Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?
By: Staff Minister Brandon Steenbock
If you’re a Christmas celebrating disciple of Jesus, chances are you have been told that the Church hijacked Christmas and all its traditions from pagan holidays. How do you respond to that? Get defensive and a little upset? Question your celebrations? Argue, deny, and get angry? Hopefully not, but if you’ve ever been tempted, I want to help you find a better response. Last year, I wrote about whether or not Jesus was born on December 25th. So this year, let’s talk about what we can say to our friends who claim Christmas comes from paganism.
Before we talk responses, though, let’s get a few facts straight:
- Early Christians did not celebrate Christmas, but many thought Jesus was born around December 25th. Clement of Alexandria (born ~150 AD and died ~215 AD) wrote that Jesus was conceived on March 25th, and so born around December 25th. (Ancient believers thought that important people died on the same calendar date they were conceived, and Clement calculated Jesus’ death as taking place on March 25th.) Hippolytus’ Commentary on Daniel (circa AD 200) Jesus’ birth in December as well. Around 350 AD, Pope Julius I decreed that Jesus’ birth be commemorated on December 25th. This doesn’t mean Jesus was born in December, but that early Christians believed he was. When they began celebrating Christmas, it was based on this understanding, not an attempt to integrate with the culture that was actively persecuting them.
- December includes many historic non-Christian holidays. Most cultures around the world have festivals to mark Midwinter or the winter solstice. Some, like Saturnalia and the Feast of Mithras, were widespread in the Roman Empire and took place around December 15-21. Christians didn’t hijack these celebrations, but they may have imported some customs like feasts and songs, special decorations, and gift-giving. This happens when cultural celebrations happen close to one another, like Samhain and All Saints Day that together, have become Halloween.
- Christians have always redeemed pagan customs. In Athens, Paul stood up to address the men in the Areopagus and showed them that their altar “To an Unknown God” was really a recognition of the true Creator of all things. On the British Isles, Christian missionaries turned worship of the Three Faced Goddess to worship of the true Triune God. Throughout history, temples to other deities have been converted into places of Christian worship, and ethnic worship customs have become Christian expressions. While that may not be what happened with Christmas, it is not uncommon for missionaries to find ways to redeem culture for Christ.
- Christians have not always been cool with Christmas. For a long time, the Church frowned on Christmas celebrations. When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, he still celebrated the Feast of Mithras for years. He was eventually convinced by his bishops to emphasize the Nativity of the Christ, but not everyone thought this was wise; it seemed like it was the same revelry under a different name. In Europe, Midwinter feasts and Christmas blended together and the Church struggled to distinguish celebrating Jesus from celebrating nature. In early America, the Puritans outlawed Christmas celebrations because of the temptation to drinking, gluttony, and materialism. Christmas celebrations only became mainstream for American Christians in the mid 1800s, and many of our traditions have developed in the years since.
- Christmas in America today has little to do with Christ. Most people in our culture, including most Christians, celebrate Christmas with non-Christian mythology and folklore. Santa, flying reindeer, elves, magical trains, none of them have to do with the story of Jesus. The “Hallmark Christmas” was popularized in the 40s and 50s, and had more to do with marketing than with spreading holiday cheer.
The issue isn’t whether or not Christmas finds its origin in pagan holidays. The issue is how we respond when someone suggests it does. This is what tells people what matters to us – our pride in our celebrations, or Jesus himself.
So first of all, don’t get too worked up about this. Even if it were true that Christmas originated with pagan holidays, it doesn’t change that today you celebrate the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, the one who came to save us from our sins.
Second, be reflective of Christmas celebrations. What if your priority is on the same things that were priorities in pagan celebrations like Saturnalia and the Feast of Mithras? It is easy to spend the Christmas season eating too much, drinking too much, being more concerned with Santa and Elf on the Shelf, giving and receiving gifts, and outdoing our neighbor’s decorations. If you’ve been tempted by any of that, maybe ask yourself how your celebrations are pointing to the Christ you say is at the center of Christmas.
And finally, be patient and humble in your response. Maybe ask some questions, like, “What do you mean by that? What difference has it made for your life? What do you want me to do differently based on this?” Maybe the person who tells you that Christmas is based on pagan holidays is struggling with past hurts around Christmas or Christianity. Maybe you are just receiving that hurt unknowingly. Maybe the best Christmas gift you can give is a listening ear.
Christmas probably did not start as a replacement for pagan celebrations, but the Church has always struggled to keep it separate from non-Christian traditions and folklore. When you respond to a friend who claims Christmas is just a hijacked pagan holiday, be patient, be honest, be gentle, and be reflective. Take it as an opportunity to point to Christ. After all, isn’t he what this season is all about?