Was Christmas Pagan?

And Other Attacks on Christmas

by Bodie Hodge on December 17, 2022
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Every year I get “love letters”—can I call them that? You know, those letters blasting me with the same old claims that “Christmas was pagan.” For some reason, I’m supposed to repent of not believing the pagans when they insist that their “holiday” is the true one. I’m chastised for not giving Christmas back to the pagans and locking myself in my house from the four Advent Sundays to the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing or poking fun at people for not celebrating Christmas, the resurrection, or their own birthdays. But I think it is wise to refute these claims from time to time as a reminder that pagans usually don’t get it right. Polytheistic and pantheistic pagans—including believers in evolution, Roman and Greek mythology, ancestor worship, Wicca, etc.—attack Christianity with fervor.

We need to remember that false religions are not neutral but have an active opposition for Christ and his Word (e.g., Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23; Titus 1:15). Sadly, there are some Christians that buy into what these pagans are claiming, and they become tools to advance paganism, even if they don’t realize it. So let’s look at these common claims.

The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him. (Proverbs 18:17)

What Is a Holiday?

A “holiday” is a “holy day.” Thus, it is predicated on the concept of absolute holiness, which is by definition, the God of the Bible. He is perfectly holy.

A holiday is literally a “holy day,” but the name is derived from the Old English hāligdæg (hālig meaning “holy” and dæg meaning “day”). “Holy” means “sacred, spiritually perfect, hallowed, and godly.” This is why we call the Bible the Holy Bible. “Bible” literally means “the book” or more properly, the collection of books from a Holy God. Furthermore, it is why Christians strive to live a godly and holy life as God patterned for man in the life of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:16).

The God of the Bible began instituting holy days in the Old Testament as types and shadows of Christ (Colossians 2:16–17):

  1. Weekly Sabbath (Exodus 16:23–29, 20:8–11)1
  2. Passover (Exodus 12:1–4; Leviticus 23:5; Numbers 9:1–14, 28:16; Deuteronomy 16:1–7; Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12–26; John 2:13, 11:55; 1 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 11:28)
  3. Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15–20, 12:39, 13:3–10, 23:15, 34:18; Leviticus 23:6–8; Numbers 28:17–25; Deuteronomy 16:3–4, 16:8; Mark 14:1, 14:12; Act 12:3)
  4. Firstfruits (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Leviticus 23:9–14; Deuteronomy 26:5, 26:9–10)
  5. Feast of Weeks (Exodus 23:16, 34:22; Leviticus 23:15–21; Numbers 28:26–31; Deuteronomy 16:9–12)
  6. Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:23–25; Numbers 29:1–6; 2 Samuel 6:15)
  7. Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur—Leviticus 16:1–34, 23:26–32; Numbers 29:7–11)
  8. Feast of Tabernacles/Booths (Exodus 23:16, 34:22; Leviticus 23:33–43; Numbers 29:12–34; Deuteronomy 16:13–15; 1 Kings 8:3; 2 Chronicles 7:1; Zechariah 14:16–19; John 7:2)

There was also a Jubilee year. After seven cycles of seven years (49 years), the fiftieth year was the Jubilee! The point is that God gave holidays to man. In a nutshell, holidays exist by being predicated on the existence of the Holy God of the Bible.

The New Testament continues in this tradition with the Lord’s Day, which is the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10) and honors when Christ resurrected. The Breaking of Bread—also called the Last Supper, Lord’s Supper, Communion, or the Elements—is a New Testament regular observance of the Passover fulfilled in Jesus for the New Covenant. Jesus, the Christ, is the final and perfect Passover Lamb. He was sacrificed and resurrected as the ultimate Victor once for all. The Lord’s Supper celebrates Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

Celebrating new holidays to the Lord is a Christian freedom. As the Bible says,

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. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:5–6)

In the Old Testament, we also find the Feast of Queen Esther (Esther 2:18). This festival was instituted by the king of Persia. Solomon once instituted a 14-day feast and celebration (1 Kings 8:65). We also see something like this in the intertestamental period: a new festival—Hanukkah.

Hanukkah

Just as man is made in the image of a “holiday-making” God (Genesis 1:26–27) who instituted feasts and festivals, so man has often honored God with new feasts and festivals. The godly Jews, for example, honored God with a holiday when they developed an eight-day winter festival called Hanukkah or Festival of Dedication (Hanukkah is derived from the word “dedication” in Hebrew). It was to rededicate the second temple, and one tradition is to progressively light a special nine-branch candleholder called a menorah. This is why this holy day is sometimes called the Festival of Lights.

Jesus had no problem joining this celebration at the second temple of God in Jerusalem approximately 2,000 years ago (John 10:22–23). Jews often celebrate this, but so do many Christians as a way of honoring God.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a Christian celebrating Hanukkah, as Christ did as well. This is not a holiday prescribed in the Bible, and yet Jesus shows us the freedom we can have by making new holidays dedicated to the Lord.

This freedom does come with some exceptions though. The Bible commands we abstain from certain things, and if feasts and festivals dishonor God by utilizing things from which God commanded us to abstain—then they become a problem. As a quick check, be sure to watch out for holidays openly trying to honor false gods or forcing practices such as these that were listed in Scripture:

  • Forced abstention from food other than what had been strangled or offered to idols (Acts 15:20–29; 1 Timothy 4:3)
  • Sexual immorality and fleshly lusts (Acts 15:20–29; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; 1 Peter 2:11)
  • Any form of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22)

How Long Ago Were Christians Celebrating Christmas?

Christmas Day (also called the Nativity of Our Lord), is celebrated on December 25. Christmas has been widely celebrated by underground Christians and documented by Christians since about AD 200. Christmas became even more popular when Christianity was allowed to be out in the open after the Edicts of Toleration and Milan in AD 311 and 313 respectively.

Popular early church father Sextus Julius Africanus wrote the Chronographiai around AD 221, which put the conception of Christ on March 25—nine months prior to December 25, the date being used for Christmas. For context, this was about 125 years after the last of Jesus’ apostles died. Hippolytus of Rome also mentions December 25 in the first decade of AD 200 in his Commentary on Daniel. Some Christians still celebrate an ancient feast on March 25 called the Feast of Annunciation (also called Conceptio Christi, Solemnity of the Annunciation, Lady Day, or Feast of the Incarnation), celebrating the immaculate conception of Christ.2

Is December 25 the actual day of Christ’s birth? That is a great question with mixed reviews, but what we know is that widespread celebrating of December 25 in churches across the Roman Empire as the birth and first nativity of Christ was very early.

In the AD 300s, Ephraim the Syrian, writing about the first nativity or Christmas, points out that, “All men honour the day of Thy birth. Thou righteous One, keep Thou the glory of Thy birth; for even Herod honoured the day of His Birth!”3 John Cassian points out the connection between Christ’s birth and its connection to Epiphany (the Twelfth Day of Christmas) in the late AD 300s and early AD 400s:

In the country of Egypt this custom is by ancient tradition observed that—when Epiphany is past, which the priests of that province regard as the time, both of our Lord’s baptism and also of His birth in the flesh, and so celebrate the commemoration of either mystery not separately as in the Western provinces but on the single festival of this day.4

December 25 was defended by Sulpitius Severus in consultation with Sabinus and Rufinus in Sacred History (Historia Sacra) chapter 27 in AD 403. The point is that Christmas, the birth of Christ, was recognized and celebrated from the early days of the church.

Xmas

Christmas is also denoted as X-mas/X’mas/Xmas. The letter Chi (X) in Greek was used as the shorthand notation of Christ, being the first letter of the name Christ, or more specifically, Christos (Χριστός).

Today, a few people unwittingly think if they use “Xmas,” they are deleting the name of Christ from this holiday because of anti-Christian sentiment. However, Xmas is an ancient Christian usage for Christmas whether they realize it or not.

Did Christmas Come From a Pagan “Holiday”?

To start, there is nothing “holy” about anything pagan. Now that that is cleared up, there are some modern claims about Christmas—particularly that it is born out of pagan celebrations, such as Saturnalia, Sol Invictus, or Winter Solstice.

Saturnalia

Saturnalia is the popular Roman mythology festival to the god Saturn (god of the harvest and time) in the Roman pantheon. It was celebrated on December 17.

December was the tenth month in the Roman calendar. In the old Roman calendar, the year began with March (in honor of the god Mars, who is the Greek equivalent of Ares and the Germanic equivalent of Tiwas—these are just ancestor-worshipped corruptions of Noah’s grandson Tiras5). The second month was April—which is the Roman word for “second.” Many obviously recognize certain prefixes for several later months like Sept-ember (7), Oct-ober (8), Nov-ember (9), and again, Dec-ember is 10.

Let me explain a little more about the old Roman calendar prior to ~700 BC. They had a 10-month calendar with the fifth and sixth months meaning five and six respectively:

  • Martius
  • Aprilis
  • Maius
  • Juniius
  • Quintilis (5)
  • Sextilis (6)
  • September
  • October
  • November
  • December

The remaining ~61 days, were just left to winter—not divvied up as months. About 700 BC, Numa Pompilius (a leader in Rome) added January as the first month before March (Martius) and added February after December. About 450 BC, February was moved to be between January and March—for reasons unknown to this author.

This calendar up to this point was a lunar calendar where each month was about 29–30 days. But the month-based year was off from the solar year (by about 10–11 days), so they had to add an intercalary month (like most do with lunar month-based years) called Mercedonius in Latin.

Essentially, every few years they add a thirteenth month to get the calendar back to being in line with the seasons. Julius Caesar, about 46 BC, decided to adjust the calendar to be a permanently solar calendar of 365 1/4 days, which keeps the seasons in line but requires adjusting of days within each month. This is called the Julian calendar.

In the original calculation of the Julian calendar, the solstice was on December 25, but by AD 300 the Julian calendar had drifted to have the solstice on December 23. It continued to move earlier until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar (which slightly adjusts the Julian calendar to fix this drift).

Why is all this important to Saturnalia? Some have suggested that Saturnalia was a holiday associated with the winter solstice. However, Saturnalia ends at the latest on December 23. Any celebration of Saturnalia prior to Julius Caesar still had many more days until the winter solstice. It came close to overlapping the winter solstice after Julius Caesar, but it took a few hundred years to properly overlap.

Saturnalia was originally on December 17. Later Saturnalia was expanded into a three-day (then a seven-day) festival marking the end of the autumn sowing season. According to historical records, Saturnalia lasted seven days in Caesar’s and Cicero’s days.

During Emperor Augustus Caesar’s day, it was shortened to three days (particularly for government officials like the courts).6 Thus, it would have ended on December 19 in his reign. During Emperor Caligula’s reign, it was extended to five days.7 So it was finished on December 21.

This festival was celebrated after the fall planting season so that the people (most of whom had agricultural jobs) were more available to “party,” if you will, in Rome and other provinces. But if you know much about the provinces of Rome, they weren’t Roman and they didn’t even follow Roman gods. So to them—whether in Judea or Egypt or elsewhere—it was merely a time off from customary work and a good time to travel and move if you were required to (think of Christmas break or summer break today). I can’t help but imagine if this was the perfect time for a carpenter to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem to get set up to be registered.

Regardless, this festival was always finished before Christmas. So, if Christians were taking this pagan day and making a Christian alternative, they failed miserably! Any way you look at it, they missed it by about a week!

Saturnalia is the equivalent festival of the Greek Kronia with the corresponding Greek god called Chronos/Chronus/Kronos/Cronus, the god of harvest and time (the name reflects time, think of chronology, chronometer, etc.). So although this might have been a huge festival for Rome and Greece, the rest of the provinces weren’t really celebrating a Roman god.

Interestingly, the Roman Saturn (where we get the name Saturday and the planet Saturn) and the Greek equivalent, Chronos, is a corruption of Noah. An ancient historian Eupolemus (as preserved by Eusebius of Caesarea in the early to mid-AD 300s) writes,

The Babylonians say, that the first was Belus, called Cronus or Saturn (that is, Noah), and of him was begotten another Belus and Chanaan (it should be read Cham), and he (i.e. Ham) begat Chanaan, the father of the Phoenicians; and of him another son, Chus, was begotten, whom the Greeks call Asbolos, the father of the Ethiopians, and the brother of Mestraim, the father of the Egyptians.8

You should be able to recognize Chanaan/Canaan in this list, whom God judged and gave their land to the Israelites led by Joshua. Also, Belus is a title passed from Noah to his son Ham/Cham and so forth. Although not mentioned here, this title ultimately passes as far down as Nimrod, the son of Cush (Chus), and was corrupted in Bel and Baal, which is where the pagan Baal worship in the Old Testament came from—merely a form of ancestor worship.

But of significant note, Chronos or Saturn is Noah. It is a corruption of Noah to a godlike status. It was ancestor worship of a great, godly man. Sadly, this makes sense. Noah and his early progeny lived longer lifespans. Noah lived 350 years after the flood; Shem lived 500 years after the flood, and so forth.

As the ages subsequently drop, these patriarchs outlived great, great, great grandchildren. Noah, for instance, outlived his great, great, great-grandson Peleg!9 Shem lived until Isaac was about 50 years old. So, many of these patriarchs were looked at as though they were “immortals” or “gods.” These “gods” still died—they just outlived everyone else.

Another thing that happens is that some of these patriarchs and their descendants get mixed up in their orally passed-down accounts. And the accounts themselves get warped, paganized, and embellished.10

Fascinatingly, Noah, the oldest patriarch after the flood, who became the first farmer and trainer of farmers (Genesis 9), is corrupted into the “god” of harvest and time. The point is that Saturn/Chronos, which is where Saturnalia and Kronia come from, is actually based on a biblical person: Noah. So that day really shouldn’t belong to pagans in the first place.

Sol Invictus

Sol Invictus means “unconquered sun.” Sol means “sun” and is where we get the name “solar,” for instance. Sol Invictus (or more properly Dies Natalis Solis Invicti [Birth of the Unconquered Sun]) was the celebration of the Roman sun god in the latter stages of the Roman Empire and also the patron of Roman soldiers. It was a form of sun-worship.

Sol Invictus, however, came into existence well after we have recorded history that Christmas was widely celebrated. Sol Invictus was first started by Roman emperor Lucius Aurelian in AD 274. If anything, the pagans took Christmas—which was already a widespread festival for Christians—and wanted a pagan alternative.

Winter Solstice

It is doubtful that Sol Invictus is related to the winter solstice. One could see how it relates to the sun since the winter solstice is the day with the least amount of sunlight on earth (in the northern hemisphere).

If Sol Invictus was meant to be associated with the winter solstice, then they missed it by a couple of days—even by the Julian calendar that they were using when they came up with that celebratory day. The shortest daylight portion of the year is the winter solstice. It falls between December 20–23, whereas Sol Invictus falls on December 25.

Solstices, as well as the equinoxes, mark the changing of the seasons. The summer solstice marks the day with the most sunlight hours and least amount of darkness. The winter solstice marks the day with the most darkness and least amount of sunlight—again, in the northern hemisphere. The opposite is true in the southern hemisphere—which is why Australia, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, New Zealand, etc., have their summer in our winter.

The spring and fall equinoxes have equal amounts of daylight and darkness. You could probably see the reflection of the same Latin root word aequus for “equal” in the name “equinox.” More to the point, the godly, since Adam’s creation in Genesis 1, have utilized the sun, moon, and stars to mark these seasonal events (Genesis 1:14), including each new moon (where the name month comes from). There is nothing inherently wrong with acknowledging these “turning-point” days for the seasons and months and even celebrating them in light of Genesis 1 (1 Samuel 20:24).

Was Jesus Born in March/April Because the “Shepherds Were Keeping Watch over Their Flocks by Night”?

Another common claim is that Jesus couldn’t have been born in December because it was not the lambing season. Let me explain this argument. Luke 2:8 says,

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

So the argument goes that this takes place in the lambing season (when the ewes give birth to lambs) and therefore they were out in the fields at night during this time to watch for lambs being born to help and protect both ewe and lamb from predators. The argument then goes that this would have been in the early spring around March or April. Thus, those holding this view say that a December birth is untenable.

First, we don’t know this was lambing season. Even if it were not lambing season, in those days, shepherds were still tasked with keeping watch over the flock in shifts by night due to predators. It may have been a smaller number of them than a typical peak lambing season.

But let’s say it was lambing season. Let’s be a little more accurate. The range of lambs being born is from December to May, peaking around March and April. Farther north, it becomes later; farther south, it goes as early as December. When sheep give birth depends on when the ewes become pregnant (called “tupping”), which happens as early as late summer but usually later fall and has a five-month gestation.

Diligent shepherds should be ready and keeping watch in December. If anything, when looking at this subject in more detail, December is indeed within the range of lambing season. So this shouldn’t be used to rule out a December date for Christ’s birth.

Christmas Trees Are Forbidden in Jeremiah?

Jeremiah 10:2–8 says:

Thus says the LORD: “Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; Do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, For the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile; For one cuts a tree from the forest, The work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; They fasten it with nails and hammers So that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, And they cannot speak; They must be carried, Because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, For they cannot do evil, Nor can they do any good.” Inasmuch as there is none like You, O LORD (You are great, and Your name is great in might), Who would not fear You, O King of the nations? For this is Your rightful due. For among all the wise men of the nations, And in all their kingdoms, There is none like You. But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish; A wooden idol is a worthless doctrine. (NKJV)

This passage of Scripture is a warning about following the gentiles in their ways of making false wooden idols and the futility of worshipping such false gods. Pagan craftsmen cut down trees, obtain wood from it, cut it up, craft it, and use silver and gold; and the idols still have to be fastened to stand upright and not fall over! This type of alleged god is worthless and can do neither good nor evil! It shows how dull-hearted and foolish one must be to think these little wooden statues are gods and have power!

When someone uses Jeremiah 10 to argue that Christmas trees are forbidden, then they commit an equivocation fallacy. They are equivocating that idols and Christmas trees are the same thing. But they are not. Christmas trees are not gods and not items of worship. Furthermore, I’ve never even heard of single Christian who has ever bowed down to a Christmas tree and worshipped it as a god. That would be futile indeed.

Some might argue that the trees are cut and they are brought into the house and decorated with gold- and silver-looking tinsel. They seem to think this is a good response, but by this standard, then the temple of God built by Solomon would be called into question! Consider the wood cut and brought into the temple and the craftsmen’s intricate work and overlaying it with gold and so on. 1 Kings 6:23–35 says,

In the inner sanctuary he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. The other cherub also measured ten cubits; both cherubim had the same measure and the same form. The height of one cherub was ten cubits, and so was that of the other cherub. He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house. And the wings of the cherubim were spread out so that a wing of one touched the one wall, and a wing of the other cherub touched the other wall; their other wings touched each other in the middle of the house. And he overlaid the cherubim with gold.

Around all the walls of the house he carved engraved figures of cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms. The floor of the house he overlaid with gold in the inner and outer rooms.

For the entrance to the inner sanctuary he made doors of olivewood; the lintel and the doorposts were five-sided. He covered the two doors of olivewood with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers. He overlaid them with gold and spread gold on the cherubim and on the palm trees.

So also he made for the entrance to the nave doorposts of olivewood, in the form of a square, and two doors of cypress wood. The two leaves of the one door were folding, and the two leaves of the other door were folding. On them he carved cherubim and palm trees and open flowers, and he overlaid them with gold evenly applied on the carved work.

The difference is that this wood in the temple was not to be an idol and not to be worshipped but to give glory to God.

The history of Christmas trees begins in Europe (most say Germany; others have it in Baltic States) in the 1500–1600s. It has nothing to do with worshipping trees or false gods, but like the temple, its use is meant to give glory to God in Jesus Christ. The evergreen trees in winter were a reminder of a more perfect time. These trees in the home originated as “paradise trees” representing the garden of Eden and made their way into Christmas decor.

How Did Saint Nicholas Become Santa Claus?

Falling on December 6 is St. Nicholas’ Day—which is during the Christmas Advent season and runs for the four Sundays preceding Christmas. Advent is like a month of Sundays counting down to Christmas. St. Nicholas of Myra was a bishop (minister/pastor) in the AD 300s. He died on December 6, hence the day that is used to celebrate his life. He was an orphan who became a wealthy man living in what we now call Turkey but which was traditionally known as Asia Minor (the town of Myra was later called Kale and is now called Demre).

St. Nicholas used his wealth to help the less fortunate (for example, he kept some poor young girls out of forced prostitution by paying their debt). He was said to have hung stockings of coins for the poor on windowsills and so on. For his faith in Christ, he was persecuted by Roman Emperor Diocletian and put in jail for a time. He was released by Emperor Constantine about AD 325.

Because St. Nicholas’ Day always falls in the Christmas season, it makes sense why Christmas today has a corrupted version of him. Saint Nickolas is corrupted into Santa Claus (think: Sainta niclaus).

Sadly, attributes of God are applied to St. Nicholas. This paganized version of St. Nicholas sees all, judges between naughty and nice, gives blessings (gifts), can be everywhere at the same time, etc. It’s better to leave St. Nicholas as St. Nicholas. As a result, many Christians today avoid using Santa Claus as a deceptive tool on children.

Conclusion

When it comes to Christmas, the Bible simply doesn’t tell us the day Jesus was born. We know it was at nighttime though. Early Christians were uniformly celebrating Christ’s birth throughout the Roman Empire on December 25 by about AD 200. They commented on it without defense as though it were common knowledge.

Christmas was not, however, born out of a pagan holiday. Should you celebrate? That is up to you. Consider the words of Holy Spirit through Paul the apostle.

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16–17)

Footnotes

  1. See Hosea 2:11 and Colossians 2:16.
  2. The Feast of Annunciation was originally April 6 in some churches, but it represented more than just the conception then. It also collectively included things like Christ’s birth, circumcision, and baptism.
  3. Ephraim the Syrian, “On the Nativity of Christ in the Flesh,” Hymn III, AD 306–373, https://www.biblestudytools.com/history/early-church-fathers/post-nicene/vol-13-gregory-ephraim-and-aphrahat/ephraim-syrus/hymn-iii.html.
  4. John Cassian, Conferences of John Cassian, Chapter 2, “Of the custom which is kept up in the Province of Egypt for signifying the time of Easter,” AD 360–435, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/cassian/conferences.ii.xi.ii.html.
  5. Bodie Hodge, Tower of Babel (Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2013), 174–179.
  6. Macrobius, Saturnalia, I.10.4.
  7. Suetonius, Life of Caligula, XVII; Dio, Roman History, LIX.6.4.
  8. Eusebius of Caesarea, Praepar. Evangel. l. 9. c. 17. p. 419.
  9. Hodge, Tower of Babel, 199–204.
  10. This is why we see the Saturn/Chronos figure convoluted into Japheth, Kittim, or Ham (some of Noah’s descendants in Genesis 10) in various accounts.

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