Since Christmas is coming up, I thought I’d write a bit about the origin of Christmas and at the same time investigate how watertight the arguments claiming ’Christmas is pagan’ are.
This article is an automatic AI translation from Swedish.
I had a harmonious upbringing with a very pleasant Christmas celebration every year. Dad decorated the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, and the gifts magically appeared overnight. When dad went out to buy the newspaper, a Santa Claus with a Finnish-Swedish accent came, and the smell of cloves in oranges still gives me flashbacks.
When I was little and lived in Rinkeby, we were visited by a young evangelist on one of the days between Christmas and New Year. He was a nice and very energetic person who truly believed in Jesus. Half in jest and half seriously, he started threatening to throw out our Christmas tree. We children listened in horror as he explained that Christmas was not a Christian holiday but a pagan custom. He claimed that the Bible said that one should not have Christmas trees, Santas, Christmas gifts, or Christmas food. Furthermore, he said, Jesus wasn’t even born on Christmas Eve. It was all just a bluff and paganism.
We couldn’t believe our ears. Even less did we believe our eyes when this man simply went over to the tree and turned off the lights. Mom says that us kids never cried so much in our entire childhood. Did I mention that I had a harmonious upbringing? Well, apparently, there’s a trauma right there.
That time, I heard something new and quite shocking. But nowadays, it seems to be one of the most secure Christmas traditions that someone points out that Christmas is pagan and something that ’true’ Christians don’t celebrate. Moreover, every Christmas, there are articles and interviews with history professors aiming to shock us by saying that Christmas isn’t Christian.
So, let’s see if these claims are watertight.
Does Christmas have pagan roots?
Let me first address an argument that is completely wrong:
- In pagan religions, they did X.
- Christians do something similar to X.
- Therefore, these Christians are pagan.
The problem with this reasoning is that if a pagan religion does something that we Christians do, we must stop doing it immediately. Example: If we can show that there’s an old pagan religion that used to immerse its followers in water, then we must stop baptizing. But that’s not logical.
So, are there any proofs that Christmas is a pagan holiday? The best candidate in pagan customs is the worship of the god Sol Invictus (The Unconquered Sun) on the 25th of December. The Sol Invictus cult was established by Emperor Aurelian in 274 AD and continued until Theodosius I banned paganism in the 4th century. The idea is that when Christians gained power in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, they adopted the Sol Invictus celebration and ’Christianized’ it by claiming that Jesus is the sun and that he was born on the 25th of December.
To check if this argument is watertight, we need to know when Christians believed Jesus was born and when they started believing it.
Church father Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 170-235 AD) argued that since it’s most likely that Jesus died on the same date as his mother Mary was impregnated (why one must assume this, I do not know), then Jesus must have been born nine months after Easter. Easter was around the 25th of March, and thus, he placed Jesus’ birth on the 25th of December. One can, of course, and with good reason, argue against Hippolytus’ logic, but since Hippolytus lived before the introduction of the Sol Invictus cult, many argue that it’s more likely that the pagans took their date from the Christians rather than the other way around.
But what about the Norse midwinter sacrifice and other midwinter celebrations? There simply isn’t any evidence that these influenced the choice of celebrating Jesus’ birth because the Christian tradition emerged long before Vikings or others influenced the Christians. Other candidates for the origin of celebrating on the 25th of December are the festivals Saturnalia and Brumalia – but here, the dates don’t match. Saturnalia, the celebration of the god Saturn, was observed from the 17th to the 23rd of December. Brumalia, also a midwinter festival, was observed from the 24th of November to the 17th of December. Neither of these extended to the 25th of December.
Did early Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25?
Probably not. Hippolytus’ argument for dating Jesus’ birth isn’t logical, and there are no indications that the celebration of Jesus’ birth occurred before the 3rd century. But that doesn’t mean that Christians borrowed their date from pagans.
Is it wrong to celebrate Christmas?
Arguably, Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas because the Bible doesn’t instruct them to do so. Instead, it seems to caution against celebrating in one’s own way.
What about holidays and special days in the Bible? It’s clear that Israel was cautioned against altering the holidays given to them by God. But how was this command understood during the early church period? Did they continue to celebrate Shavuot, the Sabbath, and the other Jewish holidays? Some did, while others didn’t. It wasn’t defining for the Christian faith whether one observed these holidays or not. The apostle Paul says:
”One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.” (Romans 14:5-6)
There was a certain liberal attitude toward the celebration of holidays. What mattered wasn’t whether one celebrated or not, but that they did it to honor God. Observing or not observing a holiday doesn’t make us more Christian or holy. The question rather is why we do a particular thing.
And here we come to the crux of the matter. There are undoubtedly many symbols and practices in Christmas that don’t have Christian origins. For example: The name ’Yule’ probably originates from the Vikings’ midwinter sacrifice. Santa Claus is a mix of household spirits, Saint Nicholas, and Coca-Cola advertising. Mistletoe is a tree with magical powers in Celtic Druidism.
Then we can discuss how a Christian should handle the commercial hysteria around Christmas and what to do with the indulgence. The thing I detest most is going into one of the many ’temples of Mammon’ where songs about the baby boy born in a stable, meant to be the hope of the world, blast out – yet the goal is to make me spend more money than last year. It’s sacrilege, that’s what I’d claim first and foremost.
But none of this disqualifies creating a holiday where we remember Jesus’ birth. Remember, even Easter is filled with pagan symbols and traditions – yet it doesn’t stop us from commemorating Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So what should I do?
I advocate for thoughtfulness. There’s no reason to bring all the traditions associated with Christmas into one’s home. During the Middle Ages, as well as later, Christmas was a time linked to so much revelry and madness that many Christian Puritans banned Christmas celebrations.
But can something good come out of Christmas? I believe so. Grounded in the Christian lifestyle, which emphasizes love for others, care, and generosity, there are many ways to celebrate Christmas appropriately. I even suggest that one can take many existing traditions and imbue them with meaning. Christmas feasting doesn’t need to be excessive indulgence – it can be about togetherness. Gift-giving doesn’t need to be rooted in greed and desire – it can be an expression of generosity.
And even if the Sol Invictus cult celebrated the sun on the 25th of December for around 100 years, it doesn’t mean we should. Christians have commemorated the birth of Jesus for about 1800 years, so we can rightly say that fundamentally, Christmas is a Christian holiday – with Jesus at its core.