Is Christmas Pagan?

October 6, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Posted in Questions for Pastor Glenn | Leave a comment

I received a note from a woman who has been challenged on the history and pagan origins of celebrating Christmas.  Though I can’t reprint the letter here, I can show a part of my response to her.

          As to the celebration of Christmas, and to whether it is a pagan or Christian holiday.  Here’s my understanding.  Christmas is a Christian holiday, that ‘s why it’s called CHRISTmas, though it is not a biblical one.  However, December 25 has been a pagan holiday for centuries in many cultures around the northern hemisphere.  There is a simple explanation for that.  December 25 is, so I’ve been told, the first day the naked eye can determine that the sun is returning north; December 21 being its farthest southern migration.  That is the perfect scenario to celebrate the sun god or the summer god or, in the Roman case, Saturnalia.  Some believe the latter to be a week-long celebration ending on December 24/25.  Whether or not Christians should celebrate it is a matter with a couple of factors.

          First, should Christians celebrate at all?  Sounds like a stupid question, but there are some who believe celebration of any kind is prohibited.  I wonder what bible they read.  God encourages his people to celebrate, and the celebrations in the OT often relate to the events of their redemption.  Passover is the most obvious, remembering the release from slavery, but Tabernacles remembers the travels in the desert, and Yom Kippur (sometimes called the Day of Atonement) is the day of sacrifice for sins (though this is more solemn than one might think of “celebration”).  Later added holidays like Purim and Hanukah also recall redemption events in Israel’s history.  In addition to these there are Pentecost (sometimes called the Harvest Feast, the First Fruits and Feast of Weeks) which celebrated the early barley harvest, and the celebration tithe, some believe this to be a second (or even third) tithe offering.  This offering was eaten in celebration by the family who gave it!  Imagine preachers teaching that kind of tithe today!  All this adds up to say that God wants his people to celebrate.

          The further question then would be, what do we celebrate, the events of the OT or something new?  If the biggest celebrations were reminders of the great events of their redemption, then why shouldn’t we celebrate the great events of our redemption, especially Jesus’ coming, his death and his resurrection?  The answer seems most obvious to me: we should celebrate those things.

          So if we celebrate Jesus’ coming, how and when should we do it?  Not all the history is clear, but it seems the early Christians, who began celebrating on December 25 did so because that was a day people were going to celebrate anyway, and we really don’t know when Christ was born.  Does that make the celebration pagan?  Were those early believers taking a part of culture and baptizing it to look Christian when they should have separated from it?  Or were they taking a part of culture and redeeming it for better purposes.  I tend to believe the latter, however, that doesn’t downplay the danger of losing the Christian meaning in the party atmosphere of the surrounding culture.  How to live in culture and redeem part of it without adapting the pagan meanings of it is always a tricky balance, but one we strike on more fronts than holiday celebrations.

          As to the Christmas tree being in the Bible.  Jeremiah 10 is the passage often associated with this thought.  The chapter says , “the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest . . they adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.”  That certainly could be read to sound like what we do in December.  This chapter is talking about those who make statues out of the trees and then worship those dead statues as though they had life in them.  That is worthless in comparison to the living God.  Are our Christmas trees reminders that Christ is the light of life, or are they objects which, in our minds, take on a life of themselves that deserves worship?  In this matter, there is a third possibility: Are our trees so much a part of our celebration, we feel we can’t celebrate without them?  Most often, I fear it is this third option, which may not mean that the tree is an idol per se, but may indicate we have lost the meaning of Christmas and replaced it with emotional emptiness.

          Obviously, as you’ve said, many of these things depend on the meaning we attach to them.  If you can celebrate Jesus’ coming on December 25 without buying into the typical drunkenness, materialism and emptiness attached to it, then celebrate with all your heart.

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