By Elysia McColley
One piece of contention that many people have regarding the “Christian-ness” of Christmas is that it is celebrated on December 25, formerly a pagan feast day. Skeptics may try to assert that Christians merely wanted to co-opt another religion’s holiday and claim it for themselves. This belief is only partially true. Jesus was not born on December 25, and the day was associated with pagan traditions long before His birth.
Before getting into a philosophical quagmire, let’s look at what the Bible says. In Romans 14:5-6a Paul wrote, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord” (NIV).
So regarding December 25, if you don’t think that the day has any special significance, then the Bible says that you are free to think that way. You do not have to think of that day as a holiday. But if you do regard December 25 as special, you should do so by considering the day as special to God. December 25 is a date that is associated with pagan traditions, but Christians have the duty of redeeming the culture and transforming it for the glory of God.
The Winter Solstice
The winter solstice occurs on December 21, though some ancient cultures recognized it on December 25, and marks the shortest day of the year. Prior to the winter solstice, days get progressively shorter and darker. Because after the solstice the sun is higher in the sky and days become longer, many ancient cultures celebrated the day and associated it with a solar deity. The Romans were no exception, and they celebrated the feast of Saturnalia – after the god Saturn – which ran from December 17 until December 23, though it could run until December 25.
Without getting into too many specifics, Saturnalia was a holiday whose celebration included public orgies and human sacrifice. The feast coincided with the Norse-Germanic Yule festivities, and some have suggested a solstice celebration in the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian religions, as well. One of those celebrations may have been that the birth of Solar Invictus, the unconquerable sun. Today, some people believe that celebrating the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, on December 25 is actually celebrating the birth of the Sun God, pun intended. Yet this assertion is entirely untrue, as Christians do not associate Jesus with a pagan “sun god.”
By the third century AD, there was speculation among early Christians, such as Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria, as to the exact date on which Jesus had been born. One of the offered dates was December 25, at least in part due to a Jewish tradition that a prophet dies on the anniversary of his conception. Claiming that Jesus died on March 25, some early Christians decided that December 25 – exactly nine months later – marks the date of his birth. This date is speculation and is likely not correct. However, the feast of Saturnalia may have given early Christians, who were persecuted by the Roman government, a cover for celebrating the birth of Jesus.
By the fourth century, the church had risen to dominance in the Roman Empire, and Christianity began its transition from the religion of a persecuted minority to the religion of the state. Meanwhile, the empire had expanded its frontiers to include many of the Germanic peoples who also celebrated the winter solstice as a pagan holiday. Unable to end the pagan celebrations, the church instated that on December 25, Christ’s Mass – Christmas – would be celebrated instead of any pagan feasts.
Redeeming the Culture
We can’t say for sure if, in deciding that Christ’s birth would be celebrated on December 25, the church was trying to assert dominance over a pagan religion by co-opting some of its traditions, or if it was actually trying to redeem a pagan holiday. There is a big gray area and a lot of room for debate on this issue. The question that we need to answer is whether we, as Christians, will redeem the day of December 25 by, according to Romans 14:5-6a, honoring it as special to the Lord.
The feasts of the winter solstice may have been celebrations of pagan deities, but Christians know that there is only one God, and we worship Him alone. There is no room for pagan deities, not even a sun god, when there is only one God. And there is no need to regard the day as set apart for pagan “gods” when there is only one God. If we set it apart at all – or set apart any day, for that matter – we set it apart for the Lord.
The fact that December 25 was celebrated as a pagan feast day before it was celebrated as the birthday of Christ does not mean that Christmas is a pagan holiday. And the fact that Jesus was not actually born on December 25 does not make Christmas a pagan holiday. It is a Christian holiday that has incorporated many pagan elements. Yet there is only one God, and if we set the day apart at all, we set it apart to Him alone.
We will finish this series by looking at another pagan element that is as ubiquitous as Santa Claus: the Christmas tree. I will show you how its pagan origins do not subvert its symbolic meaning for Christians today.