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.
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.
But 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!