The festive season is upon us — a time to decorate the house, gather with family, exchange gifts, and of course, discuss the pagan origins of Christmas.
In recent years, suggesting and suspecting that Christmas has a pagan past has almost become a Christmas tradition in its own right. Now, an increasing number of Christians are trying to purge Christmas of these ‘suspect’ practices, whether Christmas trees, gift-giving or jolly old Santa Claus. There are others who decline to celebrate Christmas altogether.
In Colossians 2:16, Paul writes, “do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day”. On the question of whether Christians should celebrate the birth of Jesus as a special ‘holy day’, the Bible is clear: we have freedom to celebrate Christmas, and freedom not to. Let no one judge people for their decision on this matter.
But what about claims that Christmas itself — along with its rich, familiar traditions — emerged from Roman festivals like Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, along with Druid tree worship and other pagan influences?
A 2018 article by CBS News, for instance, claimed that both the date of Christmas and some of the popular customs associated with it “actually evolved from pagan traditions celebrating the winter solstice” and probably “had almost nothing to do with Jesus Christ”. A historian interviewed by the outlet even suggested that “Christmas is really about bringing out your inner pagan.”
These are serious claims that must be addressed.
How Did the Celebration of Christmas Develop?
“Much of the controversy surrounding Christmas is rooted in historical speculation,” writes Scott Aniol, author and Executive Vice President of G3 Ministries, in a recent article entitled Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday? He argues that there is “very little concrete evidence” that the early Roman Catholic church rebadged the pagan feast of Saturnalia as ‘Christmas’ to maintain peace in the Roman Empire, as is often claimed.
Christmas as a family-centred day of giving and nostalgia is certainly a modern development. Prior to this, sadly the celebration of Christmas had degraded into a drunken revelry in parts of Europe and America. So raucous were the festivities that Oliver Cromwell outlawed the celebration of Christmas in England in 1645, and the Puritans in early America did the same from 1659–1681.
By the 19th century, times had changed. According to Aniol:
During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting often occurred during the Christmas season. Class conflict was at its peak in America, and the lower classes would frequently stage violent protests during this time of year. These disturbances during Christmas motivated certain members of the upper class to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.
One of these was Washington Irvin, who in 1819 wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. His book portrayed an English squire kindly inviting peasants into his manor for a “traditional” Christmas celebration, though Irvin invented some of the traditions for the sake of the story.
Another was Charles Dickens and his beloved classic A Christmas Carol (1843), which depicted Christmas as a season of kindness, gratitude and generosity. “These sentiments have characterized the Christmas season since that time,” Aniol affirms.
What is the Origin of the Christmas Tree?
It is true that trees were objects of pagan worship in winter solstice festivals. And it is possible that those festivals had some influence on the Christmas tradition of decorating an evergreen tree.
However, as Aniol points out, “valuing the beauty and symbolism of evergreens was hardly limited to pagan worshipers”. In fact, for people the world over, “evergreen trees have symbolized life and growth without any connotations of worship”.
More importantly, trees have long had significance for Christians — and most of the traditions associated with the Christmas tree actually began as Christian customs. Writes Aniol:
During the eleventh century, religious theater was born to help the illiterate masses understand the truths of Scripture. One of the most popular plays concerned Adam and Eve, their fall, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden was represented by a fir tree hung with apples, which represented both the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The play ended with the prophecy of a coming Savior, and for this reason this particular play was often enacted during the Christmas season.
One piece of scenery from this play became very popular and was often set up in homes and churches — namely, the Paradise Tree or Paradeisbaum. It was a symbol, not only of man’s fall but the promise of salvation in Christ. The Paradise Tree was therefore hung with apples representing the fall in Eden, with bread wafers depicting Christ’s sacrificed body, and with sweets illustrating the sweetness of redemption.
In time, the wafers were replaced by pieces of pastry cut in the shape of angels, hearts, bells and other Christmas imagery. The addition of lighted candles was an innovation of Martin Luther, who wished to recreate the beauty of twinkling stars. Only bigger, stronger trees could bear the weight of all these decorations without drooping, so German glassblowers eventually created hollow baubles, now a staple of the Christmas tree. And the invention of electricity has enabled candles to be replaced with electric light bulbs, and more recently, fairy lights.
Who is Santa Claus?
‘Santa Claus’ is a poor English attempt at pronouncing Sinter Klaas, a Dutch nickname for Sint Nikolaas or Saint Nicholas. So who was Saint Nicholas?
Saint Nicholas (AD 270–343) was a priest in what is now modern-day Turkey. He was a staunch defender of the deity of Christ, including at the famous Council of Nicaea in AD325. According to Aniol, Saint Nicholas was also “known for his kindness, which included giving away all of his inherited wealth and traveling the countryside helping the poor and sick.” He continues:
One of the best-known St. Nicholas stories of kindness is that he saved three poor sisters from being sold into slavery by providing them with a dowry so that they could be married (he left gold coins in the stockings that the girls had left by the fire to dry). People began to celebrate his kindness on December 6, the anniversary of his death. Even after the Protestant reformation, St. Nicholas was revered, especially in Holland. Dutch families who immigrated to America in the 1770s brought with them the tradition of honoring St. Nicholas on the anniversary of his death.
An American descendant of Dutch immigrants named Henry Livingston Jr is credited with popularising — and mythologising — Saint Nicholas in the 1823 poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Aniol explains:
Livingston’s poem is largely responsible for the modern image of Santa Claus, a “jolly old elf” who descends down chimneys to give gifts to children, and his miniature sleigh led by eight flying reindeer, which Livingston also named. This pleasant picture of Santa Claus was further ingrained in American culture with a series of engravings by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly and a set of paintings by Haddon Sundblom that appeared in Coca-Cola ads between 1931 and 1964.
Was Jesus Born on December 25th?
It is commonly claimed that Jesus was not born on December 25th because it is unlikely that shepherds would have been out in the fields at that time of year. Even so, “most scholars would urge caution about extracting such a precise but incidental detail from a narrative whose focus is theological rather than calendrical,” writes Andrew McGowan, President of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.
The early church celebrated the death and resurrection of Christ from the earliest days. By contrast, it took until the late second century for Christians to begin taking an interest in the date of Jesus’ birth. McGowan details what followed:
By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized — and now also celebrated — as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.
So where did these two dates come from? The popular answer is that they were co-opted from the Romans in order to make Christianity more palatable to the pagan world. But if that was the church’s motive, asks McGowan, why is it not spelled out in any early Christian writings? “It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts,” he observes.
There is a better explanation.
December 25th is exactly nine months after March 25th — the date tha