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Christmas: The Untold Story
People almost everywhere observe Christmas. But how did Christmas come to be observed? How did the customs and practices associated with Christmas make their way into traditional Christianity's most popular holiday?
Did you know Dec. 25 has a checkered past, a long and contentious history? This should come as no surprise given that Christmas and many of its popular customs and trappings are nowhere found in the Bible.
Our Creator's view of this popular holiday is ignored or not even considered by most people. Yet His perspective should be our main consideration. Let's examine the history of Christmas and compare it with God's Word, rather than our own ideas and experiences, to discover His opinion regarding this almost-universal holiday.
Historians tell us the Christmas celebration came from questionable origins. William Walsh (1854-1919) summarizes the holiday's origins and practices in his book The Story of Santa Klaus: "We remember that the Christmas festival ... is a gradual evolution from times that long antedated the Christian period ... It was overlaid upon heathen festivals, and many of its observances are only adaptations of pagan to Christian ceremonial" (1970, p. 58).
How could pagan practices become part of a major church celebration? What were these "heathen festivals" that lent themselves to Christmas customs over the centuries?
The ancient origins of Christmas customs
During the second century B.C., the Greeks practiced rites to honor their god Dionysus (also called Bacchus). The Latin name for this celebration was Bacchanalia. It spread from the Greeks to Rome, center of the Roman Empire.
"It was on or about December 21st that the ancient Greeks celebrated what are known to us as the Bacchanalia or festivities in honor of Bacchus, the god of wine. In these festivities the people gave themselves up to songs, dances and other revels which frquently [sic] passed the limits of decency and order" (Walsh, p. 65).
Because of the nocturnal orgies associated with this festival, the Roman senate suppressed its observance in 186 B.C. It took the senators several years to completely accomplish this goal because of the holiday's popularity.
Suppressing a holiday was unusual for the Romans since they later became a melting pot of many types of gods and worship. Just as the Romans assimilated culture, art and customs from the peoples absorbed into their empire, they likewise adopted those peoples' religious practices.
In addition to the Bacchanalia, the Romans celebrated another holiday, the Saturnalia, held "in honor of Saturn, the god of time, [which] began on December 17th and continued for seven days. These also often ended in riot and disorder. Hence the words Bacchanalia and Saturnalia acquired an evil reputation in later times" (Walsh, p. 65).
The reason for the Saturnalia's disrepute is revealing. In pagan mythology Saturn was an "ancient agricultural god-king who ate his own children presumably to avoid regicide [his own murder while king]. And Saturn was parallel with a Carthaginian Baal, whose brazen horned effigy contained a furnace into which children were sacrificially fed" (William Sansom, A Book of Christmas, 1968, p. 44).
Notice the customs surrounding the Saturnalia: "All businesses were closed except those that provided food or revelry. Slaves were made equal to masters or even set over them. Gambling, drinking, and feasting were encouraged. People exchanged gifts, called strenae, from the vegetation goddess Strenia, whom it was important to honor at midwinter ... Men dressed as women or in the hides of animals and caroused in the streets. Candles and lamps were used to frighten the spirits of darkness, which were [considered] powerful at this time of year. At its most decadent and barbaric, Saturnalia may have been the excuse among Roman soldiers in the East for the human sacrifice of the king of the revels" (Gerard and Patricia Del Re, The Christmas Almanac, 1979, p. 16).
Both of these ancient holidays were observed around the winter solstice —the day of the year with the shortest period of daylight. "From the Romans also came another Christmas fundamental: the date, December 25. When the Julian calendar was proclaimed in 46 C.E. [A.D.], it set into law a practice that was already common: dating the winter solstice as December 25. Later reforms of the calendar would cause the astronomical solstice to migrate to December 21, but the older date's irresistible resonance would remain" (Tom Flynn, The Trouble With Christmas, 1993, p. 42).
Why was this date significant? "The time of the winter solstice has always been an important season in the mythology of all peoples. The sun, the giver of life, is at its lowest ebb. It is [the] shortest daylight of the year; the promise of spring is buried in cold and snow. It is the time when the forces of chaos that stand against the return of light and life must once again be defeated by the gods. At the low point of the solstice, the people must help the gods through imitative magic and religious ceremonies. The sun begins to return in triumph. The days lengthen and, though winter remains, spring is once again conceivable. For all people, it is a time of great festivity" (Gerard and Patricia Del Re, p. 15).
During the days of the apostles in the first century, the early Christians had no knowledge of Christmas as we know it. But, as a part of the Roman Empire, they may have noted the Roman observance of the Saturnalia while they kept their customary "feasts of the Lord" (listed in Leviticus 23).
The Encyclopaedia Britannica tells us: "The sanctity of special times was an idea absent from the minds of the first Christians ... [who] continued to observe the Jewish festivals, though in a new spirit, as commemorations of events which those festivals had foreshadowed" (11th edition, Vol. VIII, p. 828, "Easter").
Over the following centuries, new, humanly devised observances such as Christmas and Easter were gradually introduced into traditional Christianity. History shows that these new days were forcibly promoted while the feast days of the apostolic times were systematically rejected. "Christmas, the [purported] festival of the birth of Jesus Christ, was established in connection with a fading of the expectation of Christ's imminent return" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Macropaedia, Vol. IV, p. 499, "Christianity").
The message of Jesus Christ and the apostles —"the gospel of the kingdom of God" (Mark 1:14-15) —was soon lost. The Christmas celebration shifted Christianity's focus away from Christ's promised return to His birth. But is this what the Bible asks Christians to do?
How the Christmas date was set
Gerard and Patricia Del Re explain the evolution of Dec. 25 becoming an official Roman celebration:
"Saturnalia and the kalends [new moon] were the celebrations most familiar to early Christians, December 17-24 and January 1-3, but the tradition of celebrating December 25 as Christ's birthday came to the Romans from Persia. Mithra, the Persian god of light and sacred contracts, was born out of a rock on December 25. Rome was famous for its flirtations with strange gods and cults, and in the third century  the unchristian emperor Aurelian established the festival of Dies Invicti Solis, the Day of the Invincible Sun, on December 25.
"Mithra was an embodiment of the sun, so this period of its rebirth was a major day in Mithraism, which had become Rome's latest official religion with the patronage of Aurelian. It is believed that the emperor Constantine adhered to Mithraism up to the time of his conversion to Christianity. He was probably instrumental in seeing that the major feast of his old religion was carried over to his new faith" (The Christmas Almanac, 1979, p. 17).
Although it is difficult to determine the first time anyone celebrated Dec. 25 as Christmas, historians are in general agreement that it was sometime during the fourth century.
This is an amazingly late date. Christmas was not observed in Rome, the capital of the empire, until about 300 years after Christ's death. Its origins cannot be traced back to either the teachings or practices of the earliest Christians. The introduction of Christmas represented a significant departure from "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3).
European influences on Christmas customs
Although Christmas had been officially established in Rome by the fourth century, another pagan celebration later greatly influenced the many Christmas customs practiced today. That festival was the Teutonic feast of the Twelve Nights, celebrated from Dec. 25 to Jan. 6. This festival was based on the supposed mythological warfare between the forces of nature —specifically winter (called the ice giant) which signified death, vs. the sun god, representing life. The winter solstice marked the turning point: Up until then the ice giant was at his zenith of power; after that the sun god began to prevail.
"As Christianity spread to northern Europe, it met with the observance of another pagan festival held in December in honour of the sun. This time it was the Yule-feast of the Norsemen, which lasted for twelve days. During this time log-fires were burnt to assist the revival of the sun. Shrines and other sacred places were decorated with such greenery as holly, ivy, and bay, and it was an occasion for feasting and drinking.
"Equally old was the practice of the Druids, the caste of priests among the Celts of ancient France, Britain and Ireland, to decorate their temples with mistletoe, the fruit of the oak-tree which they considered sacred. Among the German tribes the oak-tree was sacred to Odin, their god of war, and they sacrificed to it until St Boniface, in the eighth century, persuaded them to exchange it for the Christmas tree, a young fir-tree adorned in honour of the Christ child ... It was the German immigrants who took the custom to America" (L.W. Cowie and John Selwyn Gummer, The Christian Calendar, 1974, p.22).
Instead of worshiping the sun god, converts were told to worship the Son of God. The focus of the holiday subtly changed, but the traditional pagan customs and practices remained fundamentally unchanged. Old religious customs involving holly, ivy, mistletoe and evergreen trees were merely dressed up in Christian attire. We should keep in mind that Jesus Christ warns us to beware of things that masquerade as something they are not (Matthew 7:15).
The roots of modern customs
Many of the other trappings of Christmas are merely carryovers from ancient celebrations.
Santa Claus comes from Saint Nicholas, the "saint whose festival was celebrated in December and the one who in other respects was most nearly in accord with the dim traditions of Saturn as the hero of the Saturnalia" (Walsh, p. 70).
"On the Roman New Year (January 1), houses were decorated with greenery and lights, and gifts were given to children and the poor. To these observances were added the German and Celtic Yule rites ... Food and good fellowship, the Yule log and Yule cakes, greenery and fir trees, gifts and greetings all commemorated different aspects of this festive season. Fires and lights, symbols of warmth and lasting life, have always been associated with the winter festival, both pagan and Christian" (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Micropaedia, Vol. II, p. 903, "Christmas").
"In midwinter, the idea of rebirth and fertility was tremendously important. In the snows of winter, the evergreen was a symbol of the life that would return in the spring, so evergreens were used for decoration ... Light was important in dispelling the growing darkness of the solstice, so a Yule log was lighted with the remains of the previous year's log ... As many customs lost their religious reasons for being, they passed into the realm of superstition, becoming good luck traditions and eventually merely customs without rationale. Thus the mistletoe was no longer worshiped but became eventually an excuse for rather nonreligious activities" (Gerard and Patricia Del Re, p. 18).
"Christmas gifts themselves remind us of the presents that were exchanged in Rome during the Saturnalia. In Rome, it might be added, the presents usually took the form of wax tapers and dolls, —the latter being in their turn a survival of the human sacrifices once offered to Saturn. It is a queer thought that in our Christmas presents we are preserving under another form one of the most savage customs of our barbarian ancestors!" (Walsh, p. 67).
When we see these customs perpetuated today in Christmas observance, we can have no doubt of this holiday's origin. Christmas is a diverse collection of pagan forms of worship overlaid with a veneer of Christianity.
Accommodating a pagan populace
How, we should ask, did these pagan customs become a widely accepted part of Christianity? William Walsh describes how and why unchristian religious rites and practices were assimilated into the Christmas celebration:
"This was no mere accident. It was a necessary measure at a time when the new religion [Christianity] was forcing itself upon a deeply superstitious people. In order to reconcile fresh converts to the new faith, and to make the breaking of old ties as painless as possible, these relics of paganism were retained under modified forms ...
"Thus we find that when Pope Gregory [540-604] sent Saint Augustine as a missionary to convert Anglo-Saxon England he directed that so far as possible the saint should accommodate the new and strange Christian rites to the heathen ones with which the natives had been familiar from their birth.
"For example, he advised Saint Augustine to allow his converts on certain festivals to eat and kill a great number of oxen to the glory of God the Father, as formerly they had done this in honor of [their gods] ...
On the very Christmas after his arrival in England Saint Augustine baptized many thousands of converts and permitted their usual December celebration under the new name and with the new meaning" (Walsh, p. 61).
Gregory permitted such importation of pagan religious practices on the grounds that when dealing with "obdurate minds it is impossible to cut off everything at once" (William Sansom, A Book of Christmas, p. 30).
Tragically, Christianity never accomplished the task of cutting off everything pagan. According to Owen Chadwick, former professor of history at Cambridge University, the Romans "kept the winter solstice with a feast of drunkenness and riot. The Christians thought that they could bring a better meaning into that feast. They tried to persuade their flocks not to drink or eat too much, and to keep the feast more austerely —but without success..." (A History of Christianity, 1995, p. 24).
Christmas confusion and contention
In the beginning, Christians were opposed to Christmas. Some of the earliest controversy erupted over whether Jesus' birthday should be celebrated at all.
"As early as A.D. 245, the Church father Origen was proclaiming it heathenish to celebrate Christ's birthday as if He were merely a temporal ruler when His spiritual nature should be the main concern. This view was echoed throughout the centuries, but found strong, widespread advocacy only with the rise of Protestantism. To these serious-minded, sober clerics, the celebration of Christmas flew in the face of all they believed. Drunken revelry on Christmas! The day was not even known to be Christ's birthday. It was merely an excuse to continue the customs of pagan Saturnalia" (Gerard and Patricia Del Re, p. 20).
Encyclopaedia Britannica adds: "The Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Epiphanius, contended that Christmas was a copy of a pagan celebration" (15th edition, Macropaedia, Vol. IV, p. 499, "Christianity").
The decision to celebrate Christ's birth on Dec. 25 was far from universally accepted. "Christians of Armenia and Syria accused the Christians of Rome of sun worship for celebrating Christmas on December 25 ... Pope Leo the Great in the fifth century tried to remove certain practices at Christmas which he considered in no way different from sun worship" (Robert Myers, Celebrations: The Complete Book of American Holidays, 1972, p. 310).
Indeed, of all times of the year suggested as the birth of Christ, Dec. 25 could not have been the date.
"To the early Christians the idea of celebrating the birthday of a religious figure would have seemed at best peculiar, at worst blasphemous. Being born into this world was nothing to celebrate. What mattered was leaving this world and entering the next in a condition pleasing to God.
"When early Christians associated a feast day with a specific person, such as a bishop or martyr, it was usually the date of the person's death ... If you wanted to search the New Testament world for peoples who attached significance to birthdays, your search would quickly narrow to pagans. The Romans celebrated the birthdays of the Caesars, and most unchristian Mediterranean religions attached importance to the natal feasts of a pantheon of supernatural figures.
"If Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, and his purpose in coming was anything like what is supposed, then in celebrating his birthday each year Christians do violence, not honor, to his memory. For in celebrating a birthday at all, we sustain exactly the kind of tradition his coming is thought to have been designed to cast down" (Tom Flynn, The Trouble With Christmas, 1993, p. 42).
Christmas: a banned celebration
In England "the Protestants found their own quieter ways of celebrating, in calm and meditation," while "the strict Puritans refused to celebrate at all, saying that no celebration should be more important than the Sabbath. The Pilgrims in Massachusetts made a point of working on Christmas as on any other day.
"On June 3, 1647, Parliament established punishments for observing Christmas and certain other holidays. This policy was reaffirmed in 1652 ..." (Gerard and Patricia Del Re, p. 20).
Even colonial America considered Christmas more of a raucous revelry than a religious occasion. "So tarnished, in fact, was its reputation in colonial America that celebrating Christmas was banned in Puritan New England, where the noted minister Cotton Mather described yuletide merrymaking as 'an affront unto the grace of God'" (Joseph L. Sheler, U.S. News & World Report, "In Search of Christmas," Dec. 23, 1996, p. 56).
The reason Christmas has survived and grown into such a popular holiday —it is observed by 96 percent of Americans and almost all nations, even atheistic ones (Sheler, p. 56) —is because of economic factors.
We cannot escape that Christmas is rooted in ancient customs and religious practices that had nothing to do with Christianity and the Bible. Tom Flynn summarizes the issue: "An enormous number of traditions we now associate with Christmas have their roots in pre-Christian pagan religious traditions. Some of these have social, sexual, or cosmological connotations that might lead educated, culturally sensitive moderns to discard the traditions once they have understood their roots more clearly" (Flynn, p. 19).
Originally envisioned as a way to ease converts' transition from heathen worship to Christianity, the holiday's observance in more recent years has been driven by economic forces. Encyclopaedia Britannica observes that the traditional Christian holidays have "undergone a process of striking desacralization and —especially Christmas —commercialization. The Christological foundation of Christmas was replaced by the myth of Santa Claus" (15th edition, Macropaedia, Vol. IV, p. 499, "Christianity").
Even with its failings, Christmas remains an entrenched tradition. Although some recognize the intrinsic paganism of the holiday, they believe they are free to establish their own days of worship. Others cling to the naïve and biblically insupportable belief that paganism's most popular celebrations have been won over by Christianity and therefore are acceptable to God.
Human reasoning aside, we need to consider God's opinion about such celebrations. We need to look into God's Word to see how He views mixing pagan practices and customs with worship of Him. But first let us examine another popular religious holiday, Easter.
©2002 United Church of God, an International Association