To most Christians, Christmas is a sacred religious holiday. But in modern times it’s become more of a cultural and commercial phenomenon. The Christmas we celebrate in the West today—opening gifts, decorating trees, singing carols, putting up stockings, roasting chestnuts, Santa, and all the rest—has often been criticized by the Christian community for becoming too secular and/or commercialized and losing sight of the true meaning of the holiday. But there are others—both inside and outside the Christian community—who take that criticism even further, claiming that Christmas is, in fact, a holiday rooted in pagan traditions. Do they have a point? Are Christians today unknowingly participating in pagan rituals when they celebrate Christmas?
WHEN IN ROME
Those that claim that Christmas is a pagan holiday usually point to the traditions of ancient Rome, especially Saturnalia, the month-long celebration in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. It was a festival that began a week before the winter solstice and was a sort of hedonistic “opposite day” where, according to History.com, “for a month, slaves would become masters. Peasants were in command of the city. Business and schools were closed so that everyone could join in the fun.”
Around that same time of year, the Romans also observed a pagan feast honoring the children of Rome called Juvenalia. And on December 25, many upper-class Romans celebrated the birthday of Mithra, the god of the sun and war. (I’ve discussed the relationship between Mithra and Christmas in my article, Is Christmas Real?) There is plenty of historical precedent for pagan winter celebrations. But how does that relate to Christmas?
THE ROOTS OF CHRISTMAS
In the early years of Christianity, the birth of Jesus was not formally celebrated. It wasn’t until the fourth century that church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday, calling it the Feast of the Nativity. The date of Jesus’ birth is not mentioned in the Bible, of course, but most scholars believe it probably occurred in the spring because shepherds wouldn’t be herding in the middle of winter. However, Pope Julius I officially chose the date of December 25 for the holiday in an effort to capitalize on the traditions of the pagan Saturnalia festival. By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals church leaders thought the chances would be greater that Christmas would be widely embraced. And it worked! By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion.
So in the same way that Christ claims and redeems the hearts of sinful people and uses them for His glory, His Church claimed and redeemed the pagan holidays and used them for Christ’s glory. Pagan festivals were turned into celebrations honoring the sending of God’s Only Begotten Son to earth. One could almost say the pagan holidays have been taken captive for Christ.
THAT’S IT, CHRISTMAS IS CANCELLED!
But the story doesn’t end there. In 1645 the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, became a major social force in England and introduced a wave of religious reform. The Puritans vowed to rid England of moral decadence and, as part of their effort, canceled Christmas. The Christian holiday wouldn’t return to England until 1660 when Charles II was restored to the throne by popular demand.
Around this same time, the English Separatists and Puritans (aka the Pilgrims) began migrating to America. They were just as orthodox in their Puritan beliefs as their English counterparts and therefore Christmas was not a holiday in early America. In fact, Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681! It wasn’t until June 26, 1870, that Christmas was declared a federal holiday.
It was around that time that our modern version of Christmas in America began to form, fueled by stories such as The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent. by Washington Irving and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Today Christmas is an amalgam of many cultural traditions; from the Christmas tree introduced in 16th century Germany, to the Salvation Army’s donation collectors dressed as Santa in the 1890s, to the poem about a reindeer named Rudolph written by copywriter Robert L. May in 1939.
WHAT ABOUT US?
Where does this leave the modern-day Christian? The Bible does not specifically command a remembrance of Christ’s birth or a Feast of the Nativity. So Christians should not feel bound to celebrate Christmas. The Bible also does not forbid things like exchanging gifts, singing carols, or putting up stockings by the fire. So Christians should not feel obliged to avoid those cultural traditions, either.
The concept of remembering what God has done for us is very biblical. It’s found in almost every book of the Bible; it saturates the Psalms (Ps 77:11), it’s at the heart of the Old Testament feasts, and it’s the entire point of celebrating the Last Supper. So if we, as Christians, decide we want to set aside a time on our calendar every year to remember and celebrate the birth of Christ, that’s a beautiful and biblical thing to do.
If we choose to celebrate Christmas, the warning Christians need to take to heart is to not to let it fall into idolatry, or materialism, or greed. We all know Santa is not a god to be worshipped. What we sometimes don’t see is that we tend to elevate things like family time, traditions, and expensive gifts to the level of worship. Christmas trees and holiday lights are lovely things, but they are not holy things. They should not overshadow the reason Christmas was established in the first place; as a time of remembrance for God giving the world the Ultimate Gift; Himself.
Here we can look to Paul’s discussion of the Believer’s freedom in 1 Corinthians for some guidance:
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” (1 Cor 10:23-33, emphasis mine)
SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
This brings us back to the question that got us started. Is Christmas a pagan holiday? There are at least three reasons I say no:
- Christmas was started by Christians as a way to celebrate the birth of Christ; its historical motivation was decidedly anti-pagan.
- Pagan gods and idols are not worshipped (or even mentioned) during the religious observation of Christmas. Rather, the focal point is the birth of Jesus the Messiah. Churches hold services in which the Christmas story from Holy Scripture is read aloud, people worship and glorify God with hymns and carols about that same story, and the gospel is preached. (Hence the name: Christ Mass).
- Pagans do not participate in the religious observation of Christmas.
Don’t get me wrong. Christmas has certainly (and sadly) been secularized and commercialized. But are Christians today unknowingly participating in pagan rituals when we celebrate Christmas? Absolutely not.
Merry Christmas to you and yours!