as does the sovereign’s particular relationship and responsibility towards the Church of England - the church in which my own faith is so deeply rooted.”6

This reference to the “sovereign’s particular relationship” regarding the Church of England relates, of course, to his role as “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”. A title dating back to the 16th century reformation and Henry VIII’s break with Rome, which, still to this day, confers special responsibilities upon the monarch to supervise those who run the state church, both in terms of its “administration and its pastoral care”.7

For top C of E clerics, though not necessarily other Christians, eg, Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, Methodists, Unitarians, etc, etc, this commitment to Anglicanism sent an important message. Constitutionally Charles III is safe. So is hypocrisy. Like every other House of Windsor monarch - from George V to Elizabeth II - he is committed to the 39 articles of faith, in word, if not deed.

Well apart from one. Remember Edward VIII. He wanted to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Simpson. Both Stanley Baldwin’s Tory government and the Church of England were implacably opposed. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, declared that he would find it impossible to administer the coronation oath to Edward Windsor unless he accepted the indissolubility of marriage. In his own words, Lang said that he, that is the king, had pursued personal happiness “in a manner inconsistent with the Christian principles of marriage”.8 The uncrowned Edward VIII abdicated in December 1936.

Clearly, Justin Welby suffers from no such scruples. However, there are good reasons to believe that establishment objections to Edward Windsor owed rather more to his openly proclaimed sympathies for Nazi Germany than religious doctrine over marriage vows. In the mid-1930s both countries were gearing up for war. He was talked about by Adolf Hitler himself as England’s potential collaborator king.9


The traditional Christmas nativity - meaning ‘birth’, from the Latin nātīvitās - relies on the New Testament. Accordingly, Mary and Joseph, the ‘parents’ of Jesus, are pictured travelling from their modest Nazareth home, in the northern province of Galilee, to Judea and Bethlehem (the royal seat of the semi-mythical king David). The New Testament gets them making the arduous journey because of an entirely fictitious Roman census, a census that requires people to go to their place of birth. An impractical and entirely ludicrous notion.

We also have the parents of Jesus not being able to find a room at the inn, the stable and the manger, adoring shepherds, and the three wise men, the magi, arriving from the east bearing gifts for the new-born King of the Jews, Herod ordering the slaughter of all first-born male children under two, and an angel urging Joseph to flee to Egypt with his wife and baby. All obvious fabulation.

However, the Hebrew prophet Micah had written of the coming messiah (the redeemer, the liberator) being born in Bethlehem. Though the New Testament Jesus is supposed to have been conceived by the Holy Spirit, not Joseph, two of the testaments, Matthew and Luke, trace his family tree, back from Joseph to David and finally to the first man, Adam himself. In other words, Jesus and his party propogandists were claiming that he was of royal blood. The legitimate king of Israel. Unlike the upstart Herodians. Not that this is made explicit by the New Testament redactors. No, on the contrary, Jesus the apocalyptic revolutionary, the leader of a popular revolt, is stripped of his Jewish identity, his real history, and made into a Greek style man-god who positively loves the hated Roman oppressors and their upper class collaborators. The kingdom of this Jesus is not here on earth, with its capital in Jerusalem, but in the misty realms of heaven.

My book, Fantastic reality (2013), explored the Jesus story, the historical and cultural background, his meteoric revolutionary career, his death at the hands of the Romans and how the leadership of his party passed first to his brother, James the Just, then a cousin, Simeon, and how visions of the risen Jesus were used by Paul to concoct an entirely new, Hellenistic, religion, which hundreds of years later, under Constantine, was adopted by the Roman empire as its official state cult. I am not going to repeat that argument here in this article. Suffice to say, we need to appreciate that not only is the biblical Jesus largely a work of invention, so too is Christmas, but even more so.

Take December 25 and anno Domini 1. It is quite possible that Jesus was born on that day. The odds are 365:1. In fact the odds are considerably greater than that because we have no idea about the year in which he was born. This writer takes it, note, that Jesus was a real person, despite the fact that we have no real, authentic, contemporary accounts of him. The New Testament was written long after his death.

Clearly there was a wish amongst early Christians, that is the followers of Paul, to give Jesus a birth date which they could celebrate. Around 200, Clement of Alexandria writes this:

There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20] ... Further, others say that he was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].10

Either way, the western church fixed on December 25 in the early 4th century. The first recorded Christmas celebration was in Rome in 336.11 Not because of the recovery of a lost collective memory or through exhaustive research. Rather because the church needed a date.

Why December 25? From the earliest times, northern peoples celebrated the winter solstice. Called in Old English Gēola or Yule, in Old French Noël or Naël. The longest night of the year is December 21. A sacred moment of death and rebirth. The sun reaches its lowest point in the sky, but, heralding spring, begins to rise again. The Romans, of course, had their Saternalia, when masters waited on their domestic slaves, gifts were exchanged, along with much drinking, feasting and fornication. Beginning on December 17, the festival culminated on December 23. Some eastern churches, sticking as they do to this or that version of the old Julian calendar, celebrate Christmas on January 6 or 7. The birth of Jesus being marked in connection with the Epiphany, that is the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, when god was supposed to have revealed himself in his only begotten son.

It is the same with many other Christian festivals, Easter included. The new colonised the old. But it is perfectly understandable. After all, we all need a break from the normal routine, we need special days to bring us together, we need to party. The labour movement adopted May 1, May Day, as its special day in 1904, partially because it was the long-established day to celebrate fertility and the beginning of summer. But mainly because we simply needed a day to display our international solidarity, our strength and our readiness to assume state power.

The Christian church too. Except that its archbishops, bishops, abbots and deacons were incorporated first into the Roman state, then the feudal system, as privileged, but junior, partners. That said, our Labour and social democratic parties, parliamentary representatives and trade union general secretaries, have, in large measure, been thoroughly incorporated, once again as junior partners. Part of the system’s managed decline. Between 1945 and 1975, admittedly an over neat dating, social democracy served as the main ideological underpinning for the US dominated, capitalist, world order.

So, from its earliest history the Christian church has been bound up with paganism. Nowadays, of course, the pagan winter solstice has not only been Christianised, it has been thoroughly commercialised too. Christmas therefore combines pagan, Christian and capitalist elements. Mistletoe, holly, ivy and other evergreens have their origins in the deep past. They symbolise life, sex and renewal. Church services and nativity plays are a Christian overlay. Christmas cards, Christmas trees with lights, baubles and spread around presents, Christmas class reconciliation and shmultzery, come via 19th century capitalism. Prince Albert, Charles Dickens and the Oxford movement each making their own particular contribution to the transformation of Christmas from a raucous community celebration, into a children, family and home-centred occasion.

Father Christmas just about sums it up. Antecedents in the Norse god Odin, via Saint Nicholas, ie, Santa Clause, the modern Father Christmas, with his ho-ho-ho jovial personality, white fur trimmed red suit, his sleigh and reindeer, is a 19th century reinvention (cemented in the popular imagination by Coca-Cola adverts beginning in 193112).

Father Christmas is also a precursor of Jeff Bezos and Amazon. Elves, kitted out in regulation green uniforms, labour round the year, day and night, making a stupendous range of preordered toys for good boys and girls. The North Pole HQ must be vast. There are spurious claims for Lapland. But that is clearly a ruse, designed by the Finnish authorities, wanting to generate economic activity in what is a deprived area. Thousands of gullible tourists visit every year. The US postal service gives the HQ address as 123 Elf Road, North Pole, 88888. However, satellite images fail to provide any evidence of roads at the North Pole. Likely Father Christmas’s HQ lies hidden, deep under the snow and ice.

Why the Artic? No trees, no sunlight for six months, no free labour, but plenty of space and there is the absence of government regulations limiting hours. And it’s very cold, -400C. Presumably, though the elves are kept warm, fed and dry. Leaving is impossible. Out on the desolate ice sheet, 450 miles from the nearest land, the elves would quickly perish. Then there are the polar bears. Guards are not needed and, of course, Father Christmas bans the elves from joining a trade union or forming their own political party.

Claire Knowles and Adam McGlynn of Acuity Law damningly write that the way Father Christmas treats the elves stands in clear violation of the 1926 League of Nations convention on slavery. The convention defined slavery as being the “exercise of any or all powers of ownership over a person”. Two forms of exploitation which may, according to Knowles and McGlynn, “indicate ownership being exercised over elves” are “forced labour and/or controlling their movement (human trafficking).”13 True, if brought to book, Father Christmas would doubtless plead that elves are not human. A quibble; they are humanish. Common in the Middle Ages, elves are incredibly rare nowadays. Probably they are kidnapped, or lured, from their natural habitat. Scandinavia, northern Germany and Ireland have been mentioned. For sure, though, once they pass through the gates of the Artic HQ they never return home again.

Of course, Father Christmas claims to be the bringer of joy the world over. In the early hours of December 25, under the cover of darkness, Father Christmas assures us that he home delivers to over half a billion children. One hell of a schedule. On average it amounts to 22 million presents every hour, 360,000 every minute, 6,100 every second.14 All he gets in return is a mince pie and a nip of sherry from each household (which, true, adds up to an awful lot of mince pies and sherry, so maybe he runs a lucrative sideline selling it off?) But, as they say, believe that and you will believe anything.


No wonder many Bible-centred Christians consider Christmas a pagan abomination. Puritans in 17th century England condemned the festival as having all the “trappings of Popery” and the “rags of the Beast”. During the English revolution the issue of Christmas deeply divided the Anglican and Puritan parties. During the fighting between the New Model Army and the forces of Charles I, a parliamentary ordinance was issued under which churches were forbidden to hold special services for Christmas. Troops patrolled the streets of London on watch for suspicious Christmas activity. A year later, in 1645, parliament introduced a new ‘Directory of public worship’ which made clear that neither Christmas nor Easter should be observed. An outright ban on Christmas, Easter and Whitsun came in 1647. Those caught violating it were to be subject to a fine.

Rioting followed in Kent. Canterbury was briefly taken. However, what needs to be understood is that while there may well have been royalists looking for an opportunity to revolt, it was not that ordinary folk were yearning for the restoration of the monarchy. What angered them was the Puritan, ie, capitalist, drive to take away holy days. Accumulation is, after all, the real god of capital. Holy days amounted to a good portion of each year, leave aside the weekly Sabbath, around 60 days in total.15 Lost days for money making. But for agricultural workers, drovers, urban apprentices, watermen, shipwrights, carters, domestic servants, etc, holy days might well have involved attending a dull church service, but they were mainly given over to eating, drinking, carding, dancing and making merry till the wee small hours.

Parliament reinforced the laws in 1652. Shops were ordered to stay open, and fines were made more onerous. Such laws were, though, moral, and went largely ignored. Even under conditions of military rule shops closed and people partied. While the return of Charles II, in 1660, ended the ban, many Puritans, not least their Presbyterian siblings in Scotland, continued to frown upon Christmas. In colonial America too. The Massachusetts ban on Christmas was only repealed in 1681.

Modern day Puritans, including exotic offshoots such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, not only refer to pagan licentiousness and the absence of biblical evidence for the Jesus birth date. Not a few see something sinister in Christmas. Paul is often cited, warning Timothy against false teachers who will appear presenting the traditions of men. Instead, urges Paul:

Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables (2 Timothy iv:2-4).

They are also appalled by the crass commercialism, the modern reinvention. What does a jolly fat man riding on a sleigh, loaded with toys and pulled by flying reindeer have to do with the birth of the “son of god”? For them, the answer is pretty obvious. Absolutely nothing. So, congregations are urged to avoid the temptations of “man-made traditions and holidays”. Instead keep to the feast days and celebrations “observed by Jesus Christ, the apostles and the early Church.”16

Undoubtably, all feast days and celebrations, including the ones observed by Jesus ben Joseph, his brother, James, and his nephew, Simion, are made by humans, often dating from the earliest times, marking the rhythm of nature, ie, the seasons. As for me, frankly, Christmas pudding and Christmas ale are irresistible temptations.

  1. Down 2.3% on 2021, estimate by RIFT Tax Refunds - see www.creditstrategy.co.uk/latest-news/latest-news/christmas-retail-spend-expected-to-drop-by-2bn-due-to-cost-of-living-crisis.↩︎

  2. www.wealthify.com/blog/how-much-should-i-spend-on-christmas-presents.↩︎

  3. weinfluence.co.uk/blog/tis-the-season-to-start-your-christmas-marketing/#:~:text=Christmas shopping typically peaks during,shopping over a longer period.↩︎

  4. CAF UK giving report 2022 p5.↩︎

  5. India Herald October 25 2022.↩︎

  6. Christianity September 14 2022.↩︎

  7. Christianity September 14 2022.↩︎

  8. Christianity September 14 2022.↩︎

  9. See A Morton 17 carnations: The Windsors, the Nazis and the cover up London 2015.↩︎

  10. W Wilson (trans) The writings of Clement of Alexandria Vol 1, Edinburgh 1867, p445.↩︎

  11. See A McGowan ‘How December 25 became Christmas’ Bible Review December 2002.↩︎

  12. theferret.scot/fact-check-coca-cola-red-santa-claus-christmas.↩︎

  13. acuitylaw.com/elf-labour-the-definitive-legal-answer.↩︎

  14. www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/12/santas-christmas-eve-workload-calculated/249844.↩︎

  15. rosaliegilbert.com/holidays.html.↩︎

  16. www.ucg.org/beyond-today/beyond-today-magazine/was-jesus-born-on-christmas-day.↩︎