I am personally a fan of celebrating Christmas and every December I am met with certain individuals who are hostile towards celebrating Christmas. I have examined Christmas traditions and what the Bible does and does not say about it. It baffles me when people accuse me of being pagan for celebrating Christmas so I thought I’d post some of my research on Christmas traditions and address the issue of it being a pagan holiday. I think most of us can see the absurdity of these objections but it’s always good to be prepared to answer any objection to the faith.
(Please Note: this is my personal opinion, as I do not think the Bible specifically speaks against celebrating Christmas.)
What Does the Bible Say?
When I am met with criticism for celebrating Christmas I’m given a few bible verses that, on its face look like they could be referring to Christmas celebrations. Typically, I am given these 3 verses in response to why Christians shouldn’t be celebrating Christmas.
”He cuts down cedars; he selects the cypress and the oak, he plants the pine in the forest to be nourished by the rain. Then he uses part of the wood to make a fire. With it he warms himself and bakes his bread. Then—yes, it’s true—he takes the rest of it and makes himself a god to worship! He makes an idol and bows down in front of it! He burns part of the tree to roast his meat and to keep himself warm. He says, ‘Ah, that fire feels good.’ Then he takes what’s left and makes his god: a carved idol! He falls down in front of it, worshipping and praying to it. ‘Rescue me!’ He says. ‘You are my god.’”
”Only acknowledge your guilt. Admit that you rebelled against the lord your God and committed adultery against him by worshipping idols under every green tree. Confess that you refused to listen to my voice. I, the LORD, have spoken!”
”Hear the word that the LORD speaks to you, O Israel! This is what the LORD says: “Do not act like other nations who try to read their future in the stars. Do not be afraid of their predictions, even though other nations are terrified by them. Their ways are futile and foolish. They cut down a tree, and a craftsman carves an idol. They decorate it with gold and silver and then fasten it securely with hammer and nails so it won’t fall over.”
Jeremiah was written around 627-586 BC and Isaiah was written in 681 BC. Clearly, we can infer that the only festivals occurring in this time and prior to these scriptures being penned that these writers would be referring to are the pagan winter festivals. However, it wasn’t uncommon to find Jews who were incorporating some sort of pagan tradition into their own lives. These scriptures are a warning that the Lord is the only one who can save us. The scriptures above is not referring to Christmas celebrations as we know it today. A celebration that honors the birth of Jesus Christ is glorifying God and is not pagan.
There is no doubt that the marketing industry has created Santa Clause (with the help of soda companies such as Coke-Cola) into what we see today. It is the most popular time of year for companies to get out of the black (hence, Black Friday). Like any good thing, our free will can turn a celebration into something it was intended for.
This was a winter festival in ancient Rome and was known to be an unrestrained celebration. It started 200 years before Christ as a harvest festival. Some claim that the Roman god, Saturn was an agricultural god who taught people how to cultivate the land. From December 17-23 was the time that people would have a celebration that involved eating and drinking to excess. People claimed it was the happiest or merriest festival of the year. They had bonfires and decorations such as candles, green trees and shrubs. People exchanged gifts at this time as well. During the festival every person was treated as if they had equal rights, even slaves. At times during the festival slaves would trade places with their masters during a meal and the slave owners served the slaves and treated them as royalty. Now, this is of course after the slaves cooked the meal. I’m sure it was something slaves looked forward to.
We see that this was a time of celebration with everyone. It was a time where no one worked (unless it was for the festival) and everyone could feel important. It encouraged kindness and generosity.
Was a Scandinavian celebration of the winter festival (similar to the festival that was celebrated in Rome) and is thought to mean ‘The Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ’. Scholars believe that Yule is just another name for Christmas but the evidence shows it was the Christians who taught the people how to read and wright. So, we can’t be sure Yule actually means Christmas because Christians were at the forefront of their literacy teaching.
Chris Kringle/St. Nicholas/Santa Clause/St. Nick/Father Christmas
St. Nicholas was a Christian bishop that died on December 6th 343. His parents died when he was young and he chose to use his money to provide presents for the needy, especially children who didn’t have much. He was a bold Christian who saw a need in his community. Only after his death his life, name, and talents became embellished stories made to warm the hearts of wearied souls in the dead of winter.
Another fact that doesn’t get shared around Christmastime is how he regularly stood up for people who were being treated unfairly. Quite the defender if you ask me.
“How did this St. Nicholas turn into the North Pole-dwelling bringer of Christmas gifts? The original saint was a Greek born in the late third century, around 280 A.D. He became bishop of Myra, a small Roman town in modern Turkey. Nicholas was neither fat nor jolly but developed a reputation as a fiery, wiry, and defiant defender of church doctrine during the Great Persecution in 303, when Bibles were burned and priests made to renounce Christianity or face execution.
Nicholas defied these edicts and spent years in prison before the Roman emperor Constantine ended Christian persecution in 313 with the Edict of Milan. Nicholas’s fame lived long after his death (on December 6 in the mid-fourth century, around 343) because he was associated with many miracles, and reverence for him continues to this day independent of his Christmas connection. He is the protector of many types of people, from orphans to sailors to prisoners.”
The Christmas holiday was first celebrated on December 25 in the year 336, during the rule of Constantine. Worldwide Christians started celebrating Christmas in the 4th century. The United States started celebrating Christmas around 1840 but it wasn’t until 1870 that it was declared a federal holiday.”
-Brian Handwerk, National Geographic
Can we say that prior to the beginning of Christmas celebrations there were pagan holidays during the month of December? Yes, we can. But as noted above these celebrations were about gluttony, debauchery, and the like. Also, celebrating birthdays was something only the pagans did. That is why history books highlight the death of people instead of their birth. Famous pagans like King Herod would use his birthday to shed blood so Christians focused on celebrating a person’s death because that is when a person graduates to heaven with the Lord for all of eternity. Scripture tells us that we are set apart, so we aren’t to take part in pagan rituals like Herod did. Does it make us pagan if we celebrate our own birthdays? No, it doesn’t.
These winter festivals were a time to feel good because the harsh winters were dark and cold. This festival was the half-way point in the winter and it was something for people to look forward to. The bright bonfires, green trees, and gifts helped to brighten people’s spirits. I grew up in the Midwest where there is almost a constant state of darkness during the winter. I can imagine after seeing so much darkness and coldness that a celebration like this would of given people hope and renewed their spirits.
As Christians, we know that this hope didn’t come from the god, Saturn. It’s because of our creator, the Lord God who created us to care for one another, desire community and fellowship, and persevere together. We aren’t pagan by celebrating Christmas (the celebration of Christs’ birth). Instead, we are glorifying the one who we were created in His image.
Handwerk, Brian (National Geographic) https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/12/131219-santa-claus-origin-history-christmas-facts-st-nicholas/
Forbes, Bruce David. Christmas: A Candid History.