The Pagan Roots of Insisting Christmas Has Pagan Roots
The Monstrous Crew
Every year in Christian circles, there’s an ongoing debate about whether Christians should celebrate the incarnation of Christ on December 25, and what that has to do with ancient pagan idolatry. Joint monstrous host Kate Robinson to take a closer look at the origins of the Christmas holiday, what scripture says about pagan worship, and the implications for us today.
A thrill of hope… the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. That, my friends, is a line from a Christmas hymn, celebrating the incarnation of Jesus Christ, our savior. On its surface, it sounds like a song of praise to the one true God, but when we sing it could we be accidentally worshiping pagan gods?
I’m Kate Robinson, and you’re listening to the Monstrous Regiment.
My friends, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. A time for warmth, generosity, worship, love, and raging battles in Christendom. When it comes to Christmas, there are two fronts on which these battles are usually fought: one the one hand, a host of conservative Christians triggered by greetings of underpaid Wal-Mart employees, are loudly demanding that the world “put the Christ back in Christmas”, and standing strong against the “Liberal war on Christmas”. In other circles, Christians are urging each other not to celebrate Christmas at all, citing its “pagan roots” and declaring Christmas trees to be idols lifted up to pagan gods.
The second is the one we’ll be focusing on today.
Interestingly, opposition to Christmas from both sides — from Christians because it’s too pagan, and from atheists because it’s too Christian — has been ongoing for literally centuries. Puritans in England and New England even banned its celebration for a period of time in the 18th century, resulting in widespread pro-Christmas riots that included rioters decorating doors with holly. That’s not important, I just think it’s interesting. If you’re going to have rioters at your door, it’s nice of them to leave it decorated (see Lords of Misrule: The Puritan War on Christmas).
Exploring the Pagan Roots of Christmas
I first encountered the idea that Christians should abandon the celebration of Christmas and a shocking expose of its pagan origins in my early 20s. Being sincere in my desire to honor Christ, I was immediately alarmed. Had I been dishonoring him my whole life? What were the implications of that? Was my resistance to this revelation simply a selfish desire to indulge in worldly pleasantries? I’m sure a lot of people who adhere to the “Christmas is pagan” ideologies have experienced similar thoughts, especially the last. There can be a tendency in the journey to die to ourselves and put to death the flesh, to become afraid that anything we hope is not true, must in fact be true, and it must be our sinful nature resisting it. Of course our flesh does often resist the commands of the Lord, but it’s also true that the law of God is written on our hearts, and that a desire to sacrifice all the vain things that charm us most, when not guided by scripture, can lead us into the ditch on the other side of the road — a harmful asceticism, that has an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and severity to the body, but is of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
In the interest of avoiding either ditch, and in light of an increasing number of arguments revolving around Christmas over the last few years, I’d like to take a closer look at the origins of the Christmas holiday, what scripture says about pagan worship, and the implications for us today. I’ve seen a LOT of debate around this topic, with some arguments more absurd than others. I’ve seen it argued that kneeling down to hang ornaments on a tree or place gifts under it constitutes tree worship because it involves kneeling. I’ve seen families haul their young children out to the streets on Christmas morning to hold signs declaring that “Christmas is sun god worship”. I find this deeply concerning, and not just because I personally enjoy Christmas.
In general, arguments from those who claim that Christmas is a pagan holiday which Christians should abandon, include the following points:
- Jesus was not born in December, but in reality was born in September or March
- Christians adopted Dec. 25 as the birth date of Jesus as an excuse to participate in pagan celebrations of winter solstice and worship of the sun
- No matter when he was born, celebrating birthdays is pagan
- Jeremiah 10 forbids Christmas trees, which are idols
- The Bible doesn’t mention a Christmas celebration
- It is too commercial
I’m going to address most of these in order, starting with the first two.
In order to make sure I’m accurately representing the objections of those who oppose Christmas on the grounds that it’s pagan, I’ll read a few of the arguments in their own words.
The United Church of God, in an article titled “Top 10 Reasons Why I Don’t Celebrate Christmas” says the following:
And what about the date of Dec. 25? How did it come to be assigned as the supposed date of Jesus Christ’s birth? Historians Gerard and Patricia Del Re explain:
“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.
“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 … 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’s difficult to determine the first time anyone celebrated Dec. 25 as Christmas, but historians generally agree that it was sometime during the fourth century—some 300 years after Christ’s death. And then a contrived date was chosen because it was already a popular pagan holiday celebrating the birth of the sun god!
Similarly, virtually all of the customs associated with Christmas are recycled from ancient pagan festivals honoring other gods.”
The website Bibletruths.com, which I am choosing because it is high in Google search results despite being practically unreadable, says:
“The Emperor Constantine understood that by giving official status to Christianity, he brought internal peace to the Roman Empire. After declaring Christianity the “state” religion (Constantine forced all the pagans of his empire to be baptized into the Roman Catholic Church), there was need for true union between paganism and Christianity. The corrupt Roman Catholic Church was full of pagans now masquerading as Christians, all of which had to be pacified. What better way than to “Christianize” their pagan idolatries.
- Pagan rituals and idols took on Christian names (e.g., Jesus Christ was presented as the Sun of Righteousness [Malachi 4:2] replacing the sun god, Sol Invictus ).
- Pagan holidays were reclassified as Christian holidays (holy-days).
- December 25th was already celebrated as the “Victory of the Sun-God” Festival in the pagan Babylonian world.
- The pagans flocked into the Catholic places of worship, because they were still able to worship their old gods, but merely under different names. It mattered not to them whether they worshiped the Egyptian goddess mother and her child under the old names (Isis and Horus), or under the names of the “Virgin Mary” and the “Christ-child.” Either way, it was the same old idol-religion.
The site then goes on to argue:
“Contrary to the idea that Christ was born on December 25th is the bible’s own evidence. Luke 2:8 “while shepherds watch their flocks by night” the angel of the Lord announced that this is the day of His birth. But if this is December in Palestine, it is winter and the shepherds do not keep their flocks out at night grazing in the winter. It was customary for the shepherds to take them in after Mid-October and release them in early spring.”
There are many other sources to draw from if you’re interested. I’m only quoting the first two I found, and their reasons are virtually identical: i.e. that Christmas is simply a Christianized version of a pagan Roman holiday, and that Jesus can’t have been born on Dec. 25 because it was too cold for shepherds to watch their flocks at night.
So where did the Dec. 25 date come from?
There’s actually quite a bit of scholarly debate about why Dec. 25 was chosen as the birth date of Christ, and whether it was chosen before or after it was also chosen to celebrate Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birth of the unconquered sun.
There are two primary hypotheses for why Dec. 25 was chosen. The first, is the one we’ve just heard in the previous quotes: that it was chosen specifically to coincide with pagan Roman holidays.
On Biblicalarcheology.org, Andrew McGowan, President of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, writes:
“in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].
Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor).”
He then goes on to say:
“The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”3 In about 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.”
McGowan then explains the same hypothesis we’ve just discussed, namely that the date Dec. 25 was chosen intentionally to coincide with the Roman celebration of the birth of the unconquered sun, although the motive given is more charitable — that it was chosen as a means of spreading Christianity throughout the Roman world. We’ll discuss whether there’s merit to any attempts to do that, if they existed, a little later on.
However, McGowan points out, there are a couple of problems with the theory that the date was chosen to coincide with pagan holidays. The first problem is that it’s not included in any early Christian writings. You’d think if there was a move by the church to appropriate the Roman holiday, there would be some mention of it, but there’s not. In fact, the first suggestion that the Christmas celebration is merely a pagan ritual in Christian clothing occurred in the 12th century (some 800 years later) in an annotation to a manuscript by Syrian Bishop Jacob Bar Salabi, which states:
“It was a custom of the Pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day.”
That’s not to say that ancient Christian writers did not make a connection between the birth of Christ and the birth of the sun. But when they mention this connection, their remarks are more in line with celebrating the providential coincidence. For example, Ambrose, who lived in the late third century, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. Augustine even seemed to believe Christ himself chose the date to coincide with the winter solstice, writing “”Hence it is that He was born on the day which is the shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.”
In addition to the potential problems with the first hypothesis, there’s a second, less widely known, hypothesis which significantly pre-dates the first, suggesting why Dec. 25 was chosen as Jesus’ birthday.
The calculation hypothesis was first articulated by French writer Louis Duchesne in 1889, but did not originate with him. This theory suggests that the date was calculated based on its proximity to March 25, which had become associated with the incarnation (and is currently celebrated in various places as the Annunciation, for that reason). The idea that Christ was conceived around March 25 (9 months before Dec. 25) makes appearances in Christian writings as early as the second century, in the writings of historian Sextus Julius Africanus in the year 221, as well as Hippolytus of Rome in the year 204.
The calculation of Christ’s conception appears to have been based on the calculation of his death (working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, which is March 25 on the Roman calendar, as reported around 200 C.E. by Tertullian of Carthage). This may seem odd, but is consistent with ancient Jewish traditions which suggest a prophet would die on the same date as his conception (see Historical Dictionary of Catholicism By William J. Collinge). Easterners used the same calculation method but with a Greek calendar, and calculated both the conception and death of Jesus as taking place April 6, which is consistent with the continued celebration of Christmas on Jan. 6 by churches in the East. Of course this doesn’t mean Jesus was actually born on either of those dates, but it is a compelling explanation for why they were chosen to begin with.
This idea is repeated by multiple other early sources, including On Solstices and Equinoxes an anonymous Christian treatise, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa, according to McGowan, and reads: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”
In On the Trinity, Augustine wrote: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”
So the belief that the conception of Christ should be calculated according to the death of Christ was not at all uncommon, and would account for the date of his birth being placed in December.
Additionally, in The Origins of the Liturgical Year, Thomas Talley proposed that the Roman Emperor Aurelian actually instituted the feast of the unconquered sun in order to compete with, or give pagan significance to, the date that was already important to Christians. Considering that Aurelian instituted the feast in 274, roughly 50 – 70 years after the first known writing that placed Christ’s birth on December 25, that’s really not that unlikely.
That is an extremely lengthy answer to a point that I’m about to argue doesn’t even matter much. I thought it was important to review these arguments for the sake of noting that there are plenty of credible reasons to question confident assertions about the pagan origin of the holiday, but for a good portion of this episode, my primary focus will not be on whether December was actually the birthday of Christ, but whether celebrating the incarnation in place of a traditionally pagan holiday would be bad even if it wasn’t. For this reason, and in the interest of time, I’m not going to bother addressing whether it was too cold for sheep to be outdoors, or how tenuous it would be to base any theologies on that assumption.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that the date of the Christmas celebration was chosen solely on the basis of Christianizing the Roman festival of the unconquered sun. Would that be bad, and does it necessarily mean that Christians who celebrate Christmas are participating in pagan worship? Well, let’s look at some of the arguments along those lines. Our friends at United Church of God have this to say:
“God gives specific instruction about using pagan practices to worship Him— the exact thing Christmas does! Notice what He says in Deuteronomy 12:30-32: “. . . Do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way . . . Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”
The article also quotes 2 Corinthians 6:
“What fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial [the devil and/or demons]? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God . . .
“Therefore ‘Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.’ ‘I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.’ Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God”
Obviously none of us want to disagree with Scripture (no matter what you’ve heard about Monstrous Regiment, we’re big fans of the Word of God). So is celebrating the birth of Christ on Dec. 25 really “inquiring after” or “going after” other gods? Fortunately, the Old Testament gives us plenty of actual examples of Israelites going after other gods, and participating in pagan worship practices. These include:
- Cutting themselves and shaving their forehead for the sake of the dead (deut. 14:1)
- Passing their children through the fire for the god molech (throughout Leviticus)
- Being or having sex with temple prostitutes (Deut. 23:17, 1 Cor. 6:15)
- Making cakes for the queen of heaven (Jeremiah 44:19)
- Fashioning idols out of wood or gold and silver (Jeremiah 10 and several other places)
- Asherah poles (multiple books)
There are other examples, but they all have a few things in common with these, which we’ll get to in a moment. Incidentally the last example, from Jeremiah 10, is extremely popular among Christmas opponents. It reads thus:
“Do not learn the way of the Gentiles;
Do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven,
For the Gentiles are dismayed at them.
For the customs of the peoples are futile;
For one cuts a tree from the forest,
The work of the hands of the workman, with the ax.
They decorate it with silver and gold;
They fasten it with nails and hammers
So that it will not topple.
They are upright, like a palm tree,
And they cannot speak;
They must be carried,
Because they cannot go by themselves.
Do not be afraid of them,
For they cannot do evil,
Nor can they do any good.”
This is frequently used as evidence that the Old Testament explicitly forbids Christmas trees (though I’ve never heard of anyone being afraid that their Christmas tree would do evil or good). Of course this was written thousands of years before both the incarnation of Christ and the institution of the Roman Sun god holiday, so it’s highly unlikely that it had anything to do with either one.
But since we’re on the topic, let’s briefly discuss the Christmas tree. There’s little argument that whether or not the date of the Savior’s birth was fudged a little to line up with Winter Solstice, many Christmas traditions are either borrowed from or variations of different pagan or other cultural traditions.
There’s a lot of debate about where the Christmas tree tradition started — with ancient Romans, ancient Egyptians, Druids, and Vikings all having been thought to decorate their homes with evergreens or evergreen boughs for various reasons. In most of the sources I could find, German Christians were credited with starting the tradition of bringing the trees home and decorating them for Christmas, around the 16th century. In fact, the practice of lighting candles (now electric lights) and putting them in the tree is often associated with Martin Luther, who, it’s said, was trying to imitate the look of the stars shining through the trees as he walked home. It’s not entirely clear how the tradition came to be what it is today. Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say:
“The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the Devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime. It survived further in the custom, also observed in Germany, of placing a Yule tree at an entrance or inside the house during the midwinter holidays.
The modern Christmas tree, though, originated in western Germany. The main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was a “paradise tree,” a fir tree hung with apples, that represented the Garden of Eden. The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the eucharistic host, the Christian sign of redemption); in a later tradition the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, symbolic of Christ as the light of the world, were often added.”
Honestly, I’m sympathetic to Christians who are anxious about Christmas trees, if they see them as being inextricably tied to pagan tree worship, but there are a couple of reasons that is not the case.
The fact that the use of evergreens in pagan practice is attributed to so many different cultures, far from being a compelling argument that Christmas trees are inherently pagan, is a much better argument that they aren’t. Multiple cultures, from multiple parts of the world, recognized that there are certain types of trees which stay green year-round and adopted them as a symbol of everlasting life. This is one among many examples of pagans and Christians alike drawing significance from things we see in nature. The difference is that only Christians know that nature is a reflection of the glory and invisible attributes of God. So only Christians have something really significant to symbolize with their use of natural things, but it shouldn’t surprise us when image bearers recognize and appreciate those attributes, even if they don’t fully understand why.
I say this as a caution against labeling anything that isn’t inherently sinful a “pagan tradition” and abandoning it on those grounds. Even where paganism doesn’t directly borrow from Christianity, there are a tremendous number of parallels between pagan mythology and orthodox Christian teachings, a phenomenon which writers like Tolkien and Lewis attributed to God expressing his truth through nature and the minds of image-bearers.
In a letter to Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis comments on the similarities between pagan mythology and the Gospel:
“What (Hugo) Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a pagan story I didn’t mind it at all; again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself … I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it; again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.”
“The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i. e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call real things.”
All that to say, there is nothing under the sun that is the rightful domain of pagans, and did not first belong to God.
Second, as I already mentioned, Jeremiah was written many thousands of years before Christmas trees existed. While it references decorating with gold and silver, it seems to be very clearly talking about carving the statue of a false god, embellishing said statue, and worshiping it, which is much more consistent with other scriptures that both warn against and describe these specific practices. Even if Pagan cultures were already bringing evergreens home by this point, decorating them with shiny ornaments didn’t become a tradition until thousands of years later.
But I promised to talk about why turning a pagan holiday into a Christian one might be acceptable and you’ve let me ramble on.
Baptizing Pagan Traditions
Let’s start at the idol to the unknown God.
In Acts, Chapter 17, we see Paul standing in the middle of the Aereopagus, and saying to the people there:
““Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”
Why is this important? Well, in his efforts to communicate the Gospel to the men of Athens in a way that was understandable to them, he appealed to their own religious traditions, including their idol worship, as well as their literature. He didn’t do this to participate with them in sinful practices, or to legitimize sinful practices, but instead he identified an area of their traditions that allowed him a foothold from which to proclaim the truth of the Gospel.
Now let’s look at the Roman “feast of the unconquered sun”. It’s generally believed that this holiday celebrated the winter solstice as a symbol of the resurgence of the sun, the casting away of winter and the heralding of the rebirth of spring and summer. It takes place on the shortest day of the year, marking the turning point when the days become longer.
This offers such a rich platform from which to declare the truth of the unconquered Son, who calls himself the bright morning star, of light that overpowers darkness, of new life after death — capitalizing on the symbolism of the traditions, in order to do for ancient pagans what Paul did for the men of Athens. According to historian S.E. Hijmans, early Christians did just that, hearkening back to Malachi 4:2, which promises “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” to explain that Christ is the true sun. And remember, we already discussed how Ambrose said the same things. Christmas isn’t accidental sun god worship. Christmas is helping Pagans know the true Sun.
In an EXTREMELY difficult to find article titled “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” C.S. Lewis draws a distinction between what Christians sometimes refer to as pagans, which really just means, unbelievers in a post-Christian world, and ancient pagans. He says:
“Now the real Pagan differed from the post-Christian in the following ways. Firstly, he was religious. From the Christian point of view, he was indeed too religious by half. He was full of reverence. To him the earth was holy, the woods and waters were alive… and secondly, he believed in what we now call ‘Objective’ Right and Wrong. That is, he thought the distinction between the pious and impious acts was something that existed independently of human opinions.”
According to Lewis, the Pagan of old, while his list of rights and wrongs missed the mark in many ways, was deeply aware of his own inability to meet the objective standard of right and wrong, and was thus afflicted with a deep sadness. “He knew he had sinned. And the terrible thing was that he thought the gods made no difference between voluntary and involuntary sins. You might get into their bad books by mere accident, and once in, it was hard to get out… His religion was a mass of ceremonies (sacrifices and purifications) which were supposed to take away the guilt. But they never quite succeeded. His conscience was not at ease.”
A few paragraphs later, he concludes: “It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians…I don’t mean that we should begin leaving little bits of bread under the tree at the end of the garden as an offering to the Dryad. I don’t mean that we should dance to dionysus across hampstead heath, though perhaps a little more solemn or ecstatic gaiety, and a little less commercialized amusement might make our holidays better than they now are. I don’t even mean, though I do very much wish, that we should recover that sympathy with nature, that religious attitude to the family, and that appetite for beauty which the better pagans had. Perhaps what I do mean is best put like this. If the modern post-Christian view is wrong—and every day I find it harder to think it right—then there are three kinds of people in the world. (1) Those who are sick and don’t know it (the post-Christians). (2) Those who are sick and know it (Pagans). (3) Those who have found the cure. And if you start in the first class you must go through the second to reach the third. For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us. All over the world – even in Japan, even in Russia, men and women will meet on december the 25th to do, what is a very old fashioned, and if you like, a very pagan thing. To sing and feast because a god has been born.”
In other words, the Pagans were right to recognize some of the characteristics of nature, and they even had a moral foundation. What Christianity can then provide, as Paul did for the men who were so afraid of accidentally displeasing a god they didn’t know about, is demonstrate the ways in which the Christian worldview provides answers that Pagan worldviews cannot. A festival celebrating the resurrection of the sun after a period of darkness is just the sort of providential thing a Christian seeking to evangelize a Pagan might hope for… Not to participate in their pagan worship with them, not to combine the two celebrations into one, but to point to a parallel, but real celebration, of a similar but true event. To say, “you celebrate the birth of the sun on this day… let us show you what is truly worth celebrating: the birth of the Almighty, the bright morning star”. Not to eliminate differences between Christian worship and pagan, but to highlight them. And the solar symbolism upon which much pagan worship relied, provides other avenues, since a major part of the nativity story involves wise men from other (non-Jewish) cultures reading astrological symbols and using them to find and worship the newborn King.
We definitely don’t have time to get into the traditions of gift-giving and where they originated (other than, of course, the Magi themselves), but this tradition too, offer us rich opportunity to convey the truth about the gift of Christ to the world, and to practice generosity to the poor. Even Santa Claus gives us a host of opportunities to help people understand the “true myth” of the Gospel.
It’s also worth noting that the actual significance and meaning of words and traditions changes over time, as a result of how they are used by the majority of people. If you visit Merriam Webster today, one of the definitions for the word “literally” will read: “VIRTUALLY —used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible”
Why? Because even though that’s the opposite of the definition of the word, it was used that way long enough that the definition basically evolved. The significance of certain articles of clothing has changed over time. Regular men used to wear long robes. Now long robes usually signifies a judge or a clergyman, and men wear pants so regularly that some silly people argue they are exclusively masculine. The actual meaning of traditions changes. It would be downright foolish of us to stubbornly insist that if anyone anywhere did a thing at any point in history, everyone everywhere who does anything similar can only mean by it the exact same thing that was meant by it when it was done the first time. It would be foolish to hear Christmas hymns declaring “Let every heart prepare him room!” and
“Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown him again,
King for ever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign”
and try to make it have anything to do with Sol Invictus.
Worshiping False Gods
Now, the argument that I hear frequently, and which I’ve repeated in this episode already, is that by celebrating Christmas, we are mixing the worship of pagan gods with the worship of the one true God, which scripture explicitly forbids.
There are two important things to say about this. First, we must note the examples scripture gives us of this actually happening, some of which we listed. In each of these cases, the Israelites blended the practices of surrounding nations with their own, by offering worship to the true God AND to the false gods, specifically and intentionally, as a way to sort of cover all their “god” bases. For example they would worship according to the requirements laid out in the law of Moses when they were worshiping the God of Israel, but they would also set up poles for Asherah, sacrifice their children to molech, and make cakes for the queen of heaven. Or they would, say, build a golden calf, credit it with leading them out of Egypt, and then declare a feast to the Lord. There are no records of them making cakes to offer only to God, or to eat with their families for pleasure, and getting in trouble for that. None of them thought they were only worshiping one God and found out to their surprise that the sacrifices offered to Yahweh were actually for Ba’al. They were intentionally and knowingly practicing multiple religions simultaneously.
Which brings us to the second point, where we must ask the question, “is it possible to accidentally worship a false god when your intention is to worship the real one?
When I think of this question, C.S. Lewis’s Calormene soldier always comes to mind. In The Last Battle, the Calormene soldier named Emeth, a sincere follower of the false god Tash, encounters Aslan and suddenly realizes that he’s been following the wrong god his entire life. But Aslan says to him, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash… if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.”
Now, this is a bit of a controversial passage that I don’t want to get into too deeply, but the idea seems to be that objectively good and virtuous acts (love, self sacrifice, etc.) done in the name of a false god, are actually a service to the real God, while wicked acts done in the name of the real God, are acts of service to Satan. Jesus actually expresses a similar sentiment in Matthew 7: “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” and again in Matthew 25, when the righteous ask “when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” and he tells us that whatever we did for the least of these, we did for him.
I believe, and I’m sure many of you share this belief, that there are many acts of injustice and oppression, neglect of mercy, and actions that directly defy God’s commands, carried out under the banner of Christianity, which are in reality a service to Satan and which God will wholeheartedly reject.
However what we can note both in Lewis’s parable and Christ’s words, is that the deciding factor was the behavior itself, and whether it’s inherently good, bad, or neutral. What I mean is this:
We are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we hurt or harm our neighbor, even if we claim to be doing it in the name of Jesus Christ, we are not truly worshiping and serving Christ. Conversely, unbelievers, on whose hearts are written the law of God, are able to perform acts of genuine selfless service and love which are in line with God’s commands, even if their worldview prevents their recognizing them as such.
In both cases, the acts performed are inherently good or bad. Harming others and withholding good from them is sin according to the law of God. Loving them as ourselves is good according to the law of God. The same applies to the behaviors God forbids in the Old Testament.
In the list of pagan worship practices we discussed, the participants were either engaging in inherently sinful behavior (like temple prostitution and child sacrifice) or neutral behavior intentionally aimed at worship of a false god (making cakes). Obviously prostitution is wrong no matter who you purport to worship while doing it. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with making cakes, but making them for the queen of heaven presents a problem. That’s consistent with 1 Corinthians, where Paul makes it clear that meat sacrificed to idols is nothing in and of itself (you could eat it if you bought in the market, or if you were at someone’s house and didn’t ask where it came from) but in the specific context of an intentionally idolatrous feast, you shouldn’t, for the sake of the unbelievers.
So when we examine Christmas traditions, we must ask: are they inherently good or bad or neutral? And do we apply the same line of thinking to everything else? When your unbelieving co-worker takes a sabbatical from work, do you believe him to be participating in worship of your God because the sabbath has religious roots? When you agree to meet someone on Thursday, are you inadvertently worshiping the false god Thor? If Christmas falls on a Sunday, does the double sun worship cancel itself out? Okay that last one didn’t make sense, but you get it.
Along these same lines, is there something inherently sinful about cutting down trees, displaying them indoors, or decorating them with shiny ornaments and lights? Is this what 2 Corinthians refers to as “filthiness of the flesh and spirit”? Of course not. When scripture calls us to separate ourselves from the world, it does not mean we should avoid doing anything that unbelievers also do. That would be impossible. It means we should abandon “running with them into the same flood of dissipation,” referring specifically to sinful behavior.
As we’ve already discussed that Jeremiah 10 could not have been referencing practice of decorating trees (which did not yet exist) and was referencing a practice that was intentional idolatry and was mentioned many times elsewhere in scripture (most notably Isaiah 44 and Psalm 135, both of which describe chiseling these idols into a specifically humanesque form), I can’t think of an argument for the existence of Christmas trees, the exchange of gifts, or the enjoyment of a festive meal being inherently sinful in and of themselves. If a behavior is not sinful (and you can usually know when something is sinful because the bible explicitly mentions it), then the motivation matters. If you are not intentionally worshiping your Christmas tree or the sun god, then you’re not accidentally worshiping your Christmas tree or the sun god. Likewise there’s no inherent sin to be found in the warmth of family and hearth, hot chocolate, apple cider, fireside chats, and charity toward all mankind.
In fact, there’s nothing inherently sinful about celebrating winter solstice (or summer solstice for that matter). God himself wove the seasons into the fabric of our world, and it’s perfectly natural and in line with his creation to celebrate the changing of the seasons — the harvest, the beginning of spring, etc. — which is probably why nearly all cultures everywhere have some sort of tradition for doing so.
I would actually contend that the fear of unintentionally worshiping a false god is itself far more pagan than any Christmas celebration. Christians — you know, those of us who have the truth of the Gospel and the indwelling Holy Spirit — ought to be the least superstitious people on the planet. When we act as if pagan traditions and holidays have some sort of inherent power of their own, it’s we who are legitimizing false gods who have no power. It’s we who are failing to give Christ lordship over the world he created. It’s we who are imbuing regular acts, like kneeling, with a mystical significance they don’t naturally possess divorced from intention… as if the mere bending of a knee joint has the magical power to send praise to a non-existent god without the knowledge or consent of the kneeling person. What could be more pagan than fear of accidentally performing a ritual that pleases one god and displeases another? When we become afraid of getting on God’s bad side by hanging shiny ornaments on a tree, we have more in common with the pagans Lewis described than with the redeemed, who know that in him we live and move and have our being, and that he created evergreens before the Romans ever started bringing them home.
And that’s the entire point of this episode. I’m not defending Christmas because I’m desperate to cling to a tradition I enjoy. Since my conscience is clear, I’d enjoy it without ever feeling the need to defend it to you. I’m defending it for the sake of those bound up in superstition and fear. My hope and prayer for you is that you find freedom and joy and lordship in every area of your life. The idea that the weary world, laboring under the burden of sin and death, rejoices at the breaking of a new and glorious morn (whoa! sunrise!) is a beautiful one, and one we have incredible opportunities to communicate to the lost this time of year.
The Regulative Principle of Worship
Before I conclude, let’s briefly discuss objection number 5: that the Bible doesn’t command the celebration of Christmas, and whatever the Bible doesn’t command is forbidden.
Now I’m not going to mount a complete argument against the regulative principle of worship here. We at the Monstrous Regiment don’t accept the regulative principle uncritically any more than we do the pagan origins of Christmas, but that’s an entire topic that we could devote a full episode to. It is worth noting, however, that even for those who adhere to the RPW, the celebration of Christmas is not a violation of it.
As my co-monster Suzannah Rowntree points out, the RPW is only supposed to apply to corporate worship, not to life outside a church building. The RPW has nothing to say about enjoying Christmas pudding, Christmas trees, gifts and Christmas carols in the freedom of one’s own home.
If the celebration of Christmas is forbidden according to the RPW, the Thanksgiving holiday (among other things) should be as well, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen much outcry about celebrating Thanksgiving. As Bojidar Marinov notes in his Axe to the Root episode, “Christmas and Creedal Culture”, “our modern Thanksgiving Day followed an earlier tradition by the older Presbyterian Synods to designate special days of thanksgiving for their members, which were supposed to be assiduously kept. Now, according to the Westminster Confession, thanksgiving is a special part of worship; and given that thanksgiving days were not specifically commanded in Scripture, they would be a violation of the Regulative Principle of Worship. Now, why a day of thanksgiving would be legitimate worship and a day of celebration and thanksgiving for Jesus’s birth (even if it didn’t fall on that day, historically) would be idolatry, is beyond me.”
Suzannah also pointed out that within corporate worship, the RPW is designed to forbid extrabiblical practices, such as the Act of Remembrance or some other civil act designed to honour servicemen lost at war. It doesn’t forbid choosing a particular theme or structuring a service, with sermons, texts, and songs, around that theme.
Further, there’s some evidence that Jesus himself celebrated religious festivals which had not been instituted by the Word of God: in John 10:22-23, for example, we find Jesus going to the Temple for Hanukkah:
“At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon.”
Perhaps most clearly, the Apostle Paul states very plainly that observing days is a matter of Christian liberty:
Romans 14:5-6 reads:
“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
A Few Final Thoughts
Unfortunately there’s no time to talk about Charles Dickens, or read the wonderful GK Chesterton Christmas poems, and we haven’t even talked about Santa Claus! But I’ve held you here long enough, so I’ll conclude with a few final thoughts.
First, there are plenty of legitimate concerns about the commercialization and greed that’s become widely associated with the holiday season. Nothing says “Christmas spirit” like people dying in a stampede at Best Buy as they rush to buy overpriced toys, right? This is an area where we would all do well to really examine ourselves and whether we are honoring the Lord Jesus Christ with our Christmas celebrations. After all, Colossians specifically says that greed IS idolatry. Are we remembering the poor? Are we loving our neighbors as ourselves? Are we offering service to God which is acceptable to him? Or are we selfish in our expressions of Christmas cheer? Are we selfish even in our altruism? These are, in my mind, the most and only legitimate issues associated with how Christians should approach the advent.
And finally, if you happen to be in the other part of the Christmas debate… you know the one that thinks there’s a massive liberal agenda to take the Christ out of Christmas… maybe ask yourself why you would want to demand that unbelievers participate in your Christian worship with you. Also ask yourself what it costs you to let other people who don’t yet know Christ celebrate their own religious or non-religious holiday. You might even ask them about their traditions, and look for areas where those traditions lend themselves to the communication of the Gospel. But please try not to feel personally attacked if someone you don’t know, who doesn’t worship the Christian God, and who is making minimum wage at the craziest time of year for retail staff, wishes you a happy holidays instead of a Merry Christmas, or boycott stores that think people other than you should be allowed to enjoy the season.
Let’s not be superstitious. Let’s offer Christ lordship of all things. Let’s worship him in the way we treat one another this Christmas season. Let’s worship him in the way we treat the poor and the oppressed all year. Let’s be less concerned with fear of accidentally kneeling down to the Christmas tree and more concerned with doing justice and loving mercy.
This Christmas season, let’s leave it to the pagans to accidentally worship the wrong god by doing acts of service to the one true God, who requires of us generosity to the poor, forgiveness, kindness, and love.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.