Origins of Christmas
Every year when the
Holidays roll around we get the usual circulated messages about Christmas.
One sector of Christendom cries, "Let's put Christ back in
Christmas" and "Jesus is the reason for the season!" Meanwhile
another sector says we can't put Christ back in Christmas because he was
never there to begin with. They claim that Christmas is a Pagan feast and any
Christian who observes it is committing idolatry. Obviously both sides can't
be right. Is it Pagan? Is it Christian? Is it both? Is it neither? This
article is an attempt to sort it out.
When I was growing up,
Christmas was a time of wonder and amazement, as it is for many children. As
I got older I was increasingly disenchanted with it until I became a
"real" Christian - as opposed to a nominal Christian who did no
more than go to church on Sunday. I was moved by the scenes of Christ's birth
and the season took on a whole new meaning when I came to believe that
"Jesus is the reason for the Season."
In light of this, many
Christians have taken offense at the use of "Xmas" as an
abbreviation, believing it to be a secular attempt at removing Christ from
the celebration. I have since found out that "Xmas" has been an
acceptable abbreviation for Christmas for about a thousand years, and is
related to the common use of X as an abbreviation for Christ (X representing chi,
the first letter of Christos in Greek) that goes all the way back to
the early church. Other words based on Christ were also abbreviated that way,
such as "Xtian" for Christian.
But then I learned that
Jesus wasn't born on December 25th. Virtually all scholars and many everyday
Christians know this. Still, I maintained that since we didn't know exactly
when he was born, Christmas was as good a time as any to celebrate it. Around
the same time I was introduced to the possibility that he was born on
September 11, 3 B.C. I first heard of it through another book, but the
research and publication of this theory originated with Dr. Ernest L. Martin.
He published The Birth of Christ Recalculated in 1980, and later
revised and expanded it as The Star of Bethlehem: The Star That Astonished
the World in 1996 (which can be purchased or read online from his website). He makes a very good case for this
date of Christ's birth.
With the date of December
25 being all but disproved, many well-meaning Christians (not only in the
group I was with) have gone a step further and proclaimed that Christmas is
based on a Pagan holiday and Pagan customs, and should not be observed by
Christians. To do so, they say, is embracing Paganism and is therefore a sin
and an insult to God. But is Christmas really Pagan? Where does this idea
come from? Is it really sin?
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I am basing much of this
writing on a series of articles by Dr. Richard P. Bucher, which can be seen
on the web site of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Lexington, KY. He writes
about Christmas and the origins of
the Christmas tree, among other things. So many Christians admonished him
about celebrating a "Pagan holiday" that he began to search the web
and found a multitude of articles. As he explains:
I carefully read these and
other articles and books because I wanted to know the basis for their
argumentation. What I found is that, though there are minor differences, they
all make the same basic argument and recycle the same reasons why Christmas
is pagan [by "pagan" the various authors mean "non-Christian
Their argument is this:
"Christmas is obviously pagan because:
- There is
neither Biblical command or precedent for it;
did not observe it until the time of Constantine (after 313 AD); only
then did the Church of Rome introduce it;
- The Date
of Christmas and its many customs all come from pagan sources;
- When Christians
observe Christmas in any way they are participating in paganism."
He deals with each of these
arguments in turn, with the view that it is neither commanded nor forbidden,
and should be a matter of individual choice.
In fact, if
the "Christmas is pagan" crowd merely presented their argument as
"opinion," there would be no urgent need to respond. But it is the
fact that they condemn Christmas observers as guilty of idolatry and, as in
some cases, suggest that Christians who do Christmas are risking their
salvation that is just too much. For in so doing they are binding Christian
consciences and robbing Christians of their God-given freedom, making
unnecessary matters necessary.
First, while the Bible does
not command or even mention the observance of Christ's birth, it does include
two different records of it. Christians since then have read these passages
and responded in worship and thanksgiving for the coming of the Messiah. They
are in that sense "observing Christ's birth" (although not with the
type of celebration later associated with Christmas).
More to the point, however,
does the silence of Scripture make celebrating Christ's birth wrong? Is it
true that when it comes to religious celebrations, the Bible must
specifically give command or precedent? Is it true that creating a Christian
festival is the same as adding to Scripture?
The answer to all these
questions is a resounding, "No!" To say that Christians are
forbidden to create a special day for worship unless it is specifically
commanded in the Scriptures is ludicrous. Where did they get this idea?
Actually there is a word for this: Biblicism. Biblicism is the legalistic
error that Christians can only do what the Bible specifically says to do.
This led some of the radical reformers in the Sixteenth Century to rid their
churches of organs, crosses, clergy vestments, and many other things because
the Bible did not command such things.
Have these authors never
heard of Christian freedom? Yes, the doctrine of the Christian Church must be
based only on Scripture alone and we dare not add to or subtract from it. But
in matters that do not involve doctrine, in matters that are neither
commanded nor forbidden, Christians have freedom in the Church to do or say,
add or create, or subtract and delete anything -- unless, as I said, it
clearly contradicts an essential teaching of the Christian faith, or is found
by the majority not to be edifying.
It is frequently pointed
out that many Reformation churches rejected and/or condemned the celebration of
Christmas, as did the Puritans, and some Protestant denominations after them.
However, it is clear from their writings that it was not so much because they
thought it was Pagan, but because they associated it with the Roman Catholic
church from which they were distancing themselves. Yet not all Reformers were
against Christmas. Martin Luther himself only condemned doctrines and
traditions he believed directly contradicted the Scriptures, and retained
things like the liturgical calendar and the observance of Christmas. He wrote
We do not
condemn the doctrines of men just because they are the doctrines of men, for
we would gladly put up with them. But we condemn them because they are
contrary to the gospel and the Scriptures. While the Scriptures liberate
consciences and forbid that they be taken captive by the doctrines of men,
these doctrines of men captivate the conscience anyhow (A Reply to the Texts,
LW 35:153; WA 10II:91).
The second argument against
Christmas is that the first Christians did not celebrate it. The implication
is that "when the church was 'pure' during the first three hundred
years, Christmas was never celebrated. Only when the church became corrupt,
during and after the time of Constantine, did the Roman Church adopt a form
of Christianity based on pagan ideas." But the fact is that many
different factions arose during the first few centuries of Christianity, many
of them bringing in legalistic rules that seemed to lose sight of grace. In
addition, there is no evidence that Constantine was responsible for combining
Christ's birth with Pagan festivals in December.
In addition, while the
birth of Christ was not among the festivals observed by Christians in the
first two centuries, there is evidence that in some circles it was observed
when the date was thought to be determined.
there is evidence of the feast being celebrated in Egypt prior to 200 A.D.
The Church father Clement of Alexandria tells us that certain theologians had
claimed to have determined not only the year of the Lord's birth but also the
day; that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus and on the 25th day of
Pachon (May 20) (Stromata, I, 21). He also added that others said that he was
born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi (April 19 or 20). Another piece of
evidence is De Paschae Computus of 243, which states that Christ was born on
March 28, because, it says, this was the day that the sun was created.
Clement also tells us that other Christians were in the custom of celebrating
the Baptism of Christ (his Epiphany) on the 15th day of Tubi and others on
the 11th of the same month (Jan. 10 or 6). This is significant because it
became customary in many places for Christians to celebrate both Christ's
epiphany and his birth at the same – a practice of the Armenian Church to
It is in fact the origin of
its date that is used as the strongest argument against Christmas. It is
widely contended that Christmas was established as December 25th because of
the Roman feast of Saturnalia. But this feast was held from December 14 - 24.
Others correct this misunderstanding with the (more accurate) observation
that December 25 was celebrated in Rome as the birth of Sol Invictus,
the Unconquered Sun. But does the choice of this date by the Christian Church
automatically mean they were "compromising" with Paganism? Or were
they providing an alternative for Christians to celebrate instead of the
Pagan feast? (More on this later.)
And even if it had originated
as a Pagan festival, so much has changed in the hundreds of years since then
that Christians who choose to celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas are
no more embracing Paganism than those who worship on Sunday are worshiping
the sun, for whom the day was named. Many Christians who celebrate the birth
of Christ at this time of year do so based on several hundred years of
Christian traditions, not on the much older Pagan ones. If they are
celebrating the coming of the Messiah, God looks at that heart, not whether
some other ungodly festivals were observed at the same time.
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The Origins of
Even if Christmas had
originated as a Pagan festival, it has long since been given new meaning by Christians
in celebration of the birth of Christ. But did it actually stem from a Pagan
The earliest reference to
Christmas being observed on December 25 was a Chronography from 354 AD. This
document listed the feasts of the Church calendar. Observance of Christ's
birth on December 25 was widespread in the Church by the time Chrysostom was
Bishop of Constantinople (398-404), except in Armenia where it was observed
on January 6.
But how did it happen that
the early Christians began observing Christmas on December 25? Why this date?
There are two theories about why December 25 was chosen.
(1) The first theory holds
that after careful research, Julius (337-352), Bishop of Rome, determined
that Christ had been born on December 25; or at least he determined that
December 25 was the best authenticated date in the Tradition. John
Chrystostom states this in one of his writings (John Chrysostom, Homil. Diem
Natal., 2; PL, 49, 552ff.). Chrysostom claims that Julius, after he had been
requested by Cyril of Jerusalem, had the official records of the Roman census
examined and determined that December 25 was the correct date. As Weiser
points out, however, there is no evidence to back this up; in fact, "it
was expressly stated in Rome that the actual date of the Saviour's birth was
unknown and that different traditions prevailed in different parts of the
world" (F. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs - New York:
Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1958, 61.).
(2) The second theory
states that the Church of Rome deliberately chose December 25 as the date of
Christ's birth to turn people away from a pagan feast that was observed at
the same time. Since the time of the Roman emperor Elagabulus (218-222), the
god Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun god), had been one of the chief
deities worshiped by the Romans. When emperor Aurelian (270-275) came to
power, he sought to restore the worship of the Sun god to prominence and make
him the chief deity. In the last years of his reign, Sol was hailed as
"The Lord of the Roman Empire." Sol, along with Jupiter, appeared
on the coins Aurelian had minted. In 274, the emperor built a magnificent
temple to the Sun god, and established a new college of senators which he
named "the priests of the Sun god." Finally, December 25 was
observed as "the birthday of the Sun god" (natalis solis invicti).
Because the Sun god was identified with Mithra, a popular Persian god that
also was viewed as the Sun god, pagan celebrations occurred throughout the
empire on Dec. 25 (see Clement A. Miles, Christmas, New York:
Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1912, 23). The Church at Rome seems to have
chosen this date to counteract this pagan feast of the sun god and turn
people instead to the "Sun of Righteousness with healing in His
wings" (Malachi 4:2; Luke 1:78). Or put another way, Julius chose
December 25 so that the Son of God rather than the Sun god would be
worshiped. Though there is no direct evidence that proves that the Church of
Rome deliberately chose December 25 so that Christ's birth would replace
"the birthday of the sun," we do have sermons from fathers of the
church who soon after this used this line of reasoning. For example,
Augustine (354-430) in his sermon 202 and Leo the Great (440-461 -- PL 54
Sources chretiennes 22) gives this line of reasoning.
Therefore, the second
theory seems to be the probable one. December 25 was chosen not because it
had somehow been proven from extra-biblical sources that Christ was
definitely born on December 25. Rather the date was chosen to counteract a
very popular pagan holiday that already had been occurring on this date.
So we have indirect
evidence that the date of Christmas was chosen as an alternative. In
contrast, what evidence do we have that it was chosen as a compromise with
Paganism? The commonly recycled explanations involve Nimrod and the supposed
origins of all Pagan religion. In his article, Dr. Bucher quotes the
following from the World Wide Church of God tract, The Plain Truth About
But if we
got Christmas from the Roman Catholics, and they got it from paganism, where
did the pagans get it? Where, when, and what was its real origin? It is a
chief custom of the corrupt system denounced all through Bible prophecies and
teachings under the name of Babylon. And it started and originated in the
original Babylon of ancient Nimrod! Yes, it stems from roots whose beginning
was shortly this side of the Flood! Nimrod, grandson of Ham, son of Noah, was
the real founder of the Babylonish system that has gripped the world ever
since. … Nimrod built the tower of Babel, the original Babylon, ancient
Nineveh, and many other cities. He organized this world's first kingdom. The
name Nimrod, in Hebrew, is derived from "Marad," meaning "he
rebelled." … Nimrod was so evil, it is said he married his own mother,
whose name was Semiramis. After Nimrod's untimely death, his so-called
mother-wife, Semiramis, propagated the evil doctrine of the survival of
Nimrod as a spirit being. She claimed a full-grown evergreen tree sprang
overnight from a dead tree stump, which symbolized the springing forth unto
new life the dead Nimrod. On each anniversary of his birth, she claimed,
Nimrod would visit the evergreen tree and leave gifts upon it. December 25th
was the birthday of Nimrod. This is the real origin of the Christmas tree.
Through her scheming and designing, Semiramis became the Babylonian
"Queen of Heaven," and Nimrod, under various names, became the
"divine son of heaven." Through the generations, in this idolatrous
worship, Nimrod also became the false Messiah, son of Baal the Sun-god. In
this false Babylonish system, the "Mother and Child" (Semiramis and
Nimrod reborn) became chief objects of worship. This worship of "Mother
and Child" spread over the world. The names varied in different
countries and languages. In Egypt it was Isis and Osiris. In Asia, Cybele and
Deoius. … Thus, during the fourth and fifth centuries, when the pagans of the
Roman world were "accepting" the new popular
"Christianity" by the hundreds of thousands, carrying their old
pagan customs and beliefs along with them, merely cloaking them with
Christian-sounding names. … The real origin of Christmas goes back to ancient
Babylon. It is bound up in the organized apostasy which has gripped a
deceived world these many centuries! In Egypt, it was always believed that
the son of Isis (Egyptian name for "Queen of Heaven") was born
December 25th. Paganism celebrated this famous birthday over most of the
known world for centuries before the birth of Christ. December 25th is not
the birthday of Jesus the true Christ!
This line of thinking is
seen repeated and recycled in many different sources. Where did it originate?
Dr. Bucher explains.
So goes the argument, which
is repeated by many different anti-Christmas authors. Where in the world did
such an argument come from? This was the thesis of Alexander Hislop, who in
the Nineteenth Century wrote a book entitled, The Two Babylons: Or the
Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife. It was
Hislop's thesis that the Roman Catholic Church was a direct descendent of the
paganism of Nimrod and ancient Babylon. One of his arguments was that some of
the chief holy days of the Roman Catholic Church, such as Christmas, prove
this to be so. The stamp of Hislop's thesis is found all over most of the
anti-Christmas literature that I've seen. But is his argument sound?
Hardly. I have no doubt
that Hislop consulted a vast amount of sources in writing his book. This is
obvious in reading it. But some of its key arguments are flawed. He makes
many philological leaps of faith to prove his points. For example, his entire
argument rests on making the Babylonian "Ninus" the same person as
the Biblical "Nimrod." (Nimrod is mentioned in only three places in
the Scriptures, Gen. 10:8-12, 1 Chr. 1:10, and Micah 5:6). Only then can
he claim that the wife of Nimrod was Semiramis, and that both were worshiped
as divine mother and son, etc. Hislop himself recognizes how important this
is, in this very interesting sentence:
assuming that Ninus is Nimrod, the way in which that assumption explains what
is otherwise inexplicable in the statements of ancient history greatly
confirms the truth of the assumption itself (The Two Babylons, 25).
Got that? The point is that
this turns out to be a big assumption. In other ancient literature, the
father of Ninus was Bel, and it is said that he built the city of Nineveh.
The Bible on the other hand says that Nimrod built Nineveh, and that Cush was
his father. The way in which Hislop attempts to reconcile this contradiction
is a truly remarkable example of literary gymnastics that is hardly
convincing. He argues that Bel is the same as Hermes/Mercury, and the same as
Janus/Chaos, which is the same as Cush. Right. (See for yourself by reading The
Two Babylons, 25-29).
It is possible that Nimrod,
the son of Cush, led people into pagan worship. But the argument that all
paganism, and especially that all pagan festivals at the time of the winter
solstice, can be traced back to Nimrod, just doesn't hold. To say it is a
scholarly stretch is an understatement. Yet most of the "Christmas is
pagan" literature bases its arguments on Hislop's thesis.
Isn't it more likely, that
many primitive cultures and religions would choose to celebrate the birth of
their gods at a time when the sun began to grow stronger, and thus be reborn?
Isn't it much more likely that this is the reason that so many pagan
religions have festivals at the time of the winter solstice? I'll let you
decide which thesis is stronger.
So there is no direct
evidence for or against the claim that Christmas grew from Pagan roots. And
if the source of the claim is flawed (and then constantly repeated) while
there is at least indirect evidence to the contrary, which view is the more
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In many people's minds, the
idea that Christmas evolved from Pagan feasts is given more credence by the
fact that many Christmas customs were observed as part of Pagan religion and culture.
Yule logs, holly, mistletoe, and evergreen decorations all play a part in
many different Pagan festivals. But does that mean that they all stem from
the same source? Lights and trees, revelry and gift-giving are common to many
different celebrations in many different cultures. But this doesn't prove
that they are derived from the same source. If Christians use them at
Christmas, why assume they were all taken from Paganism?
Of course some Christmas
customs are certainly taken from paganism. The use of the word Yule and the
various customs associated with it, for example, come from pagan culture. The
word probably came from the Anglo-Saxon geol, which meant
"feast." It is thought that among the Anglo-Saxons, the time of the
winter solstice was a time of a great feast.
But so what? Is everything
that was once used by paganism centuries ago, now off limits when Christians
apply them to Christmas or other Christian festivals? Are we prepared to strictly
apply that to everything we do? Why can't we use some of the same words,
symbols or customs, which long ago ceased to be used in the worship of false
gods? We need to remember that before pagans co-opted them centuries ago, God
had given many of the things used in custom, as good gifts to be enjoyed by
his people. Why then can Christians not redeem these good gifts for their use
as they celebrate Christmas? In my opinion, it is sufficient to point out to
people the origin of these customs, and distinguish these "winter
customs" from the true Christmas celebration, which has to do with the
birth of God's Son, Jesus Christ. In my perfect world, people would call all
of those customs "winter customs" or "holiday customs"
rather than "Christmas customs." "Christmas" would only
be used to refer to the Christian holy day that remembers Christ's birth. But
I don't see that happening any time soon.
There is a FAQ page about
various Christmas customs on the same
web site as Dr. Bucher's other articles.
Perhaps the biggest custom
of Christmas is the Christmas tree. There have been a number of false
assumptions linking its origin to Paganism, but again, with no historical
basis. It is often difficult to separate history from legend in such cases.
Many variations are found on the internet, most without sources or citations
(not uncommon on the Web). Dr. Bucher lists his sources for his articles:
the research for this article, I found three works especially helpful. The
first is Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan by
Clement A. Miles. Though now a bit dated, Miles's work made use of the best
scholarship of the time, much of which has not been improved upon, and
therefore is still a valuable resource. Of equal value is Francis X. Weiser's
Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs. Weiser's work only devotes
several chapters to the customs of Christmas, but these are well researched
and articulated. I also found The Solstice Evergreen by Sheryl Ann
Karas to be helpful. Karas has done an admirable job researching the various
ways that the evergreen has been used in various cultures over the centuries
and this is the book's strength.
At one time I, like many
other Christians, cited Jeremiah 10 as "proof" that the Christmas
tree was Pagan.
2 Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed
at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.
3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the
forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.
4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with
hammers, that it move not.
5 They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne,
because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil,
neither also is it in them to do good. [see NASB]
examination of the context shows that it is speaking of cutting down trees
and carving them into idols, decking them with silver and gold. It is not
referring to the Christmas tree, which in its modern form did not come into
existence till hundreds of years later. (See Dr. Bucher's article on this here.)
So where did the Christmas
tree originate? While the popular story of Martin Luther setting up the first
Christmas tree is purely legendary, most history scholars agree that it did
originate in Germany. The earliest record of a decorated evergreen at Christmas
is from 1521 in Alsace (a region of Germany). Another record from Strasbourg
in 1605 describes what was hung on their tree - "...roses cut of
many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets..." We also know
from historical writings that not all Christians approved of the custom. The
theologian Johann Dannhauer said he didn't know where the custom came from,
and called it "child's play... Far better were it to point the children
to the spiritual cedar-tree, Jesus Christ." The first mention of candles
on a Christmas tree is in the 1600's. The custom grew slowly in popularity
from the mid-17th century, and had grown to the general German custom it is
today by the early 19th century. But where did it originate?
Karas has amply
demonstrated that evergreens have been a symbol of rebirth from ancient
times. Bringing greenery into one's home, often at the time of the winter
solstice, symbolized life in the midst of death in many cultures. The Romans
decked their homes with evergreens and other greenery during the Kalends of
January. Living trees were also brought into homes during the old German
feast of Yule, which originally was a two-month feast beginning in November.
The Yule tree was planted in a tub and brought into the home. However, the
evidence just does not exist which shows that Christians first used trees at
Christmas as a symbol of rebirth, nor that the Christmas tree was a direct
descendent of the Yule tree. On the contrary, the evidence that we have
points in another direction. The Christmas tree appears to be a descendent of
the Paradise tree and the Christmas light of the late Middle Ages.
From the eleventh century,
religious plays called "mystery plays" became quite popular
throughout Europe. These plays were performed outdoors and in churches. One
of the most prevalent of these plays was the "Paradise play." The
play depicted the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin, and their
banishment from Paradise. The play would end with the promise of the coming
Savior and His Incarnation (cf. Gen. 3:15). The Paradise play was simple by today's
standards. The only prop on stage was the "Paradise tree," a fir
tree adorned with apples. From this tree, at the appropriate time in the
play, Eve would take the fruit, eat it, and give it to Adam.
Because of abuses that
crept into the mystery plays (i.e., immoral behavior), the Church forbade
these plays during the fifteenth century. The people had grown so accustomed
to the Paradise tree, however, that they began putting their own Paradise
tree up in their homes on Dec. 24. They did so on Dec. 24 because this was
the feast day of Adam and Eve (at least in the Eastern Church). The Paradise
tree, as it had in the Paradise plays, symbolized both a tree of sin and a
tree of life. For this reason, the people would decorate these trees with
apples (representing the fruit of sin) and homemade wafers (like communion
wafers which represented the fruit of life). Later, candy and sweets were
Another custom was to be
found in the homes of Christians on Dec. 24 since the late Middle Ages. A
large candle called the "Christmas light," symbolizing Christ who
is the light of the world, was lit on Christmas Eve. In western Germany, many
smaller candles were set upon a wooden pyramid and lit. Besides the candles,
other objects such as glass balls, tinsel, and the "star of
Bethlehem" were placed on its top.
Though we cannot be
certain, it seems highly likely that the first Christmas trees that appeared
in Germany in the early sixteenth century were descendants of both of these
customs: the Paradise tree and the Christmas pyramids and lights. The
Paradise tree became our Christmas tree. Decorations that had been placed on
the pyramids were transferred to the Christmas tree.
For many Christians the
Christmas tree still retains the symbolism of the Paradise tree. The tree
reminds us of the tree in Eden by which Adam and Eve were overcome and which
thrust them into sin. But more importantly, the tree reminds us of the tree
by which our sin was overcome, namely the tree upon which Christ Jesus was
crucified. Is it a stretch to refer to the cross as a tree? Hardly, for this
is the language of the New Testament itself! For example, Paul writes in Galatians 3:13, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming
a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a
tree" (quoting Deut. 21:23). And Peter writes, "He himself bore
our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for
righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed." [I Peter 2:24, NIV] Therefore, the Christmas tree is a
wonderful symbol and reminder of our salvation and forgiveness through Jesus
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Another reliable source that
backs up its information with credible research is Snopes.com. Their article
on the date of the birth of Jesus also corroborates the fact that
December 25 was chosen as an alternative to Pagan celebration.
In those tenuous early days
of Christianity, however, Church fathers debated strategies for supplanting
the Mithras cult with their own religion. Since it was well known that Roman
patricians and plebians alike enjoyed festivals of a protracted nature,
Christians recognized that they needed an alternative to the December
celebration of Natalis Solis Invincti. They needed a celebration in
which all participants — Mithraists, Christians, and those in between — could
take part with pride. Accordingly, the Church officially recognized Christ's
birth, and to offer head-on competition to the sun worshipers' popular feast,
the Church located the Nativity on December 25. The mode of observance would
be characteristically prayerful: a Mass. In fact, Christ's Mass. As one
theologian wrote around 320 CE:
this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but
because of him who made it.
Although centuries later,
social scientists would write of the psychological power of group
celebrations — the unification of ranks, the solidification of collective
identity, the reinforcement of common objectives — the principle had long
been intuitively obvious. Christianity took permanent hold in the Western
world in 337 CE when Constantine I was baptized on his deathbed, uniting for
the first time the Crown and the Church.
Granted there have been
times since then that Pagan customs were mixed with Christian traditions. And
there were also times when the celebration degenerated into drunken revelry.
But that wasn't always the case, and it didn't start out that way. Also,
because of this degradation, there were times in history when Christmas was
frowned upon. The Puritans banned it in England at one point, and in America,
English customs including Christmas fell out of favor after the Revolution.
It wasn't until June 26, 1870 that Christmas was declared a federal holiday.
But much of the reason for rejecting Christmas in more recent centuries was
not so much because they thought it was Pagan, but because of the drunken
debauchery it had become. Such revelry as well as crass commercialism and
unbridled greed have turned many off to Christmas even today. In response,
many Christians have tried to get back to the observation of Christ's birth,
but this idea is hindered by those who insist that Christmas originated as a
The fact is many different
customs from many different cultures are mixed at this time of year, even
among non-Christians. But the holiday isn't going away any time soon. So if
you're going to celebrate something, why not observe the Christian traditions
in contrast to the Pagan ones or the secular ones? As long as the celebration
exists, which reaction would be more conducive to spreading the gospel -
ignoring everything about Christmas because you were told it's pagan, or
encouraging more people to focus on the birth of Christ as Christians have
done for hundreds of years? Focusing on Christ rather than other things is
always a better choice.
Paul said in Romans 14 that, "One man
esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every
man be fully persuaded in his own mind" (Romans 14:5). If one is convinced that Christmas is evil
and Pagan, then he shouldn't observe it. But a person can't make an informed
choice if the information they're given is not historically accurate, and a
vast amount of the info out there is just that. So it is important to get the
facts straight about the origins of Christmas, and only then can one make an
informed decision and thus be persuaded in his own mind.
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