Is Christmas a Pagan Holiday?

Question from a Site Viewer
I would really like to know Tim’s opinion about the arguments that some that are Calvinist and reformist have against celebrating Christmas and their correlation between Christmas and pagan celebrations.

Tim’s Answer
I appreciate your question about those who do not see Christmas as a good thing. My quick response is that those who do not believe they should celebrate Christmas should not celebrate it. And those who believe that they should set the day aside to celebrate the birth of our King should do so. And neither should condemn the other (Romans 14:5-6). We should each live by our consciences as enlightened by Scripture. But I suspect you may actually want to know what I think of the logic given by some for why they think Christmas is not a good thing. I will share with you my thinking.

First, I note that Scripture neither speaks of the celebration of the birth of Christ (after, of course, the actual birth) or prohibits such celebration. Scripture is silent on this precise issue. But Scripture is not silent on celebrations. In the Old Testament, God commanded three distinct times of celebrations; the Passover/Unleavened Bread feasts, the Pentecost/Feast of Firstfruits, and the Feast of Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 16:1-17). These were times of celebrations, remembering God’s great mercies to His people. They were annual commemorations of significant events in the salvatory work of God for Israel. They were commanded repeatedly by God, but seldom honored by His people. They were to be a time of great joy, with the commandment to save a tithe to spend it in celebration for whatever one’s heart desired (Deuteronomy 14:22-29; Nehemiah 8:10-12). And God never intended that these three celebrations, or the other more minor celebrations established by the law, were to be the only celebrations of God’s people. For instance, we have the story of Esther where we find that after God brought deliverance to the Jews, Mordecai commanded and to this days the Jews continue to celebrate Purim with yearly feasting, joy and sending presents to one another and giving to the poor (Esther 9:20-23). God is the God of celebrations and yearly remembrances of significant events helps to draw our hearts back to the work of the Savior on our behalf. Jesus speaks of the woman who lost one of her coins. When she found her coin, she rejoiced and called for a celebration with her friends and neighbors (Luke 15:8-10). Celebrations of the goodness of God on our behalf is a good thing.

And there is perhaps no greater event, except for the Passion and Resurrection, than the coming of our Messiah to this earth. The prophets of the Old Testament looked forward to that birth, foretelling the very place where it would occur. Luke provides more material on the birth of Christ than on either the passion of Christ or the resurrection of Christ. So it is a significant event to remember.

The particular problem that some see in Christmas is its pagan origins, as they would say. If you read the sites or listen to the tales of woes, Christmas sprung from paganism and represents the very form of syncretism that God condemned in the Old Testament (see 2 Kings 17:32-34). Besides, for those who are reformers, the celebration smacks of the papacy and all that they see as wrong in the Roman Catholic church. The very name “Christmas” comes from Christ’s mass.

But I personally do not find the facts as dire as the hype. First, the celebration on December 25 has not been shown to be a takeover by the Roman Catholics of a pagan celebration, although you will find many scholars who state this as if it were fact.

Here is what is known. December 25 was the day given for the birth of Mithras, a Persian god that was brought to the Romans by soldiers in the east after the time of Christ. The worship of Mithras did not begin until around 70 A.D. by some Roman soldiers. At the very end of the second century A.D., the emperor took notice and in the next hundred years or so it became a more major celebration in Rome. But finding evidence for a Roman celebration of this Persian god on December 25 prior to the late third century is difficult. In fact, though proclaimed by Aurelian as a day of celebration, December 25 did not become the major Roman December celebration until late in the 4th century A.D. By that time, Christians had already long been celebrating the birth of Christ on that date. Check out this research for this late date for the December 25 celebration by Romans, which gives the dates for the celebration of the sun on December 25 as beginning no earlier than 354 A.D. in Rome. And while it is true that other cultures celebrated pagan feasts on December 25, I do not find such facts to be relevant to the argument that the church adopted a pagan festival, when the celebration of Christmas on that date began in the Roman world, not in these other pagan areas. The big celebration for the Romans was that of Saturnalia, a celebration that began on December 17 and ran through December 23. This celebration involved the god Saturn, not the sun. The Romans celebrated the sun, but the big celebrations for the sun were in August, not December. So when you read various authors who hold a near-uniform position that Christians co-opted a pagan holiday, you should know that they are not near as uniform as to which holiday the Christians supposedly co-opted. And the problem for them is that there is a lack of evidence that the Romans celebrated any holiday on December 25, the winter solstice according to the Julian calendar in use at that time, prior to the Christians celebrating Christ’s birth on that date.

Let me provide you the evidence we have. First, Chrysostom, in 386 A.D., states in a homily that the birth of Christ was on December 25 and that this fact had been “known from of old” to the churches in the west. He also states that he had inquired of Rome and that the census records supporting that date were still in existence in Rome. He third argues that the order of Abijah was serving on the Day of Atonement when the announcement came to Zacharias. The Day of Atonement is in September/October. Six months later, according to Luke, the announcement came to Mary, and nine months later would be the end of December. That the order of Abijah was serving for the Day of Atonement is computed backwards from the fall of Jerusalem, when we are told what order of the priests were serving. Many have questioned the validity of the computation, but the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls seems to provide support to the regularity of the orders in their service. At least to Chrysostom, there seemed to be no question. Neither did there seem to be a question for Augustine, who assigned the birth date to December 25, using some of the same reasoning, and celebrated the day.

Second, we have historical records stating that Cyril, the great bishop at Jerusalem, asked Pope Julius, who served from 337 and 352 in Rome, to assign the true date of Jesus’ birth based on the census documents brought by Titus to Rome. Titus, of course, was the Roman general who destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and then returned to Rome with all of the spoils of the conflict. Pope Julius said that the date was December 25.

Third, we have documents that purport to be even more ancient establishing December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth. There is a document attributed to Theophilus, bishop of Antioch from 171-183 A.D. who records the Gauls as saying that as they celebrate the birth on December 25, no matter what day of the week it was, so they should celebrate the resurrection on March 25, no matter what day of the week it was. This document is preserved only in Latin and some have questioned its authenticity; but I have not been able to determine the grounds on which it is challenged. If this document is from Theophilus, this would place the celebration of Christmas by the Gauls into the second century A.D., less than a 100 years after the time of the apostles. It would also support Chrysostom’s statement concerning the antiquity of the celebration in the West. Hippolytus, in around 202 A.D. also wrote about Christ’s birth and in at least one copy of his writing there is included the date of December 25. Most scholars, however, do not accept this reference as being part of Hippolytus original text, although some have questioned this conclusion.

What can be said from the evidence is that almost certainly Christmas was celebrated on December 25 by some sections of the church prior to 300 A.D., shortly after Aurelian; likely was celebrated in some quarters prior to Aurelian; and if Chrysostom is right, was celebrated by some segments of the Western Church long before Aurelian. It is also clear that the early church based its choice of the date, not on co-opting a prior pagan holiday on that date, but on genuine arguments that the birth of Christ occurred on that date, including a reference to the census documents in Rome, and the calculation of the order of priests, as well as arguments concerning the importance of having the date on one of the quarter days (the winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, and autumn equinox). There is a great deal of information in the early documents about Christ’s passion being on the same date as the annunciation and the birth being on the date of the winter solstice. Accordingly, the linkage to Christmas being a takeover of a pagan holiday is not as strong as some might suggest.

This is not to say that I believe Christ was born on December 25. I do not know the date of His birth. And whether there is some connection to the celebration on that date and pagan traditions I cannot say for sure. What I can say is that the evidence for such linkage is not as strong as many have suggested. Further, in my view, there is at least some evidence that Christ’s actual birth was celebrated on December 25 early in the church. One can make arguments for alternative days, such as December 21 (our present winter solstice), or January 6, the date of Epiphany which had some early support in the church as being the day of Christ’s birth. There are also some ancient documents that would argue for a March/April date for the birth, but I do not find their arguments as convincing. (I also note that the Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on January 7, but this is not because of a disagreement over the December 25 date, but rather a disagreement over whether to follow the Julian or the Gregorian calendar to calculate that date. December 25 on the Julian calendar falls on January 7 of the Gregorian (our present) calendar.)

In any event, I do not mean to cast any aspersions on those who hold a contrary view. I simply note that the celebration of Christ’s birth is a celebration of a significant event in the life of the world and God’s grace to the world, and I see great value in such celebrations. I personally do not accept all of the modern traditions that have developed around Christmas, but for me personally Christmas represents the second greatest annual holiday, ranking only behind the passion/Easter celebration. I continued to be astonished at the Incarnation, and challenged by the incredible grace of the Triune God in the coming of Jesus. I think it is something worthy of celebration.

I hope this is helpful.

tim

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