Steven Curry ruminates on the pagan origin and present meaning of Christmas
I had quite a shock when I first met a Christian who didn’t celebrate Christmas. ‘Missed you at the carol service!’ I said cheerily to a man I regarded as a spiritually-minded Christian. He looked at me gravely, hesitated and then replied, ‘I don’t observe Christmas – the Puritans abolished it, you know!’
I was flabbergasted. I had been a Christian long enough to know that the Puritans were not the killjoy extremists that some people think. They were in fact a generation of godly people who took the Bible seriously. Their deep spirituality makes many modern Christians look shallow in comparison.
‘They banned Christmas?’ I muttered incredulously. ‘Yes’, he answered, ‘because Christmas was actually a pagan festival taken over by the church in the fourth century A.D.’.
I must confess my head was reeling. Was it possible that something I enjoyed so much, and which had taken on a new significance since I myself became a Christian, could actually be anti-Christian?
When I began to examine the evidence I discovered that what he said was true. Not only is 25 December never mentioned in the Bible but nowhere does the Bible command us to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
In fact, since it tells us that shepherds were in the fields watching their flocks, it is unlikely that the birth even took place in winter. Historically, the first mention of 25 December being used to commemorate the birth of Christ is in A.D. 336.
The date seems to have been chosen to coincide with a pagan Roman festival called ‘Saturnalia’. It celebrated the ‘birthday’ of the unconquered sun – which at the winter solstice begins to win ascendancy over the night. Many of our Christmas customs have their origin in that pagan celebration.
Feasting, parades, special music, gift-giving, lighted candles and tree decorations were all part of Saturnalia. Many of the early Christians opposed Emperor Constantine when, rather than abolishing this pagan feast, he adopted it and made it an occasion to celebrate Christ’s birth.
A special day
Because of this, John Knox (who led the sixteenth-century Reformation in Scotland) rejected Christmas altogether. Again, during the seventeenth-century in England it was literally illegal to cook plum pudding or mince pies for the holidays!
So why bother about Christmas at all? Should Christians ignore it? My answer is ‘no’. Let me explain.
First of all, we must understand that the Bible gives us a great deal of freedom when it comes to observing special days. The apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, ‘One man considers one day more sacred than another, another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord’ (Romans 14:5-6).
It is also interesting that in John’s Gospel chapter 10, Jesus himself attended the festival of lights (The Feast of Hanukah) – a celebration dating from 164 B.C. and not authorised by the Hebrew Scriptures. Nevertheless, Jesus not only went to the Feast but used the opportunity to reveal his identity and declare his deity.
So although the Bible doesn’t tell us to observe Christmas it can’t be wrong, can it, to celebrate an event so momentous as the incarnation of Christ – and do so on a day that has been providentially provided for us?
Calvin and Christmas
Most people caricature Calvinists as killjoys along with the Puritans. But what did the great Reformer himself say about Christmas? Although he was appalled at some of the abuses that attached themselves to Christmas (that at least sounds up to date!), John Calvin nevertheless called for a ‘moderate course of keeping Christ’s birthday’.
In Geneva he preached about Christ’s nativity on the Sunday before Christmas and even celebrated Communion on Christmas day.
Athanasius (A.D. 296-373) was an early Church Father who was alive when 25 December was first adopted to mark the birth of Christ. This great proponent of the deity of Christ positively encouraged the celebration of Christmas.
He reasoned that the day helped to focus people’s minds on the divine nature of the Lord Jesus Christ. He may have a point! It is significant that those cults who deny that Jesus Christ was God in human flesh are also the most vociferous in their opposition to Christmas.
What, then? I have to vote with Calvin and Athanasius rather than my friend who rejects Christmas. When I was a child I loved everything about Christmas. To me the trees and the tinsel, the turkey and the trifle, the toys and the television – all combined to make it an almost magical time of year.
But when, later, I became a Christian, I anticipated celebrating Christmas in a deeper and more meaningful way. For the first time in my life I attended church on Christmas day. I was spellbound by the singing, the readings and the sermon – because they all focused my attention on the miracle of the incarnation.
Now ‘born again’ spiritually, I sang those carols for the first time with understanding. I had come to appreciate something of the spiritual significance of Christmas and I loved it!
A good thing
When I weigh up all this evidence I come to the conclusion that Christmas is actually a good thing. As long as we remember that the date is arbitrary, and that Christmas is not about trees, tinsel and tomfoolery, we won’t go wrong.
Nor is Christmas primarily about angels, shepherds and wise men – though these are all mentioned in the New Testament story. The crucial fact is that some 2,000 years ago God invaded human history to pay the price of salvation for sinners like ourselves – and deliver them from the penalty and power of their sin.
In spite of its pagan origin, Christmas hasbeen taken over as a time when we can reflect on the miracle of the incarnation when God became man. We need to strip away the trappings and use Christmas to reflect on and proclaim the greatest message in the world: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15).
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with us to dwell,
Jesus our Immanuel.
Mild, he lays his glory by,
Born that we no more may die;
Born to raise us from the earth,
Born to give us second birth.