Is Christmas Pagan?

A while ago I addressed many common, but incorrect claims that the origins of Easter are pagan: “Does Easter Come from Ishtar?”

But what about Christmas? Does Christmas have pagan origins?

The Claims About the Pagan Origins of Christmas

Saturnalia and the Winter Solstice?

Didn’t Christians simply take over the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia and call it a celebration of the birth of Jesus? After all, that’s why we celebrate Christmas right around the same time as the winter solstice, isn’t it?

I used to believe this one myself. However, upon further investigation, it turns out this may not be true. Here’s why:

We don’t know what time of the 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, others still believed it was in late March. [1]

Early Christians also did not celebrate birthdays in the same way we do because ancient cultures did not celebrate birthdays like we do in our modern culture. 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. [2]

Things changed in the early 300’s 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 had been 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 the darkest in the Northern Hemisphere. After this date, the days get longer and the darkness wanes. This symbolism was not lost on the 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 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.

Jeremiah 10:1-5

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. [3]

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 be about.

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.

Obligatory Post Bemoaning Black Friday

As a pastor, there are a few things you are expected to blog about at Thanksgiving:

  • Thanksgiving is the best holiday ever.
  • Black Friday is the worst thing that has ever happened, ever. It is the epitome of American consumerism encroaching on family.

This week, the Longmont Times-Call ran an article about a woman who is heading up an initiative to take turkey sandwiches to employees of businesses that are open for sales on Thanksgiving day. Nice, right? Well, the lady heading it up also mentions in the article that she is planning to take her family out to eat at a restaurant on Thanksgiving day, so they can spend time together rather than spending the day cooking. Um… is she the only one who doesn’t see the irony in that? In the comments section, she claims that the difference is that retail workers ‘have to be there on Thanksgiving even though they would rather be with their families.’ I guess the restaurant workers are at work by choice on Thanksgiving day…and wouldn’t rather be home with their families?

Here’s my take on Black Friday – sales are awesome. But we should limit this whole thing to the internet. That way everyone can stay home with their families, and we can all get great prices on stuff without having to leave the house or wait in line in the cold at night. I think it would be a win-win.

Hope you have a great Thanksgiving!

I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds. (Psalm 9:1)

In case I forgot to mention it: Thanksgiving is the best holiday ever.