Is Jesus Really the Reason for the Season?

Mark Beuving —  December 12, 2012

NativityWe’ve all heard the saying, and most of us have probably said it ourselves. Jesus is the reason for the season. But is it true?

You’ve probably heard vague statements about the pagan origins of Christmas. My guess is that Christian responses to these claims cover the following spectrum:

  • “That’s not true!”
  • “Are you daft? It’s called Christmas! It’s about Jesus’ birthday!”
  • “I don’t care.”
  • “Wait, what?!”

I’d like to help you think through this a bit. As Christians, we need to stand firmly on our beliefs. But we also need to be sure that our beliefs are grounded in reality. We don’t want to take a firm stand on some irrelevant and speculative point.

First of all, we should acknowledge that much of what we love about Christmastime is rooted in paganism. So much so, in fact, that the Puritans outlawed Christmas for a number of years. No joke.

The truth is, we have no idea when Jesus’ birthday really is. At some point, the Church picked a date, thinking that December 25 was as good a date as any to celebrate the incarnation. Actually, we should go a step farther and say that the church thought December 25 was better than other dates because of its ties with paganism. The Winter Solstice takes place around this date, and this was a big moment for pagans who celebrated the undying sun. It also corresponds to the pagan festival of Saturnalia, held in honor of the god Saturn. So Christian leaders chose to celebrate Jesus’ birth at this time of the year in order to repurpose a moment in time that had been dedicated to pagan worship.

Christmas Tree

This type of repurposing has been common throughout history. A conquering religious group would often use artifacts and culture from the conquered people’s religion in order to make the transition to the new religion easier. When we look at Islam, for example, much of their worship looks very foreign. But in reality, a lot of the architecture in their mosques and their practice of prostration during prayer were actually adopted from the Eastern Christians they conquered. They repurposed these religious elements, and eventually these things became as indistinguishable a part of the new religion as any other custom. Christians have done the same thing throughout history.

There are similarly pagan ties with other Christmas traditions. Christmas trees probably originated from the practice of worshipping the evergreen in winter by bringing it into homes and decorating it as a means of celebrating its inextinguishable fertility. Or it may have been a uniquely Christian phenomenon, chosen because of its triangular shape, which hints at the Trinity. I’ve heard both versions. Mistletoe is probably pagan in origin. Santa Claus connects back to St. Nicholas in the early church, but the tradition probably got mixed with some non-Christian elements along the way.

The point is, we can’t simply say, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” as though Jesus were born on December 25 and every element of our Christmas celebration has always been Christian. Many Christians get upset when the politically correct among us say Merry Xmas or Happy Holidays. But we probably shouldn’t. Christians have never had an exclusive right to celebration during the month of December. It’s unfair of us to have adapted non-Christian forms of celebration into our Christmas celebration and then tell other people that they can’t celebrate anything else during this season.

Christmas GiftsBut here’s the thing. I’m not anti-Christmas. I like our Christmas traditions. I find them rich in meaning. I’m not bothered by the reality that many of the elements of our celebration were repurposed from paganism. These things have been a part of the Christian tradition for a long time, and they have a deep significance for my family and for Christians everywhere. Symbols work through the connections and connotations attached to them. None of these Christmas symbols carry any sense of paganism for myself or anyone I know; the symbols have taken on new meaning.

Jesus may not have been born on December 25, but he was born. I’m happy to celebrate that truth in the dead of winter. It feels appropriate to enjoy the traditions with my children that I received from my parents, and that we all received from countless generations of godly, Christ-loving people. So let’s not get snooty about who wants to celebrate what on which day, and let’s enjoy the Christmas season to the fullest. We have much to celebrate!

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Mark Beuving

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Mark has worked in youth, college, and worship ministry since 1999, and now serves at Eternity Bible College as the Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Simi Valley with his wife and two daughters.
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  • Andrew

    We should note that Xmas isn’t putting and ‘X’ through ‘Christ.’ It’s actually the Geek letter Chi (pronounced like “key”) that looks like a fancy ‘X’ (you can google it if you’d like to see a picture). This is the first letter in the Greek word “Christos”. Look familiar?…Yep! X-mas is just a cool Greek-fancy way of writing an abbreviation for “Christmas.” However, since hardly anyone knows Greek nowadays and *saying* “Xmas” makes it sound like the English letter ‘x’ which is commonly used to cross things out, it’s no wonder most are unaware of the Greek origin. I vote for saying “Keymas!” (Not really.) But there are also some that write or say “Xmas” and are *meaning* to cross out “Christ” (because they don’t know it’s origin). What an ironic turn of the tables for those people! They are getting all vintage high church without even realizing it!

    And since I’m on the topic of etymology, I might as well also point out that the “mas” part of Christmas means “Mass” (Latin origin)–the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist (I had to use the fancy ‘Eucharist’ instead of Lord’s Supper or Communion since we are dealing with high church stuff :) ).

    So I guess this means we have to go to a high church mass on December 25th and say “Keymas” otherwise we’re pagans who have forgotten the reason for the season!!!

    (I know you know Greek Mark, this was just a public service announcement for those who don’t to distribute some #funfacts)

  • Jason Smith

    A bit both. We all know it has pagenistic origins. Doesn’t take much research to uncover that. However if you truly worship the birth of Christ and don’t feel your head with Santa Claus and all the other garbage that comes with it I think it’s fine. Christ didn’t take any glory for Himself. He gave it All to the father. So why would we share Christ’s glory with a mystical false idol. I personally recognize the birth of Jesus in the last week of September. That is when most biblical scholars believe when he was born. End of September to early October. Peace and all esteem to the Father.

  • Dale Cordes

    I don’t think “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” is meant to imply that all the symbolism has a pure, accurate, or solely Christian history. It doesn’t imply that celebrators of Kwanzaa or Hanukkah or Festivus are in the wrong and only Christmas should be celebrated. The saying, at least to my knowledge, became popular as the celebration of Christmas became commercialized. It is a reminder to those of us who DO celebrate Christmas toslow down, don’t worry so much about all the performances and decorations and family battles and traveling and gift-buying. Take time to celebrate the birth itself (regardless of what date it may have happened) and what it means to humanity and to self.

    The other day, I was actually thinking about this saying from a different angle. Isn’t Jesus the reason for EVERY season? My hope is that Christ is pre-eminent in my life all year round!

    • MarkBeuving

      Well said, Dale. I’m certainly not against that statement itself, only against a misunderstanding and therefore misuse of it. I like how you put it: “Jesus is the reason for EVERY season.”