I’ve heard the debate: Christmas has pagan origins, so should Christians celebrate Christmas?
Today, I thought I’d give you my take on it. Should Christians celebrate Christmas? I’ll let you decide.
Pagan Christmas Trees?
The origin of the Christmas Tree is said to be found in pagan tree-worship. Not only would the pagans worship trees in the woods, but they would apparently bring them into their homes to worship them.
It’s interesting to note that while tree-decorating can be historically traced back to the Renaissance era, Christmas Trees didn’t really take off as a widespread Christmas tradition until the 19th Century.
The biggest kick-start for Christmas trees as a Christmas tradition seems to have roots in early Protestant Christianity — not as a means of evangelizing pagans, but as a means of differentiating from the Catholic Church. After the Protestant Reformation, upper-class Christians in Germany adopted this decorative tradition as an alternative to the Catholic “nativity scenes.” Apparently, the same aversion to “making a graven image of God” that kept the Protestants from displaying sculptures of Jesus hanging on a crucifix also steered the early Protestants away from making a graven image of Him laying in a manger. And since popular German folk music celebrated the evergreen as a symbol of faithfulness, permanence, and constancy, it became for the German Christians the natural symbol of our constant, permanent, faithful Savior.
In case you’re wondering, I have a Christmas tree in my house right now. It’s fake…which makes it even more constant, faithful, and permanent.
Pagan Christmas Presents?
Some have suggested that Christmas gifts originated in pre-Christian Rome. There the emperors would compel their lowly citizens to present offerings and gifts during the Saturnalia (in December) and Kalends (in January). Later, this ritual is said to have grown to encompass gift-giving among the commoners. Others point to the fact that the Magi (or “Wise Men”) brought gifts to Jesus. And still others point to the fact that Jesus is God’s gift to us.
So where did Christmas gifts originate? I suppose you could possibly point to all three of these, but what’s important is how they’re used today. If it’s for the sake of materialism, greed, or pride in one’s ability to give, then there’s a deeper issue going on than a possible pagan origin. And if it’s for the sake of love, friendship, or blessing in Jesus’ name, then the origin is irrelevant…we should be doing that all year round!
In case you’re wondering, I bought and made presents for people in my family this year. And you’re welcome to send me presents if you like!
Pagan Celebration of December 25th?
It has been suggested that the Christian date of December 25th is tied to the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia, which was traditionally held from December 17th through the 23rd. If you look at the two celebrations, the only (and I mean ONLY) correlation is the exchanging of gifts (unless you count how the world celebrates with drunkenness…even though that has nothing to do with the Christian celebration). During this feast, the Romans wore ridiculous hats and danced naked in front of a statue of Saturn — the “god” of agricultural plenty — propped up on a couch.
…not seeing any correlations there.
Other scholars have pointed to the celebration of the Roman “sun god” named Sol, which did happen on December 25th. This being a celebration of the victory of light over darkness, it could easily be the prime candidate for a Christian takeover. Nevertheless, any good historian will note that the celebration of “Sol Invictus“, while originating in 278 AD, never occurred on December 25 until around 360 AD — that’s decades after Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 315 AD and the adoption of Christmas into church liturgy in 336 AD. It’s therefore more likely that “Julian the Apostate,” who was noted for trying to return Rome to its pagan origins, tried to usurp the Christian celebration around 360 AD. In other words, Christians didn’t hijack a pagan holiday; pagans hijacked Christmas!
The selection of the 25th actually originated from the early Christians’ best “educated guess” at the actual date of Christ’s birth. (There’s a lot to it, and if you want to really dig into the history, you can read up on it here.)
What I find more fascinating, though, is the work done by Frederick A. Larson, as seen in the DVD The Star of Bethlehem (which I HIGHLY recommend). Using extremely accurate astronomical software, Larson pegged the planet Jupiter as meeting all the Biblical criteria for the star. It just so happens that the exact date when this star appeared to stop over Bethlehem (from the perspective of Jerusalem) was December 25th! Larson points out that this is not necessarily the date of Christ’s birth, but it is very likely the date of the first “Christmas party” as the magi presented their gifts to the King of the Jews.
Is there ANYTHING Pagan about Christmas?
Sure. If you’re hanging mistletoe in hopeful expectation of a kiss, this tradition has believable roots in Norse mythology and Druid orgies and sacrificial killing. And if you’re burning a “Yule Log,” this tradition is connected to early Anglo-Saxon paganism and was believed by the British to be a sort of magical amulet that would protect them from evil and make them prosperous.
I suppose you could find some other pagan origins to various Christmas traditions, but does it really matter? The days of the week are named after pagan gods. Should we stop saying the days of the week? We would also have to throw out our wedding rings (pagan origin), cancel our wedding ceremonies (pagan origin), and eliminate various other wedding traditions. You might be surprised to find out how many things we rely on everyday have origins in pagan cultures and religions — like the 24-hour time systems and 12-hour clocks we use. Do you wear a wrist watch? Pagan roots!
Should Christians celebrate Christmas? Well, should Christians wear watches or use any sort of 12-hour based time? Should Christians wear wedding rings? Should Christians say they go to church on “Sunday”?
I think you get the point.
Should Christians Celebrate Christmas?
Alright…let’s actually answer this one. Should Christians celebrate Christmas? It depends on what you mean by “should.”
If you’re suggesting that not celebrating is “wrong,” then no. Christmas is not something that Christians “should” celebrate. It’s not commanded in Scripture, and it’s not necessary for being a faithful Christian who loves Jesus.
But if you’re wondering whether or not it’s alright to decorate a tree and open presents on December 25th, I say YES! If your heart is pure in your love for Jesus, then it’s perfectly fine. Any possible pagan origins are irrelevant for the pure-hearted believer.
Titus 1:15 — To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. (NIV84)
So if you’re a Christian, Christmas is perfectly fine to celebrate. That said, if you don’t celebrate Christmas, I support you 100% as well.
Colossians 2:16-17 — Therefore 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. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (NIV84)
What about you? Do you celebrate Christmas? Why or why not?