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Does It Matter that Christmas Has Pagan Origins?
Eric V. Snow
Of course, we know that Christmas annually provokes an orgy of materialism. Most of the customs for celebrating Christmas are from ancient paganism. Jesus was not born on December 25. There is no Santa Claus. And the tooth fairy doesn’t exist either. We all know this. Interestingly enough, much of the world out there knows all this too. But many sincere traditional Christians say it doesn’t matter if Christmas comes from paganism. However, because pagan symbols have an enduring meaning, Christians shouldn’t keep Christmas.
There are four points to keep in mind about why Christians should avoid celebrating Christmas, Easter, and Halloween, although the focus below is on Christmas.
1. We can’t arbitrarily erase the pagan historical meanings of the customs used to celebrate Christmas, Easter, and Halloween.
Some traditional Christians reason that we can just decree that the pagan meanings tied to the evergreen tree, the mistletoe, the holly, the poinsettia, etc., don’t exist. After all, God made these plants on the third day of creation. They didn’t have pagan meanings when He made them, right? At a wave of our hands, we reclaim these for God, and their heathenism disappears. But how well did that kind of procedure work for Aaron at Mt. Sinai? Notice Exodus 32:1-9, especially verse 5.
“Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." And Aaron said to them, "Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." "So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, "Tomorrow is a feast to the LORD." Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. And the LORD said to Moses, "Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. "They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!'" And the LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people!” (NKJV)
In short, Aaron’s arbitrary decree didn’t erase the pagan meaning of the golden calf, who was really the Egyptian god Apis. God not only didn’t accept Israel’s worship directed at this calf, He angrily rejected it. Rebadging and relabeling the worship of this idol as the worship of Jehovah, the Eternal, failed completely. After all, God made the cow on the 6th day of creation also, didn’t He? The cow didn’t have a pagan meaning then either, right?
To re-label the pagan customs doesn’t sanitize them. God has a memory. So people can’t arbitrarily take rituals used to worship other gods and then decree henceforth that they are for the true god starting now.
Consider this analogy. Suppose a husband kept a lot of pictures of his ex-girlfriends around the house. Suppose he admires them frequently. Suppose he ordered custom framed pictures of them and hung them prominently on the walls. If he claimed, "I think of you when I look at them," that wouldn't be persuasive to his wife, for good reason. These photos have enduring meanings. So do pagan customs.
Let’s give a historical political analogy of how the meanings of symbols can’t be arbitrarily reassigned. Right now, mentally bring up a picture of a swastika in your own mind. Think of an old movie or TV show about Nazi Germany. Now, pretend someone claims this symbol now represents enduring peace, international brotherhood, and racial harmony. Presumably, you would say that’s crazy. Intuitively, you would feel that symbols have enduring meanings that can’t be erased. Yet, before World War II, some Indians had traditionally used this symbol in America. Sometimes the Campfire Girls even used it in Indian costumes that their young members wore. But it’s completely hopeless at this point to reverse and erase the meaning assigned to the swastika by the actions of Hitler’s regime. The swastika is a symbol of racism, war, and oppression; it can’t be changed. The same goes for the customs long used to celebrate Christmas.
2. Christmas and Easter are alternative celebrations designed to divert the pagans from being pagan.
Traditional Christian church, when it invented Christmas in the fourth century, aimed to divert the heathen from celebrating the Saturnalia and the Brumalia in Rome, which were celebrated by all sorts of drunken, sexualized parties, outright orgies, societal role reversals, with slaves acting like masters, gift exchanges, and public street demonstrations. Both Augustus and Claudius tried to shorten it (to 3 days and to 5 days), but backed down when facing massive revolts by the masses. It’s no wonder that the Catholic church tried to co-opt the day rather than attack it head-on after the time of Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) The church accepted and tolerated in its own traditions these pagan customs. There’s no serious historical evidence the Catholic Church tried to stop this from happening in many areas of practice and doctrine. They even picked the day (December 25) that the rival god Sol Invictus was celebrated on to be Christ’s birthday. But that date was a historical falsehood, even a lie. After all, if we are going to go by what the bible itself teaches, the date of Jesus' birth couldn't have been in winter because the shepherds wouldn't have been in the fields then nor would have the Romans conducted a census at that time of the year either. Most likely Jesus was born in the autumn, perhaps on the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh Hashanah) or during the Feast of Tabernacles, since those holy days celebrate His return in advance; for his birth to occur during those holy days would constitute a foreshadowing of what is to come more fully the second time around. So why was this date chosen, other than because of the influence of pagan celebrations at the same time of the year?
The rowdy customs used to celebrate the Saturnalia, similar to those of Carnival, which featured the inversions of the social hierarchy for a brief season and the inevitable lord of misrule, were carried over into Christmas' celebration. For this reason the Puritans of England under Cromwell and in Massachusetts banned the celebration of the holiday in the 17th century. Although Western culture since the 19th century has worked to paste a better image over the holiday, such as due to the broad influence of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" to make it more family oriented, the rowdy side never has gone away. As a store clerk in a liquor store in East Lansing, Michigan many years ago, I was amazed by how many people wanted to buy alcohol on Christmas Eve when the state was legally "dry" for sales from 6 PM Christmas Eve to 7 AM on December 26. The drunken side of this holiday has been pushed from public view, but it's still there, done under the protective cover (and distraction) of the family-oriented celebrations around Christmas trees.
3. God said not to use pagan customs to worship Him.
Here’s the key text to consider (Deut. 12:29-32): NIV: “The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, "How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same." You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.”
We shouldn’t transfer over rituals and symbols used for worshiping other gods to worship Jehovah. Notice the key point made in II Cor. 6:14-18, which isn’t merely about marrying someone outside the faith:
“And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For "the two," He says, "shall become one flesh." But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body.” (NKJV)
This text applies in principle to many other areas of life besides to marriage, such as to partnerships in business. We shouldn’t mix the worship of the true God with the worship of false gods. Christians should leave behind the customs of the world when worshipping the Eternal.
Consider the origin of such customs as bonfires and lights on Christmas trees. The pagans worried about the sun becoming weaker and weaker in winter as the winter solstice approached. They wanted to be certain that the source of life, the sun, was still around when winter ended. This was a case of sympathetic magic: People do a ritual hoping that it represents a future reality. For example, if you draw pictures of successful animal hunts on the cave wall, you’ll have success in killing that deer or lion that you run into tomorrow. So they lit fires in order to help the sun come back.
Consider the meaning read into the holly, mistletoe, and evergreen trees. They stay green all year around and defy the birth, life, rebirth cycle of nature and the seasons. (Here the interpretation of Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” is the key reference work, even if it has its set of problems as well). The mistletoe is a parasitic plant that grows on oak trees.
4. Since God is holy, pure, and undefiled, true Christians shouldn’t use unholy, impure, and defiled customs of worship.
Since God wants true Christians to become like Himself, He doesn’t want His followers adopting customs that make them less like Himself. To mix pagan customs with the worship of the true God defiles one’s worship of God completely. It’s like drinking arsenic mixed into good glass of water: The good part of the drink won’t prevent you from being poisoned.
Historically, what else was being celebrated around the time of the winter solstice in the ancient world? The Saturnalia. In Rome, December 17-23, this celebration included group orgies, drunkenness, legalized gambling, societal role reversals, like slaves acting like masters, and exchanging gifts. Both Augustus and Claudius tried to shorten it (to three days and to five days), but they backed down when facing massive revolts by the masses. It’s no wonder that the Catholic Church tried to co-opt this holiday rather than attack it head-on after the time of Constantine and the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) that gave toleration to the Christian Church.
Then we have the Brumalia, which is another pagan celebration, which began on November 24 and lasted a month until the Saturnalia and the “waxing of light” (i.e., when the days start to grow longer again). This festival honored the god of wine, Bacchus, which befitted a holiday celebrated with rowdy drinking parties at night. “Bruma” means “shortest day” in Latin.
And what occurred on December 25? It was the date of the (re)birth of the sun, “Sol Invictus.” The Roman Emperor Aurelian (reigned 270-275) proclaimed a new Roman holiday called “Dies Natalis Solis Invicti” after a series of successful military victories that restored much of the empire. He has been called “the Father of Christmas” as a result. He was aiming to subordinate all the religions of the Roman Empire to his new cult dedicated to “unconquerable sun” god. Ironically, the celebration of the sun’s rebirth eventually became the celebration of the Son’s birth. The earliest mention of December 25 as the date for Jesus’ birth appears in a Roman Almanac dated to 336 A.D.
Modern Christmas celebrations mix the Roman traditions with the northern Germanic customs. Santa Claus is really based on the Nordic god Woden’s riding a horse with eight legs. He lived in the far north, in Valhalla, and had a big white beard. He would fly through the sky during the winter solstice period (Dec. 21-25). He rewarded good children and punished bad ones. Likewise stories about the god Thor resembled Santa Claus in many ways. He also had a long white beard, lived in the far north, and liked to enter homes through chimneys since fire was sacred to him. He was portrayed as an old man with a jovial, friendly deposition. Unlike the other Teutonic gods who rode horses, he drove a chariot drawn by two goats, Cracker and Gnasher. The pagan Norse of Europe were deathly afraid of Oden, who was said to cross the sky and determine who would live prosperously or die So the tales about Santa Claus really go back to these pagan gods, for which Wednesday and Thursday were named. Should adults lie to their children so they believe in a fictional character who’s based ultimately on stories about two pagan Germanic gods? Snorri Sturluson (1179 to 1241) of Iceland wrote "Edda." It’s the most important primary source of the myths of the Norse/Teutonic legends and myths. Despite being a Christian, he retold the old pagan stories with skill and some level of sympathy. We can claim, at this late date, that he was making up the names, but as one examines how he writes his book, he's the one reporting to us what he was told and had learned as well. IN "Edda," p. 22, he writes: "Thor has two goats whose names are Tanngnlost and Tanngrisnir, and a chariot that he drives in, and the goats draw the chariot. From this he is known as "Oku-Thor." It can't be seen as coincidence that his stories are set in the far north and feature elves and dwarfs.
Many children get upset when they find out that they have been lied to by adults concerning Santa Claus and who brought them their gifts. Shouldn’t that indicate to us that there is something rotten at the heart of the pagan customs used to celebrate (supposedly) Christ’s birth? This supposed “white lie” really has generated some trouble over the years.
So true Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. We shouldn’t let emotional arguments about its being for the children and/or family gatherings to deceive us. First, God doesn’t want pagan customs to be used to worship him. Second, Relabeling pagan customs doesn’t make them acceptable to God. Third, God wants His saints to be holy, pure, and undefiled by pagan rituals. Christians can’t put Christ back into Christmas because He wasn’t the original reason for the season. Christians shouldn’t think that the meanings of the pagan customs historically tied to Christmas can be arbitrarily erased. We shouldn’t celebrate Christmas because, as Jeremiah said (10:2), “Do not learn the way of the Gentiles.” Since God has a memory, Christians should too.
But now, let's perform a pivot here. Why are Protestants, who officially uphold sola scriptura as a principle of doctrinal authority, so insistent on celebrating holidays not found in the bible (Christmas and Easter) while condemning the celebration of the days actually found and commanded in the bible? Jesus and His disciples observed the Passover, Pentecost, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles, etc., as they are listed in Leviticus 23. From the viewpoint of marking crucial milestones in God's plan of redemption, they remain important and meaningful, whether they are memorials of past events (Jesus' death and the birthday of the church) or shadows/types of future events (Christ's return and the prosperity and peace of His millennial rule).
The Quartodecimian controversy of the second century, in which Christians under the leadership of Polycarp and later Polycrates in the second century argued for the observation of Passover instead of Easter, shows that at least one of these days were still being kept by Christians long after the death of the original apostles.
Fundamentally, the burden of proof is on those who preach the abolition of the Sabbath and the holy days of Leviticus 23, since silence doesn't abolish anything by itself. We have the Old Testament, which commands the Sabbath; it's not necessary to find that commandment repeated in Paul's letters in order to know that it is still in force. The other side has to prove that it is gone instead by using clear texts, not overly broad assumptions about how to interpret the bible based on dispensationalism.
Furthermore, most arguments used against the observance of these days also refute the observance of the other moral laws of the Old Testament, such as the other nine of the Ten Commandments, so they have to be rejected. For example: "It's going back to Moses to keep the Sabbath." "Well, is it "going back to Moses" to avoid adultery?"
For more on this subject, and evidence that the holy days and the seventh-day Sabbath are still in force, click on these essays below:
Sources about the history of Christmas as a holiday:
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