The Untold Story of Christmas
Is Christmas a pagan or Christian holiday? Where did it come from? How is it celebrated? How are you celebrating it ?
Christmas is celebrated everywhere, all over the world, a time of spending money and giving gifts. The question is, how did this famous day of celebration made its way into Christianity, where is the root. What customs and practices are associated with Christmas? Christmas and many of its popular customs and trappings are nowhere set forth in the Bible.
Instead of going with our own ideas and experiences, let us examine the history of Christmas and compare it to God’s Word and discover His opinion regarding this holiday. William Walsh summa-rises the holiday’s origins and practices in his book The Story of Santa Klaus: “We remember that the Christ-mas festival … is a gradual evolution from times that long antedated the Christian period … It was overlaid upon heathen festivals, and many of its observances are only adaptations of pagan to Christian ceremonial” (1970, p. 58).
How did these pagan practices infiltrate the church? How did it come over centuries, to become part of the church? What was these heathen festivals?
The Greeks practiced rites to honor their god Dionysus (also called Bacchus), during the second century BC. Bacchanalia, was the Latin name for this celebration and spread from the Greeks to the Roman Empire. It was celebrated round and about the 21st of December that the ancient Greeks celebrated this festival in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine. During these festivals, the people overstepped the line of decency and because of the nocturnal orgies associated with this festival, the Roman Senate suppressed its observation in 186 B.C., which took him several years to completely accomplish this goal because of the holiday’s popularity.
As the Romans absorbed many of the people’s customs, arts and practices, in the same way they absorbed many of the people’s religions. The Roman empire had many types of worship and gods in their empire. Another holiday the Romans celebrated was the Saturnalia, held “in honor of Saturn, the god of time, which began on December 17th and continued for seven days. Also ended in disorder and Bacchanalia and Saturnalia acquired an evil reputation in later times.
The reason for the Saturnalia’s discredit is revealing. When looking at pagan mythology Saturn was an “ancient agricultural god-king who ate his own children presumably to avoid being murdered while king. And Saturn was parallel with a Carthaginian Baal, whose brazen horned statue contained a furnace into which children were sacrificially fed” (William Sansom, A Book of Christmas, 1968, p. 44).
When it was celebration time of the Saturnalia, businesses were closed, except those who food or partying. It was a time of gambling, partying, gave gifts (called strenia) from the vegetation goddess Strenia, whom it was important to honor at midwinter … Men dressed as women or in the hides of animals and celebrated in the streets. Saturnalia may have been the excuse among Roman soldiers in the East for the human sacrifice of the king of the revels” (Gerard and Patricia Del Re, The Christmas Almanac, 1979, p. 16).
Both thee holidays were celebrated around the winter solstice, which is the day of the year with the shortest period of day light. There came another essential from the Romans, the date 25 December, it was when the Julian calendar was proclaimed in 46 C.E. [A.D.], and set into law a practice that was already common: dating the winter solstice as December 25.
Then the Romans started celebrating Brumalia on the 25th of December. And it comes from the word, Bruma derived from the Latin brevum or brevis, meaning brief or short, denoting the shortest day of the year. It was a significant period, because, the winter solstice has always been an important season in mythology. It is the time when the forces of chaos that stand against the return of light and life must once again be defeated by the gods, the people must help the gods through imitative magic and religious ceremonies. It was a time of great festivities.
In the first century, during the days of the Apostles of Jesus, the early Christians had no knowledge of Christmas, as it is known to us. They were part of the Roman empire, and observed the Saturnalia, as celebrated by the Roman, but they themselves persisted in celebrating the customary “feasts of the Lord” (listed in Leviticus 23). As time went pass, non-biblical holidays, like Christmas and Easter, were gradually introduced into traditional Christianity. The biblical feast days of apostolic times, were rejected over time, while on the other hand, these new days (Christmas) were promoted.
“Christmas, the [purported] festival of the birth of Jesus Christ, was established in connection with a fading of the expectation of Christ’s imminent return” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, Macropaedia, Vol. 4, p. 499, “Christianity”). “the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14-15), the message of Jesus Christ and the Apostles, was soon lost. The focus of the Christian was shifted away from Christ’s promised return to His birth, because of these Christmas celebrations. The question still remains, is this Biblical”?
In agreement and s explained by Gerard and Patricia Del Re, the further evolution of December 25 as an official Roman celebration: “Saturnalia and the kalends [new moon, in this case of January] were the celebrations most familiar to early Christians, December 17-24 and January 1-3, but the tradition of celebrating December 25 as Christ’s birthday came to the Romans from Persia. Mithra, the Persian god of light and sacred contracts, was born out of a rock on December 25. Rome was famous for its flirtations with strange gods and cults, and in the third century  the unchristian emperor Aurelian established the festival of Dies Invicti Solis, the Day of the Invincible Sun, on December 25 (Gerard and Patricia Del Re, The Christmas Almanac, 1979, p. 16).
“Mithra was an embodiment of the sun, so this period of its rebirth was a major day in Mithraism, which had become Rome’s latest official religion with the patronage of Aurelian. It is believed that the emperor Constantine adhered to Mithraism up to the time of his conversion to Christianity. He was probably instrumental in seeing that the major feast of his old religion was carried over to his new faith” (The Christmas Almanac, 1979, p. 17).
It is difficult to determine the first time that Christmas was celebrated on 25 December, but the general agreement of historians, points to the fact that it was around the fourth century, which is quite a late date. Christmas was also not observed in Rome, till about 300 years after Christ’s death. So, we know that Christmas was officially established in Rome during the fourth century.
The many Christmas customs that are practiced today, was greatly influenced by another pagan celebration, known as the Teutonic feast of Yule (from the Norse word for “wheel,” signifying the cycle of the year). It was also known as the Twelve Nights, being celebrated from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6. It was based on supposed mythological warfare between the forces of nature—specifically winter (called the ice giant), which signified death, vs. the sun god, representing life.
As Christianity spread to Northern Europe, there was the observance of another pagan festival, held in December, in honor of the sun. it was known as the Yule-feast of the Norsemen, which lasted for twelve days. During this festivities, log-fires were burnt to assist the revival of the sun., there were the decorations of shrines and other sacred places, and it was an occasion for feasting and drinking. There was also the practice of the druids, they considered the mistletoe, the fruit of the oak-tree as sacred. For the German tribes the oak-tree was sacred to Odin, their god of war, and they sacrificed to it until St Boniface, in the eighth century, persuaded them to exchange it for the Christmas tree, a young fir-tree adorned in honour of the Christ child … It was the German immigrants who took the custom to America” (L.W. Cowie and John Selwyn Gummer, The Christian Calendar, 1974, p.22).
Converts were told to worship the Son of God, Instead of worshipping the sun god. The focus of the holiday slightly changed, but the traditional pagan customs and practices remained fundamentally unchanged. Old religious customs involving holly, ivy, mistletoe and evergreen trees were given invented “Christian” meanings. Jesus Christ warns us to beware of things that masquerade as something they are not (Matthew 7:15; compare Isaiah 5:20; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15). Numerous of the other trappings of Christmas are merely carryovers from ancient celebrations. For example: “Santa Claus” is an American corruption of the Dutch form “San Nicolaas,” a figure brought to America by the early Dutch colonists (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, Vol. 19, p. 649, “Nicholas, St.”). This name, in turn, stems from St. Nicholas, bishop of the city of Myra in southern Asia Minor, a Catholic saint honored by the Greeks and the Latins on Dec. 6.
Knowing what we have already learned about the ancient pre-Christian origins of Christmas, Santa Claus is nothing but a figure recycled from ancient beliefs tied in with pagan midwinter festivals.
The trappings associated with Santa Claus—his fur-trimmed clothing, sleigh and reindeer—reveal his origin from the cold climates of the far North. Some sources trace him to the ancient Northern European gods Woden and Thor, from which the days of the week Wednesday (Woden’s day) and Thursday (Thor’s day) get their designations (Earl and Alice Count, 4000 Years of Christmas, 1997, pp. 56-64). There were different customs and symbols associated with Christmas, there was the Roman New Year (January 1), there was the decoration of houses with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to the children and the poor, and added to this was German and Celtic Yule rites.
Let us look at Christmas versus the Bible, and what we can observe. Does the customs and traditions of Christmas match the biblical account of Christ’s birth? Three wise men did travel to see Jesus (Matthew 2:1, 11), True. Did everyone exchange gifts when Christ was born? No, I don’t find it in the Scriptures. Gifts were presented to Jesus because He was born “King of the Jews” (verses 2, 11). This was the expected custom when appearing before a king, thus the wise men brought gifts fit for a king: gold and valuable spices. Jesus alone was the recipient of the gifts; others did not exchange gifts among themselves.
An interesting fact is that, when the wise men arrived, apparently sometime after Christ’s birth, Joseph’s family was residing in a house (Matthew 2:11), it was not in the manger they found Jesus. Did the writers of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) consider Jesus’ birth to be one of the most significant events for Christians to acknowledge or celebrate? Mark and John do not even mention the event. Although Matthew and Luke do, neither gives the date. None of the biblical writers says anything about celebrating Christ’s birth.
Jesus did not tell us to celebrate His birth, BUT He left explicit instructions regarding how His followers are to observe His death (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), but nothing about His birth. When we look at the Biblical evidence, we can see that Jesus was not born on 25 December. Historically, it can be seen that, that December 25 was popularized as the date for Christmas, not because Christ was born on that day, but because it was already popular in pagan celebrations as the birthday of the sun. “Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus’s birthday, early Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. Clement … picked November 18. Hippolytus … figured Christ must have been born on a Wednesday … An anonymous document, believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, placed Jesus’s birth on March 28” (Jeffery Sheler, “In Search of Christmas,” U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 23, 1996, p. 58).
after analysing Scripture, it clearly indicates that December 25 is an unlikely date for Christ’s birth. There are two primary reasons:
First, we know that shepherds were in the fields watching over their flocks at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:7-8). Shepherds were not in the fields during December. According to Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, Luke’s account “suggests that Jesus may have been born in summer or early fall. Since December is cold and rainy in Judea, it is likely the shepherds would have sought shelter for their flocks at night” (Robert Myers, 1972, p. 309).
Second, Jesus’ parents came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census (Luke 2:1-4). Such censuses were not taken in winter, when temperatures often dropped below freezing and roads were in poor condition. Taking a census under such conditions would have been self-defeating. Given the difficulties and the desire to bring pagans into Christianity, William Walsh says,
“The important fact then which I have asked you to get clearly into your head is that the fixing of the date as December 25th was a compromise with paganism” (The Story of Santa Klaus, 1970, p. 62).
When was the birth of Christ then? The biblical accounts point to the fall of the year as the most likely time of Jesus’ birth, based on the conception and birth of John the Baptist. Since Elizabeth (John’s mother) was in her sixth month of pregnancy when Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:24-36), we can determine the approximate time of year Jesus was born if we know when John was born. John’s father, Zacharias, was a priest serving in the Jerusalem temple during the course of Abijah (Luke 1:5). Historical calculations indicate this course of service corresponded to June 13-19 in that year (E.W. Bullinger, The Com-panion Bible, 1974, Appendix 179, p. 200).It was during this time of temple service that Zacharias learned that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a child (Luke 1:8-13). After he completed his service and traveled home, Elizabeth conceived (verses 23-24). Assuming John’s conception took place near the end of June, adding nine months brings us to the end of March as the most likely time for John’s birth. Adding another six months (the difference in ages between John and Jesus) brings us to the end of September as the likely time of Jesus’ birth.
Just looking at these few pointers, it can be seen how pagan traditions, crept into Christianity, and it can be seen, how the Christian religion follows in the footsteps of pagan traditions. Just look at the way Christmas, is mostly celebrated, with drunkenness, over indulgence, disrespect and no thought of Jesus Christ. And even if Jesus was born, and Christmas be rightfully to be on the 25th of December, would it have been a good representation of Christianity? I definitely, do not think so. And I also do not think that Jesus would want us to celebrate in the way the world do today.
We cannot escape the fat that Christmas is rooted in ancient customs and religious practices that had nothing to do with Christianity and the Bible. I totally agree with, Tom Flynn in summarizing the issue when he said:
“An enormous number of traditions we now associate with Christmas have their roots in pre-Christian pagan religious traditions. Some of these have social, sexual, or cosmological connotations that might lead educated, culturally sensitive moderns to discard the traditions once they have understood their roots more clearly” (The Trouble with Christmas, 1993, p. 19).
Christmas remains a deep-rooted tradition. Although some recognize the paganism of the holiday, they are of the opinion that people are free to establish their own days of worship. Others hold to the biblically insupportable belief that paganism’s most popular celebrations have been won over by Christianity and therefore are acceptable to God. The main point is that, we need to consider God’s opinion about such celebrations. We need to look into God’s Word to see how He views mixing pagan practices and customs with worshipping Him. You decide for yourself, what you will choose and belief.