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. 
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.Jeremiah 10:1-5
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.