Where did the idea of a "merry Christmas" come from? Did it begin with well-meaning Christians who wished only the best for others, or are its origins considerably older than we might suppose? Does wishing others "Merry Christmas" please God and Jesus Christ? The answers may well surprise you!
Young newlyweds Josh and Candice entered a shopping mall filled with Christmas shoppers. As they walked down the brightly lit corridors, Christmas carols competed with the din of thousands of voices. The colorful Christmas decorations were dazzling to the eyes and the familiar strains of holiday songs helped get them into the spending spirit. Other shoppers and store clerks alike greeted them with a smiling "Merry Christmas!"
We've likely all heard this greeting around the Christmas season. Sometimes it's bellowed by a pot-bellied, red-suited Santa Claus, who shouts to mesmerized children, "Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!"
For something so common, most people are blissfully unaware of its origins. Where does Christmas come from? What does it mean? If Jesus were to walk through a shopping mall in December, what would He think? Would He be pleased with this celebration that's done in His name and claimed to celebrate His birth?
How the pre-Christ Christmas got merry
Surprising as it may sound, Christmas—though under several other names—existed some 2,000 years before Jesus Christ's birth!
Originally it was the midwinter festival, observed for many centuries by peoples ranging from Babylon to Egypt to central Europe, having absolutely no connection to Christ. It was unknown to the early New Testament Church, which observed only those festivals that Christ observed and taught them to keep, those that are found in the Bible (Leviticus 23).
Notice what the Man, Myth & Magic encyclopedia tells us about how the ancient heathen midwinter festival gave birth to Christmas: "Christmas has its origin in two ancient pagan festivals, the great Yule-feast of the Norsemen and the Roman Saturnalia.
"The Saturnalia involved the wildest debauchery . Naturally it came under heavy censure from the early Church and despite the fact that Jesus Christ and the saints gradually replaced pagan deities, it was long considered completely out of character with the Christian ideal.
"However, the festival was far too strongly entrenched in popular favour to be abolished, and the [Catholic] Church finally granted the necessary recognition, believing that if Christmas [read here 'the midwinter festival'] could not be suppressed it should be preserved in honour of the Christian God.
"It was only in the 4th century that 25 December was officially decreed to be the birthday of Christ, and it was another 500 years before the term Midwinter Feast was abandoned in favour of the word Christmas" (Richard Cavendish, editor, 1983, Vol. 2, "Christmas," p. 480, emphasis added throughout).
If Christ or the apostles instituted Christmas, why then did it take 800 years to be accepted by the Catholic Church? The fact is, Christ and the early Christians did not institute the holiday. The ancient midwinter festival came out of the closet, so to speak, reinvented as our modern Christmas.
Post-Christ Christmas was not so merry
It doesn't take much research to see that Christmas is in reality a relabeled pagan festival.
The early Catholic Church, when dealing with the ancient pagan midwinter festival, found itself in a dilemma. If they forced the heathens to abandon pagan practices held for centuries, they risked driving them away. So what to do?
They determined that if they couldn't prevent the pagans from observing their heathen rituals, they would simply relabel those same practices and celebrations as Christian. Thus they added the name of Christ and applicable liturgy to their unrepentant, in-name-only Christian parishioners. They pasted the name of "Christmas" mass of Christ—onto the old pre-Christian midwinter festival.
As historian Sir James Frazer, who was knighted for his contributions to our understanding of ancient religions, explains: "Taken altogether, the coincidences of the Christian with the heathen festivals are too close and too numerous to be accidental. They mark the compromise which the [Catholic] Church in the hour of its triumph was compelled to make with its vanquished yet still dangerous rivals.
"The inflexible Protestantism of the primitive missionaries, with their fiery denunciation of heathendom, had been exchanged for the supple policy, the easy tolerance, the comprehensive charity of shrewd ecclesiastics, who clearly perceived that if Christianity was to conquer the world it would do so only by relaxing the too rigid principles of its Founder [Christ], by widening a little the narrow gate which leads to salvation" ( The Golden Bough , 1993, p. 361).
William Sansom, in A Book of Christmas, discusses how Catholic Church leaders rationalized the continuance of pagan customs by relabeling them as Christian:
"Certainly the official Church inspired its missionaries to make the winter feast a Christian festival. In 601, Pope Gregory [540-604] instructed Augustine of Canterbury to follow the custom of decking temples with greenery by decking churches in the same manner, and to solemnise the time by Christian feasting.
"'Nor let them now sacrifice animals to the Devil, but to the praise of God kill animals for their own eating, and render thanks to the Giver of all for their abundance...For from obdurate minds it is impossible to cut off everything at once,'" said Pope Gregory (1968, p. 30). Such decisions led the way for many pagan customs being imported into the Catholic Church with little or no change.
In The Christmas Almanak, Gerard and Patricia Del Re add: "There are indications...that as Christians went on from year to year and century to century developing the rites of Christmas, they borrowed, adopted, or simply carried over elements of other midwinter celebrations" (1979, p. 15).
Fixing the merry Christmas date
Sir James Frazer, quoted earlier, elaborates on this process of mixing paganism with Christianity: "An instructive relic of the long struggle [between early Christianity and competing pagan religions] is preserved in our festival of Christmas, which the [Catholic] Church seems to have borrowed directly from its heathen rival.
"In the Julian calendar the twenty-fifth of December was reckoned the winter solstice, and it was regarded as the Nativity [birthday] of the Sun, because the day begins to lengthen and the power of the sun to increase from that turning-point of the year...
"What considerations led the ecclesiastical authorities to institute the festival of Christmas? The motives for the innovation are stated with great frankness by a Syrian writer, himself a Christian...'It was a custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same twenty-fifth of December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the [theologians] of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day...'
"Thus it appears that the [Catholic] Church chose to celebrate the birthday of its Founder on the twenty-fifth of December in order to transfer the devotion of the heathen from the Sun to him who was called the Sun of Righteousness" ( The Golden Bough, pp. 358-359).
These resources clearly contrast modern Christian practices and customs with scriptural truth. Few professing Christians today know that early American colonialists disapproved of Christmas. Because of the holiday's pagan origins, they refused to have anything to do with it.
No merry Christmas in Colonial America
It might come as a surprise to you that 17th- and 18th-century Puritans in the British Isles and Colonial Americans condemned Christmas. The northeastern American colonies aggressively opposed observing the pagan European Christmas customs. If Colonials hung up Christmas paraphernalia, such as evergreen wreaths or mistletoe, or decorated their homes with Christmas ornaments, they were subject to a fine, jail, open ridicule or all three.
"The undisguised pagan element in Christmas had often provoked criticism from extreme Protestants but the festival was not really affected by their beliefs until the Puritans came to power [in England] in the 17th century. Christmas was attacked as 'the old heathens' feasting day to Saturn their God' and carols were forbidden.
"Finally, 25 December was proclaimed a fast [not feast] day in 1644. The new rule was enforced by the army, which spent much of its time pulling down the greenery that festive 'pagans' had attached to their doors. In Scotland the prohibition was enforced with great rigour.
"This anti-Christmas attitude spread to Puritan territories in America. The [Catholic] Church established special services for Christmas in Boston during the 1690s, but many civil authorities strongly opposed this move. And it was not until some 150 years later that Christmas first became a legal holiday in the United States, in Alabama in 1836" ( Man, Myth & Magic, Vol. 2, pp. 480-481).
To its credit, the Catholic Church accepts Bible evidence that Jesus, His apostles and the early New Testament Church never observed Christmas. According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia: "The earliest Christians did not immediately dissociate themselves from the observance of the Jewish feasts [actually "the Feasts of the Lord," Leviticus 23:1, 4]. Many references in the NT [New Testament] indicate that Jesus and His disciples, as well as the early Palestinian Christian communities, observed the [seventh-day biblical] Sabbath and the major annual festivals" ("Early Christian Feasts," 1967, Vol. 5, p. 867).
Black Friday and merry profits
In recent decades the promotion of Christmas by businesses has amplified the yuletide season exponentially.
"Black Friday"—the day following Thanksgiving in the United States—is one of the most important days on the calendar for many merchants. Retailers open early and offer purse-busting deals and loss leaders to lure Christmas shoppers to their stores.
'Tis the season to get richer, as sellers who have been operating at a loss all year long now see sales skyrocket, putting them "in the black"—now operating at a profit the rest of the year. Retailers have expanded the Christmassy spirit, and it's all about money. From Black Friday to Christmas Day is a merry time for merry profits.
But where did all this buying, selling and gift-giving come from, and what does any of it have to do with celebrating Christ's birth (which, incidentally, never happened anywhere near this day)?
"Exchanging of gifts, so in harmony with the significance of Christmas, may have been influenced by a similar custom among the pagans on January 1. Gifts are exchanged by the French on January 1, by the Spanish and Italians on January 6, and by other nationalities on December 25. In most parts of Europe it was the Christ Child who brought the gifts. After the Reformation the day itself was personified, and the figure of Father Christmas was later combined with St. Nicholas, the patron of children, to become Santa Claus" ( New Catholic Encyclopedia , 1967, "Christmas and Its Cycle, Customs," p. 659).
Again, we see the ancient pagan roots and practices of the holiday surviving down to our day—with few ever questioning them.
Origins of a merry Christmas
The "Merry Christmas" greeting is common to much of the world. But where did the idea of a merry holiday come from?
James Hastings, in his Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, explains: "The Saturnalia in Rome provided the model for most of the merry customs of the Christmas time. This old Roman feast was celebrated on 17-24 December. 'The time was one of general joy and mirth...During the festival, schools were closed... ; no punishment was inflicted. In place of the toga an undress garment was worn.
"'Distinctions of rank were laid aside; slaves sat at table with their masters, or were actually waited on by them, and the utmost freedom of speech was allowed them. Gambling with dice, at other times illegal, was now permitted and practiced. All classes exchanged gifts, the commonest being wax tapers and clay dolls. These dolls were especially given to children'...
"A good deal of this old Roman merriment is retained in the carnival ...the mummery [performing seasonal folk plays], the fancy dress, the pointed hat (originally the hat of the free man, which slaves were allowed to wear during these days, now known as the 'fool's cap'), the universal teasing and mockery, and the confetti (formerly true grains of wheat or barley).
"Christmas inherited the general merriment in a more restrained form (excessive only in eating and drinking): games, giving of gifts (especially to children), abundance of sweetmeats and, as more ceremonious elements, burning of candles and bathing before the festival. We also note that the Christmas-time, like the Saturnalia, lasted at least seven days" ("Christmas Customs," Vol. 3, p. 609).
So we see that even the merriment of the Christmas season, like the gift-giving, goes all the way back to pagan celebrations. Reading these descriptions, one has to marvel at how little has changed!
Would Jesus approve of a merry Christmas?
Does Christmas honor Christ—and does Christ honor Christmas? Would Jesus wish others a merry Christmas?
It's typical at this time of year to hear, "Put Christ back into Christmas." But that would be impossible because Jesus Christ was never in Christmas. Christmas, as we've seen, was an ancient pagan celebration that had nothing to do with Christ's birth and everything to do with honoring pagan gods.
Christmas only perpetuates a number of myths about Jesus Christ. One fact it masks is that He was actually the One the Israelites worshipped as God in the Old Testament (Colossians 1:15-17; Hebrews 1:2, 8; 1 Corinthians 10:4; see also our free booklet Jesus Christ: The Real Story ). And as the God of the Old Testament, He gave explicit instruction that He was never to be worshipped with the practices the pagans used to honor their gods:
"When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.'
"You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it" (Deuteronomy 12:29-32).
We see here from Christ's own mouth what He thinks of anyone adopting and using pagan customs to worship Him—He calls it an abomination!
The apostle Paul covered the same principle when he wrote to Church members in Corinth, a Greek city renowned for its idolatry and pagan worship. "What fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?" he asked. "And what communion has light with darkness?...
"And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: 'I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.' Therefore 'Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you'" (2 Corinthians 6:14-17).
The apostle John also wrote, "If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth" (1 John 1:6). This is why Christmas is not merry in God's eyes.
This is also why Jesus Christ, His apostles and the early Church never instituted, sanctified, practiced or taught the ancient heathen festival that came to be relabeled as "Christmas." And it clearly stands to reason that sincere Christians today should follow their lead.
Rather than "Ho, Ho, Ho!" a more accurate greeting this time of year would be "Ho, Ho, Hoax!"—for that is what Christmas truly is. If you choose not to celebrate Christmas this season and opt to follow God and His truth, He will begin to bless you with His great spiritual gifts that lead to life everlasting! GN