Over the past number of years, there have been numerous individuals and articles exposing what some consider the pagan roots of Christmas. Most of these discussions are directed toward Christians, claiming that the observance of Christmas is displeasing to God and even idolatrous in nature. This is a serious claim and worthy of a sound biblical response.
The idea of Christmas having pagan origins has been circulating for years. No doubt there are pagan themes that exist dating back to the Greek and Roman era, and some of the elements of Christmas can, in fact, be traced to pagan roots. However, let’s shed some light on this with a biblical perspective.
Are there pagan origins?
One argument rests largely on the origin of the dating of Christmas to December 25. Historically, December 25 has been observed as the winter solstice. This time of year became the favored season for all kinds of festivals, celebrations, and anniversaries in the Greek and Roman empires. One such celebration was a Roman festival called Saturnalia, which celebrated a pagan god. Eventually, the religious aspect of Saturnalia faded and it became more secular in nature. During the third century, a different Roman festival was created to celebrate the birthday of the sun god (Sol Invictus). This too was celebrated on December 25 and also faded. Somewhere between the third and fourth century, the Church of Rome began observing a celebration to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ. This celebration was completely distinct from the previous pagan celebrations and was pure in both motive and reason. At its origin, there was no link between Christmas and the other festivals. As to the date of Christmas being observed on December 25, there are different theories as to why that date was chosen and there can only be speculation, but what we do know is that this time of year (and date) was chosen, and as a result, over the years, a blending of the customs between the distinct festivals took place. Nonetheless, at its core, we must recognize that Christmas itself (as a distinct holiday) did not have pagan roots at its origin. In addition, we must recognize that the date itself is not sufficient evidence that Christmas began as a pagan holiday. Church history tells us that Christmas began as a distinct holy day with a specific observance: The birth of Jesus Christ.
Another argument is that since a blending of the outside customs did take place, that must mean that some of the customs surrounding Christmas now have pagan themes to it, such as the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, giving of gifts, and lights. Some would argue that these customs, such as decorating a Christmas tree, are directly tied to paganism and therefore conclude that those who participate in such activities would be committing spiritual idolatry. However, that conclusion is a gross exaggeration at best and even unscriptural.
In our common society, Christmas is very rarely observed as an outright pagan festival of false-god worship (obviously this does exist as well). And though we would never justify the outright worship of false gods, this is generally not the argument as directed toward fellow believers in Christ. Of course, even though many Christians may engage in contextualization—expressing their message and celebration in the language or forms of society (for example, adding a Christmas tree, wrapping gifts, calendaring Christmas based on December 25, etc)—this in no way implies doctrinal compromise or idolatry.
Some may disagree from a historical or philosophical or “letter of the law” manner, but consider what the Apostle Paul stated (who was a former Pharisee and scribe in the Old Testament law) with regards to whether or not a Christian should approach things offered to idols (in other words, things with pagan undertones).
“Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know… Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.” 1 Corinthians 8:1-8
This passage is clearly stating that some believers have a personal conviction about avoiding all things with pagan or secular undertones, but others may not share the same conviction. In either case, we know that there is only one true God. Whether we choose to participate or not (to eat the food offered to idols or not), that’s not what commends us to God. The passage is very clear.
At the same time, the passage also points out that those who do, in fact, have a conviction about the idolatrous or secular nature, if they take part in the matter and celebrate, then their conscience is defiled. This means that with some believers, this particular conviction about the secular nature of Christmas is very real, strong and deep. If they go against their conscience (or conviction), their heart will condemn them, and 1 John 3:20-21 tells us that if our heart condemns us, we don’t have confidence toward God. And because the conviction runs deep into the conscience of some believers, they may sincerely believe that all Christians should share with them in their conviction.
So how should we respond to one another regarding these different convictions?
Notice what 1 Corinthians 10:23-31 says…
“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” … but if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you [not your sake], and for conscience’ [conviction] sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” “Conscience,” I say, not your own, but that of the other.”
Then notice what the apostle Paul says next…
“For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience? But if I partake with thanks, why am I evil spoken of for the food over which I give thanks? Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
Notice the very last line: “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” In other words, Paul is very clearly stating that whether we choose to participate or not, whatever we do, do it as unto the Lord.
Further, the passage also clearly states that if someone does, in fact, choose to take part, his liberty (or freedom to do so) should not be judged by another man’s conviction to the contrary. In other words, we should not allow our personal convictions be what judges another. This goes both ways and applies to both sides of the conviction. Therefore, whether we choose to partake or not, whatever we do, do it all to the glory of God.
More specifically, notice also what the Bible says about celebrating a holiday—even a secular holiday—in Colossians 2:16…
“…let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or Sabbaths…”
In other words, Paul knows that there will be some people who will judge believers for observing “festivals” and “new moons” and even “Sabbaths.” Simply put, we ought not judge or condemn those who regard special days. The heart of the matter is further clarified in the following passage below.
“One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.” Romans 14:5-6.
In other words, each person needs to be fully convinced in his own mind. If someone observes Christmas and does so as unto the Lord, all glory goes to God. If another does not observe Christmas as unto the Lord, all glory goes to God as well. So neither is wrong. The passage goes on to state (keeping the context about one person esteeming a day and another not), “So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore…” (verse 12).
Bottom line: Whether or not some Christians celebrate Christmas, let us not judge one another anymore.
To celebrate or not to celebrate is a personal, sincere conviction
Before proceeding, it is important to note that most of those who have a personal conviction about the pagan nature of Christmas are sincere Christians who want to base everything they believe (and observe) on truth. They are not fanatics. They believe in and value the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ. It is simply their belief that the annual celebration of Christmas—past and present—is pagan and therefore should have no part in it.
It is also important to note that most of those who don’t have a personal conviction about the secular nature of Christmas are also sincere Christians who truly celebrate the holiday as unto the Lord. They are not heathens. They also believe in and value the incarnation and birth of Jesus Christ. It is simply their conviction that they can celebrate Christmas as unto the Lord and without compromising their heart and devotion to God.
No matter your belief with regards to various holidays and whether or not Christians should celebrate, it is important to understand that the Bible tells us that both he who celebrates the day as unto the Lord, to the Lord he celebrates (which is okay) … and he who does not celebrate the day as unto the Lord, to the Lord he does not celebrate (which is also okay). Then the conclusion is, “So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore…”
It is completely unscriptural for someone to judge a fellow Christian for celebrating Christmas (or any holiday) as long as they celebrate as unto the Lord. It is also unscriptural for the other to judge one for not celebrating the day, as long as they do so as unto the Lord. Anything more than this would result in weakening the conscience of one another and robbing us of our God-given freedom in Christ, making unnecessary matters dogmatic.
Some people will even go as far as state that Christian churches should not leverage Christmas (since it has so-called pagan roots) as a platform to preach the gospel of Christ. Though I believe most to be sincere, this line of thinking could be used (unknowingly by the person) as a tactic of the enemy to remove yet another catalyst in our society to preach the gospel of Christ. Consider what the Apostle Paul did when he encountered people worshipping the “unknown god” in Acts 17:16-34. He did not ignore—but actually leveraged—their pagan roots and customs, and yet preached Christ to them… and they responded to the gospel. Today, many sincere, born-again churches will leverage both the religious and secular nature of Christmas and use it as a foundation to preach Christ. And like in Paul’s day, many people will respond to the gospel.
But here is something we can all agree on…
Celebrating the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ
Finally, let’s simply separate the pagan idea from the Christian worldview. Here is what we do know and what we should all agree on: Jesus did, in fact, come to the earth and was born of a virgin. Many people celebrated the birth of Jesus. In fact, the gospels record that shepherds celebrated the birth of Jesus. We also know that wise men celebrated the birth of Jesus and gave gifts. In fact, even in the Old Testament, the Lord Himself said to the children of Israel in a Messianic prophecy…
“Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion! For behold, I am coming and I will dwell in your midst,” says the Lord. “Many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day, and they shall become My people. And I will dwell in your midst.” Zechariah 2:10-11.
The birth of Jesus Christ is truly an exciting occurrence…and we are encouraged by the Lord to sing and rejoice about it. This truly is a celebration! Why? Because we have reason to celebrate: “For behold, I am coming” … and He did!
We as Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Some by observing a holiday (holy day) to remember this powerful occasion, and others may not observe a holiday, but this we all know indeed, that He came! Let’s proclaim the good news to the world.
More reading — What Really is the Reason for the Season?
To subscribe and receive email alerts when new devotional topics and articles are published, click here.