A friend recently told me that she and her family don’t celebrate Christmas because it began as a pagan holiday. Is that ‘pagan root’ thing true and if it is, does that mean that we all shouldn’t celebrate Christmas? What is the truth of the matter?
Personally, I look forward to the season. I see it as a natural opportunity to share Christ with the world – especially given that for the most part there is an ‘openness’ to the gospel message during this time of the year like no other time on the calendar. But still, does my friend have a legitimate point? Was the event we now call Christmas originally a “pagan holiday”?
Does it mean then that the gifts we exchange are to be shunned because some Druid somewhere in time offered a gift to his goat as part of some pagan ritual? And does that mean the church should discard all of the Christmas season, along with its lights, tinsel, Christmas carol re-runs and increasing commercialism?
There is no doubt that some of what we now refer to as Christmas traditions can be traced back, in some form, to pagan cultures and celebrations. In fact, December 25, which Christians now herald as Jesus’ birthday, was actually the date on which the Romans celebrated the birth of the sun god.
After the Roman emperor Constantine ‘converted’ to Christianity at the Milvian Bridge in 312, he combined the worship of the sun god with worship of Christ. Many of the Christian leaders at that time accepted Constantine’s conversion in a positive light, irrespective of whether he was sincere or converted for political purposes, and seized on the opportunity to celebrate the “Christ-mass” as a vital part of the process of converting the pagan world.
But even long before Constantine, Christians found ways to redeem local cultures and salvage elements in those cultures that naturally pointed to Christ, whether Hebrew, Syrian, Greek, or Roman. They denounced inhumane pagan practices, but at the same time took over pagan temples and converted them to churches. They replaced the old gods in popular devotion with heroic martyrs of the persecutions. And they replaced the holy days of paganism with festivals of the Christian year.
An example could be the early pagan ritual of lighting candles to drive away the forces of cold and darkness. The Christians of the time adopted that tradition making it their own. Today, is it highly unlikely that our hearts are drawn to those early pagans as we light our candles, rather we rejoice in our Saviour, the Light of the World as John speaks to in his gospel.
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.” – John 1:4
As for the Druid offering a gift to his goat. I think it’s safe to say that instead of giving any credence to the history of idolatry, we instead remember, as we should, the gifts given to the Christ-child by the Magi. Jesus was the greatest gift ever given, and therefore his birth is worthy of celebration and gifts worthy to be shared as a symbol of God’s giving heart.
Facts are however, that the beginnings of many Christmas traditions are so obscure that reference books and internet sites contradict one another on the details. Some of our most popular and beloved Christmas symbols are in fact entirely Christian, and were never part of any pagan religion anywhere. At the same time, some Christmas traditions undoubtedly do have their origins in the pagan past.
So, what do we do – or not do? If you are like my friend and are fully convinced that you cannot, in good conscience, observe a particular Christmas tradition, then please, by all means do not observe it. If you are fully convinced that a particular tradition is too steeped in paganism to honour God in any way, by all means forsake that tradition. At the same time, if you are fully convinced that you can honour and worship God through a particular tradition, then please honour and worship God.
I believe that this is an example where the Romans 14 passage applies. “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” – Romans 14:5
In the end, what is important is not the origins of traditions, but their significance to us today as believers in the Son of God. For Christians, we celebrate because of the significance seen in the birth of our Saviour, and the traditions remind us of that momentous event that changed the world forever.
But more importantly, the traditions we share help tell the Christmas story about God tracking us down to find us and reveal himself to a sin filled world because he wanted us to know him. Words weren’t enough and so he came to be with us because we could not get to him. He took the form of man, incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ and lived among us to show us a better way.
Image that, God came as a baby who grew to be a man and walked, talked and fellowshipped with humanity in the person of Jesus – the prince of peace. And as the Prince of Peace we can finally be reconciled with God the father and enjoy peace with him as we were originally created to enjoy.
One final thought. December 25 was not mentioned in the biblical narrative as the day Jesus was born, and, as such, we can’t be dogmatic about it one way or the other. But even if the date is completely wrong, there is still the opportunity for thousands of people who wouldn’t go to church any other time of the year to go on Christmas day and hear the gospel of Christ.
That should count for something I think. That being the case…