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Christmas: The Untold Story

by Scott Ashley Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

People the world over celebrate Christmas. But did you know Christmas and many of its popular customs are nowhere set forth in the Bible?

Historians tell us the Christmas celebration came from questionable origins. William Walsh summarizes the holiday’s origins and practices in his book The Story of Santa Klaus: “We remember that the Christmas festival . . . is a gradual evolution from times that long antedated the Christian period . . . It was overlaid upon heathen festivals, and many of its observances are only adaptations of pagan to Christian ceremonial” (1970, p. 58).

How could pagan practices become part of a major church celebration? What were these “heathen festivals” that lent themselves to Christmas customs over the centuries?

Christmas customs’ ancient origins

During the second century B.C., the Greeks practiced rites to honor their god Dionysus (also called Bacchus). The Latin name for this celebration was Bacchanalia. Because of the drunken sex parties associated with this festival, the Roman Senate suppressed its observance in 186 B.C. Suppressing a holiday was unusual for the Romans since they later became a melting pot of many types of gods and worship. Just as the Romans assimilated culture, art and customs from the peoples absorbed into their empire, they likewise adopted those peoples’ religious practices.

In addition to the Bacchanalia, the Romans celebrated another holiday, the Saturnalia, held “in honor of Saturn, the god of time, [which] began on December 17th and continued for seven days. These also often ended in riot and disorder. Hence the words Bacchanalia and Saturnalia acquired an evil reputation in later times” (p. 65).

The reason for the Saturnalia’s disrepute is revealing. In pagan mythology Saturn was an “ancient agricultural god-king who ate his own children presumably to avoid regicide [being murdered while king]. And Saturn was parallel with a Carthaginian Baal, whose brazen horned effigy contained a furnace into which children were sacrificially fed” (William Sansom, A Book of Christmas, 1968, p. 44).

Winter-solstice celebrations

Both of these ancient holidays were observed around the winter solstice—the day of the year with the shortest period of daylight. “From the Romans also came another Christmas fundamental: the date, December 25. When the Julian calendar was proclaimed in 46 C.E. [A.D.], it set into law a practice that was already common: dating the winter solstice as December 25” (Tom Flynn, The Trouble With Christmas, 1993, p. 42).

On the heels of the Saturnalia, the Romans marked December 25 with a celebration of the Bruma, referring to the solstice. The term is thought to have been contracted from the Latin brevissima, meaning briefest or shortest, denoting the shortest day of the year. (The start of the month of festivities leading up to this was eventually designated the Brumalia.)

Why was this period significant? “The time of the winter solstice has always been an important season in the mythology of all peoples. The sun, the giver of life, is at its lowest ebb. It is [the] shortest daylight of the year . . . At the low point of the solstice, the people must help the gods through . . . religious ceremonies. The sun begins to return in triumph. The days lengthen and, though winter remains, spring is once again conceivable. For all people, it is a time of great festivity” (Gerard and Patricia Del Re, The Christmas Almanac, 1979, p. 15).

The early Christians had no knowledge of Christmas as we know it. Over the following centuries, new, nonbiblical observances such as Christmas and Easter were gradually introduced into traditional Christianity. History shows that these new days came to be forcibly promoted while the biblical feast days (listed in Leviticus 23) were systematically rejected.

The message of Jesus Christ and the apostles—“the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14-15)—was soon lost. The celebration of Christmas shifted Christianity’s focus away from Christ’s promised return to His birth. Is this really what the Bible directs Christians to do?

How the Christmas date was set

Gerard and Patricia Del Re explain the further evolution of December 25 as an official Roman celebration: “Saturnalia and the kalends [first of the month, in this case of January] were the celebrations most familiar to early Christians, December 17-24 and January 1-3, but 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 [274] 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 with the patronage of Aurelian. 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).

Although it’s difficult to determine the first time anyone celebrated December 25 as Christmas, historians are in general agreement that it was sometime during the fourth century.

This is an amazingly late date. Christmas was not observed in Rome, the capital of the empire, until about 300 years after Christ’s death. Its origins cannot be traced back to either the teachings or practices of the earliest Christians. The introduction of Christmas represented a significant departure from “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

European influences on Christmas customs

Although Christmas had been officially established in Rome by the fourth century, later another pagan celebration greatly influenced the many Christmas customs practiced today. That festival was the Teutonic feast of Yule (from the Norse word for “wheel,” signifying the cycle of the year).

“As Christianity spread to northern Europe, it met with the observance of another pagan festival held in December in honour of the sun. This time it was the Yule-feast of the Norsemen, which lasted for twelve days. During this time log-fires were burnt to assist the revival of the sun. Shrines and other sacred places were decorated with such greenery as holly, ivy, and bay, and it was an occasion for feasting and drinking.

“Equally old was the practice of the Druids, the caste of priests among the Celts of ancient France, Britain and Ireland, to decorate their temples with mistletoe . . . St Boniface, in the eighth century, persuaded [the Germanic tribes] to [adopt] the Christmas tree, a young fir-tree adorned in honour of the Christ child . . . It was the German immigrants who took the custom to America” (L.W. Cowie and John Selwyn Gummer, The Christian Calendar, 1974, p. 22).

Instead of worshiping the sun god, converts were told to worship the Son of God. The focus of the holiday subtly changed, but the traditional pagan customs and practices remained fundamentally unchanged. Old religious customs involving holly, ivy, mistletoe and evergreen trees were given invented “Christian” meanings. We should keep in mind that Jesus Christ warns us to beware of things that masquerade as something they are not (Matthew 7:15; compare Isaiah 5:20; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).

The roots of modern customs

Many of the other customs and traditions of Christmas are merely carryovers from ancient celebrations.

Knowing what we have already learned about the ancient pre-Christian origins of Christmas, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Santa Claus is nothing but a figure recycled from ancient beliefs tied in with pagan winter festivals.

The trappings associated with Santa Claus—his fur-trimmed clothing, sleigh and reindeer—reveal his origin from the cold climates of the far North. Some sources trace him to the ancient Northern European gods Woden and Thor (Earl and Alice Count, 4000 Years of Christmas,1997, pp. 56-64). Others trace him even farther back in time to the Roman god Saturn (honored at the winter Saturnalia festival) and the Greek god Silenus (Walsh, pp. 70-71).

What about other common customs and symbols associated with Christmas? Where did they originate? “On the Roman New Year (January 1), houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. To these observances were added the German and Celtic Yule rites . . . Food and good fellowship, the Yule log and Yule cakes, greenery and fir trees, gifts and greetings all commemorated different aspects of this festive season. Fires and lights, symbols of warmth and lasting life, have always been associated with the winter festival” (The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol. 2, p. 903, “Christmas”).

“In midwinter, the idea of rebirth and fertility was tremendously important. In the snows of winter, the evergreen was a symbol of the life that would return in the spring, so evergreens were used for decoration . . . Light was important in dispelling the growing darkness of the solstice, so a Yule log was lighted . . . As many customs lost their religious reasons for being, they passed into the realm of superstition, becoming good luck traditions and eventually merely customs without rationale. Thus the mistletoe was no longer worshiped but became eventually an excuse for rather nonreligious activities” (Del Re, p. 18).

“Christmas gifts themselves remind us of the presents that were exchanged in Rome during the Saturnalia. In Rome, it might be added, the presents usually took the form of wax tapers and dolls—the latter being in their turn a survival of the human sacrifices once offered to Saturn . . . In our Christmas presents we are preserving under another form one of the most savage customs of our barbarian ancestors!” (Walsh, p. 67).

When we see these customs perpetuated today in Christmas observance, we can have no doubt of this holiday’s origin. Christmas is a diverse collection of pagan forms of worship overlaid with a veneer of Christianity.

Accommodating a pagan populace

How did these pagan customs become a widely accepted part of Christianity? They were assimilated into a new church religious holiday supposedly celebrating Christ’s birth. William Walsh describes this process and the rationalization behind it: “This was no mere accident. It was a necessary measure at a time when the new religion [Christianity] was forcing itself upon a deeply superstitious people. In order to reconcile fresh converts to the new faith, and to make the breaking of old ties as painless as possible, these relics of paganism were retained under modified forms . . .

“Thus we find that when Pope Gregory [540-604] sent Saint Augustine as a missionary to convert Anglo-Saxon England he directed that so far as possible the saint should accommodate the new and strange Christian rites to the heathen ones with which the natives had been familiar from their birth.

“For example, he advised Saint Augustine to allow his converts on certain festivals to eat and kill a great number of oxen to the glory of God the Father, as formerly they had done this in honor of [their gods] . . . On the very Christmas after his arrival in England Saint Augustine baptized many thousands of converts and permitted their usual December celebration under the new name and with the new meaning” (p. 61).

Gregory permitted such importation of pagan religious practices on the grounds that when dealing with “obdurate minds it is impossible to cut off everything at once” (Sansom, p. 30).

Tragically, Christianity never accomplished the task of cutting off everything pagan. According to Owen Chadwick, former professor of history at Cambridge University, the Romans “kept the winter solstice with a feast of drunken-ness and riot. The Christians thought that they could bring a better meaning into that feast. They tried to persuade their flocks not to drink or eat too much, and to keep the feast more austerely—but without success” (A History of Christianity, 1995, p. 24).                            

In the beginning, Christians were opposed to Christmas. Some of the earliest controversy erupted over whether Jesus’ birthday should be celebrated at all.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica states: “The [church] Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Epiphanius, contended that Christmas was a copy of a pagan celebration” (15th edition, Macropaedia, Vol. 4, p. 499, “Christianity”).

The decision to celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25 was far from universally accepted. “Christians of Armenia and Syria accused the Christians of Rome of sun worship for celebrating Christmas on December 25 . . . Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century tried to remove certain practices at Christmas which he considered in no way different from sun worship” (Robert Myers, Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, 1972, p. 310).

Christmas evaluated

We cannot escape the fact that Christmas is rooted in ancient customs and religious practices that had nothing to do with Christianity and the Bible. Tom Flynn summarizes the issue: “An enormous number of traditions we now associate with Christmas have their roots in pre-Christian pagan religious traditions. Some of these have social, sexual, or cosmological connotations that might lead educated, culturally sensitive moderns to discard the traditions once they have understood their roots more clearly” (p. 19).

Even with its failings, Christmas remains an entrenched tradition. Although some recognize the intrinsic paganism of the holiday, they believe people are free to establish their own days of worship. Others cling to the naive and biblically insupportable belief that paganism’s most popular celebrations have been won over by Christianity and therefore are acceptable to God.

Human reasoning aside, we need to consider God’s opinion about such celebrations. We need to look into God’s Word to see how He views mixing pagan practices and customs with worshiping Him!

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