As we immerse ourselves in the holiday season and get into the full swing of the Christmas season, I’ve heard people accuse this celebration of having origins in paganism. Yes that’s right paganism. I’m talking about the good old garden-variety orgy and sacrifices paganism.
If you don’t know your church history you will be taken aback. When you find out that this holiday that we have known as the celebration of the birth of Jesus is rooted in ancient Roman fertility rites it may throw you for a second.
This same holiday that has inspired so many songs and beautiful movies was also inspiration for people to release their inner lusts. Yes Christmas has pagan roots, but that isn’t a reason to drop it just yet. I will get into the reasons for that but first let’s start with a little history just in case you are not convinced of its pagan origins.
Christmas was created as a holiday that coincided with the pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia, a week-long festival that involved sexual license and human sacrifice that revolved around the Winter Solstice and the pagan god Saturn. Early Christians succeeded in converting large numbers of pagans by allowing them to continue to practice Saturnalia as “Christmas.”
In fact no one knows the actual date when Jesus was born. The date of December 25th was chosen to coincide with the Winter Solstice in which the sun was reborn. This seemed to be a likely date for the “Sun of Righteousness” (Malachi 4:2).
So yes Christmas does have some pagan origins and many of the things we do to celebrate Christmas (Christmas trees, mistletoe, gift giving) are leftovers from the older pagan holiday.
But it would not be fair or factual to declare that it’s a complete pagan holiday. It is a Christian holiday with some practices that contain pagan roots.
Whether we should celebrate or not celebrate Christmas is an issue of conscience. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans regarding holy days:
In the same way, some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable. Those who worship the Lord on a special day do it to honor him. Those who eat any kind of food do so to honor the Lord, since they give thanks to God before eating. And those who refuse to eat certain foods also want to please the Lord and give thanks to God.. For we don’t live for ourselves or die for ourselves. If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. Christ died and rose again for this very purpose—to be Lord both of the living and of the dead. (Romans 14:5-8)
In other words it’s not about the origins of the day but whether you can give honor to God with a clear conscience by celebrating that day. For most people, Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth and the arrival of hope in the world, not a pagan festival.
This is the way they have grown up and it does not offend their conscience because they partake in festivities in honor of Christ’s birth and not to the Roman god Saturn or to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun.
Others may have a hard time with it due to knowledge of the origins of Christmas. This is their prerogative. The key thing is whether it will bring glory to God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
And that brings me to another reason we shouldn’t drop the celebration of Christmas and condemn those who do. Christmas is for pagans because Jesus is for pagans. What do I mean by that?
I think the story of the three wise men illustrates my point. The three wise men from the east were unchurched “pagans”. They weren’t schooled in the rabbinical schools at Jerusalem. They weren’t raised as children to observe the Mosaic law.
They were pagan astrologers and all they had was a star. But what that star led them to changed their lives.
Christmas is for pagans because everyone needs Jesus. Today we are always in danger of being inordinately focused on our gifts and presents. While we are decking our halls and making our lists we may be ignoring those who need to find Jesus.
If this season of toys and wrapping paper and office parties can be used as a springboard to talk about the greatest gift God has given the world then let’s keep celebrating. We must figure out ways to turn it away from the consumer-driven season it has become and make it more like the star that attracted the wise men to Bethlehem.
Let’s focus on Christmas being a tool to inspire people to worship the God of the universe. This is what the world needed back then and this is what the world still needs now.