Is Christmas Really a Pagan Holiday?


by Rob Lundberg
(be sure to listen to the podcast on this same topic)

I am sure that every one of us, somewhere along the lines, has heard from some well-meaning individuals rail out, “with all sincerity, that we have no business celebrating Christmas, since the Bible gives no date for Christs birth? But is Christmas as we know it really a pagan holiday?    Those of us who have read Dan Brown’s book or or seen the 2006 movie, The Davinci Code, might remember the scene where Professor Lee Teabing pontificates the alleged pagan myth parallel,

“Nothing in Christianity is original. The pre-Christian God Mithras—called the Son of God and the Light of the World-was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days. By the way, December 25 is also the birthday of Osiris, Adonis, and Dionysus. The newborn Krishna was presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Even Christianity’s weekly holy day was stolen from the pagans.” Professor Teabing, in Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code[1]

Is Professor Teabing correct?  Does it have pagan roots?  Was Jesus really born on the 25th of December.[2]  What is this claim really proposing?  Let me give two responses and then expand on this subject.

First, the claim implies that one can be absolutely sure that the exact date of Jesus’ birth must be known in order to be “biblical.” Second, the claim suggests that any remem­brance or celebration of “Christmas” is necessarily un-Christian.  Is this true?  How should we then respond to this?[3]

In reply to the first issue, historically, no exact date can be affirmed as the day of Christ’s birth.

But the absence of such exactness does not imply that Jesus is “therefore not a historical person.” There is ample historical confirmation of the names, events and places concerning the birth, life and ministry of Jesus. Together, these pro­vide proof of His historicity as well as the context for a “historical best guess” concerning the date of His birth.

The absence of an exact date does not, in and of itself, provide sufficient argument against the celebration of Christmas.

As for “pagan” influence, several objections have been raised. Some maintain that Christmas is a “pagan holiday celebrated 2,000 years before the birth of Christ [which] crept into the Christianity of the western world.” They add to that, “Your eternal destiny depends on” whether you celebrate Christmas or not.

Others have argued that October 4 was Christ’s real birthday so we should not celebrate on December 25 (the date of his conception, according to one group); that the symbols of Christmas are all pagan; and that nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to celebrate Christ’s birth. Therefore we should not.

So what shall we say about the day?

First, if it is a particular day (December 25, for example) that creates the problem, it is not likely that any day can be found on which some “pagan” isn’t already celebrating something.

Second, if one want to render day “off limits” because a pagan holiday already exists on that date, then there aren’t any days left to celebrate anything!   

But the New Testament does not say anything about this!

With reference to the objection that the New Testament nowhere commands a celebration of Christ’s birthday, it is an argument from silence, and this silence is insufficient to justify the objection.

In contrast there is evidence that God condoned and even appointed times of joyful celebration for His people. Under the heading of “Festivals,” Unger’s Bible Dictionary says,

Besides the daily worship, the law prescribed special festivals to be from time to time observed by the congregation. One Hebrew name for festival was hag (from the verb signifying to “dance”), which, when applied to religious services, indicated that they were occasions of joy and gladness. The term most fitly designating, and which alone actually comprehended all the feasts, was mo’ed, (a “set time” or “assembly, place of assembly”). What is meant by this name, therefore, was the stated assemblies of the people—the occasions fixed by the divine appointment for their being called and meeting together in holy fellowship, i.e., for acts and purposes of worship.

Also let’s remember that the recurring festivals of Israel include a feast at the beginning of each new civil year (Feast of Trumpets) and a yearly remembrance of Israel’s deliverances: from Egypt (Passover), and the deliverance under Queen Esther from Haaman’s treachery (Purim, which means “lots”).

A careful check of what the Bible says about Israel’s festivals makes it clear that God intended these times to be joyous. In remembering God’s mighty acts, and in company with God’s people, we have all the occasion we need for a great time.

Back to the point. A well meaning believer bringing up the argument that “God nowhere commands it” is what is call, and argument from silence, and not bearing much weight. Let me further add that this argument is also an argument from ignorance of what God has done and ap­proved among His own people.

There is plenty of precedent for celebration. And it is fitting and proper for an event as important as the Incarnation to be remem­bered by God-fearing people. Any date is fine. No day is in and of itself “good” or “bad,” though the time allotted to us can be used for good or bad ends (See Romans 14:5,6). The day is not the issue. Our behavior on any given day is.

Learning from History

Let’s now look at why the Christian Church generally regards December 25, as the day to honor Christ’s birth. When you look at the historical background, it appears that the celebration started as an alternative response to a pagan feast. This is probably where those who are critical of Christian celebrating Christmas get all “bugged out.”

In early Rome, the Feast of Saturnalia, which was a truly pagan feast dedi­cated to Saturn, commemorated the Roman god of planting and harvest. The word “Saturnalia” indicates a licentious feast—Baker’s Dictionary of Religion) was generally held late in December. Gift-giving and general merriment were the order of the holi­day. It appears that in response to the cultural secular and pagan tones of that day, the Christian community provided an alternative.[4]   Those who were professing Christians used the “time off” for the remembrance of Christ’s birth while their happy pagan neighbors were celebrating a pagan deity in their own festival; two totally different worldviews with the direction of commemoration pointing to two totally different deities: a false god and the One true God.  

Again, it is not the day itself that is the problem. It is our use of it. It can be just as wrong for one to refrain from celebrating a holiday but scorn a godly fellow-Christian, as it would be to indulge the flesh as a Christian in “pagan” celebration.

What About the Symbols of Christmas?

Regarding the symbolism employed at Christmas, we must take care and make sure on whether our present symbols are in fact “pagan” in their content. What do I mean about that? Let me give you an example.

It may well be that the Christmas tree, yule log, etc., were at some point “pa­gan.” Today in our culture, however, they could be more a reflection of, and a reflective return to, the early pioneer days, when without a yule log you would freeze to death.

A tree today may only be a symbol without any “deeper” meaning whatsoever. To millions of people though, the only “meaning” of the tree is the holiday itself. To assign it anything else would be incorrect and in some cases confusing.

It is Really About a Matter of the Christian Conscience

Before getting to the matter of conscience, and grant for sake of argument, that December 25 is in fact a pagan holiday, and all the symbols are pagan, and the gift-giving is more of a distraction than a reflection of God’s Gift of Jesus to us.  Let’s grant that.

First, these facts do not obligate me or any other Christian to be a “pagan” at any time. We are each free to choose how we shall remember the Lord’s birth— or even if we shall remember it at all. And whichever we choose, none of us is to be “pagan” either in our choice or in our treatment of those who disagree with us.

Secondly, there is a “flip-side” of the question: If there is no distinctly “Chris­tian” symbolism in a decorated evergreen, then, though it may be fine to have one in our homes. At the same time, the least we should do is ask what place, if any, they have in our houses of worship.

Which brings me to the final, and perhaps most important matter of how to handle a disagreement with another Christian on this subject. And this is where it is a matter of conscience for us as believers.  In Romans 14 we find four guidelines that can give us help on this question.

If we look at the context of Romans 14, we see that it has to do with disagreements between Christians on issues where Scripture and revelation are not “hard and fast.” In fact special days is one such issue.

FirstRomans 14:5,6 leaves room for celebrating Christmas, or Easter, or whatever special day we select. A Christian is free to celebrate or not celebrate.

Second: Whatever we do, it is all to be done unto the Lord (unselfishly as an act of worship), and according to the dictates of a Godly conscience. This as­sumes, of course, that what is done is not contrary to Scripture (see Rom. 14:8).

Third:  No fellow Christian is to condemn another believer in areas where God does not condemn (see Rom. 14:13a). We all are going to stand before the bema seat of Christ and give an account for what we do in this present life (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Finally: We are not to do anything in such a way as to cause an offense to another believer whose conscience and convictions differ from our own. Note Rom. 14:13b. (Note that this does not prohibit me from celebrating Christmas just because my Christian brother objects. It does prohibit me from celebrating only to show him up or to flaunt my freedom to his harm.)

Paul touches on the matter once more in Colossians 2 where he reminds us that Christ has set us free from the law (law-keeping for merit). Therefore, no believer has the prerogative of judgment over us (Col. 2:16). We must also guard against false spirituality that makes us count ourselves “better” than another because our consciences differ (Col. 2:17).

Conclusion

Although there is no date to really pinpoint the date of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, we who choose to celebrate now have some things to share with those who wish to be critical of our celebrating the Christmas holiday.  Let us remember that there is nothing wrong with a follower of Christ celebrating the birth of the Savior. Each of us is free to choose the day and manner of our celebration so long as conscience permits and Scripture is not violated. But none of us is free to con­demn another where his conscience or convictions differ from our own.

And when we are criticized, let us remember the points that are presented here in this post. Have a very Merry Christmas. Christ came, let us know Him more and then go out and make Him known. That is our purpose.  Use this holiday season to point to One in the manger, who is the God-man who came to die and save mankind from its depravity.

Notes

[1]  Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 232.

[2] It appears the there is one movie on Youtube, The Star of Bethlehem, which presents the compelling legend created by the early church or a miracle that marked the advent of Christ, that concludes that the star which the magi pursued appeared on December 25th. My personal thoughts are that the presenter commits a genetic fallacy in his research. But that may be for another time. 

[3] I am sure everyone of us might know someone wrapped up in chasing conspiracy theories believing these claims.

[4] Can you imagine converts in that day having removed themselves from pagan worship, trying to figure out what they would celebrate at that time of year? As the old adage goes, if you take something harmful away, there needs to be an alternative put in its place.  A modern-day illustration of this last point is found in the alternatives provided by some churches and Christian families to Halloween or Mardi Gras—“pagan” holidays on which activities suited to a Christian confession and lifestyle are substituted.

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Rob is a blogger, writer, equipper, and public speaker on a mission to equip the believer to think and articulate what they believe and then take it and communicate it to a confused culture in a “brave new world.”

If you are led by the Lord to assist us in getting into 2019 and impacting the world for the gospel, your prayerful consideration and giving will carry us forward into the months and the year ahead.  Thank you in advance for whatever the Lord leads you to provide
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One comment

  1. Excellent article. The taking over of pagan holidays were bold evangelical moves by Christians. They dressed up at Halloween to mock the demons.

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