Soon the festive season will be here again. Many homes will be decorated with holly wreaths, mistletoe, and Christmas trees; department stores will be adorned with Christmas lights and echo with the sound of Christmas carols; and postboxes will be filled with greeting cards. Almost universally, shoppers will pack the high streets, gift-hunting for their friends and loved ones. Young children especially will look forward to receiving gifts from Santa Claus, that benevolent, bigger-than-life father figure who supposedly visits them once a year with his reindeer.
What's the Origin of Christmas? Is It Really the "Birthday" of Christ?
Many Christians believe that the Christmas pageant sums up the concept of God and the coming of Christ--the Savior of humankind. But how valid is this belief? Just take a copy of the Bible. Look for a mention of Santa Claus, holly wreaths, mistletoe and Christmas trees. Look for Jesus or His disciples celebrating Christmas. Look for Jesus' instruction that we should commemorate the day of His birth. Look for proof that He was born on December 25th. None of these things are mentioned in the Bible!
Although the gospel writers record the nativity story and the events surrounding the Lord's birth, never once did they indicate that this event should be celebrated. The Lord Jesus told His disciples to remember His death by partaking the Holy Communion, but He was completely silent about remembering His birthday. Likewise, there is no evidence in the New Testament that the early church ever celebrated Christmas. If God had wanted us to celebrate Christ's birthday, would He not have instructed us to do so in the Bible?
The Bible plainly does not reveal the date of Christ's birth. And from its records of the nativity scene, Jesus would not have been born in winter at all. Luke states that in the night that He was born, "there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Lk 2:8). In October or November, the winter rains and cold weather begin in Judea. Up to this time, the flocks would have been in the open fields. But once the rainy season begins, the shepherds can no longer be out in the field until the winter months are over.
In fact, the celebration of Christmas originated before Christianity. As the Encyclopedia Britannica informs us, "Christmas customs are an evolution from times that long antedate the Christian period—a descent from seasonal, pagan, religious and national practices, hedged about with legend and tradition" (15th ed., s.v. "Christmas"). Some examples of these are given below.
In ancient times, many depended on the sun for light, and heat for their agricultural activities. Therefore, humans would watch with interest the sun's yearly course through the heavens. It was thought that feasts and celebrations were held at different times of the year to help the sun move round the solar system. In the Northern Hemisphere, the end of the calendar year became a significant time. As winter approached, the sun dipped lower and lower in the sky and the days became shorter. It would seem that the sun was deserting the earth. Then at the winter solstice, the turning point came. The sun began to return. The days began to lengthen again. Midwinter celebrations to commemorate the rebirth of the sun would ensue. In the Roman world, this was translated into the weeklong celebration of Saturnalia, which started on December 17th and ended with the feast of Brumalia, the birthday, or rebirth of the sun. The feast fell on December 25th.
Moreover, when the Roman Empire began to expand in the early centuries, it also adopted the paganistic practices of its conquered people. One such example was the worship of the Mithraic sun god, initially from Persia, whose birthday was celebrated on December 25th. When this deity was introduced to Rome in the beginning of the third century, it gave a concrete expression to sun worship. The cult was reinterpreted according to the philosophical and popular ideas of that time. In 274 A.D., it was incorporated into the imperial cult, when Emperor Aureian made sol invictus ("the invincible sun") the imperial religion and instituted the pagan feast of Dies Natalis Solis Invincti, the Day of the Unconquerable Sun, on December 25th.
There is no clear historical evidence when Christendom first celebrated Christmas. Records show that during the first three centuries of the Christian era, there was opposition in the churches to the pagan custom of celebrating birthdays. But by the fourth century, things changed. The Roman Almanac, the Chronograph of 354, contained a list of Christian feasts and made reference to the feast of the nativity of Christ. This is one of the earliest records of this feast. This information goes back to an earlier writing of the year 336 A.D. and therefore Christmas appears to have already been celebrated in the last year of Emperor Constantine.
By the end of the fourth century, the Christian world was celebrating Christmas. December 25th was the date chosen for the celebration (with the exception of the Eastern churches, which celebrated it on January 6th). Perhaps the church at that time wanted to turn the pagan celebration of the winter solstice into a day of adoration of Christ. Another possibility is that this was one way for the Christians of that time to cling even closer to Christ who was their light and sun, and the 25th of December was chosen to provide an antithesis to the Roman pagan feast.
Of Christmas Trees, Mistletoe, and Old St. Nick
What about Christmas decorations? The famous Christmas tree probably had its origin in the medieval German mystery plays, when a tree, the paradeisbaum (tree of paradise), was used to symbolize the garden of Eden. Later, when these plays were suppressed, trees were kept in the homes, and gradually, the custom of decorating them with cookies, fruit and eventually, candles evolved. Some authorities have also traced the Christmas tree to pagan tree worship in ancient Egypt and Rome.
The use of evergreens to decorate the home is also associated with pagan beliefs. Because evergreens survive the winter months, they were taken as symbols of eternal life, and became objects of worship. The British Druids (ancient Celts) believed that mistletoe had miraculous powers and considered this parasitic plant sacred. To the Romans, it was a symbol of peace, and they believed that when enemies met under it, weapons would be discarded and truce declared. As for the Christmas holly, one legend claimed that Christ's crown of thorns was made of holly leaves, and thus the custom of Christmas wreaths began. Its roundness also represented the roundness of the sun.
The yule log probably has its origin in the Druids' ceremonial burning of a carefully selected log. The word yule originated from the old Anglo-Saxon word hweol, meaning "wheel," a pagan symbol of the sun.
And then, of course, there is Santa Claus himself. He, too, originated from festivals that had nothing to do with the Christian faith. One important feature of the ancient pagan festivities was the involvement of good and bad spirits. In many lands, such mythical visitors emerged; blending pagan legends with traditional stories about saints. One such winter visitor became known in different countries as Santa Claus, Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, St. Martin, the Weihnachtsmann, or Père Noel. Although they were known by different names, their roles were similar—to give varying degrees of reward and punishment to the celebrants.
Over the years, many Christmas customs have developed around the celebrations of Christmas. Some of these are universal; others are peculiar to the region. Nevertheless, they all share one common feature. None of these is biblical in nature, because Christmas itself is unbiblical. It originated from pagan beliefs and superstitions rather than the word of God, the Bible. As followers of Christ, should we observe an event that is not mentioned in the Bible? Worse, should we celebrate an event that has its roots in pagan worship? Far from paying homage to the coming of our Savior, our actions may arouse His wrath instead.
Finally, we may want to take the middle ground and argue that we are not treating Christmas as a religious celebration. Rather, we are just celebrating the season of peace and goodwill. But take a closer look at how society celebrates Christmas today.
Of all the times in the year, Christmas to many is one constant round of partying and merry-making. It is an occasion for overindulgence in food, drinks, and even in acts contrary to the words of God. It is also a time when drunkenness is widespread and high rates of traffic fatalities induced by drunk drivers have resulted in annual "Don't Drink and Drive" campaigns. In many areas, crime rates are highest during this period as well. Statistics have shown that there are more murders and burglaries committed around this time than any other comparable period.
It is ironic that people participate in the very actions that the Bible warns against during this purported period of peace and goodwill. What basis do we have to say that we are actually celebrating the season of peace and goodwill? This argument for celebrating Christmas is flawed, too.