I don’t believe that it is possible to be a Christian and not rejoice in the fact that God chose to come to earth in human flesh as a helpless babe. Then grow into a perfect man, and then suffer and die in order to pay the price for our sin. This is the most precious gift that God could have given us – the gift of His Son. It is in recognition of this blessed gift that we, as Christians, celebrate the holiday known as Christmas.
But, despite our joy in the advent of Christ, is the holiday itself Christian? Or is it something borrowed from the pagan world? Are the customs which we embrace Biblical? Or are they, in many respects, practices that are forbidden by the Bible? For that matter, do we even know when Jesus was born? How did we come to the tradition that His birthday is Dec. 25th? And if it wasn’t, whose birthday was it? These are a few of the questions that we, as believers, need to examine before we embrace anything as a Christian practice.
Where Did It Begin?
Just where did the custom originate? The Encyclopedia Americana tells us that, “…The day was chosen to correspond to pagan festivals that took place around the time of the Winter Solstice, when the days begin to lengthen, to celebrate the “rebirth of the sun”. The Roman Saturnalia (a festival dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture, and to the renewed power of the sun), also took place at this time, and some Christmas customs are thought to be rooted in this pagan celebration.”
What exactly was Saturnalia? It “was a Roman festival commemorating the happy period under Saturn, when freedom and equality reigned and violence and oppression were unknown… During the Saturnalia, public business ceased, masters and slaves changed places, and moral codes were relaxed. Feasting prevailed, and gifts were exchanged…” (1) It “was characterized by processions, singing, lighting candles, adorning the house with laurel and green trees, giving presents; …Rich and poor were equal and there was no distinction between free man and slave. …Gradually things went from bad to worse and many of the original purposes were transformed into unrestrained orgies.” (2) Does this sound a little like the “company Christmas party” of today?
The Birth Of Mithra
Most of the customs which we presently associate with the birth of our Lord had as their origin a feast to Saturn, the god of agriculture. What about the date which we traditionally hold to – Dec. 25th? Where did that originate, since the Bible assigns no date at all for Jesus’ birth? “Dec. 25 was also regarded as the birth date of the Iranian mystery god Mithra, the Sun of Righteousness.” (3) “… Mithras … was worshiped in the centuries immediately preceding and following Christianity so that the idea of Christ being the Sun or Light of the World and the religion and practices soon merged into the early Christian customs.” (4)
Mithra “was called the Mediator…also the god of the sun, of the shining light that beholds everything…” (5) His worship involved secret rituals that were intended “to test the initiate’s courage and virtue and involved baptism, a communal meal of bread and wine…” (6)
The beliefs in Mithra became so intertwined with early Christianity that St. Chrysostom wrote in AD 386 that: “They called this Dec. 25, the Birthday of the Invincible One (Mithras) but who was so invincible as the Lord? They called it the Solar Disc; but Christ is the Son of Righteousness.” (7) So the practices and holidays were adopted into the church, not because God commanded them, but because they sounded similar. The church began to look to the pagan world for guidance and began to introduce their forms of worship to supplement God’s Biblical model.
Do Not Be Imitators Of The World
But what about God’s warning to Israel: “When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations which you are to dispossess…take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them…and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods…” (Deut. 12:29-31)
God doesn’t intend for His church to be imitators of the pagan customs of the world. He has called us to be separate and set apart. Yet the greatest of “Christian” holidays is on the anniversary of the birth of the sun god and is modeled after the drunken revelry of the Roman Saturnalia.
Origin Of The Christmas Tree
How about some of the symbols which we have associated with Christmas; are they any less pagan? “Celtic and Teutonic tribes honored evergreens at their Winter Solstice festivals as symbolic of eternal life, and the Druids ascribed magical properties to the mistletoe. The evergreen holly was worshiped as a promise of the sun’s return…” (8)
The full mystical significance of the evergreen tree can be grasped when we consider: “…The use of evergreens has its roots in the profound reverence of the Ancients for all natural phenomena. To their simple and artificial minds, Nature was everywhere alive. Every fountain had its spirit, every mountain its deity, and every water, grove, and meadow, its supernatural association. The whisperings of the trees…was the subtle speech of the gods who dwelt within…” (9) This worship of nature gods or Animism, as it’s called, is becoming widespread today. It was why God commanded that, “You shall not plant for yourself any tree, as a wooden image, near the altar which you build for yourself to the Lord your God.” (Deut. 16:21)
Are We Obeying God?
God has commanded us not to imitate the pagan religions, nor to honor the gods which they serve; yet, the birthday of the sun god is honored as the birth of our Lord and Savior. Likewise, He has commanded us not to become involved in the worship of nature gods by bringing green trees from the forest into our worship. Yet, what is the focal point of our adoration as we celebrate the birth of God’s only Son? An evergreen tree. The prophet Jeremiah laments over Israel’s fallen state in chapter 10 verses 3-5: “For the customs of the people are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree…” Is this pagan idolatry of 2600 years ago any different from our Christmas of today?
Should We Celebrate His Birth?
The church has embraced the worst of paganism and brought it into the church giving it a “Christian” name. But is any of it really Christian? God never commands us to celebrate Christ’s birthday. If He had desired us to remember its anniversary, He certainly would have left us the precise date. But if He had, He would have vindicated every astrologer in the past 2000 years. For in occult circles, the anniversary of a person’s birth is the most important metaphysical day of the year for them. The Bible recognizes no such significance.
If we truly consider, it is not Christ’s advent which saved mankind; it merely established His humble obedience to the Father’s will by accepting frail human life. Christ’s real gift was His sacrifice on the day of the Feast of Passover as the perfect Lamb of Atonement. In fact, it was this day that God carefully defined and ordained as the beginning of the religious year, and its first religious holy day. In the same way, the Feast of the First Fruits, or Pentecost, was the beginning of the harvest of souls in the church.
Rejecting God’s Prescribed Feasts
God has shown us which events have significance, in that they point to the life and ministry of Christ. Yet we have rejected these holidays because they’re “Jewish” (Wasn’t Christ also a Jew?). In their place, we’ve substituted renamed-feasts honoring pagan gods.
Know Them By Their Fruits
What sort of fruit has it produced? Christmas, despite its noble intent, is a time of misery and despair for large numbers of people. It is a time of self-indulgence, gluttony, and drunkenness feeding an ever-growing spirit of greed and selfishness in our children. Where is the love and self-sacrifice of Christ in our present-day practices? How does massive consumer debt glorify God? Where is the humility of Christ’s birth in a stable amidst the glitter and materialism? Where is the glory to God amid the depression, guilt, and loneliness, which so often accompanies the revelry? How are we teaching our children unselfish-sacrifice by filling their hearts and minds with a lust for more and more useless junk? Yet this is the fruit that has come from this pagan revelry. The sad part is that it is Jesus who gets blamed for all of the junk associated with Christmas. Does anyone, in complaining about the greed and materialism, ever call it the Winter Solstice, or Mithra’s birthday, or Saturnalia? Yet these are the sources of the wickedness for which Christ is blamed.
Glorify God Not The World
I love Jesus, and I rejoice that He was born and lived amongst us as a man. But if we truly want to glorify Him and bear a testimony of who He is, let’s stop marrying that blessed gift with the debauchery of paganism. If we want to honor His birth, let it be done as He would have done it: unselfishly serving our fellow man as an act of love for our God. Let us put away all of the mixture of pagan customs and take up His mantle and His pure worship, and show the confused world that there is a difference. If we can’t do that, at least let’s stop blaming the selfishness and compromise on God – He had nothing to do with it.
So on the eve of that time of year which has become associated with the birth of our Lord, let us glorify Him in all that we say and do; so that we might show the world the nature of our Lord and Savior as He truly is – not as the world made Him.
May God richly bless you all.
(Ed Spurlin 11/28/92)
(1) Encyclopedia Americana, 1989 ed., “Saturnalia”
(2) 1001 Christmas Facts & Fancies, Hottes, 1950, p.14
(3) New Encyclopedia Britannica, 1988 ed.
(4) 1001 Christmas Facts & Fancies, pg.15
(5) Enc. Brit., “Mithras”
(6) Enc. Amer.
(7) 1001 Christmas Facts & Fancies, Pg. 16
(8) Enc. Amer.
(9) Christmas Traditions, William Muir Auld