Some Christians believe it is wrong to celebrate the holiday of Christmas on the grounds that this annual celebration is rooted in paganism. There is, in fact, a decent chance you will have a conversation with at least one person this season who chooses not to celebrate Christmas because of it’s “connection to paganism.”
Unfortunately, because this is not an issue raised by many, the responses Christians have to this objection can be shaky at best. As is often the case with arguments we do not understand, it is easy to make dismissive comments to critics such as, “You just don’t have any Christmas spirit,” or “What a Grinch,” or “So you think you know better than the millions of Christians who have celebrated Christmas throughout the centuries?”
Needless to say, responses such as this are not helpful and only help solidify your friend’s concerns surrounding the season.
What Was the Pagan Connection?
In preparation for this post, I read a book called The Origins of Christmas by Dr. Joseph Kelly, chair of the department of theology and religious studies at John Carroll University. Kelly makes a series of interesting observations, some of which I have incorporated below.
1) The pagan feast critics associate with Christmas was a Roman celebration called Saturnalia.
This was done to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture. It was a point of time marked with festivities, eating, drinking, and the exchanging of gifts. This celebration was entirely wrong and was denounced by numerous early Christian leaders.
2) The celebration of Christmas was done in OPPOSITION TO and not SUPPORT OF this festivity.
For example, when my wife Janan was growing up, her church was uncomfortable celebrating Halloween. However, rather than just banning the holiday and encouraging parents to make their kids spend the night doing homework, they came up with an alternative idea and implemented the ever-popular “Hallelujah Night” where kids dressed up as fun biblical characters. Other churches have adopted celebrations like Trunk or Treat. And still other believers have used the Halloween season as a chance to connect more with their neighbors.
This is essentially what the early church did. They took a holiday that was rooted in paganism and replaced it with something that was good and had a Christian focus, Christmas.
3) Choosing December 25th as a date for Christmas was actually a day some people thought Christ was born.
It appears that there were a handful of early Christians who believed the actual date of Christ’s birth was December 25. According to calculations done by a Roman Christian historian named Sextus Julius Africanus (great name!), he estimated Christ’s conception took place on March 25th. Do the math and nine months later brings us to December 25th.
At best, this was probably just an educated guess as Scripture makes no reference to the date of Christ’s birth. The point of this is that it appears Christmas was not implemented solely to oppose Saturnalia. It was instituted because early Christians genuinely wanted to celebrate Christ’s birth (a practice that had previously been uncommon).
4) The timing of the Christmas celebration was significant.
While there is nothing in the Bible that mandates a December celebration of Christ’s birth, I believe there is great symbolism in doing so. When the early church picked the winter solstice as the time of the year to celebrate Christ’s birth, they picked the darkest season. This has rich meaning for it was out of physical darkness that this world was formed (Gen. 1:2) and it was out of spiritual darkness that the light of Christ came into the world (John 1:5). This is what the early Christians had in mind in their celebration of Christmas. Similarly, it is over the Easter season, when the fresh life of spring is arriving, that we celebrate Christ’s life and resurrection.
To put it simply, the origins of Christmas and many of the cultural celebrations we have implemented over time have a rather fuzzy origin. Some of the facts are clear while others are a tad mysterious.
Redemption Is the Key
I believe what the early Church did in their opposition to Saturnalia and implementation of Christmas serves as a valuable lesson to believers today. In a sense, they modeled the very way in which God chooses to work with his creation.
In an email exchange we did several years ago on this topic, my friend Joel Chopp wrote,
“God doesn’t recreate humans [in a physical sense], he redeems them. God didn’t send some other form of life to redeem us, he became flesh. That the Church took into her life forms of celebration with pagan antecedents shouldn’t surprise us anymore than the fact that the Church took into herself pagans. God redeems creation, and if he can do that with humans, I think it’s at least possible that He can do it with holidays.”
To me, this point is very important. It gets at the heart of what Christ intended to do when he came to this earth. Jesus Christ, God, condescended down to humanity and became one of us. He took on himself the imperfections and frailties of the human body. He suffered the fleshly toils of pain and hardship, just as you and I experience them.
This is why I believe Christians should not be passive about the holiday of Christmas. It is a tremendous opportunity to celebrate Christ’s redeeming work in our lives.
Ways You Redeem This Season
I believe the question that should be at the forefront of every believer’s mind this Christmas season should be, “How can I use this time of the year to celebrate God’s redemptive work in my life?” Similar to what the early Christians faced under Roman paganism, Christmas in today’s culture has increasingly become commercialized and in some cases looks more like a celebration of Saturnalia than it does of Christ’s birth.
This is why we as Monday Christians must be proactive. Rather than sitting back and allowing cultural to define this season, we should focus on celebrating what it is truly all about.
Here are several ways we can do this:
1) Make This Season About Jesus.
On Christmas morning, read Luke 2 as a family together. Attend a Christmas Eve service. Spend extra time in your personal alone time with God.
2) Be Intentionally Joyful.
If this season is truly a celebration of Christ’s condescension to earth, this should bring a smile to your face. Be extra patient with cashiers. Take time to open the door for strangers. Leave an extra large tip for your waiter.
3) Give to Someone In Need.
Every year our church does what is called “The Greatest Gift Celebration.” It is a great time when we offer gifts to those in our community and share how Jesus is the greatest gift of all. Giving is one of the greatest ways we can celebrate all that God has given to us.