Does Christmas Pass the “Smell Test” for Paganism?
There is no evidence whatsoever that Christmas was or is, by some outlandish stretch of the imagination, a pagan holiday, or a semi-pagan holiday, or that it doesn’t pass the “smell test” for paganism.
Around this time of year, various articles slither through the internet with ominous titles like “The Pagan Roots of Christmas” and “December 25 Was a Pagan Holiday.” Even though such accusations are historically inaccurate, the sheer volume of them is sometimes enough to disturb the consciences of believers.
So, here are a few reflections and clarifications that—I hope—will answer some questions and set the minds of Christians at ease.
Days Don’t Get Leprosy
Every day in the calendar belongs to the Creator of time. On the first six days the Lord formed different parts of creation, then rested on the seventh day. Therefore, every day we find godly reasons to give thanks to him for his gifts. Every day is good because every day God is giving good and sacred gifts to us—and this includes the 25th of December.
Of course, throughout history, non-Christians of every stripe have chosen certain days, weeks, and even months for their religious celebrations. So what? What difference does that make? Their usurpation of God’s gift of time in no way smears a kind of disease on certain days, somehow rendering them unfit for godly use. Days don’t get leprosy.
Think about it: if we knew every detail of world history, odds are we would discover that every calendrical day, from January 1 to December 31, has been claimed by some religion, at some time, as a “holy day.” Are we, therefore, simply to roll over and surrender the calendar because every day has supposedly been tainted? Of course not. It doesn’t matter if December 25 was or was not religiously special to unbelievers of any time or place. Pagan practices have absolutely no veto power over the church’s calendar.
We are free in Christ, liberated to celebrate his conception, birth, life, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension when we choose to do so. Time, and the calendar, are God’s gifts to us.
Does December 25 Pass the “Smell Test” for Ancient Roman Paganism?
Why did the church, in her freedom, eventually choose December 25 as the day on which to celebrate Christ’s nativity? There are several plausible theories for this. But, as we’ll see, there is no clear, historically indisputable answer.
Did they do so to combat the pagan celebration of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus), associated with the emperor Aurelian (270-275) and the winter solstice? Maybe so. Did they choose December 25 because, in Rome, the rather R-rated feast of Saturnalia was celebrated from December 17-23, and the Christians wanted a sober and sacred alternative to it on the 25th? Perhaps. Or did they choose December 25 because a Christian named Sextus Julius Africanus (b. 160) had calculated that March 25 was the day Jesus was conceived—and thus, by the simple addition of nine more months, we arrive at the 25th of December as his birthday? Again, maybe so. Or, did the church choose December 25 because, in accordance with some Jewish traditions, it was believed that great prophets died on the same calendar day they were conceived? And since some calculated that the Passover-related death of Jesus happened on March 25 (and thus his conception, too), his birthday must have been nine months later. Once more, it’s always possible. Or—here’s an idea—did the church choose December 25 for several of these reasons? That seems perfectly reasonable as well.
The very minimum we can say is that it’s possible that December 25 was chosen as a counter-celebration to certain pagan practices. Thus, for instance, because the sun was venerated by Romans around the winter solstice, the church might have celebrated the birth of “Sun of Righteousness, who comes with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2) around this same time as a Gloria to God and a calendrical slap in the face to paganism. If that was the reason (and, again, this is far from certain), then let me be first in line to give a hearty high-five to those early Christians for their bold confession of the truth in the face of the lie.
But in the end, we just don’t know. We have no indisputable, historical evidence for precisely why December 25 was chosen. My best guess is that it was for several reasons. What we do know is this: Christmas was not a “baptized” pagan holiday. There is no evidence whatsoever that Christmas was or is, by some outlandish stretch of the imagination, a pagan holiday, or a semi-pagan holiday, or that it doesn’t pass the “smell test” for paganism.
Who’s Afraid of a Few Traditions?
Finally, the flimsiest objections to Christmas revolve around the supposed pagan roots of giving gifts, having Christmas trees, and other traditions associated with the Nativity celebration.
First, bear in mind that trees have had religious overtones in just about every faith tradition under the sun, from time immemorial. But so have rocks, houses, altars, songs, meals, water, etc. Because pagan Greeks and Romans had altars for their sacrifices, are we then to remove all altars from our churches? Because Babylonians had songs and instruments for their idolatrous worship (e.g., Daniel 3:15), are we to ban hymns in our churches? Because the water of the Nile was sacred to Egyptians, are we to make sure no hint of that liquid dampens our Christian worship? Of course not. No one entertains such crazy notions. This is such a truism that we have a handy Latin phrase for it: abusus non tollit usum, meaning “misuse of something is no argument against its proper use.”
The same logic applies to Christmas trees. The misuse of trees for idolatry is no argument against their proper use in Christian worship. Moreover, remember that trees have been central to the biblical story from the Edenic days of the Tree of Life all the way to the tree of the cross. And, in the Orthodox east, the tree has long been iconic of Christmastime, well before any supposed pagan, Germanic influence. As far as gifts go, what could be more appropriate at Christmas than the exchanging presents? In his Incarnation, Christ gives us the gift of himself, wrapped in our own flesh and blood. The Magi bring the Messiah presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And we, in imitation and celebration, exchange gifts one with another. There is hardly a more God-like action than giving gifts.
So, who’s afraid of a few pious and joyful traditions? Not those who are free in Christ. We will not surrender our liberty to celebrate the birth of Jesus in traditional ways just because some of what we do has been replicated in other religions.
A Final Thought: Smells Like Jesus
For centuries now, December 25 has been the day on which the church celebrates the birth of the Son of God from the Virgin Mary. God himself took on our bones, blood, skin, hair, heart, soul and mind. The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. In him, we are free from sin, from death, and from the devil. In him, we are also free from any and all legalistic straightjackets that would bind us as to when we can or can’t celebrate his Nativity.
So, Christian, you are free to set up your tree. Wrap and unwrap your gifts. Drink your eggnog. Sing your songs. And do so in the freedom of knowing that you belong solely to Jesus Christ, who has destroyed the powers of darkness and idolatry, and whose birthday is the portal to life in the liberating God of Love.
If Christmas has any aroma to it, it smells like Jesus.