Christmas is another of those holidays that well-meaning, but historically inaccurate in claiming it is of pagan origin. Christmas trees, holly, wreaths, and even giving gifts are evidence of the pagan origins of Christmas. The reality is, however, we can still celebrate the birth of our Savior at Christmastime.
Is Christmas Pagan in Origin?
I think most of us have, at some point, encountered some of the claims I mentioned above. One of the most often-used arguments runs as follows: the ancient Romans had a holiday known as Saturnalia, which was a winter solstice celebration lasting from December 17 to roughly December 25. The claim is that this pagan holiday was in honor of Sol Invictus, the Victorious Sun.
Depending on the version you are told, either Constantine enforced its celebration, or the church adopted it in an effort to bring others into Christianity.
What is true is that the church saw fit to consecrate certain days to the Lord, recognizing that the pagan holidays were evil and should be counteracted. So, they would redeem the dates in question by designating Christian observances to fall on those dates. This is not the same at all as adopting pagan customs and holidays. The difference may be subtle, but it is very significant in its difference.
We know that Jesus Christ was not born on December 25. Nor did any of the Church Fathers, who all speculated that His birthday would have been during the Spring, not winter. The earliest reference to December 25as the observance of the birth of the Lord is in a document known as the Philocalian Calendar, dated to the fourth century A.D.
Keep in mind, it is mentioned only as the date of the observance of His birth, not as the actual date of His birth. We also know from the writings of the Church Fathers that the Donatists also observed His birth on that date.
Now, what is important to keep in mind is that the early Christians were very aware of the spiritual dangers of paganism and went out of their way not to compromise their faith with pagan idolatry.
The date was not of importance in the observance of the Lord’s birth. In fact, since the time of the Apostolic Fathers, the churches of the East celebrated His birth on January 6or 7, and continue to do so today. Why the difference in dates? Precisely because the date is not important, but the observance is.
What Are the Dates of Christmas?
Kevin DeYoung, professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, states that the reason December 25 is celebrated in the West is due to a few calendrical issues related to the death and the conception of Christ. He writes:
“From the date of Christ’s death, to the (same) date of his conception, we can easily see where the date of Christmas could have come from. If Jesus was conceived on March 25, then the best date to celebrate his birth must be nine months later on December 25 (or, in the East, January 6). While we can’t know for certain that this is where December 25 came from — and we certainly can’t be dogmatic about the historicity of the date — there is much better ancient evidence to suggest that our date for Christmas is tied to Christ’s death and conception than tied to the pagan celebrations of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus.”
While the intentions of many of the “Christmas is pagan” crowd may be good, their research is flawed. The claims of the date of Christmas being a pagan celebration have little to do with historical fact.
We find similar flawed claims about Christmas trees. Some think that they are rooted in paganism and associated with Nimrod worship. The truth is, again, much different. Scripture makes frequent reference to the evergreen tree as a symbol of the Lord’s blessing upon Israel (Isaiah 41:19; 55:13; Numbers 24:6; Psalm 104:16; 148:9).
To use them today as symbols of the Lord’s ultimate blessing and provision for His people is certainly fitting! On a purely historical note, the first recorded mention of a Christmas tree is from A.D. 1510. In Riga, Latvia. It is recorded that men from the local merchants’ guild gathered together to decorate a tree with roses (a symbol for the Virgin Mary).
After this, we have a record in Alsace, France that trees were sold and taken home to be decorated. And by the 1600s, trees were decorated in the churches of Germany in connection with the birth of the Lord.
Both will affirm that, while the Christmas tree as we know it today is not mentioned in the Bible, it is also not of pagan origin.
Celebrating Christmas as Christians
So, set up your tree as a symbol of your appreciation for the blessings and presence of the Lord in your life and that of your family for one of the most beautiful Christian holidays you and your family will ever experience together.