In our culture, Christmas is generally regarded as a joyful time of year. It is a season of visiting friends and family, giving presents, and happy smiles on the faces of children. On the other hand, it is surely true that our pop media culture has twisted Christmas into a merchandising season, a time of stress and aggravation and doing our patriotic duty to “drive the economy” at the end of the year. Though much secular foolishness has entered our culture’s Christmas observance, at its heart Christmas remains a commemoration of the birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of God’s Son, who came to Earth to be an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
My own favorite cultural element of Christmas is the traditional carols. Timeless Christmas hymns such as “Joy to the World,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” remind us of the coming of Jesus and poetically rephrase Biblical themes. As the years and decades pass away, these Christmas carols bring to mind the merry Christmases of my childhood, and memories of departed loved ones. In this way, Christmas is a kind of eternal time of year, as though all Christmases past, present, and future were one.
There are those who would spoil Christmas for the rest of us. Each year, the Christmas season is attacked by the ACLU and other enemies of Jesus who seek to eliminate Christmas or at least push it into a dark corner. Each year the Christmas season is also attacked by believers and unbelievers alike alleging that Christmas is nothing but a pagan holiday, a heathen solstice feast that had been “baptized” centuries ago, imposed on Christianity by manipulative Roman emperors. In this article we’ll consider the historical evidence for this claim.
Christmas and Ever-Changing Culture
Christmas means different things to different people, but if nothing else, Christmas is a product of culture. In every place and time, culture is always changing. Our Christmas observance today in 21st century America is not the same as that of, say, 16th century Germany or 6th century Syria. All cultures are constantly being influenced from many sources. As we’ve seen in other articles of our “pagan influences” series, western culture has been considerably influenced by pagan Greek and Roman culture. However, if we are to “prove all things” (1 Thess. 5:21) we need to be able to base our understanding of history on Scripture and/or solid historical sources. We also need to recognize and distinguish hard fact from scholarly inference and guesswork.
The fact is there is really not much of a “paper trail” in the historical sources that clearly describes the origins of Christmas one way to the other. One can find subtle hints and clues in various writings of the early church but nothing that paints a clear picture of when this tradition started. There is no evidence of a nativity celebration in the early centuries A.D. The feast of Christ’s nativity turns up clearly in the historical record in about the late fourth century A.D., and has been continuously celebrated in Christian cultures ever since that time.
The early church was stridently opposed to paganism. Early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr (circa A.D. 150) and Hippolytus (circa A.D. 200) wrote intelligent, informed, and articulate apologetic tracts against pagan philosophy and worship, along with other heresies that were common in the Roman Empire. Since many early Christians had come out of paganism themselves, the early church was thus very aware of the potential taint of pagan influence.
Over the centuries, Christianity diverged from Judaism and acquired its own cultural distinctive elements. From around A.D. 200 the early church celebrated the feast of the Epiphany. This feast commemorated the discovery of Jesus by the Magi and was symbolic of gentiles finding Christ, which was very meaningful to the early pagan converts.
A Solstice Feast?
The common complaint of Christmas is its proximity to the winter solstice. Surely Jesus would not have been born in December. Surely the shepherds would have returned from the fields for the winter. Why would Caesar Augustus have ordered a census in this season? Many arguments are advanced for and against a December birthday for the LORD, but neither Scripture nor history offers any details.
We often hear that Christmas is really a baptized adoption of the Roman Saturnalia, which was observed on December 17. We also hear that Christmas was adopted from Mithraism, a popular pagan religion of the early centuries A.D. We are also told that in A.D. 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian instituted a pagan holiday Natale Solis Invicti, the "birth of the Unconquered Sun," on December 25, and that this eventually merged with Christmas. Indeed, Sun worship was popular in the Roman Empire. Just as Christianity spread throughout the Empire from Israel, other pagan religions spread from various corners of the Empire, and the Sun was indeed a common object of false worship in many pagan cultures. However, the Christians were bitterly persecuted by Aurelian and his successors. It seems unlikely that the survivors who kept their faith under torture would just roll over adopt an imperial Sun worship feast as a central Christian holy day.
Our oldest reference for December 25 as the date of Christmas is the Chronography of A.D. 354, which is a compilation of a number of different calendars. One of these is a calendar commemorating the martyrs, and includes a reference to natus Christus in Betleem Iudeae on December 25. Another of these, the Philocalian Calendar, includes a reference to N. Invicti on December 25, indicating the “birthday of the Unconquered Sun.” This also happens to be the oldest reference to this solstice feast. Some have argued that perhaps Aurelian picked December 25 to steal that date away from the Christian observance of Christ’s nativity. Either way, the historical record is not clear except to indicate that both feasts were observed on the same date, and there is nothing in this thin evidence to suggest that one influenced the other.
In our modern time, there is a suspicion that any traditional holiday lying close to a solstice or equinox has a pagan root. We should however consider that these seasonal signposts were important calendar events in all pre-industrial cultures, prior to the development of mechanical and electronic timekeepers. There is a certain practical logic to having important holidays fall near the seasonal benchmarks, to better highlight the passing seasons. In the traditional church calendar, the Feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary, is celebrated on March 25, near the vernal equinox and exactly nine months before the nativity of Jesus at Christmas. Some say this is the reason for the selection of the date of Christmas. So even if the date of Christmas is not drawn from a pagan source, it would still have been a practical aid in marking the seasons.
Christmas and the End of Roman Paganism
Many conspiracy theories and “urban legends” of “pagan influences” in the early church involve the Emperor Constantine. Despite all the unsupported allegations against this emperor, he was known in his lifetime as a benefactor of Christianity. He ended centuries of persecution in A.D. 313, only 40 years after Aurelian. Constantine’s mother Helena was a Christian who prayed for him. He was a patron of the Christian church, building the first formal church buildings and sponsoring the Council of Nicaea, which affirmed and established the doctrine of the Trinity.
Contrary to popular misconception, Constantine did not establish Christianity as the official Roman religion. He issued edicts closing businesses on Sunday and requiring soldiers in the army to attend Christian Sunday services. Paganism waned throughout the fourth century to the point where Constantine’s grandson, the Emperor Julian the Apostate, failed in an attempt to reinstate Roman pagan worship. As a contemporary writer remarked at the time:
What spot is there on the earth that the name of Christ has not possessed? Where the sun rises and where it sets, where the North Star lifts and the South slopes low, all is filled with the majesty of His worshipful name; and while in some regions the dying limbs of idolatry still palpitate, yet we have arrived at the stage where all lands may be purged and this pestilential evil drastically amputated. – Firmicus Maternus (circa A.D. 360), from “On the Error of Pagan Religions”
This was written short years after the above-mentioned Chronography of A.D. 354. Yet it proved too early to proclaim victory over paganism, which kept turning up like a bad penny for centuries.
Christianity was formally installed as the official Roman religion in about A.D. 385 by the Emperor Theodosius, who eliminated the official pagan religion of Rome and enacted laws closing public places in deference to Christian holidays (including Christmas):
On the Lord's day, which is the first day of the week, on Christmas, and on the days of Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost, inasmuch as then the [white] garments [of Christians] symbolizing the light of heavenly cleansing bear witness to the new light of holy baptism, at the time also of the suffering of the apostles, the example for all Christians, the pleasures of the theaters and games are to be kept from the people in all cities, and all the thoughts of Christians and believers are to be occupied with the worship of God. And if any are kept from that worship through the madness of Jewish impiety or the error and insanity of foolish paganism, let them know that there is one time for prayer and another for pleasure.
In spite of whatever good intentions the Christian emperors may have had, church history can teach us that the installation of Christianity as a state religion led to disastrous abuses in the medieval period, resulting eventually in the Protestant Reformation.
Even though paganism was being officially rooted out, currents still remained for centuries, and pagan worship was banned again in A.D. 529 by the Emperor Justinian. While some today shun Christmas as being a heathen solstice feast, pagan holdouts in the early centuries used the same argument to try to lead Christians away from celebrating Christ’s nativity!
Having therefore so confident a hope, dearly beloved, abide firm on the Faith in which you are built; lest that same tempter whose tyranny over you Christ has destroyed, win you back again with any of his wiles, and even the joys of the present festival by his deceitful art, misleading simpler souls with the pestilential notion of some to whom this our solemn feast day seems to derive its honor, not so much from the nativity of Christ as, according to them, from the rising of the new sun. Such men’s hearts are wrapped in total darkness, and have no growing perception of the true Light: for they are still drawn away by the foolish errors of heathendom, and because they cannot lift the eyes of their mind above that which their carnal sight beholds, they pay divine honor to the luminaries that minister to the world. Let not any Christian entertain any such wicked superstition and portentous lie. – Leo, bishop of Rome, in a Christmas sermon (circa A.D. 450)
Changing Christmas Culture
However Christmas might actually have begun, and however long it took for the fading embers of paganism to be finally extinguished in medieval Europe, a number of new traditions entered into the cultural observance of Christmas. We are told that Yule logs and mistletoe have a pagan source. However, we also hear other traditions with a Christian theme, that holly symbolizes Jesus’ crown of thorns and blood. Some say that Christmas trees are a pagan relic of ancient Teutonic tree worship (even though the pagan Teutons worshipped oaks, not pines.) Others say that Martin Luther himself invented the Christmas tree. We commonly see “nativity scenes” showing baby Jesus in a wooden stable, though the traditional site in Bethlehem is a cave, over which stands the ancient Church of the Nativity, the oldest Christian church, the first church building constructed by the Emperor Constantine.
Given all the centuries of time, kingdoms and empires rose and fell, and many heathen tribes throughout Europe converted to Christianity. There has been much cultural change, and thus a considerable number of secular accretions onto our Christmas traditions, along with Easter and all the other holidays in the traditional church calendar. It is impossible to know with certainty where all these little elements may have originated.
In the 17th century, the Puritans addressed the problem by eliminating all holidays except for Sunday worship:
But we under the New Testament acknowledge no holy days, except the first day of the week only: and as for all other, whether fixed or movable… we reject them wholly, as superstitious and Anti-Christian, which being built upon rotten foundations, are Idle Idol days, and in the day of their visitation shall perish. – Danforth’s Cambridge Almanack for 1646 (Massachusetts Bay Colony)
When the Puritans controlled England, they banned Christmas and other “heathen” celebrations. The austere, pietistic Puritan observance did not endure, but threads of Puritanism are woven into the fabric of American evangelicalism. Perhaps this is why antipathy toward Christmas and other traditional holidays remains strong in some Christian circles to this day.
In any case, as we ponder whether or not the origins of Christmas are pagan, there is really no way to clearly discover hard facts. To whatever degree pagan influences may have crept into Christian culture over centuries, there is no hard evidence of when, why, or how Christmas first came to be celebrated. Thus, we can be confident that there is no basis for the notion that there was ever an organized plot by Roman emperors in antiquity to transform a pagan solstice feast into the Christmas celebration as we know it. Nor is there any reason to believe that a vigilant early church would have tolerated such a thing. But even if these things were true, it doesn’t change the fact that Christmas has been a joyous traditional holiday set aside to be dedicated to Jesus for over 1600 years.
The issues surrounding early Christianity and its interplay between Judaism, paganism, and numerous pseudo-Christian heresies is very complex. I’d encourage everyone interested to study the primary sources of historical information to learn more, and to distinguish between documented evidence and scholarly guesswork. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to observe the current season unto the LORD in whatever manner you are accustomed – if you celebrate Christmas or if you do not. As the apostle wrote:
One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living. – Romans 14: 5-9
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