It’s the most wonderful time of the year—Christmas: the time where we join together with our family and friends to share food, stories, and presents. For many, it is a day to honor the birthday of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and reflect on what our relationship with him means in our lives. For some, though, Christmas is not a reminder of Jesus Christ’s birth but a holiday driven by traditions that were originated centuries ago in recognition of pagan gods and festivals. The debate over Christmas’s origins has been one that has caused divide between many, especially among Christians.
Does Christmas originate from a pagan holiday? Should we celebrate it in honor of Jesus, or consider the possibility of ignoring this holiday season altogether? First, let’s begin with how we came to understand Christmas as the beloved event we know it to be.
The Origins of Christmas
Although it seems we don’t remember a time where there wasn’t celebration happening on December 25, Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870. The roots of Christmas were first formed in Europe, as winter was the time to celebrate the conclusion of the dark days of the season and the approaching spring with longer days and more sunshine. This was done through winter solstice festivals, as it was seen as light and birth coming from the winter’s darkness; the Norse in Scandinavia marked December 21 throughout January as winter solstice.
One present-day Christmas tradition that began with the Norse is burning the yule log, as fathers and sons would bring home logs to set on fire. These logs would sometimes burn for as many as twelve days, accompanied with many days of feasting. It was believed that each spark of the log meant a new calf or pig would be born in the New Year. The feasts would include wine and beer that had been fermented over the winter, while many areas of Europe had cows killed for fresh meat and so to avoid having to feed them over the winter.
In Rome, the festival of Juvenalia commemorated a feast for the children of Rome and was marked on December 25, the birthday of Mithra, the god of the unconquerable sun. The Romans believed that the infant Mithra was born of a rock, and so this holiday was considered the most sacred day to Romans. There was also another festival observed at the same time as Juvenalia: Saturnalia was to celebrate Saturn, the god of agriculture. This holiday commenced with feasting and drinking as well as the poor taking command of the city. Everything was closed so all could enjoy the fun, which tended to get rowdy.
In 312, Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity but continued the celebration of worshiping Mithra and the Juvenalia festival. Christian leaders decided they would turn their observance of this time into a “Christ-mass” celebration, recognizing the life of Jesus Christ. Before Constantine converted, Christians were visible in pagan lands, turning temples into churches, paganism into Christian festivals, and celebrating Christian martyrs instead of other gods.
As Europe entered the Middle Ages, even though Christianity was the main religion, Christmas was still celebrated with debauchery similar to that of Mardi Gras. Believers would go to church and then eat, drink, and be merry all around town. The traditions of Rome’s Saturnalia festival were apparent, as Christmas also had the poor being made the leaders of the festivals and the rich paying society believed “debts” owed to them.
When Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell and others took over England in 1645, he briefly cancelled Christmas (later to be restored) and was even outlawed within the thirteen colonies in North America: Boston outlawed Christmas from 1659 to 1681 due to its insatiableness. This was further the case after the American Revolution and separation from English traditions took place.
However, Christmas turned a new leaf in the early 1800s when author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon in 1819, which had a squire inviting peasants into his English manor to celebrate Christmas together. During the same time, a “little-known” classic called A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens was published that also encouraged seeing Christmas as a holiday bringing families and the community together in goodwill.
As the United States warmed more to Christmas, it changed from how the holiday was handled in Europe and incorporated traditions over the next century from Catholic and Episcopalian churches, as well as immigrants to the United States. These traditions included decorating trees, sending cards, and giving gifts.
It’s safe to say that the Christmas we know well today is a lot better than how it was celebrated before in Europe.
Why Do People Think Christmas Is Pagan?
Even with the change of ringing in Christmas with eggnog and time with family, instead of with alcohol and mayhem, many see Christmas as a shroud for participating in pagan activities. It is noted the Bible makes no mention of Christmas, and many pointed out, especially Puritans, that Jesus was born probably in the spring due to shepherds more than likely watching their flocks by night in warmer temperatures. Easter was seen as the only true Christian holiday worth recognizing by the early church.
However, Pope Julius I set December 25 as the day to celebrate Christmas, which many believe was to coincide with the Saturnalia festival happening at the same time. It was called the “Feast of the Nativity” and was soon celebrated in Egypt in 432 and England by the end of the sixth century. The term pagan is actually Latin for “field” and was considered people who lived by certain local and/or regional religious creeds. They were also found in more rural locations instead of in cities or heavily populated areas.
Christian missionaries sought to lead the people to Jesus Christ but were fascinated by the pagan traditions they were following. For example, Christmas trees were started in Germany as a way to have live greenery indoors during the wintertime. Santa Claus is an embodiment of Father Christmas from other countries that pagans believed were spirits who flew through the sky during the winter. Combine these traditions with the accelerated demands of gifts, parties, and feasts and one can see how Christmas may celebrate anything but the humble beginnings of our Lord and Savior.
Is it Biblical to Celebrate Christmas?
Therein lies the eternal question: If it is unclear when Jesus was actually born and Christmas seems to be “wrapped” up in more consumerism traditions than goodwill toward all men, what should we do when December 25th rolls around?
The late, great R.C. Sproul offered his opinion on the matter in a 2016 online article for his Ligonier Ministries’ website, linked above, voicing agreement with the findings many have shared (which we have discussed in this article) but seeing Christmas in a different light.
Instead of ridiculing people who keep Christ in Christmas, he applauded the efforts to bring awareness of Jesus during Christmas and sharing God’s love with so many who desperately need it.
While the New Testament doesn’t require that we celebrate Christmas every year, I certainly see nothing wrong with the church’s entering into this joyous time of celebrating the Incarnation, which is the dividing point of all human history. Originally, it was intended to honor, not Mithras or any of the other mystery religion cults, but the birth of our King.
How Do We Celebrate Christmas without Practicing Paganism?
So, what should we do as we approach the most wonderful time of year? By keeping the mindset of Christmas all year. That doesn’t mean you are playing Christmas music, wearing ugly Christmas sweaters, and wishing people a “Merry Christmas” all year long.
What it means is to spread the excitement and joy that many feel during Christmas with sharing the good news of Jesus. It means sharing God’s love with all you meet and telling them about what Jesus has done in your life since you open the doors of your heart to Him.
Christmas is a time people enjoy for the memories they bring, as we partake of delicious food, times with others, and those long-awaited presents. With 2020 being a year of trial, probably more people are looking forward to the lighthearted mood Christmas brings.
For some, Christmas can be seen as something that doesn’t bring attention to Christ. Instead, they view it as being a pagan holiday coated in twinkling lights and secular traditions.
But Christmas isn’t about what we get under the tree but who Jesus is in our lives and what his birth meant for us centuries after his resurrection. It’s the yearly reminder that he sacrificed his life so that we could be reunited with our heavenly Father, where the excitement of Christmas can be felt eternally.
So, if you are apprehensive about enjoying Christmas, use this time of year to shine a light of Jesus to others. Give a toy to a toy drive, donate food to a homeless shelter, bring a tasty treat to a homebound neighbor, or mend broken relationships with your family or friends. Those are the gifts that truly keep on giving long after the Christmas decorations are put away.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/evgenyatamanenko
Blair Parke is a freelance writer for BibleStudyTools.com and editor for Xulon Press. A graduate of Stetson University with a Bachelor’s in Communications, Blair previously worked as a writer/editor for several local magazines in the Central Florida area, including Celebration Independent and Lake Magazine in Leesburg, Florida and currently freelances for the Southwest Orlando Bulletin.
This article is part of our larger Christmas and Advent resource library centered around the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!
Listen to our FREE Christmas Podcast: The Characters of Christmas – The Surprising People in Jesus’ Family: