Why Christmas doesn’t have pagan roots, but also isn’t Jesus’ birthday and does include idolatry.
For at least 300 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth there was no record of the church ever marking his birthday with any kind of celebration. It just wasn’t something they bothered with, nor did they have any clear indication of what date his actual birth fell on (although bible scholars have a few theories, which we will get to shortly). The date was first proposed by Sextus Julius Africanus in 221AD, but the first mention of December 25th as Christ’s mass was a Roman church document listing the bishops in 354AD. However, widespread adoption of the celebration didn’t happen for the first thousand years of church history and it was predominantly a Roman Catholic practice.
Why December 25th? Historically, the church linked the annunciation of Mary with the first act of creation found in Genesis, since Jesus was the second Adam incarnated by the Holy Spirit to bypass the curse of sin. They associated creation with the spring equinox around March 20th which meant that nine months later Jesus’ birth would have been a similar date in December. This is actually a fairly biblical concept, although it still doesn’t definitively prove when Jesus was born.
Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. – 1st Corinthians 15:45-49
So we can see the reasoning behind the date from a biblical standpoint, but does December 25th have any significance in pagan practices, and does that have any bearing on Christians celebrating Christmas?
It doesn’t fall on the solstice, which is around the 21st of December, and it wasn’t based on the Roman festival of Saturnalia which ran from the 17th to the 23rd of December over the solstice period. Even in modern paganism the 25th doesn’t have any special significance. Perhaps that was why Christians chose to base their celebration as far away from the solstice as they could, even if it made a certain amount of biblical sense.
Contrary to popular narrative, Christianity is not a form of sun worship. That sort of practice is an abomination to God because it involves worshipping the finite material world hurtling towards an inevitable heat-death according to the second law of thermodynamics, instead of the Eternal Almighty Creator.
And take heed, lest you lift your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, you feel driven to worship them and serve them, which the Lord your God has given to all the peoples under the whole heaven as a heritage. – Deuteronomy 4:19
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. – Romans 1:20-25
The tenuous association of sun and son is even less credible considering it only works in English and the language didn’t even exist for the first millennium of church history.
No, true Christianity has nothing to do with worshipping balls of gas hurtling through space, or ascribing divinity to anything created by God. That really would be paganism, which is why many Christians today have lots of questions about “traditions” seeping in from culture which don’t belong if we’re following Christ.
Lets unravel the string lights…
One of the big criticisms of Christmas from Christians who believe that marking this date as the birth of Jesus is a pagan celebration, would be the Christmas tree based on the bible passage below:
Thus says the Lord: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, 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. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” – Jeremiah 10:2-5
What is this passage talking about? It’s talking about idols. Specifically carved statues of human figures which received prayers, worship and offerings of incense, foods, flowers, and sacrifices.
Is this tree an idol? I mean, it could be, if you started praying to it, worshipping it, putting faith in it, or making sacrifices to it… Have you done that with your Christmas tree lately? Hopefully not, because that would legitimately be a case of idolatry. What do idols normally look like? They usually look like human figures which have been deified by various cultures such as the ones pictured below:
Do these figures receive prayers and offerings? Is that what they were made for? You can clearly see the figure of a woman on the far right with offerings around the base of the statue, so I think the answer is yes. As it said in Jeremiah, they’re just dumb statues and the practice is futile, but God hates it nonetheless. It’s insulting to God if we attribute His greatness to idols, or place our faith in human characters who cannot save us nor offer grace.
Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth. – Deuteronomy 4:15-18
There is nothing more important than faithfulness to God alone and forsaking all forms of idols.
Little children, keep yourselves from idols. – 1st John 5:21
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. – 1st Corinthians 10:14
The only question remains, is there any idolatry in Christmas?
Saint Nicholas was the bishop of Myra, a seaside city in Asia-Minor (modern-day Turkey), in the fourth century. He took part in the Council of Nicaea to solidify doctrine and deal with heresies such as Arianism, which is why he reportedly slapped Arius across the face (he was having none of that clownery). Apparently he did also secretly give gifts to destitute orphans who would otherwise have nothing, thus becoming known for his charitable deeds.
This person bears almost no resemblance to the modern western fictional character of Santa, popularised through marketing campaigns to sell Coca-Cola. According to their own website, they appropriated this image in the 1930’s from an American civil war propaganda campaign in the 1860’s by the artist Thomas Nast who morphed the rather grim and gaunt figure of tradition into an obese alcoholic. It went down well with American audiences and has remained the cultural definition of Santa Claus ever since.
What on earth happened in the interim?
Well, part of it can be attributed to the Roman Catholic practice of taking historical figures in Christian history and turning them into idols, which in turn confuses other pagan converts such as Germanic and Scandinavian tribes. This is a classic case of causing a brother to stumble.
But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. – 1st Corinthians 8:9-12
A church which practices idolatry cannot say to the people they’re converting not to pray to pagan gods or fashion their own images and make offerings to them. The hypocrisy would be far too obvious, so instead they amalgamate pagan gods into their hybrid religion and everyone is so confused and poorly educated that they cannot tell the difference.
The name Santa Claus comes from the Dutch name Sinter Klaas who was loosely based on Nicholas of Myra but very much hybridised with the Norse god Odin. Since early North America was heavily colonised by the Dutch, many of their traditions have become synonymous with American Christmas, including leaving out food offerings for the pagan god and his horse.
Yes, you heard me correctly: the most problematic aspect of Christmas is cookies and milk. As a former pagan, let me explain how it works.
In pagan cultures it is very much understood that spirits and entities are real. Trust me, they’re out there. A lot of pagan practices revolve around appeasing the petulant and dangerous beings roaming the darkness and usually this is done by leaving an offering of some sort outside of your house in the hopes that the hungry ghosts will consume that and leave your family alone. There’s also the rather selfish hope of having wishes granted and gaining riches by magical means, which is how charitable work gets twisted into materialism. Obviously it doesn’t really work and instead usually leaves an open invitation for demons to infest your house.
What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. – 1st Corinthians 10:19-20
This is one tradition your definitely need to stop, not just for the risk of consorting with demons and offending God (which is reason enough) but because you are teaching a stumbling block to your children and it could lead towards further blurred lines in other areas is it did for me. I grew up “Christian” but it was the sort of doctrine which makes it possible to join a witch coven without thinking it wrong.
In the Scandinavian traditions the winter solstice was known as Jule (yule in English – same pronunciation) and Odin was known as Jólfaðr which translates as Yule-Father, later associated with Father Christmas. Just the idea of a character called “Father Christmas” is antithetical to everything Jesus taught.
“Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.” – Matthew 23:9
Even without the association to a Norse god it’s problematic, but it gets worse…
The legends of Odin describe him as a bearded old man who could travel epic distances in very little time through the skies over land and sea on his eight-legged horse called Sleipnir which means “slippery” because of his ability to traverse the 9 realms of Yggdrasil, including the realm of the dead. The swift, magical, eight-legged horse… how many reindeer are there pulling Santa’s sleigh?
Odin was a pretty selfish and volatile character, so he didn’t necessarily disperse charitable gifts like Nicholas of Myra, but he did show up out of nowhere to grant special abilities to people at their greatest need. Naturally, people could make offerings to Odin for something like the gift of poetry, and they would also leave an offering of hay for Sleipnir.
Another Scandinavian pagan Jule tradition are the Nisse. Tiny little guys with pointy woolen hats on their head visit your house while you’re sleeping and give you things in exchange for a bowl of porridge. If you don’t feed them, they will wreak havoc on your home and torment your family. My ex-husband was Danish and his family always had images of Nisse around their house at Christmas. They also danced around the tree singing songs, but that’s another story altogether. They’re Lutheran, so I’m sure they know what they’re doing…
No doubt you can see the similarities between Tomte-Nisse and Christmas elves, not that it takes a genius to make the connection. Again, this is one tradition you should definitely scrap.
So… traditions of leaving offerings to pagan gods and mythical creatures. None of that has any bearing on remembering Jesus and the miracle of His birth. Culturally, we do it because we don’t know any better and because we’re bombarded with media which reinforces that this is the truest meaning of Christmas instead of understanding how doomed humanity is unless they take the forgiveness offered through Christ Jesus.
When was Jesus really born?
The circumstances of the birth of Jesus were clearly significant to the apostles who wrote their accounts of the gospel. Biblical prophecy demanded certain criteria to be fulfilled including the virgin birth, the lineage of David, and being born in Bethlehem but then being called out of Egypt. Even though birthdays were not considered as important in the early church as the date on which someone departed earthly existence to be with the Lord, Jesus’ birth was remarkable and noteworthy because it substantiated His claims to be the Messiah and the Son of God.
Some bible scholars, such as Dr. Michael Heiser, think that the clue to the true birth date of Jesus is found in Revelation and specifically in the astrological alignment portrayed in the vision which would have coincided with an important Jewish feast for the inauguration of a king, the Feast of Trumpets, which falls on the 1st day of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar.
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. – Revelation 12:1-6
If the woman is the constellation of Virgo and the sun is in the middle with the moon just underneath, then the crown on her head is the constellation of Leo with 9 major stars and the dragon underneath was traditionally an amalgamation of Libra and Scorpio. If there are 12 stars in the crown it means there are 3 extra planets in the constellation of Leo at the time of birth, including a conjunction of Regulus and Jupiter which would have signified the birth of a divine King of kings. If these specifications (and the location of Bethlehem in Judea) are put into mathematical astronomical software to calculate the movements, we get a window of about half an hour on September 11th 3BC.
From a biblical standpoint, this date makes more sense than December 25th. Throughout the ministry of Jesus, He fulfilled a number of biblical feasts including Passover and Pentecost. It stands to reason that His birth also completes one of the feasts mandated by God in the Torah. As for the use of astrological alignments, we already know that God sent the sign of the star of Bethlehem:
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” – Matthew 2:1-2
…and also that the heavens are at His disposal for declaring His work:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. – Psalm 19:1
It isn’t out of character for God to broadcast something through His creation. We don’t know very much about the star of Bethlehem itself, mostly because comets and asteroids have such long trajectories which can divert easily which makes calculations tricky, but if we ever figure it out, I have no doubt it will be fascinating stuff. Obviously, we’re not supposed to worship it though.
In keeping with the prophetic significance of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, if this date is correct it also adds to the validity of His Messianic claims by heralding Him as the King of the Jews.
Should We Still Celebrate Christmas?
Should we even bother celebrating this holiday if it most likely had nothing to do with the actual birth of the Messiah? I guess that’s at the discretion of the individual and their personal convictions.
The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. – Romans 14:22-23
What Paul was talking about in Romans was the issue of exercising freedom in Christ by not being bothered about eating unclean meats. What we eat and drink do not defile us, such as eggnog, but how we relate and speak to other people does defile us. However, if we believe that something is a sin and we do it anyway, then our heart is in rebellion against God and we can turn something benign (such as a holiday with family) into a very real sin. It is unnecessary to judge either yourself or another Christian for roasting a turkey on December 25th, or drinking eggnog and baking cookies (not to be offered to idols, just to be eaten).
At the end of the day, this is one time of year which affords us the opportunity to share the gospel, give thanks to our Saviour, repair relationships and reach out to the needy and disenfranchised with a helping hand. God loves a cheerful giver and this season is such a prime opportunity to pay forward the love of God, rather than selfishly retaining it for ourselves. It might be superstitiously pagan to leave an offering for Santa, but the actual person the fictional character is based on is worth remembering for his outreach to the poor. As Christians, it’s an example we should be following.
Personally, there are two Christmas memories I have from my childhood which stand out more than any others and they had very little to do with presents or food (even though I have an excellent memory for food). The first was volunteering at a nursing home with my family and the church to serve lunch to the elderly residents. The second was going to the beach with my dad for a picnic and a swim. Both of them centred around building meaningful connections with other people and spending quality time, something explored in the most quintessential Christmas story of all time; Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. It’s an enduring tale because it hits upon the intrinsic message of Christmas, which is summed up by Jesus Himself:
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 22:37-40
Whatever you decide to do, rather than saying “bah! Humbug!” perhaps say “God bless us, every one.”
Encyclopedia Britannica Christmas
Scripture taken from both the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. & The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.