December 2, 2014

Is Christmas Day Rooted in Paganism?

by Nathan Busenitz

christmas_treeIt’s not uncommon to hear that the celebration of Christmas is rooted in ancient Roman paganism. That claim generally goes something like this: the ancient Romans celebrated a pagan festival on December 25th, but when the Roman Empire was Christianized in the 300s, the church simply turned the pagan festival into a Christian holiday.

It is true that there was a pagan Roman holiday called the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” that marked the winter solstice. And in the old Julian calendar, the winter solstice occurred on December 25. The cult of “Sol Invictus” (“the Unconquered Sun,” a.k.a. the sun god) became an official Roman cult in 274 under the reign of Emperor Aurelian. And the Roman empire was Christianized about fifty years later under Constantine.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to see how some could assume that the post-Constantine Romans simply adopted the pagan holiday and Christianized it.

But there’s actually good evidence to suggest that the date of December 25 does not have pagan origins. That’s because, long before Aurelian made December 25 an official pagan holiday, there were Christians in the early church who taught that Jesus was born on December 25th.

In fact, in the early church, there were two primary dates suggested as the dates on which Jesus was born in Bethlehem. One was December 25 and the other was January 6.

Around the year 192, Clement of Alexandria suggested that Jesus was born on January 6. An early Christian tradition suggested that Christ’s baptism took place on January 6. Then, because Luke says that Jesus was “about 30 years old” when He was baptized, some early Christians (like Clement) assumed that His birthday was the same day as His baptism.

A contemporary of Clement named Hippolytus of Rome, writing in the early 200s, suggested that Jesus was born on December 25. Hippolytus was convinced that the first day of creation was March 25 (corresponding to the first day of Spring in the Julian calendar). From there, he speculated that March 25 was also the day on which Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb. (Incidentally, some church fathers also suggested that March 25 was the day Jesus died, which only added to the significance of that day.) If you add 9 months to March 25, you end up at December 25.

So we have these two dates suggested very early in church history, roughly 80 years before Aurelias made the pagan observance of December 25 official in Rome, and more than a century before the Roman Empire became Christian.

What this means, then, is that the selection of December 25th as the celebration of Jesus’ birthday may not have pagan origins at all.

After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, December 25th became the official day designated for the celebration of Christ’s birth. Meanwhile, January 6th, which is known as Epiphany, remained associated not only with Jesus’ baptism but also with the coming of the Wise Men. As for the “twelve days of Christmas,” that refers to the twelve days between December 25th and January 6th.

Sources:

Calendar and Chronology

Toward the Origins of Christmas

Sol Invictus and Christmas

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Brian Morgan

    Well, I wish you had posted this 40 years ago. Some dear relations of mine might have allowed the celebration in my home.

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Thanks Brian! Sorry I didn’t post it sooner.

  • Tiffany Perry

    Thanks

  • Jason

    Now about that tree . . . ??? 😉

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Jason,

      The origins of the modern Christmas tree seem to lie in the medieval Paradise Tree, which was a Christian symbol not a pagan one:
      http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/442528/paradise-tree

      • Jeff Schlottmann

        Thank the Lord. I just bought some new LED lights for our finely shaped tree. I have a friend who rejected lots of churches due christmas trees in the building, using jeremiah 10 as his reason. I told him light bulbs wont send him to hell. He has since joined a jehovah witness sect. Im not sure christmas trees were the problem

  • pro31lady

    My concern is less about the date than it is about the name. isn’t the name “Christmas” just a derivation of Christ – Mass The mass of the Roman Catholic Church where Christ is resacrificed for the forgiveness of venial sins in the RCC system?

  • Erin

    An interesting idea, but you’ve conflated the cult of Sol Invictus (which celebrated the birth of a Sun god) with Saturnalia (a celebration of the Roman God Saturn), which was celebrated hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. So I think it might be a good idea to stop trying to get rid of the pagan roots of Christmas Day and be willing to say “Yeah, we celebrate the Birth of Christ on the same day that several other pagan cults held celebrations to their own deities.”

    Is it really so bad that Christmas happens around the winter solstice when other religions and belief systems also hold various celebrations?

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Good catch regarding Saturnalia. Saturnalia was typically celebrated from Dec. 17-23, a few days before the winter solstice and the “Dies Natales Solis Invicti” on Dec. 25. My fatigue last night got the best of me. I’ve fixed it now.

  • pearlbaker

    Thanks Nathan, it always helps to be able to be equipped to defend what we believe and to ward off at least some of that (no, make that ALL of that according to Eph 6-16) with which the unbelieving world assails Christendom, and therefore Christ. No matter how we calculate it, though, the enemy and his camp will find a way to discredit what we believe and what we know to be true, that Jesus Christ lives! We learn this in the Word, but we know it by faith, not by calendar or any other means. Nevertheless, the Bible remains historically accurate as well as the inerrant breathed Word of God Himself. Although the wonderful pastors and teachers here on C-Gate are light years beyond me in learning and understanding, here is what I know, regardless of the timing:

    Matthew 1:22-24 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.

    Praise Him from Whom all blessings flow!

    • 072591

      Not to mention fending off accusation from our fellow brethren.
      With all of Mark Driscoll’s considerable faults (some of which disqualify him as pastor), he got one sermon right – “How to Be a Jerk for Jesus”. One of the steps toward jerkdom was to demand a higher standard of holiness than God does.
      My opinion: this desire for that higher standard is the root of the “Christmas is evil and not celebrated by REAL Christians.” Even Charles Spurgeon, who was very strongly opposed to celebrating Christmas, would not call it sin; he told his congregation at the end of one sermon near it that if they could celebrate it with a clear conscience and glorify God, to have a Merry Christmas.

      • Nate_Busenitz

        Charles Spurgeon: “I like Christmas; I wish it came six times a year.”

        Cited from his sermon, “The New Song,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, No. 496, Preached December 28, 1862

  • James Bell

    We do not have to deal with ‘might have beens’ or ‘possibles’… etc– the historical and undeniable truth is that the beloved December celebrations, which we call Christmas, have gone by many names for about 4,000 years.Obtain the pro-holiday book by Dr. Earl W. Count, titled– 4000 years of Christmas: a Gift from the ages. EVEN TODAY, the one word ‘Christmas’ means many different things to many people. So, be happy! Do as you please! HOWEVER, I do wonder what we Christians have AGAINST simply responding to the birth of Christ after the examples found in the New Testament!? What on earth could be wrong with that? ALL SPECULATION is out the window! It matters not what whoever did whatever in 80ad or in 300ad or whatever. THE BIRTH OF CHRIST and the New Testament responses are all about JESUS on the greatest missionary journey of all time– to DEAL THE DEATH BLOW to sin and satan and self…. O… but that is the problem with ‘JUST’ the Birth of Christ and New Testament responses! WE HAVE DIVIDED HEARTS! The natural tendency in the last days is to be LOVERS OF SELF more than lovers of God! (2Timothy 3)– no where is that more clearly seen than every December. A 2010 Southern Baptist LifeWay Research survey about Christmas, by Brooklyn Lowery, concluded, “Americans give Jesus a head nod at Christmas but spend most of the season pleasing their eyes, ears, and taste buds with decorations, music, and meals…” JESUS IS ACTUALLY CORRECT– no one can serve two masters!

    • pearlbaker

      James, your passion and zeal are evident and I praise God for your emphatic expression and defense of the real meaning of Christmas, as you understand it from the Word. However, we need not be concerned that anything at all will ever change the Truth. We must pray continually for deeper understanding for ourselves and for others, and try to exhibit gracious patience toward those who, in their pursuit of Christian liberty, might not seem to us to be as single-minded towards all things Christian as we think is fitting. It is good to ring a warning bell to our brethren, lest their foot should slip, but sometimes we just need to trust that our omniscient Lord is bringing them along at His pace, ourselves heeding the exhortation in Romans 14:13. Be of good courage, God is seated securely on His throne, where He will reign forever!

    • Lyndon Unger

      I’ve skimmed that book.

      It’s from 1948 and written by two career-academic atheists who were writing far out of their respective fields (http://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=5&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CCgQFjAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Ffultonhistory.com%2FNewspapers%252023%2FRome%2520NY%2520Daily%2520Sentinel%2FRome%2520NY%2520Daily%2520Sentinel%25201950%2FRome%2520NY%2520Daily%2520Sentinel%25201950%2520-%25200766.pdf&ei=Hz5-VLKELs-rogTs24GwDQ&usg=AFQjCNF2hNysV-ViyiO2-HTTVb2xmwcFcQ&bvm=bv.80642063,d.cGU).

      Dr. Counts was was the head of the anthropology department at Hamilton College. Dr. Count was concerned with Race (specifically African Americans) and the development of the concept of “race” in the previous 200 years, as well as neuroanthropology (and he was most academically active in the 1940’s-60’s.

      He retired from the academy in 1968 (refer here; http://www.biogeneticstructuralism.com/nnn/winter90.htm), and the information he was working with in 1948 has been…well…slightly supplanted by the historical findings of the last 75 years.

      Not that the book even feigns at attempting to be historically accurate. It’s just a collection of anecdotal evidence and heart warming stories. Note a single footnote or reference of any kind.

      Seeing that Dr. Counts was the head of an academic department at a respected liberal arts college, that’s rather strange indeed. Even on a comment on a blog post, I can’t overcome my own need to document information for the sake of some sort of intellectual credibility. Why would a career academic not provide even a bibliography?

      Also, Dan Wakefield was a co-author. Read this: http://www.danwakefield.com/about.html

      Wakefield wasn’t exactly a lover of Christianity, or an unbiased scholar.

      The new edition of the book was updated by Dr. Count’s widow, a “retired harpist”. I doubt she was any sort of historian either. Just guessing…

      Funny thing is that Nathan is actually a professor of history with an earned doctorate in his field. He also provides sources in his article.

      If you’re going to get worked up, at least get worked up over accurate and reputable information.

      • jimbell_wmbell

        I deem Count’s book as, basically, a secular book…. I mentioned it; but that was in no way the main point of my post. The main point being that we have New Testament documentation of the birth of Christ, those who responded, how they responded, and how the N.T. era church responded— therefore, why not model after them?

        • Lyndon Unger

          Ok. I’ll bite. Lay forth your case. Based on the birth narratives of Jesus, what should we do?

  • Jason

    I always figured the date picked for both Saturnalia and Christmas originate in the agrarian cultures tendancy to place a great deal of significance on seasons and particularly to feasting before weathering winter. Hippolytus’s method, for example, probably sounded a bit less like speculation to a society who’s traditions were heavily based on seasons.

    Ultimately, the way we should view Christmas today is through the lenses of 1 Corinthians 8 (yes, I realize this chapter is about meat!)

    Aside from excessive drunkeness and materialism, most of what people do to celebrate Christmas has no inherent moral issues. Just like the sacrificial meat, traditions are not “tainted” by possibly being considered significant by some pagan, somewhere, at some time.

    If you don’t know any ex-pagans who are going to see you set up a Christmas tree and assume you’re doing it to mimic bringing evergreen matter into your house to worship their old idols you probably don’t need to worry about causing others to stumble either.

    With that in mind I think it’s clear we shouldn’t consider it an outright sin, but there’s still one question. Is the way you celebrate (or not) Christmas profitable and edifying (1 Corinthians 10:23)?

    If someone’s refusal to celebrate Christmas is done with a “bah humbug” attitude they are actually causing harm. If someone spends all their time wrapped up in the gift-giving and Santa Claus traditions they’re also being destructive.

    Personally, I know my kids aren’t going to be oblivious to the festivities of this time of year regardless of what I do. With that in mind, I have to make absolutely certain that I use the opportunity for Christ.

    From pointing out the destructiveness of materialism that leaves so many in debt to spending the holidays in fellowship as a time to reflect on the wonder that God became flesh and dwelt among us, there are plenty of healthy Christian motives to set aside a day to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

  • Johnny

    I’m much more bothered by the “mass” in Christmas. I’d like to see a bumper sticker that says, “Keep the mass out of Christmas”, but that might have people scratching their heads…

  • Lyndon Unger

    *And Nathan lurks, reading the comments…both entertained and annoyed…*

  • Lyndon Unger

    Twas a Tuesday on CrippleGate and Busenitz did write,
    On the birthday of Jesus on THE Christmas night.
    Some readers were pleased and some others enraged,
    But the post Nathan wrote was not really engaged.

    The comment thread busted with praise and alarm
    For some though that his thoughts would cause rational harm.
    Question Saturnalia? We KNOW them’s the roots
    Of yuletide festivities: dates, trees, lights, fruits!

    The assumed and unquestioned hist’ry all but proved,
    That Nathan was lying or his brain, removed…

    …Then I got a long-distance phone call and didn’t finish what would have been an epic poem.

    Sorry all!

    • Heather

      Whoa. Impressive lol

      Merry Christmas 🙂

    • Lyndon wins the internet.

      • Lyndon Unger

        Yay! I’ll give it to Jen as her stocking stuffer! Thanks for helping me with my Christmas shopping Mike! You’re a peach!

  • dennis d

    Hi, nice article. But did you cite the primary sources which claims that the early Church Fathers believed in a date close or exactly at December 25? Also, if the birth happened at that period then we should explain why there were shepherds that night (see Luke 2:8). Bethlehem at this period is in winter season. Also, was Clement and Hippolytus’ position on the birth of Jesus based on fact or was he just speculating? (Speculation even of a church father is not good sources of facts). There are other complications which can arise if we take into account the Jewish festivals and traditions which may take longer to discuss. I think we have to give stronger arguments especially from both the Bible and other first hand sources before we say that this season is not rooted in Paganism.

    • Jason

      He wasn’t using Clement or Hippolytus as proof that Jesus was born on Dec. 25th, but rather that the idea of that date for the birth of Jesus was being kicked around in the church and that it may have been what influenced the choosing of Dec. 25th for Christmas and NOT pagan holidays also celebrated around that time of year.

      For the record, I find both the accounts of how Clement and Hippolytus picked their date to be the definition of sloppy scholarship (as you mentioned). However, they didn’t have to be right to be influencial (in fact, sometimes the most popular people are the most wrong…)

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  • Henry Michaels

    How would you respond to those you make the following argument? The worship of God should include only those elements that are instituted, commanded, or appointed by command or example in Scripture. Making a special day to celebrate Christ’s birthday is not an element of the worship of God that is instituted, commanded, or appointed by command or example in Scripture. The worship of God should not include celebrating Christmas.

    • Jason

      I would point out that our true and proper worship is offering our entire lives to God (Romans 12:1).

      With that in mind, is there a single thing that they do that’s not expressly stated as a command or example of worship in scripture? Than by their own standards they fail to worship properly.

      I’m not even talking about behavior that isn’t profitable or edifying. I’m just talking about right, God glorifying living that isn’t explicitly commanded by scripture.

      • James Coates

        Well said Jason. Awe, the wonders and glories of the new covenant.

        • Jason

          The New Covenant: Perfect freedom to follow God better than a specific list of rules and regulations could ever achieve. Green pasture and minefield all at the same time.

          Praise God for His guidance!

    • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

      I would also encourage those who oppose celebrating Christmas to read Romans 14 in its entirety and to be cautious of judging those who celebrate the birth of our savior.

      As an ex-Jehovah’s Witness who never celebrated Christmas for that very reason, I can now say that Christmas is one of my favorite times of year! Everything about the birth of Christ fills me with wonder and awe and I want to celebrate, reflect and rejoice in that. The fact I get to have a Christmas tree and sing Christmas songs still gets me excited. I also believe my presents should be retroactive…my relatives disagree. 😉

      • Jason

        The best thing for me is hearing hymns playing in shopping malls. I’m not a huge fan of malls, but being winter and having an incredibly active 3 year old it’s nice to have an indoor playground.

        The first time I heard the lyrics “Remember Christ our savior” on the PA I can’t even explain how uplifting it was. I don’t even care if the music was just played “for tradition’s sake”.

        Once a year, the town I live in stops openly fighting against Jesus and at least tolerates Him. Even some people who reject God the entire rest of the year will watch plays and/or listen to songs of how God became man to save us.

    • pearlbaker

      I might be tempted to say “Bah Humbug!” but I believe that line is already taken. From the same book though, “A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us every one.”

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  • No Pews

    Nathan, I am a bible believing follower of Jesus Christ.(no organizational ties here)
    Your a masters seminary teacher right?
    How sad to see and it is more evidence the false modern religious systems of man denominationalism/evangelicalism also cling to what is full of error and lies around Christ-mass. I thought Rev 22:14-15 says practicing lies gets you hell? There is NO doubt that the origins/ways of this holiday are pagan and more important they are NOT taught in God’s Word or practiced by those we are to imitate like Paul. Since when do we follow those who are NOT of the inspired Word?
    God’s Word says to not conform to this world Rom 12:2 and to come out of such things that 2 Cor 6. As for Romans 14… context matters. It is all about the OT ways and liberty to not do them. It is NOT about being like a pagan to suite your flesh! Jer 10 God says dont do what pagans do… yet you all go out and do what pagans do? (nail up trees) Isn’t it about time men who claim God repent / stop doing what was pagan and of the false murderous reformers (today’s religious systems) and get back to the true New Testament church that Jesus ordained? I write about that and the ill’s of the John M. systems at our blog. nopews.blogspot.com
    Please look under the “unbiblical teachers tab” and see the shameful info on John M.
    For God’s glory….. Jim

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  • David

    To quote the third source listed…
    Nor is the Nativity included in the feasts recognized by Irenaeus or Tertullian (On Baptism, XIX), who admonishes Christians not to partake in the Saturnalia, or gift-giving at the New Year or midwinter, or “an idol’s birthday” when “every pomp of the devil is frequented” (On Idolatry, X). “The Saturnalia and New-year’s and Midwinter’s festivals and Matronalia are frequented—presents come and go—New-year’s gifts—games join their noise—banquets join their din!” (XIV). Just as the heathen does not celebrate the Lord’s Day (Sunday) or Pentecost, so Christians should not partake in their festivals; rather, they have a festive day every week whereas pagans celebrate only once a year. “When the world rejoices, let us grieve; and when the world afterward grieves, we shall rejoice” (XIII).

  • Sidon Junior Cottle

    Thanks Nate.
    Is there some primary sources to you can guide me to for this info?

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