When I was in my teens, there was a small movement amongst the conspiracy-inclined Christians to ban Christmas trees. I remember a small booklet was passed around with this aim. The reasoning was that the Christmas tree has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus, but is rather a borrowed pagan ritual. There was even a snazzy Bible verse:
- “Do not learn the way of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, although the nations are terrified by them, for the customs of the peoples are worthless. Someone cuts down a tree from the forest; it is worked by the hands of a craftsman with a chisel. He decorates it with silver and gold.” (Jeremiah 10:2-4)
At the time, most of us young’uns quickly laughed it off, and continued with our merriment. After all, the word “Christmas tree” even included the phrase “Christ,” how could anyone miss that? Everyone knew that Jesus was born on Christmas day, December 25th in the year 1 AD! Turns out we knew less of history than our loony counterparts.
What do we know about Christmas?
- We don’t know the real year: Joseph A. Fitzmyer – Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Catholic University of America writes: “Though the year [of Jesus birth] is not reckoned with certainty, the birth did not occur in AD 1. The Christian era, supposed to have its starting point in the year of Jesus birth, is based on a miscalculation introduced ca. 533 by Dionysius Exiguus.” Fitzmyer makes his guess at the birth of Jesus occurred as September 11, 3 BCE. (Addison G. Wright, Roland E. Murphy, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, “A History of Israel” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1990, p. 1247.) Other scholars place their guesses between 7 BCE and 3 BCE.
- We don’t know the real date: “Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus’s birthday, early Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. Clement… picked November 18. Hippolytus… figured Christ must have been born on a Wednesday. An anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, placed Jesus’s birth on March 28” (Jeffery Sheler, U.S. News & World Report, “In Search of Christmas,” Dec. 23, 1996, p. 58). In fact, Biblical scholars have given possible birthdates for Jesus in virtually every single month.
- The Early Church did not celebrate Christmas because only pagans celebrated birthdays “For the first three hundred years of the church’s existence, birthdays were not given much emphasis–not even the birth of Christ.” (1) In fact, one of the earliest academics and theologians in the church, Origen (c.185-c.254) “preached that it would be wrong to honor Christ in the same way Pharaoh and Herod were honored. Birthdays were for pagan gods.” (2) While there is one brief mention of Christmas on Dec 25th in the late 4th century it took quite some time for the incorporation of Christmas, “history reveals that about 440 A.D., the Church at Jerusalem commenced the celebration of Christmas, following the lead of Roman Catholicism” (3)
- There were many pagan celebrations around December 25th, but no Christian tradition for hundreds of years: “Cultures around the Mediterranean and across Europe observed feasts on or around December 25th, marking the winter solstice. The Jews had a festival of lights. Germans had a yule festival. Celtic legends connected the solstice with Balder, the Scandinavian sun god who was struck down by a mistletoe arrow. At the pagan festival of Saturnalia, Romans feasted and gave gifts to the poor. Drinking was closely connected with these pagan feasts. At some point, a Christian bishop may have adopted the day to keep his people from indulging in the old pagan festival.” (4)
- There is evidence that aspects of Christmas were influenced by pagan holidays: “Worship of Christianity was legally allowed in the Roman Empire by Constantine the Great, Edict of Nicomedia (Milan), A.D. 313. Now the two focal celebrations of both religions occur on December 25th, Mithra’s sun regeneration and the Christian nativity (Sun of Righteousness). According to St. Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, the “Roman Church purposefully placed the keeping of Christmas between two popular folk festivals, Saturnalia and the Kalends of January, in order to give Christians something to celebrate [undisturbed] about while others were engaged in secular merrymaking.” (5)
- Numerous Christmas traditions were borrowed from pagan rituals: “Mistletoe was a popular decoration at Roman winter festivals… Ancient Romans and Greeks decorated their homes with evergreen branches and there’s even a Roman mosaic depicting Dionysus with what appears to be an early version of the Christmas Tree… The Norse most likely burned large logs to ward off evil spirits near Midwinter, it’s possible that this tradition led to the development of the Yule Log centuries later.. The lights we decorate our homes (and trees) with during the Holiday season have a long history. Ancient pagans lit… candles on the winter solstice and the holidays around it to celebrate the return of the light… The Romans exchanged gifts at during Saturnalia (a winter holiday lasting the week of December 17-23), including toys and edible treats.” (6)
- The early Christians were known for taking over pagan holidays: Pope Gregory wrote in the 7th century “The idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it in these shrines, build altars and place relics in them . . . When this people see that their shrines are not destroyed they shall be able to banish error from their hearts and be more ready to come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognizing and worshipping the true God… It is doubtless impossible to cut everything at once from their stubborn minds” (7) Even earlier, Tertullian (circa 160 – 230), “an early Christian leader and a prolific writer, complained that too many fellow-Christians had copied the Pagan practice of adorning their houses with lamps and with wreathes of laurel at Christmas time.” (8)
- The precursors of modern evangelicals banned Christmas for being pagan: The Puritans in America are often thought of as devout and theologically accurate precursors to the modern protestant movement. These Puritans considered Christmas was a pagan holiday and banned it’s celebration wholesale. (9, 10). Christmas, especially as we know it, was not celebrated in America. Then “in 1851, Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland OH appears to have been the person responsible for decorating the first Christmas tree in an American church. His parishioners condemned the idea as a Pagan practice; some even threatened the pastor with harm” (11)
Therefore, it’s almost certain that the modern western holiday we call Christmas, with its traditions, carols, Santa Claus, trees, wreaths, mistletoe’s, and bells, is a syncretic holiday that has a vast array of influences. It’s more than likely that many generations, traditions, religions, and cultures contributed a tradition or left their tiny mark upon this cherished holiday.
Should we still celebrate Christmas?
Whoa, wait a minute, if Christmas is not thoroughly descended from the Apostles, should we still celebrate it? Yes!
This Christmas issue is really a larger issue, one that has to do with culture and the Christian myth of cultural uniqueness. Very often we like to call things “Biblical” or “Christian” in the same way we call things “Irish” or “Indian.” We assume that the Christian culture is unique in the same way the Chinese culture is unique. We like distinct borders and walls that tell us what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out.’ And anything that is outside of this “Christian culture” is therefore worse, or less “Biblical” (even though it’s more “Biblical” to slaughter a small sheep than it is to sing Christmas carols to a piano.”) The sociohistorical reality is that the Christian faith has developed in numerous nations, with a large variety of languages, customs, and rituals. And many of these were “sanctified” and incorporated into the local Christian tradition as a Christian version. And this is ok. In fact, this is rather good.
Because a tradition or ritual is adapted or migrated into another ideological framework, does not make it immoral or unethical. The cross is one such example. Within the pagan Roman Empire the cross was seen as an instrument of torture and compulsion. Yet it was incorporated into the cultural story of Christianity as a symbol of hope. A child drawing a cross in the pagan era of the Roman Empire was drawing the modern equivalent of a hangman’s noose in the racially segregated south. In our school system this could lead to detention, or mandatory counseling visits. A child drawing that cross in the Christian Roman Empire, and well as today, is drawing a religious symbol of hope. That same object was incorporated into Christianity and the meaning changed. As with everything, the real issue is our internal motives, not the external objects, words, traditions, or ideas.
The reality is that the motives of ancient people who were partaking in a ritual are not really indicative of our motives. Even if somewhere down the line, someone did really intend to worship pagan gods, or even sneak paganism into Christianity, so what? Are you intentionally worshiping a pagan deity by celebrating Christmas? Are you purposefully trying to honor the gods of ancient religions by putting up a Christmas tree? No! You are celebrating the heart of Christianity.
When you remove something from one cultural context, and place it into another, the most important thing is changed, your attitude, mindset, your reason. The Apostle Paul confirms this general idea regarding the inner reasons for outer behavior as far as holy days.
- “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord” (Romans 14:5-6)
The Scriptures even state that others should not judge you for your decision to celebrate the way that you do:
- “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.” (Colossians 2:16)
What does this mean? That the object you are celebrating is more important than the way you are celebrating. (Provided that the way does not go against the object of your celebration, and no one gets hurt)
So go and celebrate every part of Christmas to the utmost!
Get yourself a former-pagan-now-redeemed-Christian-tree, I did. Decorate it with some now-sanctified-formerly-pagan lights. Wrap some gifts, give them to your friends and family, like the ancient Romans did. Listen to Christmas carols. Engage in some “redeemed” pagan practices because you know what? The physical things, rites, rituals, and traditions don’t matter; your attitude, intention, and heart does.
Perhaps the background canvas we are painting on is pagan, but the grand painting on this not only redeems the canvas, but makes it all the more worthwhile. These empty traditions have been replaced and redeemed by a bigger, better, bolder, and more beautiful “reason for the season.” Merry Christmas!