Is Christmas Pagan or Christian?

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Question: “Is Christmas pagan or Christian?”


 There is no doubt that many of our present-day Christmas-New Year customs have little relevance to Biblical Christianity. Such things as the commercialism, the drunkenness, the highway deaths, and the general letdown in morals that have come to be associated with the so-called “Holiday Season” obviously have no basis in New Testament Christianity. The same is true of the Christmas tree, the holly and mistletoe, the Santa Claus myth, and similar more pleasant Christmas traditions.

As a matter of fact, many of these things seem more properly associated with the festival of Saturnalia, and other similar periods of feasting and revelry which were almost universally practiced in the ancient pagan world near the end of the year than they do with Christianity. There is in fact much historical evidence that these were pagan customs which became grafted on to the modified forms of Christianity that began to be prominent in the centuries following the apostolic age.

There is no indication in the New Testament that the early Christians observed Christmas at all. Furthermore, many authorities believe now that Jesus was born, not in the winter, but more probably in the early fall. It is not surprising, therefore, that there have been various groups of Christians, both in the past and in the present, who have reacted against Christmas and New Year celebrations so vigorously as to reject them altogether and to prohibit their members from taking any part in them.

On the other hand, there is much in our Christmas observances which, even though not explicitly found in the Bible, makes it a legitimate and wholesome application of the significance of the incarnation to the world. In a society which is becoming increasingly secularized and fragmented, it is surely good to have an annual and universal remembrance of the great historical fact that “in this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him” (1 John 4:9). Even rank unbelievers and hardened cynics somehow seem to sense, at Christmastime, that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), and this makes it a good time for evangelism.

Christmas is a time for family reunions, for communicating with old friends, and for reconciling differences that may have come between oneself and his friends and relatives. Surely this is an appropriate remembrance of Him who “hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Except for the spirit of commercialism and covetousness that tends to intrude, the practice of exchanging gifts at Christmas is a reminder of the One who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). And while we are giving gifts to our loved ones, it is singularly appropriate to give a special gift to the Lord Jesus, first “our own selves,” and then special gifts to those who in a special way are “ministering” in His Name (2 Corinthians 8:4, 5).

The emphasis on the children at Christmastime is surely wholesome, as it reminds parents again of their solemn responsibility to “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). We are also confronted anew with the amazing fact that, when God became a man, He first became a babe and a child and a youth, thus experiencing and understanding the entire range of man's problems and needs.

The Christmas tree and other traditions have been adequately divested of their original pagan connotations by now so that a Christian can, in good conscience, utilize them to encourage the spirit of love and reconciliation that honors Christ. Thus, even those who are still unsaved participate in some measure in the “common grace” shed abroad on all men when Christ came into the world. As the Scripture says: “For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared unto all men” (Titus 2:11).

As far as the date of Christmas is concerned, this is unimportant in comparison with its message. Certainly the Saturnalian aspects of the Christmas and New Year celebrations ought to be avoided by Christians, as these are clearly pagan and anti-Christian in both origin and character. Apart from this, it is singularly appropriate to observe the entrance of God into man's life at the time of the winter solstice, when the sun is at its farthest retreat and the nights are longest, for “the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ hath abolished death and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).

As noted above, it is unlikely that December 25 is the actual birth date of Christ. Perhaps the most probable date, though no one really knows, is about September 29. This was the first day of the great Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, when thousands of pilgrims from all over Israel went up to Jerusalem to dwell in small “tabernacles” or booths, commemorating their wilderness wanderings and anticipating the coming kingdom, when God Himself would “tabernacle” with them (note Revelation 21:3). This would have been a good time for the Roman census, with the weather still warm and most of the harvest in, and with people traveling anyway. Shepherds would still have their flocks in the field, whereas none of these seems at all likely in the winter time. This same date was later celebrated by Christians as Michaelmas (meaning “Michael sent”), Michael being the great archangel of God. It is at least reasonable to suppose this observance may have had its origin in the coming of the angels to announce the birth of Christ to the shepherds (Luke 2:9-14).

“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” In this verse, “Dwelt” is literally the Greek word “tabernacled.” It is altogether fitting that the God whom the Feast of Tabernacles anticipated should actually first have been seen by men on that very day. “We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

If one counts back 280 days (the normal period of human gestation), he arrives at the previous December 25. And then he realizes that the great miracle of the incarnation was not the birth of Christ, which was a fully normal human birth in every respect, but rather the miraculous conception, when the Holy Spirit placed the “holy thing” in the womb of the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:35)!

It was on that great day that the eternal Son, the second person of the divine Trinity, left the courts of heaven and “took upon Him the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7), knowing that this eventually would take Him to the “death of the cross.”

It is true that this world is surfeited with unrighteousness and that even Christmas in large measure has become a time of license and covetousness, but there is still much beauty and truth and love in the world, and it is not possible that God should allow Satan (and his Saturnalia) altogether to corrupt its everlasting witness to the One who came that men might have life as it really is.

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