Christmas Is Not Pagan
This is a paper written by Dr. Richard P. Bucher.
Part 1 - Introduction
Part 2 - Does the Bible have anything to say about Christmas?
Part 3 - When did Christians begin celebrating Christmas?
Part 4 - The date of Christmas and its customs
Part 1 - Introduction
Since authoring the articles on the Origin of the Christmas Tree and Santa Claus two years ago, I have received dozens of e-mail from readers who scolded me for celebrating Christmas at all. In one form or another, some with kindness, some with invective, they all asserted, “Don’t you know that Christmas is based on pagan festivals and customs? Therefore to celebrate it is to embrace paganism and to sin against God.” In most cases the e-mailers admonished me to dig deeper into the “real” origin of Christmas. So I followed their advice - in a way. I began searching the web for others who held this position, and found a multitude of articles.
Consider the following quotations as examples. In his “Is Christmas Christian?,” Michael Schneider states:
This may be a shocking thought to some: but after wrestling with the question for several years now, searching the scriptures and church history, I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing Christian about Christmas; that in its present observance, as well as in its origin, Christmas is basically and essentially pagan.
What I’m saying, then, is that the real Christmas has always been pagan, and to make it a Christian celebration is to try to add Christ or biblical elements to an essentially pagan holiday.
Rick Meisel echoes this sentiment in “Tis the Season for Pagan Worship”:
What many in Christendom have been celebrating—Christmas—is a thoroughly pagan holiday—in its origin, in its trappings, and in all its traditions.
The modern conservative cry to put Christ back into Christmas is absurd. Jesus Christ was never in Christmas.
I carefully read these and other articles and books because I wanted to know the basis for their argumentation. What I found is that, though there are minor differences, they all make the same basic argument and recycle the same reasons why Christmas is pagan [by “pagan” the various authors mean “non-Christian religions.”].
Their argument is this: “Christmas is obviously pagan because:
There is neither Biblical command or precedent for it;
Christians did not observe it until the time of Constantine (after 313 AD); only then did the Church of Rome introduce it;
The Date of Christmas and its many customs all come from pagan sources;
When Christians observe Christmas in any way they are participating in paganism.”
It is my position that Christmas is certainly not pagan, though many customs have gravitated to Christmas that have pagan origins. Therefore, in this article I would like to respond to those that argue that Christmas is pagan. I will attempt to show that though at times their facts are correct, in most cases their logic is not, which causes them to make false assumptions and conclusions repeatedly.
Before proceeding, however, one more observation. Most of those who argue for the pagan nature of Christmas appear to be sincere Christians who want to base everything they believe and do on the Bible. They are not fanatics. They believe in and value the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ. It is simply their belief that the annual celebration of Christmas past and present is pagan and therefore the Christian should have no part in it.
In fact, if the “Christmas is pagan” crowd merely presented their argument as “opinion,” there would be no urgent need to respond. But it is the fact that they condemn Christmas observers as guilty of idolatry and, and in some cases, suggest that Christians who do Christmas are risking their salvation that is just too much. For in so doing they are binding Christian consciences and robbing Christians of their God-given freedom, making unnecessary matters necessary. More on this later. Now on to the analysis
Part 2 - Does the Bible have anything to say about Christmas?
The Arguments Put Forth By Those Who Oppose Christmas
The first part of the argument that the anti-Christmas literature makes is:
(1) Christmas is obviously pagan because there is neither Biblical command nor precedent for celebrating Christ’s birth.
This is often stated in the literature. Characteristic of this argument are these comments in “Tis the Season for Pagan Worship”:
There is no Biblical warrant, precedent, nor precept for remembrance of the day of Christ’s birth as a day of special religious celebration. This is not to say that we shouldn’t remember Christ’s birth and its significance, but for religious commemorations or celebrations, we must have Biblical command or precedent!
Someone says, “I know Christmas is of pagan origin, but I still think it’s not wrong for a church to have a special time for honoring Christ’s birth.” But since when did Protestants believe that Christians have the right to add to the Bible? Is the church a legislative body? Are we to follow the Bible in our faith and practice, or the thinking of fallible men? If we have the right to add a special holy day to the Christian economy, then we can add 10,000 other things. Then we will be no better than the false cults and the Roman Catholics who follow heathen traditions!
Notice though, that we are commanded to remember Him in His death (but no special day was specified for this either)--“Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; this DO in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:18,19; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). To commemorate His death is Scriptural. Any day of the year will do. To commemorate His birth is non-Scriptural, even extra-Scriptural (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:19), whether one chooses December 25th or any other day.
Later the same author favorably quotes a 1871 sermon by Charles Haddon Spurgeon:
We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas . . . because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Saviour; and consequently, its observance is a superstition, because [it’s] not of divine authority.
Now it is certainly true that the Bible does not command the celebration of Christ’s birth in specific words, and I won’t pretend that there is. Is it not true, however, that Matthew and Luke included their accounts of Christ’s birth, at least in part to be read in worship? As the people responded to such readings of God’s Word in worship with their praise, were they not celebrating Christ’s birth? Moreover, it is well known that the portions of New Testament were from a very early period incorporated into the worship of the Church (e.g., the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1:46-55; and the Benedictus in Luke 1:68-79); it is also well known that portions of the New Testament contain hymns or confessions used already in the Apostolic age (e.g., Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Tim. 3:16).
More to the point, however, does the silence of Scripture make celebrating Christ’s birth wrong? Is it true that when it comes to religious celebrations, the Bible must specifically give command or precedent? Is it true that creating a Christian festival is the same as adding to Scripture?
The answer to all these questions is a resounding, “No!” To say that Christians are forbidden to create a special day for worship unless it is specifically commanded in the Scriptures is ludicrous. Where did they get this idea? Actually there is a word for this: biblicism. Biblicism is the legalistic error that Christians can only do what the Bible specifically says to do. This led some of the radical reformers in the Sixteenth Century to rid their churches of organs, crosses, clergy vestments, and many other things because the Bible did not command such things.
Have these authors never heard of Christian freedom? Yes, the doctrine of the Christian Church must be based only on Scripture alone and we dare not add to or subtract from it. But in matters that do not involve doctrine, in matters that are neither commanded nor forbidden, Christians have freedom in the Church to do or say, add or create, or subtract and delete anything—unless, as I said, it clearly contradicts an essential teaching of the Christian faith, or is found by the majority not to be edifying.
This, by the way, is the meaning of our Lord’s words in Mark, which these anti-Christmas writers love to quote: “You lay aside the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men . . . making the Word of God of no effect through your tradition” (Mark 7:8,13). Jesus was not scolding the Pharisees because they had traditions. He was scolding them because (1) their man-made traditions contradicted the commandment of God and (2) they told those who didn’t follow their traditions that they were sinning, thus making them necessary matters of conscience.
Does annually celebrating Christ’s birth contradict a commandment of God or violate an essential teaching of the Bible? Not at all. Do Pastors tell their parishioners that if they do not observe Christmas they are sinning? If they do, they are wrong. Since we are not commanded to celebrate Christ’s birth annually, we are not sinning if we choose not to. But neither are we sinning if we choose to observe it. It should not be made a matter of conscience, a matter of sin, in either case.
Now some within the anti-Christmas camp would respond by saying, “Ah, but there is a passage that commands us not observe special holy days. It is wrong to celebrate Christmas because the Bible commands us not to observe “days, months, seasons, and years” in Gal. 4:9-11.
Thus, we find in “Is Christmas Christian?”:
Paul wrote to the Galatians in dismay, “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years! I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain” (Gal. 4:10-11). He wasn’t condemning them for observing those institutions commanded by God, but for observing those of man’s making, contrary to God’s law.
Actually, the “days, months, and times, and years” to which Paul referred were Jewish holy days, about which the vast majority of Biblical commentators agree. When this passage is placed in the context of the entire letter to the Galatians, this becomes obvious. The Galatians were being taught by Jewish-Christian false teachers that faith in Jesus Christ was not enough to be justified before God, that they also had to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. Paul focuses on this issue in 5:2-4:
Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. 4 You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.
The problem was not that the Galatians were observing holy days and seasons. It is that they were being taught that such observances were necessary for their salvation, a complete contradiction of the Gospel that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ. Similarly, to observe Christmas because you believe to not do so would be sinful is wrong and you would fall under Paul’s exhortation in Gal. 4 & 5. But to observe Christmas in your Christian freedom, because you choose to, not because you have to, is completely permitted before God.
In some of the literature in question, we are also informed that the Sixteenth Century reformers rejected Christmas because it was pagan, as did the Puritans in the Seventeenth. Moreover, it is stated that it wasn’t until the Nineteenth Century that Christmas was observed in Protestant denominations. The idea is, if these Bible-believing scholars rejected Christmas, shouldn’t we?
So, for example, we read in “Is Christmas Christian?”
It was for this very reason that in Calvin’s Geneva you could have been fined or imprisoned for celebrating Christmas. It was at the request of the Westminster Assembly that the English Parliament in 1644 passed an act forbidding the observance of Christmas, calling it a heathen holiday
. . . When the Puritans came to America they passed similar laws. The early New Englanders worked steadily through December 25, 1620, in studied neglect of the day. About 40 years later the General Court of Massachusetts decreed punishment for those who kept the season: “...anyone who is found observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way, any such days as Christmas Day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings.”
It was not until the 19th century that Christmas had any religious significance in Protestant churches. Even as late as 1900, Christmas services were not held in Southern Presbyterian churches. The pcus General Assembly of 1899 declared: “There is no warrant in Scripture for the observance of Christmas and Easter as holydays (sic), rather the contrary (see Gal. 4:9-11; Col. 2:16-21), and such observance is contrary to the principles of the Reformed faith, conducive to will-worship, and not in harmony with the simplicity of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
There is an element of truth in the above statements. It is true that many of the Reformation churches rejected or outlawed the celebration of Christmas, as did the Puritans, and some Protestant denominations after them. It is disingenuous, however, to claim that they did so because they believed Christmas to be pagan. Rather, as their statements show, they refused to observe Christmas because (1) they believed that Scripture forbade special holy days; (2) they perceived Christmas to be “Roman Catholic” based on non-Scriptural tradition; and (3) they rejected Christ-mass because they considered the Church of Rome’s mass to be contrary to the Gospel.
That reformation movements strove to distance themselves from the Pope and the Church of Rome is not at all surprising. The whole point of the Sixteenth Century Reformation was to “reform” the abuses and errors in the Christian Church of their day, which in Europe was the Church of Rome. With the resurgence of Biblical scholarship and Biblical authority, these reformers began to see that there were a multitude of teachings and practices in the Church of Rome that were “doctrines of men,” that were not found in or supported by the Word of God. In their zeal for Biblical truth, however, many of these groups tried to remove all doctrines of men and everything that smacked of the Church of Rome, including Christmas and other major holy days, ceremonies, and fasts.
But not all reformers took this approach. In fact, the original reformer, the one who launched the Reformation, Martin Luther, did not. Luther, and the reformation that followed him, only discarded those human teachings and traditions that directly contradicted the Gospel and the Scriptures. All other traditions within the Roman Church were retained if they were found to be helpful and edifying. For Luther, the doctrines of men became problematic when they made matters of conscience out of things that were not articles of faith, such as food, drink, clothing, and days. According to Luther:
We do not condemn the doctrines of men just because they are the doctrines of men, for we would gladly put up with them. But we condemn them because they are contrary to the gospel and the Scriptures. While the Scriptures liberate consciences and forbid that they be taken captive by the doctrines of men, these doctrines of men captivate the conscience anyhow (A Reply to the Texts, LW 35:153; WA 10II:91).
For this reason Luther retained many things in the Roman Church that did not contradict the Gospel, such as the liturgical calendar, some holy days, and yes, Christmas. In fact, Luther wrote many beautiful Christmas sermons (which you can read at www.ultranet.com/~tlclcms/mlserms.html) and hymns.
This was followed by the Lutheran Church. In one of their official confessions of faith, The Augsburg Confession of 1530, it states:
Concerning church regulations made by human beings, it is taught to keep those that may be kept without sin and that serve to maintain peace and good order in the church, such as specific celebrations, festivals, etc. However, people are also instructed not to burden consciences with them as if such things were necessary for salvation (Augsburg Confession, XV, Book of Concord. Kolb-Wengert edition).
Though at this time the Lutherans abolished numerous saints’ days, they kept other festivals, such as Christmas, because they saw them as wonderful opportunities to teach about events in the life of Christ. What the Lutherans did reject was the Church’s of Rome’s version of the mass, which made the Lord’s Supper into a re-sacrificing of Christ in order to merit God’s favor. They also wanted to see unChristian legends and songs removed from the Church’s celebration of Christmas. And they repeatedly stated that it was not sinful to fail to observe Christmas (See Instructions to Visitors, LW 40:298-299).
Part 3 - When did Christians begin celebrating Christmas?
The Arguments Put Forth By Those Who Oppose Christmas
Argument 2: The first Christians never observed the celebration of Christ’s birth until emperor Constantine in 313 AD officially tolerated Christians.
The real argument here is that when the church was “pure” during the first three hundred years, Christmas was never celebrated. Only when the church became corrupt, during and after the time of Constantine, did the Roman Church adopt Christianity based on pagan ideas. In this scheme, Constantine is depicted as someone that willingly mixed Christianity with paganism.
As an example of this we read in “Is Christmas Christian?”
There is no indication in the New Testament that the early Christians observed Christmas at all. It can be demonstrated in church history that, for probably the first 300 years after the birth of Christ, Christians knew nothing of Christmas celebration. It was only as the Church began to drift from apostolic doctrine and practice into corruption that Christmas began.
In 313 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine supposedly adopted the Christian faith and declared it to be the official religion of his realm. His embracing the Christian Church proved detrimental to true Christianity. Constantine retained the traditional pagan titles, and his coins still bore the figures and names of the old Roman gods.
The Church became “the Roman Catholic Church” and its method became compromise with paganism.
And “Tis the Season for Pagan Worship” chimes in:
The fact of the matter is this—the early church did not celebrate Christ’s birth, but such celebration only came into the church with the “Christianization” of pagan rites as Catholicism was made the state religion by Constantine in the fourth century A.D.
First, it shows a total ignorance of early Church history to imagine that after the apostles there was a time that the church was “pure.” One only has to read the church fathers and other church documents to discover that in many places the Church began to drift from apostolic doctrine and practice almost from the beginning. As early as the late First Century, there arose legalistic and rigorist mindset in the church that seemed to almost forget the Biblical teaching of grace. Scattered throughout the empire were churches calling themselves Christian which were in fact gnostics, who used both the Scriptures and their own sacred literature side by side. From the time of the apostles there were countless false teachers and teachings that invaded the church, and in many cases leading entire regions astray. The followers of the false teacher, Marcion (85-160), for example, filled the Roman empire with hundreds of congregations by the end of the Second Century. There certainly was an orthodox Church, but it was anything but pure, in the sense of, “without any error.” These early Christians were beset with as many temptations and errant philosophies from the world as Christians today are.
Second, the implication that Constantine was a “pagan” emperor in disguise, because he “retained the traditional pagan titles, and his coins still bore the figures and names of the old Roman gods.” needs clarification and correction. There is a distinct difference between the Constantine from 312-323 and the Constantine from 324 and after. In 312 he became the emperor of the western part of the empire, while Licinius became emperor of the east. About this period of 312-323, the noted W. H. C. Frend observed:
And what of Constantine during these years? The evidence points to a consistent if stormy progress toward accepting the Christian God as the one to whom exclusive service must be given . . . However, until his preparations for his final campaign by 323, he did not abandon his allegiance to the Sun god, even though he regarded himself as a servant of the Christian God . . . For twelve years the two allegiances were held in uneasy tension until the “God of Battles” claimed his own . . . The liberation of Rome was attributed to the Sun on a Medallion struck at the time. Soli Invicto Comiti continued to dominate the coinage. While other Western issues show the Sun’s orb resting on an altar. The protection of the gods of the empire did not disappear from the coins until after c. 319. (W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity, Fortress Press, 1985, 484).
After 324 all this changed. In 324 Constantine defeated Licinius at the Battle of Chrysopolis, and he became sole ruler of the Roman empire. Now his ardor for Christianity new no bounds. In fact, so disgusted was he by the paganism of Rome, that he moved the capital of the empire to Byzantium, finishing it in 330, and renaming it Constantinople. He forbade pagan sacrifices and he decreed that there were to be no idolatrous worship and no pagan festivals of any kind.
Thus, there is no evidence that the “pagan” Constantine was somehow responsible for combining the celebration of Christ’s birth with paganism by moving it to Dec. 25. If anything, the evidence shows a Constantine who became so committed to the Christian faith that he was steadily moving toward disallowing all paganism.
It is also an anachronism that during the time of Constantine, that the “Church became the Roman Catholic Church,” or that “Catholicism was made the state religion by Constantine in the 4th Century.” Actually it was Theodosius I who decreed that Christianity was the official religion of the empire in 379. There was no “Roman Catholic Church” in the Fourth Century. That name only came into existence after the Sixteenth Century Reformation. It is true that Theodosius made “Catholicism” the state religion, if by “Catholicism” one means true Christians over against heretics. The see of Rome was highly honored, but held no special position of superiority at that time.
Thirdly, while it is true that Christmas (the birth of Christ) was not listed as one of the chief Christian festivals in the first two centuries of the Church’s existence, it is not exactly true that the first Christians never observed the birth of Christ until the time of Constantine. Actually there is evidence of the feast being celebrated in Egypt prior to 200 A.D. The Church father Clement of Alexandria tells us that certain theologians had claimed to have determined not only the year of the Lord’s birth but also the day; that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus and on the 25th day of Pachon (May 20) (Stromata, I, 21). He also added that others said that he was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi (April 19 or 20). Another piece of evidence is De Paschae Computus of 243, which states that Christ was born on March 28, because, it says, this was the day that the sun was created. Clement also tells us that other Christians were in the custom of celebrating the Baptism of Christ (his Epiphany) on the 15th day of Tubi and others on the 11th of the same month (Jan. 10 or 6). This is significant because it became customary in many places for Christians to celebrate both Christ’s epiphany and his birth at the same – a practice of the Armenian Church to this day.
Part 4 - The date of Christmas and its customs
The Arguments Put Forth By Those Who Oppose Christmas
(3) The date of Christmas (December 25), and its many customs all come from pagan sources. Therefore Christmas is pagan.
It is when the “Christmas is pagan” literature examines the origin of the dating of Christmas on Dec. 25, that the anti-Christmas advocates become convinced that Christmas is wholly pagan. This is their strongest argument. The argument goes like this: Since no one knows when Jesus was born, where did the Church get the idea of celebrating it on Dec. 25? From the pagans who had several festivals the time of the winter solstice which honored pagan gods. Where did the pagans at the time of the Roman empire get the idea? It came from the paganism of ancient Babylon, a paganism begun by Nimrod and his wife.
One example of this argument is “Are Christianity and Christmas Compatible?” by Adam Wiemers:
Why is Christmas celebrated on Dec. 25th? The answer is rather surprising.
Just a little research reveals that Christmas was actually adapted from a Roman celebration called Saturnalia. The Encyclopedia Romana* explains that “at the time of the winter solstice (December 25 in the Julian calendar), Saturnus, the god of seed and sowing, was honored with a festival.” The encyclopedia goes on to state that “the Saturnalia did continue to be celebrated as Brumalia (from “bruma,” winter solstice) down to the Christian era, when, by the middle of the fourth century AD, its rituals had become absorbed in the celebration of Christmas.”
Isn’t that alarming? The very ways that Christmas is celebrated are directly borrowed from a festival to a god of the Romans!
This is only partially true. It is certainly well known that the Bible does not tell us the exact date of Christ’s birth. As we saw in the previous section, Christians have been trying to pinpoint that date since the early centuries of the Church. Nevertheless, no one can say for certain which date is accurate.
The Romans, like many other cultures at the time of the winter solstice, had various festivals. Saturnalia, was a festival that honored Saturn, the god of agriculture, from Dec. 17-24. It was the most popular festival of the year and did involve merrymaking, gift-giving, relaxed morality, and temporary freedom for slaves, who were allowed to do and speak whatever they wanted. But not unlike many of our Christmas feasts today, by the early Fourth Century, the religious aspect of Saturnalia had faded, and the secular merrymaking had come to the fore. It is not likely, however, that Christians chose Dec. 25 to celebrate Christ’s birth on the basis of Saturnalia.
The earliest extant record of Christ’s birth being observed on December 25 is the Chronography in 354 A.D. This document was based upon a calendar that dated it to about 336 (Herman Wegman, Christian Worship in East and West, New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1985, 103).The Chronography was a document of the Church of Rome that listed the various martyrs’ feasts for the year. By the time that Chrysostom was Bishop of Constantinople (398-404), Christ’s birth was being observed on Dec. 25 throughout Christendom, though the Church in Armenia observed it on January 6.
But how did it happen that the early Christians began observing Christmas on December 25? Why this date? There are two theories about why December 25 was chosen.
(1) The first theory holds that after careful research, Julius (337-352), Bishop of Rome, determined that Christ had been born on December 25; or at least he determined that December 25 was the best authenticated date in the Tradition. John Chrystostom states this in one of his writings (John Chrysostom, Homil. Diem Natal., 2; PL, 49, 552ff.). Chrysostom claims that Julius, after he had been requested by Cyril of Jerusalem, had the official records of the Roman census examined and determined that December 25 was the correct date. As Weiser points out, however, there is no evidence to back this up; in fact, “it was expressly stated in Rome that the actual date of the Saviour’s birth was unknown and that different traditions prevailed in different parts of the world” (F. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs - New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1958, 61.).
(2) The second theory states that the Church of Rome deliberately chose December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth to turn people away from a pagan feast that was observed at the same time. Since the time of the Roman emperor Elagabulus (218-222), the god Sol Invictus (he Unconquered Sun god), had been one of the chief deities worshiped by the Romans. When emperor Aurelian (270-275) came to power, he sought to restore the worship of the Sun god to prominence and make him the chief deity. In the last years of his reign, Sol was hailed as “The Lord of the Roman Empire.” Sol, along, with Jupiter, appeared on the coins Aurelian had minted. In 274, the emperor built a magnificent temple to Sun god, and established a new college of senators which he named “the priests of the Sun god.” Finally, December 25 was observed as “the birthday of the Sun god” (natalis solis invicti). Because the Sun god was identifed with Mithra, a popular Persian god that also was viewed as the Sun god, pagan celebrations occurred throughout the empire on Dec. 25 (see Clement A. Miles, Christmas, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912, 23). The Church at Rome seems to have chosen this date to counteract this pagan feast of the sun god and turn people instead to the “Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings” (Malachi 4:2; Luke 1:78). Or put another way, Julius chose December 25 so that the Son of God rather than the Sun god would be worshiped. Though there no direct evidence that proves that the Church of Rome deliberately chose December 25 so that Christ’s birth would replace “the birthday of the sun,” we do have sermons from fathers of the church who soon after this used this line of reasoning. For example, Augustine (354-430) in his sermon 202 and Leo the Great (440-461 -- PL 54 Sources chrtiennes 22) gives this line of reasoning.
Therefore, the second theory seems to be the probable one. December 25 was chosen not because it had somehow been proven from extra-biblical sources that Christ was definitely born on December 25. Rather the date was chosen to counteract a very popular pagan holiday that already had been occurring on this date.
Given what we learned about emperor Constantine in the previous section, it is likely that his embracing of Christianity and example influenced the Church of Rome in doing what they did. But there is no evidence of Constantine’s direct involvement.
Now does the fact that the Church of Rome chose the same date to celebrate Christ’s birth as a popular pagan festival mean that “Christmas is based on a pagan festival” or that “Christmas is pagan”? I don’t think so! What kind of reasoning is that? It simply means that they chose the same day - why, we don’t exactly know. Perhaps they chose it to keep Christians from taking part in the pagan festivities, or perhaps to entice pagans to join the Christian faith. If a group of Christians chose to celebrate Christ’s birth on Halloween or on some well known Satanic day, would it be fair or right to accuse them of basing Christ’s birth on paganism, so that from then on Christmas would be forever pagan? Of course not! In this case the Christians might be doing this to give themselves something Christian to celebrate on the day. Is that wrong? Placing a Christian feast on a well known non-Christian day does not make the Christian feast non-Christian. They are merely sharing the day. We worship our God on Sunday, which in Roman times, was the day dedicated to the Sun-god. Does that make our worship on Sunday pagan? Perhaps we should worship on Saturday. But that day in Roman times was named in honor of the god Saturn. Would that make our festivals on Saturday pagan? Of course not. But this is the kind of faulty logic used by the “Christmas is pagan” crowd.
It gets worse. The “Christmas is pagan” argument typically asks a further question: Where did the Romans get their pagan festivals at the time of the winter solstice? Answer: From the paganism of ancient Babylon, which was initiated by Nimrod and his wife, Semiramus. A classic example of this argument is found in a tract by the World Wide Church of God entitled, “The Plain Truth About Christmas,” here quoted at some length.
But if we got Christmas from the Roman Catholics, and they got it from paganism, where did the pagans get it? Where, when, and what as its real origin? It is a chief custom of the corrupt system denounced all through Bible prophecies and teachings under the name of Babylon. And it started and originated in the original Babylon of ancient Nimrod! Yes, it stems from roots whose beginning was shortly this side of the Flood! Nimrod, grandson of Ham, son of Noah, was the real founder of the Babylonish system that has gripped the world ever since . . . . Nimrod built the tower of Babel, the original Babylon, ancient Nineveh, and many other cities. He organized this world’s first kingdom. The name Nimrod, in Hebrew, is derived from “Marad,” meaning “he rebelled.” . . . Nimrod was so evil, it is said he married his own mother, whose name was Semiramis. After Nimrod’s untimely death, his so-called mother-wife, Semiramis, propagated the evil doctrine of the survival of Nimrod as a spirit being. She claimed a full-grown evergreen tree sprang overnight from a dead tree stump, which symbolized the springing forth unto new life the dead Nimrod. On each anniversary of his birth, she claimed, Nimrod would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts upon it. December 25th was the birthday of Nimrod. This is the real origin of the Christmas tree. Through her scheming and designing, Semiramis became the Babylonian “Queen of Heaven,” and Nimrod, under various names, became the “divine son of heaven.” Through the generations, in this idolatrous worship, Nimrod also became the false Messiah, son of Baal the Sun-god. In this false Babylonish system, the “Mother and Child” (Semiramis and Nimrod reborn) became chief objects of worship. This worship of “Mother and Child” spread over the world. The names varied in different countries and languages. In Egypt it was Isis and Osiris. In Asia, Cybele and Deoius. . . . Thus, during the fourth and fifth centuries, when the pagans of the Roman world were “accepting” the new popular “Christianity” by the hundreds of thousands, carrying their old pagan customs and beliefs along with them, merely cloaking them with Christian-sounding names . . . . The real origin of Christmas goes back to ancient Babylon. It is bound up in the organized apostasy which has gripped a deceived world these many centuries! In Egypt, it was always believed that the son of Isis (Egyptian name for “Queen of Heaven”) was born December 25th. Paganism celebrated this famous birthday over most of the known world for centuries before the birth of Christ. December 25th is not the birthday of Jesus the true Christ!
So goes the argument, which is repeated by many different anti-Christmas authors. Where in the world did such an argument come from? This was the thesis of Alexander Hislop, who in the Nineteenth Century wrote a book entitled, “The Two Babylons: Or the Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife.” It was Hislop’s thesis that the Roman Catholic Church was a direct descendent of the paganism of Nimrod and ancient Babylon. One of his arguments was that some of the chief holy days of the Roman Catholic Church, such as Christmas, prove this to be so. The stamp of Hislop’s thesis is found all over most of the anti-Christmas literature that I’ve seen. But is his argument sound?
Hardly. I have no doubt that Hislop consulted a vast amount of sources in writing his book. This is obvious in reading it. But some of its key arguments are flawed. He makes many philological leaps of faith to prove his points. For example, his entire argument rests on making the Babylonian “Ninus” the same person as the Biblical “Nimrod.” (Nimrod is mentioned in only three places in the Scriptures, Gen. 10:8-12, 1 Chr. 1:10, and Micah 5:6). Only then can he claim that the wife of Nimrod was Semiramis, and that both were worshiped as divine mother and son, etc. Hislop himself recognizes how important this is, in this very interesting sentence:
Now, assuming that Ninus is Nimrod, the way in which that assumption explains what is otherwise inexplicable in the statements of ancient history greatly confirms the truth of the assumption itself (The Two Babylons, 25).
Got that? The point is that this turns out to be a big assumption. In other ancient literature, the father of Ninus was Bel, and it is said that he built the city of Nineveh. The Bible on the other hand says that Nimrod built Nineveh, and that Cush was his father. The way in which Hislop attempts to reconcile this contradiction is a truly remarkable example of literary gymnastics that is hardly convincing. He argues that Bel is the same as Hermes/Mercury, and the same as Janus/Chaos, which is the same as Cush. Right. (See for yourself by reading the “The Two Babylons,” 25-29).
It is possible that Nimrod, the grandson of Cush, led people into pagan worship. But the argument that all paganism, and especially that all pagan festivals at the time of the winter solstice, can be traced back to Nimrod, just doesn’t hold. To say it is a scholarly stretch is an understatement. Yet most of the “Christmas is pagan” literature bases its arguments on Hislop’s thesis.
Isn’t it more likely, that many primitive cultures and religions would choose to celebrate the birth of their gods at a time when the sun began to grow stronger, and thus be reborn? Isn’t it much more likely that this is the reason that so many pagan religions have festivals at the time of the winter solstice? I’ll let you decide which thesis is stronger.
The last part of the third anti-Christmas argument to be considered is that the origin of the customs were pagan and therefore Christmas is pagan. It is well known that most of the customs of Christmas were also observed in pagan culture and religion. Lights and mistletoe, trees and gift-giving, merry-making and revelry, yule logs and holly, and yes, Santa Claus, all found use or expression in ancient pagan religion and culture (The reader is encouraged to read my articles on “The Origin of the Christmas Tree,” “The Origin of Santa Claus and the Christan Response,” and the “Christian Customs FAQ.”).
But is similarity the same as dependence or derivation? In other words, just because we use similar customs does it mean in every case that these are directly derived from pagan religions? Cultures all over the world have used lights and trees, gift-giving and revelry for their celebrations. Why is it assumed that because Christians use these things at Christmas that they have taken them directly from paganism? If it is discovered that pagans drank milk or hugged their families at their pagan festivals, does that mean that if Christians do so, they are engaging in paganism? But this is the kind of logic used by the anti-Christmas crowd.
Of course some Christmas customs are certainly taken from paganism. The use of the word yule and the various customs associated with it, for example, come from pagan culture. The word probably came the Anglo-Saxon geol, which meant “feast.” It is thought that among the Anglo-Saxons, the time of the winter solstice was a time of a great feast.
But so what? Is everything that was once used by paganism centuries ago, now off limits when Christians apply them to Christmas or other Christian festivals? Are we prepared to strictly apply that to everything we do? Why can’t we use some of the same words, symbols or customs, which long ago ceased to be used in the worship of false gods? We need to remember that before pagans coopted them centuries ago, God had given many of the things used in custom, as good gifts to be enjoyed by his people. Why then can Christians not redeem these good gifts for their use as they celebrate Christmas? In my opinion, it is sufficient to point out to people the origin of these customs, and distinguish these “winter customs” from the true Christmas celebration, which has to do with the birth of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. In my perfect world, people would call all of those customs “winter customs” or “holiday customs” rather than “Christmas customs.” “Christmas” would only be used to refer to the Christian holy day that remembers Christ’s birth. But I don’t see that happening any time soon.
We cannot and should not stop the peoples of the world from celebrating at the time of the winter solstice. There is obviously something in us that makes us want and need to celebrate at this time of the year. Therefore we should not be surprised that at this time of the year even non-Christians are celebrating “Christmas,” that is, using many of the customs now called Christmas customs.
I have not written this essay to condemn the “Christmas is pagan” crowd. And I certainly haven’t written it to convince them that they must celebrate Christmas. Christians have never been commanded to celebrate Christ’s birth annually. Therefore they are free to do so or not do so. I have written this essay, however, to those dear Christians who have been falsely taught that celebrating Christmas is celebrating paganism, and they are wracked with guilt because of it. My message to them is: you are doing nothing wrong to celebrate the birth of God’s Son; in fact, praising and thanking God for the gift of His Son is beautiful worship in the sight of God. There is also nothing wrong with using some of the winter customs, provided you keep them in perspective and don’t allow them to bury the celebration of Christ’s birth.
May all who read this, have a truly joyous Christmas celebration.