Pagan Festival or Christian Holiday?

Was Jesus born on December 25? Probably not. The Bible doesn’t specify a date or even a month, but what little evidence we have points to a time for Jesus’ birth sometime in the fall, not the winter.

Nonetheless, Christians have commemorated Jesus’ birth on December 25 for well over 1,000 years. The first recorded “Feast of the Nativity” on December 25 was held in Rome in AD 336. Church leaders probably didn’t select that date randomly, since it was already a major celebration day throughout the Rom­­an Empire. Specifically, the 25th of December was the date of a pagan festival honoring the “birth” of the sun right after the winter solstice. Several of the traditions we associate with Christmas are actually carry-overs from that original pagan festival—evergreen decorations, lights on a tree, and even gifts of fruitcake. Gradually, the pagan, cultural significance of the date changed, and the new, Christian tradition caught on; and in AD 440 the church officially declared December 25 as a Holy Day (i.e., “holiday”) for its annual Christ Mass (i.e., “Christmas”).

Should this bother us? Cause us to resist Christmas? Avoid seasonal traditions like lights and evergreen trees? After all, the pagan roots of our Christmas traditions are pretty hard to deny.

No, it shouldn’t bother us at all. For one thing, people don’t make these pagan associations anymore. Virtually everyone—whether they believe in Jesus or not—recognizes the special significance Christians attach to the Christmas season. Traditional carols, nativity scenes, and the Christmas story all point explicitly to the real Reason for the season. Even the shortened word “Xmas” is a nod to Jesus Christ, since the Greek letter X (chi) is the first letter in the title “Christ” and came to be an early Christian symbol for Jesus.

Even more to the point, Christians shouldn’t be any more concerned about the pagan origins of Christmas than we are about the pagan origins of our own lives! It’s called “redemption,” and God does it all the time. He buys back something that was ruled and ruined by sin, and He makes it brand new. He takes random dates and evergreen bows and lights on trees and fruitcake—along with ruined sinners like you and me—and infuses them with a whole new identity and redeems them for His own new purposes. Aren’t you glad He does?