Most of the world regards Christmas as a Christian holiday based on the birth of Jesus Christ. But a look at the holiday’s origins shows that it is anything but Christian. And a look at its celebration today shows the same. Will you celebrate Christmas this year?
During Western European expansion into the rest of the world, Christian leaders adapted pagan traditions into acceptable practices by replacing many elements with Christian symbols and practices. One of the best known instances of this is the revision of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, celebrating the birth of the sun, into a Christian celebration of the birth of the son of God, Jesus Christ. Many Christian beliefs and pagan traditions have been interwoven in what we now known as the Christmas season.
Historical evidence in the Bible account of Christ’s birth and other sources tells us that Christ was not actually born in December, but rather in October. This determination can be based on weather clues in the Gospels that indicate that the shepherds were sleeping with their flocks in the fields at night at the time of Jesus’ birth, something that the cold rainy season that falls in December would have made impossible.
Additional evidence comes from known the date of Jesus’ death and his age at his death. He was 33 and a half when he died on Nisan 15 on the Jewish calendar, which was April 3 in 2007 and will be April 20 in 2008. Counting backwards or forwards six months (because he was 33 and a HALF) puts us in October. So we know that Jesus was born in October, not December. Celebrating his birth on December 25 was a way to Christianize pagan traditions.
Interestingly, there is no command in the Bible that Jesus’ birth be celebrated or observed in any way. Its exact date is not even recorded, despite the fact that many other dates are preserved and discussed repeatedly in the Bible. And in fact, the scriptures seem to discourage any birthday celebrations, saying that the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth (Ecclesiastes 7:1) and offering only 2 examples of birthdays in the Bible, in which horrific murders took place (Genesis 40:20-23, Matthew 14:6-13) including that of John the Baptizer. Jesus was nearby during Herod’s birthday celebration, but the scriptures make it clear that he did not attend.
However, Jesus himself commands that his death be commemorated at the last supper, which occurred on Passover and was to take its place (Matthew 26).
The traditional symbol of Christmas is Santa Claus (also known as St. Nicholas, Pere Noel, Father Christmas, and many other titles around the world). The Santa we know today only really became firmly established in the American Christmas tradition in the early 1900s, though he made appearances as early as the 1800s.
Refined over time into the jolly, fat, red-suited bearded man we now know, Santa Claus is believed to be based in part on a real person, Catholic Bishop Nicholas, or St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas apparently delivered gifts to needy children and was supported by food (cookies, nuts, fruit, etc.) left out by parents and caregivers as he traveled the countryside.
Another theory of the origin of Santa Claus, and one perhaps better supported by the evidence, is that he is derived from either or both the Norse gods Odin/Woden or Thor. Thor is a particularly good match as the god of Yule (or Christmas time, hence the Yule log), who is charactized by a fat man with a white beard, with red as his signature color, a home in the northernmost parts of the world, a flying chariot drawn by goats, and association with chimneys and fireplaces. He was also accompanied by elves.
Other theories associated Santa clearly with Satan the Devil, pointing out that St. Nick’s name is too closely associated with the devil’s common name “Old Nick” in British and American vernacular, and various forms of “Nick” in multiple languages. The lengthy article SantaClaus: The Great Impostor” goes into great detail with additional information on the origins of Santa Claus.
The Christmas Tree
Evergreen trees have long been a part of religious traditions, but prior to the association of the pine or fir tree with Christmas, these uses have been almost exclusively pagan. For instance, the druids and others during the Middle Ages regarded holly and mistletoe as signs of eternal life, and used pine boughs to ward off evil spirits, ghosts, and witches. Ancient Egyptians worshiped evergreens, and evergreen branches were a part of the Roman Saturnalia festival and Norse traditions surrounding Balder, god of the sun. Various pagan religions including Greek, Roman, Norse, and Celtic groups, were known to decorate evergreen trees during festivals to certain gods, and to give evergreen boughs to others as a symbol of luck.
How the Christmas tree became part of Christian tradition is debated, but two popular explanations involve St. Boniface and Martin Luther. Boniface is reported to have cut down an oak tree during a druid ritual, and a small evergreen tree sprung up from its stump and became a symbol of Christianity. Martin Luther allegedly cut down a fir tree, brought it into his home, and decorated it with small candles, starting the tradition. In Germany, the tradition dates back to the 16th century, when trees were cut down, brought inside, and decorated with fruit to represent the Tree of Paradise during the celebration of Adam and Eve on December 24.
Christmas trees were long resisted as being pagan, but beginning in the mid-1800s gained fairly broad acceptance in America and worldwide.
Exchanging gifts was a major part of the Roman Saturnalia festival, and continued after it was converted into Christmas. Justification for maintaining the practice of annual gift giving at Christmastime, despite the Bible’s frequent admonishments against materialism, comes from the gifts the Magi brought to the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:10-11). In contrast, the Magi’s gifts were for Jesus and to honor god, but today’s holiday gift giving focuses on gifts to friends and family, which is the type of gift giving practiced during Saturnalia.
Bringing It All Together
Although Christmas is regarded as a Christian holiday, exploring its origins makes it clear that Christmas has little if anything to do with Christianity. It is supposed to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but does so on a date unrelated to his birth, which he never commanded be celebrated, and incorporates thousands of years of pagan traditions. The holiday focuses on and encourages human traditions, not religious practices, and promotes consumerism through its practice of excessive gift giving. Further, Christmas’ central symbol, Santa Claus, whose existence and yearly nocturnal visits are a lie, is closely aligned with pagan gods.
The Bible teaches that God should be worshiped in spirit and truth (John 4:23,24), not through man’s traditions and falsehoods. There is no record in the Bible of Christmas celebrations, including annual observance of Jesus’ birth, Christmas trees, Santa Claus, or ritualistic exchange of presents. Further, the Bible teaches that we should worship and pray to God alone for what we need and want, not to a beneficent holiday gift giver who rewards the nice and overlooks the naughty. In Matthew 4:10, Jesus chastises Satan for offering all of the kingdoms of the world in exchange for a single act of worship, saying, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”
Whether you are a devout Christian or someone who regards Christmas as a nonreligious tradition, the origins of the holiday and what its practice really means should play an important role in the decision-making process as to whether you should celebrate it. Mark 7:7-8 says that it’s in vain when people worship God with the teachings of men as their doctrine and neglect the commandment of God. Should these traditions be part of your life?Tags: Birth, Christian, Christmas, christmas tree, gifts, History, holiday, Jesus Christ, origin, pagan, Santa