Why Pagans Aren’t Really Pagan


Pagan is one of those wonderful words. We Christians can use it when we mean people who have ceased to believe in monotheism but have started believing in lots of other stuff (forces, etc.). I thought a lot about this over the summer after seeing a group of druid-wannabe’s at Stonehenge. They were dressed for the part, except for the amount of polyester involved. We are in a season when people will begin to write silly things about the “pagan origins of Christmas” and attack Christmas Trees as pagan in origin. So these thoughts are for us all when the paganism seems to be coming from all directions.

One thing moderns who think of themselves as pagans have that ancient pagans never had: self-consciousness. Ancient pagans never thought of themselves as being “pagans.” They were Romans, or Britanni, or any number of folks, and they had a world-view which included a belief in various supernatural forces and the way one related to the earth, sky, the seasons, etc. But they had no self-consciousness as belonging to a religion.

Religious self-consciousness is the gift of Judeo-Christianity. Jews died for their faith the way a pagan would never have thought to. The Maccabees died because they would not do what any self-respecting pagan would have done with never so much as a by-your-leave. They would not betray the commandments of the God who made them a peculiar people.

It is perhaps even possible to say that until God revealed His righteousness and called someone to be His people, no religion (as we moderns think of them) existed. Christians inherited our self-consciousness from the Jews.

And the modern Pagans inherited their self-consciousness from the Christians and the Jews. Sorry about that, but if you think of yourself as a pagan, then your are thinking like a Christian or a Jew (or a Muslim for that matter). A pagan would not think like that.

It’s why silly charges that “Christmas trees are pagan” and the like just won’t stick. We probably stole them from some pagans. But they’ve been decidedly Baptized. They’re specific enough to upset the ACLU. That’s good enough for me. I would be concerned if they had lost their offense.

Neither did we borrow the date for Christmas from the pagans (that’s a 19th century German myth). The use of December 25th for Christmas predates the feast for Sol Invictus, instituted by Marcus Aurelius, by some decades. So it’s not about the winter soltice (sorry again, pagans).

Neither is the Virgin Mary a thinly disguised version of some pagan Mother Goddess. She’s nothing like her. And if the art forms of such mother goddesses influenced later iconography, well so be it. We stole their art forms. Again, sorry about that.

Christmas, with its trappings, is a Christian holiday. It has been commercialized by people who like to make money (they’re called merchants). Market places always thrived around Churches on feast days. Don’t begrudge them their money.

Beware instead the grinches that lurk everywhere looking for pagan practices, seeking to purify a holiday which puritan ancestors long ago sought to abolish. I plan to drink a toast, kiss anyone under the misletoe, and enjoy my gifts (I enjoy giving them even more – especially as I grow older and have almost everything I ever wanted).

I plan to enjoy giving money to ringing Santas and their Christmas buckets for the homeless shelters. I will miss the holiday when its gone and the sense of a common feast that binds many of us together.

But I will owe no real apology to the pagan, except for the fact that the rise of real religion in the Judeo-Christian context has probably ruined the “first naivete” of the true pagan. Today, there are mostly wannabes. And there might not be so many of them if their forefathers had not stripped Christianity of its fullness and substituted the aridity of puritanism (it still lingers). But I’ll pray their health and welcome them home if they discover the ancient fullness in Orthodoxy.

Several years ago, a beloved teenager who has since gone to rest, said to me, “The thing I like about Orthodoxy is that it is so pagan.” I knew what she meant and it was not a negative comment. It was a bittersweet comment. The bitter part was the fact that the richness of her Christian experience had been robbed so long ago by those who sought to “purify” the faith from pagan influence and her heart longed for something richer. The sweet part was that she loved the candles, the incense, the icons, and all the rest. She made a journey to God before she was able to be Chrismated, but I’m sure that heaven is no disappointment to her – that it’s not whitewashed and robbed of all texture. And I joyfully think of her and say, “Memory Eternal,” as I decorate my tree, drink my Christmas cheer and light candles everywhere I can.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





14 responses to “Why Pagans Aren’t Really Pagan”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    The picture (I’ve used it before) is of my three daughters (yes, I also have a son). Two of them are now married to Orthodox priests. It’s a Christmas morning and full of joy. I might add that they were all friends of the girl whom I mentioned who has gone to rest in God. She was the same age as my oldest girl. We all loved her and think of her much at Christmas. I recall especially a Christmas carol that she sang with my two oldest girls. Again, may her memory be eternal!

  2. The young fogey Avatar

    Well put, Father. Yes, ‘pagan’ as a compliment in the sense that it seamlessly uses a lot of natural religion.

    What you wrote – religious self-consciousness is Judæo-Christian – echoes what Touchstone’s Mere Comments regular Stuart Koehl has said, that neo-pagans are really obviously apostate Christians keeping a lot of the same mindset and morals only shorn from their foundation in Christian theology.

    Favourite blogger Arturo Vasquez (the Sarabite) has said the same about modern Mexican-American political activists trying to be pagan, interpreting November shrines of the dead with a theology that would embarrass a 7-year-old or trying to go back to pre-Hispanic religion: cut it out and/or go back to Mass, he says. (Come to think of it, ‘cutting it out’ – the heart of a living human victim to please the sun god – is what pre-Hispanic Mexican religion did. Not at all like the housewifey ‘white magic’ and Jungian stuff of today’s wayward-Christian dabblers. Hooray for Hernán Cortez and Christianity for stopping that!)

  3. Jonathan Avatar

    “[N]eo-pagans are really obviously apostate Christians keeping a lot of the same mindset and morals only shorn from their foundation in Christian theology.”

    In my experience, I find this to be very true. In high school, I knew quite a number of neo-pagans, mainly Wiccans, who tried so hard to be “truly” pagan, but ended up being a sad caricature, as Fr. Stephen’s post demonstrates. It seemed to be a fad, almost, and it was like clockwork: leave the church, wear black, buy a Book of Shadows, wear a pentacle, and talk about how wonderful your new religion is, and get into arguments with your Christian friends about how you don’t worship the devil. Which, as I see it, demonstrates in it’s entirety the self-consciousness that Father is talking about.

  4. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course, our Orthodox can be equally shallow. By a cross, some icons, and start arguing. It should be pray, pray pray, be patient, listen, share, don’t argue, listen share, don’t argue. Go to confession, make communion, give stuff away until the Devil hates to see you coming. I believe in envangelism, but because the God I preach is the true and living God, I don’t have to do what He does. I only have to be his servant. Pray most of all, read less, speak even less, and before long we’ll gradually gain wisdom, which will make us pray more, read less, and speak even less.

  5. Radoje Avatar

    Probably the best indictment of modern-day pseudo-paganism (though perhaps unintentionally so), is the “Stonehenge” bit in Spinal Tap, where the theatrical solemnity of their performance is spoilt by the 18 INCH tall Stonehenge monument being lowered from the rafters and danced about by midgets.

  6. Catechumen Trevor Avatar

    If you’ve never read it, a great essay on paganism (and for that matter but a piece of an equally great book) is G. K. Chesterton’s chapter from Heretics:


    Of course, one sticking point with Christmas is that it’s hard as Orthodox to avoid looking like a grinch in the weeks leading up to it. Maybe I’m just too inexperienced with the whole business, but I haven’t figured out how to elegantly mix fasting with social grace. (I never had much of the latter anyway, so maybe that’s part of my problem.) And to my mind, this gets at some of the problem with commercialism. Our society has so far abandoned any notion of ascetic preparation for the feast (well, maybe fasting right before the big meal, so you can cram more in), that it can feel like two totally different pre-Christmas seasons going on–one of fasting, prayer, spiritual reading, charity, etc., and another of buying, eating, and pre-celebrating.

    I know at least one important piece is not to judge others for how they spend the season. But I often wonder if I’m not getting the whole message in what Jesus said about looking happy when you’re fasting. I mean, I can look OK, but often my lack of participation in office parties or whatever generates the assumption that I must think I’m better than everyone else.

    Any suggestions on how to be a better reveler?

  7. Steve Avatar

    Send out lots of cards to your coworkers? Buy little gifts to let the people know you care? Maybe try to be more of a servant this time of year? (I’m not the one to ask, I’m not good at this sort of thing, either).

    I think there are pre-celebrations that you can do. Maybe not as far as eating, but there are little things you can do to. The “desire of nations” is coming! He will be born! And the great part is we know how it works out. He has been born!

    Today in the church (at least on our calendar) we remember Haggi. So I read Haggai and it’s such a great piece. Work must be done for the Lord. The presence of the Lord is coming to the temple (in Haggai’s time it was empty). But we know who shows up ….

    First the Theotokos … creation trembles with joy in expectation.
    Then Jesus is born … all nations rejoice!
    Then He comes to the temple. The story comes full circle. The prophecies are fulfilled.

    This is the best Christmas ever, as far as I’m concerned 😀 The bridegroom is coming!

  8. Steve Avatar

    Haggai!! I can spel!

  9. Jonathan Avatar

    That is very true about some Orthodox being as bad as the students I mentioned earlier. I remember how much I appealed to the academic and historical side of Orthodoxy in my “discussions” with people shortly after my conversion. But, I noticed that they usually turned into vicious arguments that ate at my soul and engendered bitterness. Even if that level wasn’t attained to, it usually left the conversation feeling somewhat cold and empty—just like an academic hall.

    So, recently, after such a discussion (the cold and empty type) with a Bible College student in West Virginia, I decided to stop talking about how logical and verifiable all of the historical aspects and things in Orthodox are, and to simply tell the story about how God got my attention that there was something to Orthodoxy (which, precisely speaking, was during Fr. Stephen’s sermon on Theophany in 2005…I’d be glad to tell you the story sometime, Father), and of the service of Forgiveness Vespers where I recognized the unconditional and heart-breaking love of God that I speak so much of (and try to put into practice) being made real by an entire parish before my very eyes.

    So far, I’ve done that twice. I’m very blessed to say that, both times, the people have shown interest in coming to St. Anne and seeing what I’m talking about. One of these discussions happened this afternoon with a high school classmate I haven’t seen since Graduation in 2000. She told me that she might just be at church tomorrow. Praise be to God! 🙂

  10. Steve Hayes Avatar

    I like what Robin Lane Fox says in his book Pagans and Christians:

    In antiquity, pagans already owed a debt to Christians. Christians first gave them their name, pagani… In everyday use, it meant either a civilian or a rustic. Since the sixteenth century the origin of the early Christians’ usage has been disputed, but of the two meanings, the former is the likelier. Pagans were civilians who had not enlisted through baptism as soldiers of Christ against the powers of Satan. By its word for non-believers, Christian slang bore witness to the heavenly battle which coloured Christians’ view of life.

    One quibble, though. As far as I know, the Nativity first began to be celebrated on 25 December shortly after the First Council of Nicaea — at least the earliest extant evidence for it is a Roman calendar dated in the 330s. I suspect that the celebration may well have been adopted to counter Arianism. Previously the Incarnation had had no distinctive celebration (Christ’s birth was celebrated along with his baptism on 6 January), but once the Arians denied it, the Orthodox might well begin to emphasise it in a special feast.

    Do you have any evidence for an earlier celebration?

  11. Roland Avatar

    Some random thoughts inspired by this discussion . . .

    Self-consciousness is not peculiar to Neopaganism. Rather, it is endemic to the postmodern era. It might even be the defining characteristic of postmodernity. Neopaganism just happens to be the religion most thoroughly integrated with postmodernity because it lacks a history of exposure to the modern and premodern eras. But in the 21st century it is hard to practice even the most traditional culture or religion un-self-consciously – especially for us converts.

    For many, I think Neopaganism offers the same attraction that Orthodox Christianity offers – it’s the opposite of puritanical. In a culture dominated by puritanical Protestants and puritanical Secularists, both Neopaganism and Orthodoxy offer religion that is not purely a left-brain phenomenon. However, I think Orthodoxy often faces an extra obstacle: People who have had a bad experience with some other variety of Christianity will tend to dismiss *all* Christianity, thinking, “Been there, done that, didn’t like it.” They are more likely to check out Neopaganism or Buddhism than another kind of Christianity.

    Trevor – When I RSVP to attend a “holiday party,” especially if it falls on a Friday, as they tend to do, I will alert the host that I’ll be restricted to vegan offerings. More often than not, I will be accommodated. But, then, I have a lot of vegetarian and semi-vegetarian friends, so I’m usually not alone in my dietary limitations. Thanks for the Chesterton link!

  12. Catechumen Trevor Avatar

    Thanks to Steve and Roland for the suggestions. I have sometimes attended and simply eaten whatever I could find (usually something)–if it’s the boss taking us out to dinner, there’s usually some kind of shellfish on the menu; if it’s a potluck office party, I can bring something I’m able to eat myself. In the latter case, I often get questions about my diet (since I’m not always fasting), and I’ve never figured out a good way to answer. I usually just opt for the most straightforward and tell them what I’m doing, but again it’s hard not to seem like I’m putting myself on a pedestal, or to feel like I’m violating what Jesus said about keeping your fasting secret. Like most things Orthodox, it takes quite a bit of explanation, because people have no frame of reference. Where I work, at least, everyone understands if someone is eating kosher or a Muslim is fasting for Ramadan. Occasionally you do encounter someone with some kind of sensitivity to Christian asceticism. Last year, I was riding to the office party with a guy who I think is Catholic. He asked if it was OK to play Christmas carols in the car, since he knew some people don’t listen to them before Christmas.

    Giving little gifts isn’t a bad idea. I’ve never been very good with that sort of thing (just ask my wife), but it probably would help.

  13. Steve Hayes Avatar

    The idea of “religion” and “religions”, and hence the idea that Christianity is just one religion among many is very much a modern one, and belongs to modernity.

    In reponse to eirsinitiate on Christian-neopagan relations, I refer to an article I wrote on Christianity, paganism and ilterature, which you may may find here:


    It”s a bit too long to put as a comment in someone else’s blog.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Here’s an interesting place to start on some research about the date of Christmas. Worth a look. I admit it was a source for me.


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