The debate about whether or not Christians should celebrate Christmas has been raging for centuries. There are equally sincere and committed Christians on both sides of the issue, each with multiple reasons why or why not Christmas should be celebrated.
It’s Really Paganism In A Different Skin
One argument against Christmas is that the traditions surrounding the holiday have origins in paganism. I spent a lot of time searching for reliable information on this topic but found it quite difficult because the origins of many of our traditions are so obscure that sources often contradict one another. Traditions like bells, candles, holly, and yuletide decorations are mentioned in the histories of pagan worship, but the use of these items in your home certainly doesn’t indicate a return to paganism.
While there are definitely pagan roots to some traditions, there are many more traditions associated with the true meaning of Christmas. Bells are played to ring out the great news, candles are lit to remind us that Christ is the Light of the world, a star is placed on the top of a Christmas tree to remember the Star of Bethlehem, and gifts are exchanged to remind us of the gifts of the Magi to Jesus, the greatest gift of God to mankind.
Even still, one of the reasons given to not celebrate the season does seem to carry weight. It seems that the day we currently celebrate the birth of Christ is connected to a pagan festival known as Saturnalia. Keep in mind that often, in these types of arguments, supposed facts are thrown around without establishing the truth behind a claim made.
Such is the case with the argument used to support pagan roots with Easter. The argument against the celebration of Easter is that the word Easter itself, and as a consequence the celebration of that holiday, comes from the worship of the goddess Ishtar. The problem however is that there is no evidence to support that claim, they are just two words that sound similar and so has entered into a kind of ‘Christian urban legend’ as though it was a piece of factual history even though it is not. But in the case of Christmas, the claim that Christmas is connected to the pagan festival Saturnalia, is actually true – but not for the reasons most would think.
The Smoking Gun – Saturnalia
Given the connection, there are some who claim that the ancient celebration of Saturnalia is the smoking gun that proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Christmas is pagan.
Brief history lesson: The Saturnalia holiday was a week-long Roman festival to honour the god Saturn, starting on December 17, it fell within what we now call the Christmas season. For most of history, debauchery seemed to dominate celebrations of the holiday; in fact, the word Saturnalia became synonymous with immorality and carousing.
Still, though the Christian understanding of Christmas is not about immorality and carousing, some Saturnalia customs do come across as hedonistic perversions of Christmas traditions to the modern eye. For instance, singing from house to house naked (glad we don’t do that one in Canada), feasting excessively, eating baked goods shaped like people, and exchanging bawdy gifts. The truth is that in reality, there’s good historical evidence suggesting that these events were actually reformed, absorbed, and transformed over time as a result of Christmas’ popularity overtaking that of Saturnalia, not Saturnalia customs influencing the Christmas celebrations.
I found it interesting as I did my research, that the early Christian’s motive for celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25 was the same that inspires modern Christians and churches to hold “Fall Festivals” or “Bible Costume Parties” on October 31. In other words, to provide a spiritually positive alternative to what is perceived as a pagan celebration. Back then, over time as the Roman Empire ‘Christianized’, customs associated with Saturnalia were ‘cleaned up’ and absorbed into the celebration of Christmas.
And it wasn’t just Saturnalia – another Roman holiday, Sol Invictus, was also gradually absorbed by Christmas. Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”) celebrated, on December 25, the renewing of the Sun King and was linked to the winter solstice.
It’s no secret then that the date, traditions, and long-term history of Christmas are connected to the pagan holidays of Saturnalia and Sol Invictus. Yet, like a modern Canadian family celebrating a harvest festival and dressing up like a bible character or great reformer of the past on October 31, it’s the people celebrating who decide what the celebration means. Early Christians chose December 25 as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus and that decision of theirs continues to this day. So, though Christmas and Saturnalia may be historical neighbours with indirect connections, they are not the same holiday, never were, and of course never will be.
Since We Don’t See December 25th In The Bible, We Shouldn’t Celebrate Christmas On That Day
Furthering the debate are those who point to the fact that the Bible doesn’t give us the date of Christ’s birth – which is certainly true. December 25th may not be even close to the time Jesus was born, and arguments on both sides are legion, some relating to climate in Israel, the practices of shepherds in winter, and the dates of Roman census-taking. While none of these points are without a certain amount of conjecture, the fact remains that the Bible doesn’t tell us when Jesus was born. Some see this as proof positive that God didn’t want us to celebrate the birth, while others see the Bible’s silence on the issue as tacit approval.
Christmas Has Become A Worldly Celebration, So We Should Avoid It As A ‘Set Apart’ People
Finally, some say that because the world celebrates Christmas – though it is becoming more and more politically correct to refer to it as “the holidays”- Christians should avoid it. But let me point out that’s the same argument made by cults that deny Jesus altogether, as well as cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who deny his deity. I personally see the occasion of Christmas as an opportunity to proclaim Christ as “the reason for the season” among the nations, including those trapped in cults.
Ultimately, there’s no legitimate scriptural reason not to celebrate Christmas, while at the same time, no biblical mandate to celebrate it. So, in the end, whether or not to celebrate Christmas really comes down to a personal decision. Whatever you decide to do regarding Christmas, your (or my) views should not be used as a club to beat down or denigrate those with opposing views, nor should either view be used as a badge of honour inducing pride over celebrating or not celebrating. As in all things, we seek wisdom from God who gives it liberally to all who ask (James 1:5) and accept one another in Christian love and grace, regardless of our views.