But what about Christmas? Does Christmas have pagan origins?
Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice
Did Christians simply take over the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia and repurpose it as a celebration of Jesus’ birth Is that why we celebrate Christmas around the same time as the winter solstice?
I used to believe this one myself. However, upon further investigation, it would seem this is not how the celebration of Christmas on December 25 came about. Here’s why:
We don’t actually know what time of year Jesus was born. The one thing we know is that it was almost certainly not in late December. The reason for this is because Luke’s Gospel tells us that the shepherds were watching their flocks by night, sleeping in the fields. In Israel it gets too cold in the winter for that; shepherds sleep outside from about March-September. Clement of Alexandria wrote that some believed May 20 was Jesus’ birthday, others believed it was April 19 or 20, still others believed it was in late March. 
Early Christians, along with the majority of ancient cultures, did not celebrate birthdays in the same way we do today. Only two of the four Gospels talk about Jesus’ birth. The early Christian writer Origen dismissed birthdays as something only celebrated by tyrants, such as Pharaoh and Herod in the Bible. 
Things changed in the early 300’s AD with the beginning of the celebration of Epiphany, which commemorated the revealing of the Messiah to the Gentiles at the coming of the Magi to see Jesus after his birth. This was celebrated in early January in the Eastern church, not because they believed this to be the birthday of Jesus, but because of how it fit into the liturgical calendar which gave a plan for teaching through key events in the Gospels every year.
The Western (Latin speaking) part of the church wanted to have a festival similar to Epiphany, and decided that since they did not know when exactly Jesus was born, they would have their festival of the celebration of the incarnation and the birth of Jesus in late December, before Epiphany – since the Magi would have arrived after the birth of Jesus.
Again, the decision of this date was based on liturgical calendars, not on the taking over of pagan festivals. It was considered significant, however, that the coming of “the light of the world” should be celebrated at the time of the year which is darkest in the Northern Hemisphere. After this date, the days get longer and the darkness wanes. This symbolism was not lost on early Christians, but rather considered to be a great symbol of the effect of Jesus’ entrance into the world.
Here’s what’s so interesting: there is a document from about 350 AD which tells us that Romans celebrated the festival of Sol Invictus Natali (the birth of the unconquered sun) on December 25, and that same document also tells us that Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus on this same day. There is no earlier evidence or report of a Roman pagan festival on December 25. In other words, it is just as likely that the pagan Romans chose this day for their pagan festivals because Christians were already celebrating the birth of Jesus on this day, and wanted to have their own counter-festival, than that Christians chose this day because of an existing pagan festival.
Furthermore, there is nothing particularly pagan about celebrating anything at the darkest part of year, right before the days start getting brighter. Judaism, for example, celebrates Chanukah – the Festival of Lights, in which they light candles in the darkness to celebrate God’s faithfulness at this same time of year. Pagans don’t own the symbolism inherent to the orbit of the Earth.
Are Christmas Trees Pagan?
There is some evidence that Roman pagans liked to decorate their homes with greenery during winter festivals, and that early Christians decorated their houses with greenery during Epiphany as well.
It should be remembered that in the ancient world, decorating with greenery in the winter was also common because it was bleak outside and they didn’t have Wayfair.com to depend on for affordable home decor.
Some people claim that these verses in Jeremiah are speaking about the practice of Christmas trees:
“Learn not the way of the nations…for the customs of the peoples are vanity. A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.
Sounds like a Christmas tree, right? Except that’s not what it’s describing. What Jeremiah is describing is the creation of a household idol out of wood. Isaiah talks about a similar practice in which people would fashion an idol out of wood, stone, or metal, and then worship the very object they had just created.
The history of the Christmas tree dates back to medieval Europe, in the 14th and 15th centuries, during which December 24 was celebrated as “Adam and Eve Day” which was celebrated with the decorating of “paradise trees” by attaching apples to them (think how much bulbs look like apples) – a rarity during the winter, so they were considered treats. Because it was winter, and especially in Northern Europe, evergreen trees were popular to use for this. 
Modern Pagan Christmas?
Perhaps of bigger concern is the way in which our modern consumeristic Christmas traditions can detract from the celebration of Jesus and the incarnation which Christmas is meant to celebrate.
May we, even in the joys and the fun of our modern celebrations, not lose sight of what it is that we are celebrating this season: that to people like us who live in deep darkness, a light has shone; the promised Messiah has come to save us from our sins and give us the light of life forever! That is certainly something worth celebrating.
One of my favorite Christmas carols is “O Holy Night,” mostly because I love the first verse:
Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!
THE WEARY WORLD
If there is one word that accurately describes the feeling in the world right now, it is probably “weary.”
We are weary from two years of pandemic. We are weary of restriction and new variants. We are weary of our friends and family members getting sick, and even dying. We are weary from the divisiveness in society. We are weary of inflation, tragedy, tension, and strife.
But, as this song reminds us, the coming of Jesus into the world is good news for the weary world. It gives us weary people a reason to rejoice. Why? Because it tells us that, “yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
THE DAY DAWNS
One of the greatest metaphors the Bible uses to describe where we are at currently in the big picture of human history is: Dawn.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. – John 1:9
Dawn is an interesting period; *it is a time when night and day, darkness and light, exist simultaneously in the same space, yet neither are in full force*.
At dawn, the darkness that formerly ruled the night is broken by the light, but it is still dark out … though not as dark as it used to be. However, at dawn, even though light has come, the light is not yet present in its full form, because although the light has appeared, it has not yet broken over the horizon to fully dispel the darkness.
Peter expressly uses this metaphor of dawn in his second letter:
We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until *the day dawns* and *the morning star* rises in your hearts. – 2 Peter 1:19
THE MORNING STAR
Jesus is called “the morning star.” The “star” known as the morning star is not actually a star, but the planet Venus. The reason it is called the morning star is because it is the last “star” that is visible in the sky once the dawn has come.
The meaning and message of Christmas is that the true light has come into the world, and the dawn has begun. The beginning of dawn is an irreversible occurrence; once the first light of dawn has broken the darkness of night, it is only a matter of time before the sun crests the horizon, totally dispelling the darkness, bringing about the full light of the new day.
We live in a time right now where there is darkness in the world. It touches our lives, and we groan, along with all of the fallen creation, under the weight of the curse of sin and death. And yet, with the coming of Jesus into the world in His first advent, dawn has come: The light of life has come into our world in the person of Jesus Christ. We have the light of God’s Word to guide us … as we wait with eager expectation for Jesus’ second advent when He comes again!
For our world, covered in the shroud of darkness, a darkness which permeates even our own hearts, the message is clear: The advent of Jesus is the death knell of darkness and the guarantee that a new day is on the horizon.
Let us look to the morning star to give us hope until that day comes!
This is a devotional I wrote for It is Well, a great Instagram account that posts encouraging devotional messages. They’re worth following!
Hope for the Disfavored
The true measure of character is not how we treat the privileged, but how we treat the disfavored. There was no one more disfavored in the minds of the Jewish people than the Gentiles, i.e. non-Jews. After all, the Jewish people were God’s chosen people. What then of the Gentiles?
And yet, Romans 15:10-13 tells us something incredible: quoting from Deuteronomy, we read: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him,” because “the root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles, and in him will the Gentiles hope.”
The good news of Christmas, is that God has come to the disfavored, to save them and welcome them into his family! That is good news for us, who have fallen out of favor with God because of our sins.
Great rulers and conquerors, from Alexander to Augustus, had established empires which provided people with stability and peace. But as the Roman philosopher Epictetus explained: “While the emperor can give peace from war on land or sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief, and envy. He cannot give peace of heart, which men long for more than outward peace.” And yet the promise of the gospel is Jesus has come to give us the peace which our hearts long for by making peace between us and God through the sacrifice of himself on our behalf.
The good news of Christmas is that God has treated disfavored people like us with kindness and grace. He came to us, in the person of Jesus, to do for us what we could not do for ourselves.
The way to receive this great gift, Romans 15:13 tells us, is by “believing,” which means “to trust in, to rely upon, and to cling to” Jesus. That is the way to be filled with joy and peace, and to abound in hope this Christmas season.
This week I sat down with Christine Appel to discuss the history of Project Greatest Gift, a home-grown ministry that serves kids in kinship and foster care in northern Colorado at Christmastime.
Every year during the month of November, we partner with the Health and Human Services departments of Weld, Adams, and Boulder Counties to provide for children and families in the kinship and foster care systems.
In this interview, Christine tells the story of how Project Greatest Gift got started, the vision behind it, and how God has used it over the past few years.
Importantly, we also discuss what is different this year in 2020, as Project Greatest Gift expands to an online platform.
If you read the narratives about Jesus’ birth, you notice that two very different groups of people came to celebrate the event: the magi and the shepherds.
These groups could not have been more different.
The magi were “wise men from the East,” whereas the shepherds were local.
The magi who educated whereas shepherds were uneducated.
The magi were trained in astronomy: a practice common amongst social elites at that time. The shepherds were illiterate.
The magi were wealthy. The shepherds were the poorest of the poor.
The magi were elites: they easily got an audience with the king. The shepherds were outcasts: dirty, smelly, and looked-down upon by others.
The wise men were the 1%-ers. The shepherds were the undesirables.
Honored yet Disgraced
Then there’s Mary. When the angel came to her to tell her that God had chosen her to be the one through whom the promised Savior would come into the world, her response was:“Me? Really?” Later on she says that God had “looked upon her lowly estate” (Luke 1:48).
Mary was a young woman and she was poor. She was engaged to a blue-collar construction worker. We know that together they were poor because when they dedicated Jesus as a baby in the temple, they gave an offering of two turtledoves (pigeons), which was the sacrifice that the poorest of the poor were allowed to make (the wealthy were required to sacrifice a lamb, but this allowance was for those who couldn’t afford to buy a lamb). Truly: he was was rich became poor… (2 Corinthians 8:9)
Furthermore, since God’s plan necessitated that the Messiah, the promised savior, be born of a virgin (Genesis 3:15, Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23), that necessitated that whoever would be chosen to bear the Messiah would become a social pariah by doing so, because they would become pregnant outside of wedlock.
Mary had to be content with knowing who she was in God’s eyes, because in the eyes of those in her community she was disgraced. In fact, John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus had to deal with insults and people calling him a bastard because of his mother’s assumed impropriety (John 8:41). Scholars also note that when Mark’s Gospel reports that Jesus was called “the son of Mary” rather than the common way of referring to a child as the son of their father, i.e. “the son of Joseph” – that this was a slight, insinuating that Jesus was the product of Mary’s adultery.
Hope for “Those People”
Sometimes people look at Christianity and say, “the problem with Christianity is that it is so narrow and exclusive,” because Christianity says that if Jesus is God, if Jesus is the Savior, then you have to put your trust in Him and follow Him in order to be saved.
But here’s what’s interesting:I have met many people who say: “All you have to do to be saved is: be a good and moral person.”
Most people don’t believe that all people will be saved. They fully expect that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot will go to hell, as well as those who hurt children or the weak. They believe that those who are cruel and mean, and those who do bad things and hurt others deserve Hell rather than Heaven.
In fact, many people find it scandalous that by just believing in Jesus, a person like Jeffery Dahmer, who has done truly terribly things, could be forgiven of their sins and still go to heaven. People even go so far as to say things like, “If someone like that is in Heaven, then I would rather not be there.” The assumption is that for God to forgive someone like that would be a grave act of injustice.
The problem, though, with saying that “All moral and decent people will go to Heaven,” or “If you live a good life, then you will be saved,” is that not all of us are moral! Not all of us have lived good lives! Some of us are failures. Some of us are broken. All of us have done things that we’re not proud of. We have all done things that hurt other people.
To say that “good and moral people” will be saved, or that in order to be saved you must “live a good life” is narrow and exclusive, because it puts “those people” on the outside. The gospel, on the other hand, offers hope to “those people” because it says that anyone who comes to Jesus will be welcomed, received, forgiven, and transformed.
The message of the gospel is good news for all people – for the elites and the outcasts. For the decent and the indecent. For the good and the bad (see Matthew 22:10 – both “the good and the bad” were invited to the wedding feast). The gospel is scandalously open to all people who will come and receive the free gift of redemption through Jesus. That’s good news for “those people” like me and you!
I hope I won’t ruin Christmas for you if I tell you that Jesus was almost certainly not born on December 25.
Unlike Easter, which we know corresponds to Passover, and therefore we can be quite sure of when it happened, the Bible doesn’t actually tell us what time of year Jesus was born. Based on the placement of stars in the sky and the fact that Luke tells us that shepherds were watching their flocks by night, many scholars believe that Jesus was likely born sometime in September – since in late December it would be too cold even in Israel for shepherds to sleep outside overnight with their flocks.
What then is the reason we celebrate Jesus’ birth at the end of December (or in early January for the Eastern Church)? The reason is historical rather than biblical, and this has led some to conclude that Christmas is pagan in origin and therefore Christians should have nothing to do with it. I do not agree with that view. Let me explain why.
December 25 often corresponds with the shortest day of the year. In animistic and pagan communities, the winter solstice was/is often celebrated as a holiday. Pagan Romans celebrated Saturnalia at this time, which was a week-long celebration of lawlessness, lewdness, and hedonism during which people were exempt from punishment for acts which were usually punished as crimes. 
Christianity was considered an “illicit religion” until the Edict of Milan (AKA the Edict of Toleration) in 314 AD under Constantine. It was a generation later, under Theodosius I that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Long before this, however, Christianity had already become the dominant faith in the empire, particularly in the urban centers.
As part of the official Christianization process, the Winter Solstice and Saturnalia celebrations were banned, and this time period was designated as the time in which Christians would celebrate the birth of Jesus into the world. Christians at this time understand that this was not Jesus’ actual birthday, but simply the time of the year which was set aside to remember and celebrate the incarnation: the coming of God into the world “in the flesh” in the person of Jesus Christ.
Should Christians Not Celebrate Christmas Because of the Origin of Christmas?
There is certainly nothing requiring anyone to celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world at the end of December. Ideally, a Christian should celebrate this event every day of the year. Since none of us know the actual date of Jesus’ birth, what matters is that we celebrate it, not when we celebrate it.
The meaning of a holiday is determined by what people are celebrating. No one who believes they are celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 is inadvertently or accidentally worshiping pagan gods or condoning paganism or hedonism by celebrating the coming of Jesus into the world on a day which was formerly used by pagans for a celebration of a completely different nature and meaning.
Paul the Apostle said, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (Colossians 2:16-17)
If you celebrate the substance of Jesus Christ and his coming on December 25, then it does not matter what other people might have used this day for in the past.
The repurposing of this cultural holiday in the 4th Century was viewed by Christians as the redeeming of a day for the worship of Jesus which had formerly been used for the celebration of the work of the devil.
Infusing it with new meaning, Christians saw significance in celebrating the coming of Jesus into the world on the darkest day of the year, after which everything becomes brighter. They connected this with the biblical picture of the coming of Jesus into the world as the beginning of “dawn” (see 2 Peter 1). Dawn is the time when when light breaks the darkness of night, beginning the unstoppable process of the eventual cresting of the sun over the horizon giving rise to a “new day” – at which time the darkness will be driven away completely.
Jesus Took Advantage of “Cultural Moments” and Special Days
While there is no biblical requirement that anyone celebrate the coming of Jesus on December 25, it is a unique time in which people in our society, and now all over the world, including those who are not Christians, are uniquely focused on Jesus. No matter how much society has tried to make Christmas about other things, it is still recognized that, at bottom, this celebration is about the coming of Jesus into the world.
Statistics have shown that this is the time of the year when people who don’t usually attend church are most likely to accept an invitation to a church service from a family member or friend.
To not take advantage of this unique cultural opportunity for the sake of God’s mission is, in my opinion, a mistake.
Jesus himself did something similar: in the Gospel of John chapter 10, we read about a time when Jesus went up to Jerusalem in the winter for the Festival of Dedication (Hanukkah), a festival which does not have its origin in the Bible. Yet Jesus took advantage of this cultural celebration in order to draw attention to himself and why he had come as the shepherd of God’s people (a Messianic title). I believe this sets a precedent for us to use appropriate cultural celebrations as missional bridges between the gospel and people in our societies.
May God help us to make much of Jesus this Christmas season!
In 2 Timothy 1:10, Paul the Apostle tells us that Jesus came to abolish death and bring life and immortality to light through the gospel. I looked at this passage yesterday in a sermon titled “Born That Man No More May Die,” as part of our Advent series, looking at who Jesus was and why he came.
In the sermon I looked at a story that has always intrigued me: Jesus’ encounter with Nathaniel in John 1, in which Jesus declares that Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28) was a foreshadowing of Him: Jesus is the bridge between Heaven and Earth, between mortal humanity and immortality.
What Was Nathanael Doing Under the Fig Tree?
In John 1, we read that Nathanael is skeptical when he hears that Jesus is from Nazareth; he cannot believe that the Messiah could ever come from a place like that. In my sermon, I explained that the reason Nazareth was despised was because it was a generally poor, working class town, where most of the people worked for the pagan Greeks in the nearby city of Sepphoris.
Nathanael is then introduced to Jesus, and immediately he lets go of his skepticism and is convinced that Jesus truly is the Messiah. What changed his mind? It was something that Jesus said to him as soon as they met:
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” (John 1:47-48)
What was Nathanael doing under the fig tree? According to some Jewish rabbis, Jewish people would traditionally read the Scriptures under a fig tree because of the belief that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (the tree Adam and Eve were told not to eat from lest they die), was a fig tree, because after they sinned and their eyes were opened to the fact of their nakedness, Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves with fig leaves.
The statement about an Israelite in whom there is no deceit is likely as allusion to the story of Jacob, whose name means: “deceiver”, but after wrestling with God, he was given a new name: Israel, which means something like: “grapples with God”, “subdued by God” or “governed by God.”
These allusions to Jacob “the deceiver” whose identity was changed by his encounter with God, along with the mention of the fig tree lead many to believe that Nathanael must have been reading about Jacob in the Book of Genesis, and the fact that Jesus knew that, convinced Nathanael that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the promised Savior and king.
Cut Off from the Tree of Life?
Speaking of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, in Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve ate of it, they were cast out of the Garden of Eden, and an angel with a flaming sword was placed to guard the entrance of it, lest they – or anyone else – eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. (Genesis 3:22)
That verse might strike you as a little bit confusing: Doesn’t God WANT us to eat of the Tree of Life and live forever?
The answer is: Yes, but not in this fallen state. In other words, it was an act of God’s mercy that Adam and Eve were cut off from the Tree of Life, lest they eat from it and live forever in their fallen state. Instead, God allowed them to die, so that he might one day redeem them through Jesus, and ultimately resurrect them unto eternal life. For us as well, it is God’s mercy that he allows us to die “the first death” (physical death) and saves us from “the second death” (eternal Spiritual death, see Revelation 21:8).
Mike and I sat down this week and discussed these and other topics in our weekly Sermon Extra video. Check it out:
Join us at White Fields Community Church on December 24, 2019 at 5:00 or 6:30 PM for a special Christmas Eve service which will include Christmas music from our band and choir, as well as a reading of the Christmas story and a message titled, “In Thy Dark Streets Shineth”
Invite someone to join you as well! Studies have shown that most people are willing to attend church on Christmas Eve if they are invited by a friend or family member. Consider yourself invited, and invite someone to join you and get Christmas started by focusing on Jesus!
December 6 is Saint Nicholas Day, or the Feast of Saint Nicholas.
Whereas Americans tend to say that Santa Claus comes on Christmas Eve to deliver presents, for Europeans Saint Nick brings chocolate and some gifts on December 6.
“The Real Santa is Dead”
One of my American friends once told me that they don’t do Santa Claus, because they like to keep fairy tales out of their faith. That’s a fair point. However, when it comes to Saint Nicholas, we would do well to not lose the legacy of the historical person as we throw out the proverbial bath water.
To that end, my wife and I have always taken the approach with our kids of telling them about the real Saint Nick: the pastor and theologian who loved and cared for the poor in his community.
We explain to them that the reason there are so many Santas in malls and at events is because Saint Nicholas was such a wonderful person that people want to keep his memory and legacy alive, and they do that by dressing up in that red costume with the beard.
This led to a funny episode once, when we were waiting in line to have our picture taken with a mall Santa, and my son – 5 years old at the time – started talking to another kid in line and told him, “Did you know that the real Santa is dead?!” Needless to say, the kid was surprised and concerned to hear this news!
The Real Saint Nick
Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in the village of Patara, in what is now southern Turkey, into a wealthy family. That’s right: no North Pole nor reindeer for the real Santa, but palm trees and white sand beaches.
His parents died when he was young, and he was taken in and raised by a local priest. Following Jesus’ call to the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:21) to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas dedicated his entire inheritance to assisting the sick, needy and suffering.
He became a pastor, and was later made Bishop of Myra. He became famous for his generosity and love for children.
Nicholas suffered persecution and imprisonment for his Christian faith during the Great Persecution (303-311) under Roman emperor Diocletian.
As a bishop, he attended the Council of Nicaea (325), at which he affirmed the doctrine of the deity of Christ against the Arian heresy.
Homoousios or Homoiousios
The discussion at the Council of Nicaea was summarized by which word to use in describing Jesus’ nature: whether he was homoousios (of the “same substance” as God) or homoiousios (of a “similar substance” as God).
At the the Council of Nicaea, bishops from all over the world gathered to study the scriptures and address the Arian controversy which advocated for the term homoiousios, denying Jesus’ full deity. This view, which is also held today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was deemed heretical by the council of bishops based on examination of the Scriptures, which teach that Jesus is Immanuel (God with us), and is true God of true God.
The debate got very heated, and at one point Nicholas reportedly got so upset with he deemed to be blasphemy, that he slapped an Arian.
This is the real Saint Nick: Palm trees and white sand beaches, defender of the faith, and slapper of heretics.
Nicholas died in 343 in Myra. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6.
Where the Tradition of Gift Giving Comes From
Many stories are told about St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. Perhaps the most famous story is that of a poor man who had three daughters of marrying age. Because the man was poor, he was unable to provide a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would not be able to find a descent husband and would either be married into further poverty or would have to become slaves.
After Nicholas found out about this family’s situation, he visited the family’s house at night, leaving them three anonymous gifts: bags of gold, which he tossed through an open window while the family was sleeping.
The story goes that they found the gold in their shoes when they awoke, which is the reason for the tradition in Europe that Saint Nicholas leaves chocolate in children’s shoes. Nicholas provided for these poor girls to help them break out of the cycle of poverty.
Rather than trying to make Christmas Santa-free, let’s take back the true story of Saint Nicholas and take hold of this opportunity to talk about a Christian man who loved Jesus, championed good theology, and exemplified Christ through compassion and generosity to the needy.