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My Spouse and I Are Divided Over Church. What Should We Do?
Guide

5 Reasons Christmas Is Not a Pagan Holiday

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Caleb Wait

Caleb Wait (MA, Westminster Seminary California) is the Associate Producer of Core Christianity. He and his wife Kristin have two young children and live in Southern California. You can follow him on Twitter at @calebwait.

“CLICK HERE AND FIND OUT the TRUE Pagan Origins of Christmas!”


There are literally thousands of theories and claims about the origins of Christmas and, depending on your Google search and which rabbit hole of the internet you fall down, you’ll find many headlines like this. But such theories about the pagan-hijacking of Christianity miss several important points that Christians should consider in the holiday season.

What follows are five reasons why Christmas isn’t a pagan holiday, but actually one Christians can receive and celebrate with joy. I hope this resource will give you an appreciation for the resilience of the church through the ages and its logic for why Christmas has become a joyous celebration in her history.

Because The Early Church Wasn't Dumb

Because the Christmas celebration has been so ingrained into western society in various forms for nearly 1,500 years, the origins of Christmas are complicated to unravel. As one scholar summarizes,

The evidence for the origins of Christmas and the
several centuries of pondering that evidence has
resulted in . . . spurious texts, ambiguous evidence,
lengthy speculation, trivial dead-ended issues, and a
mounting pile of reasonable-sounding good guesses.
We don’t know when Christmas started. We don’t
know who, individually or collectively, started it. We
don’t know exactly where or why, or how they got the
date, though our guesses are probably not too far
from the mark.

This assessment might cast doubt upon our ability to celebrate Christmas at all. But instead of doubt, the complications surrounding the origins of Christmas should give us a sense of humility as we approach the topic. And they should cause us to narrow our search, looking for what we can truly know about the history of Christmas.

Assuming that Christians in the early church let their religion be co-opted by pagan rituals makes at least two uncharitable claims: 1) These Christians were easily duped into celebrating a pagan holiday, or 2) The early church purposely sought to enmesh Christianity with paganism. But, as history would have it, these cynical assumptions about our Christian forefathers are unfounded. While we don’t know whose idea it was to begin celebrating the birth of Christ, we do know that early Christians were careful not to incorporate pagan rituals into the practice of the church. In fact, some philosophical sects in the 3rd and 4th centuries accused Christians who celebrated Christmas as secretly worshipping the sun and the moon as some pagans did in the winter, but Christianslike Ambrose of Milan (c. 339–397) and Leo the Great (c. 400–461) refuted these accusations. The early church was greatly offended by claims that they were doing anything “pagan.”

A humble posture would have us assume that these early Christians knew what they were doing and, perhaps, that they even had good reasons for celebrating Christmas.


Footnotes

  • Susan Kroll, Toward the Origins of Christmas (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1995), 223.

  • Kroll, Origins of Christmas, 63.

Because Christmas Is Not A Rip-off of Pagan Festivals and Tradition

Some might ask, but wasn’t Christmas moved to December 25 from January 6 to match the celebration of the winter solstice? If the early church was already defending themselves from critics that accused them of paganizing Christianity, we might expect those same critics to make a big deal out of moving Christmas to December 25. However, this criticism didn’t arise until much later. One pastor writes,

There is no suggestion that the birth of Jesus was set at the time of pagan holidays until the 12th century, when Dionysius bar-Salibi stated that Christmas was moved from January 6 to December 25 to correspond with Sol Invictus. Centuries later, post-Enlightenment scholars of comparative religions began popularizing the idea that the early Christians retrofitted winter solstice festivals for their own purposes. For the first millennium of the church’s history, no one made that connection.

For the first thousand years of church history, not even the critics of Christian celebrations of Christmas associated December 25 with a pagan holiday. Church historian Andrew McGowan notes that the church father Augustine, writing in the 5th century, wrote about a Christian sect known as the Donatists who kept Christmas festivals on December 25. What’s more, the Donatists were staunchly opposed to the pagan practices of the Roman Empire.

At the very least, we can conclude that the early church wasn’t ripping off pagan practices in order to make Christianity more appealing. McGowan also makes a convincing case that early Christians chose to celebrate Christmas on December 25 because they were borrowing from an ancient Jewish tradition that said that the most important events of creation and redemption occurred at the same time of the year. Because of this, many Christians in the early church believed that Jesus died on the same day he was conceived. No matter how speculative that may seem, it fits with the ancient Jewish tradition and makes sense of the move to celebrating in December. If Jesus was conceived around March-April, that would put his birth in December.

All of these details underscore that the early church was careful not to merely adopt pagan practices into the church, but had many other reasons for celebrating Christmas festivities.


Footnotes

  • Kevin DeYoung, “Is Christmas a Pagan Rip-off?”https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/is-christmas-a-pagan-rip-off/.

  • Andrew McGowan, “How December 25 Became Christmas,” https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/how-december-25-became-christmas/

  • McGowan, “December 25.”

Because the Message of Christmas Is Greater than Santa and Commercialism

If the origins of Christmas are not inherently pagan, we might still feel uncomfortable with how Christmas is celebrated today. The religious significance has all but been stripped from our celebrations. After all, the season’s movies, songs, and decorations have more to do with the Santa folktale than they do with the incarnation of the eternal Son of God. And this criticism rings true, for the most part. Historians note that the myth of Santa Claus was employed to sell Christmas goods as early as the mid-1820s, not twenty years after the myth first emerged in the Netherlands. Santa quickly became a common commercial icon, “A figure used by merchants to attract the attention of children to particular shops.” As secular views increasingly grew in the 19th century, people still had a desire to carry on an authentic, ancient, and unchanging tradition. The market provided a way to do this with the Santa tradition. Suddenly, by purchasing gifts and watching the same old movies, we can feel incorporated into something bigger than ourselves.

So, if the early church didn’t borrow Christmas from neighboring pagans, has it now been borrowed by modern day pagan society? Perhaps. Pop-culture Christmas is entirely focused on ourselves and our ability to earn gifts or not. But this doesn’t mean we must throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Consider how God chose to reveal himself to humanity: through his word. In his good providence, God chose to communicate to man intermediately through the Scriptures—texts which can be misinterpreted or interpreted differently by different people. Why would God reveal himself that way? We can’t definitively say why, but God knew very well that some people would twist the Scriptures and take them out of context and some would come to different conclusions about them. But their abuse doesn’t mean we should dismiss them altogether. God doesn’t override our human faculties and zap us with divine knowledge. Rather, he accommodates our ability to read, interpret, and reason as he speaks and reveals himself to us.

In Scripture, God also ordained that certain festivals and feasts be observed so that his people could have a hint at what the new creation would be like. As it is with fallen man, he can turn even good festivals into parties of vanity and debauchery (Eccl. 2:1-3:22)—occasions where man fills his belly while ignoring the hungry and downtrodden (Prov. 23:20-21). These are the most challenging aspects of Christmas for Christians today. Even still, we need not let worldly pitfalls keep us from enjoying the Christmas season. The gospel is so profound and otherworldly that even in a highly commercialized holiday, the strange wonder of God being wrapped in human flesh, coming to the world as a helpless babe to redeem man, can’t be muffled, no matter how crowded the mall’s parking lot is and how obnoxious the online ads are.

Because Christians Have Good Reasons to Celebrate in the Harshest of Winters

So, if Christians can still celebrate Christmas in good conscience, how then should we celebrate? Some may conclude that to avoid the appearance of worldliness we must observe Christmas only at our expense. We might be tempted to feel guilty if we indulge in the season by enjoying our gifts and time off with our feet up by the fire. But this isn’t how the Bible cultivates faithful disciples.

Notice Jesus’s demeanor in Mark 2:18-19: “Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to [Jesus], “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.”

Jesus, in his ministry, came eating and drinking—feasting. Many people mistakenly assume that feasting and gluttony are the same, but they are vastly different. Gluttony is a sin because its subject is the self—gluttony eats without giving thanks, it takes in as much as possible before being forced to share with others. But a feast is a proper response to something worth celebrating: Jesus’s first miracle is to turn water into wine; when the Prodigal Son returns home to his father, his father throws him a party and kills the fatted calf. So, if we’re celebrating the truth that God has come to be with us, well, we need not feel bad about raising a glass and enjoying God’s gifts to us, even in the darkest of winters.

Paul says as much in 1 Corinthians 5:8, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

Every Sunday, Christians celebrate this gospel in song and in the feast the Lord provides in his Supper. And special observance and celebration of this gospel when the days are darkest and coldest makes even more sense because it’s the hope we have in tribulation, distress, persecution, and famine (Rom. 8:35). This was also the logic of the ancient church. As one church historian puts it, “If God has truly and irrevocably entered into the human condition and human history, then Christian faith can legitimately make use of the symbolism that the world provides . . . To celebrate Christ, the light of the world, in the darkest days of the year—at least in the Northern hemisphere—makes a great deal of sense; it is not the survival of paganism but the recognition of God in nature and history.”


Footnotes

  • John Baldovin, quoted in Susan Kroll, Toward the Origins of Christmas (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1995), 119.

Because Christmas Isn't a Fairytale

Whatever your posture toward Christmas—whether you’re a Scrooge or a Cratchet—Christmas poses a profound challenge to the modern person. Traditional religion is often pushed aside in western society. When it’s allowed to be seen in public around the holiday season, it’s only used for sentimental purposes. However, the message of Christmas still stands out amidst the trimmings and trappings of the holiday. For even when Christmas is used superficially, we’re still confronted with the strange and wonderful concept of Immanuel: God with us. In Christmas we see that God is not an indifferent spiritual being who lets humans go about their lives unbothered. Rather, in Christmas, God has come as a man, to save man. This isn’t a fairytale; it’s “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10).

Christmas is the confession that God really did come into human history; to save man from the darkness of the world and the coldness of our hearts. And this confession, even in the bleakest, or overly commercialized seasons, is our hope and stay.

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! (Luke 2:10-14)