Is Christmas Pagan?

Some time ago, I addressed some 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?

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. [1]

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. [2]

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 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 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.

Is Christmas Pagan in Origin?

flatlay photography of gift and baubles

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.

For a related topic, check out: Does Easter Come From Ishtar?

The Winter Solstice and Saturnalia

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. [1]

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.

For more on this, check out: Advent Meditations: 2 – The Dawn

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!