When I was a young boy, I looked forward to Christmas every Dec. 25. Shortly before one particular Christmas, while still in grade school, one of my schoolmates laughed me to scorn for believing that Santa Claus existed. I was mortified.
When I returned home that evening, I asked my mom whether Santa was real. She said he wasn't. Privately I thought, “Well, if Santa Claus isn't real, what is?”
Years later I learned that Christmas actually predated Christianity by about 2,000 years. Many ancient nations created their own midwinter festivals and celebrations—which later morphed into Christmas—to honor the sun and other gods around the time of the winter solstice. I also learned that the origins of Christmas contradict true Christianity.
Christmas contradicts the biblical facts
It's commonly assumed that Christmas is celebrated because it's the birthday of Jesus Christ. But biblical scholars overwhelmingly admit that Jesus was born nowhere near Dec. 25. There are sound reasons for this conclusion. Luke's Gospel tells us that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Bethlehem to register during a Roman census when Jesus was born, and also that shepherds still had their flocks out in the open fields at that time (Luke 2:1-8 Luke 2:1-8 1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
American King James Version×).
But the Holy Land in December is cold, rainy and sometimes snowy. No sound-minded shepherd would have been so foolhardy as to leave his flock in the fields at night at that time of year. And no intelligent ruler would compel people to travel many miles to register for a census when the likelihood of bad weather would have made such an effort self-defeating.
Why should we believe that Jesus was born on Dec. 25 when the Bible itself plainly contradicts this notion?
The birth of Christmas
So if Christmas didn't originate with Christ's birth being on Dec. 25, when and how did it originate?
Christmas began long before the birth of Jesus Christ. Alexander Hislop's book The Two Babylons explores many historical sources showing that the holiday precedes Christ by at least 2,000 years, as earlier mentioned (1957, pp. 97-98).
A nativity celebration for pagan gods was observed near the winter solstice in both Syria and Egypt. Later, some 400 years before Christ, the Mithraic religion, centering on the Persian sun god Mithras, provided the foundation for the Christmas celebration. Mithraism became very popular in the Roman Empire, and many elements of its worship survive today in Roman Catholicism.
|Practices associated with worship of the pagan sun god Mithras, such as celebrating his supposed birth on December 25, survive in today's Christmas customs.|
|The goddess Astarte, depicted here in a Phoenician statuette, was one of several deities worshipped on December 25 in the ancient world.|
|The Egyptian goddess Isis is depicted with her son Horus. Symbol of the reborn sun, Horus was believed to have been born at the winter solstice.|
For example, the noted British anthropologist, historian and scholar Sir James Frazer, knighted for his contributions to our understanding of ancient religions, wrote in his book The Golden Bough:
“There can be no doubt that the Mithraic religion proved a formidable rival to Christianity, combining as it did a solemn ritual with aspirations after moral purity and a hope of immortality. Indeed the issue of the conflict between the two faiths appears for a time to have hung in the balance. An instructive relic of the long struggle is preserved in our festival of Christmas, which the 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. The ritual of the nativity, as it appears to have been celebrated in Syria and Egypt, was remarkable. The celebrants retired into certain inner shrines, from which at midnight they issued with a loud cry, 'The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing [stronger]!'
“The Egyptians even represented the new-born sun by the image of an infant which on his birthday, the winter solstice, they brought forth and exhibited to his worshippers. No doubt the Virgin who thus conceived and bore a son on the twenty-fifth of December was the great Oriental [i.e., Middle Eastern] goddess whom the Semites called the Heavenly Virgin or simply the Heavenly Goddess; in Semitic lands she was a form of Astarte [Easter]” (1993, p. 358, emphasis added throughout).
If people insist on defending Christmas, at least they should know how it originated.
Tertullian on Christmas
The early Catholic theologian and writer Tertullian (A.D. 155-230) was a convert from paganism. He wrote numerous works defending Christianity as he understood it, combatting contrary teachers and giving exhortation to fellow believers. In one he described how the Christian converts of his day were already ignoring the biblical Sabbath day and festivals and flocking to the pagan Roman winter festivals, such as the Saturnalia, which honored the god Saturn:
“By us who are strangers to Sabbaths, and new moons, and festivals, once acceptable to God, the Saturnalia, the feasts of January, the Brumalia and Matronalia, are now frequented; gifts are carried to and fro, new year's day presents are made with din, and sports and banquets are celebrated with uproar” (Tertullian, On Idolatry, chap. 14, quoted by Hislop, p. 93).
Tertullian rebuked Christians for joining in such pagan celebrations, noting that no self-respecting pagan would join in “Christian” celebrations: “Oh, how much more faithful are the heathen to their religion, who take special care to adopt no solemnity from the Christians” (ibid).
He further stated of the pagans: “For, even if they had known them, they would not have shared the Lord's Day or Pentecost with us. For they would fear lest they would appear to be Christians. Yet, we are not apprehensive that we might appear to be pagans!” (quoted by David Bercot, editor, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs , 1998, p. 342). This is an incredible admission.
A zealous Tertullian could see the difference between heathen and Christian festivals. Can we?
A deeper look at Christmas origins
Man, Myth & Magic is a useful encyclopedia on mythology and religion. This multi-volume work uncovers the origins of major Western religious holidays, exploring the history of each. It offers further details on the origins of Christmas:
“Christmas has its origin in two ancient pagan festivals, the great Yule-feast of the Norsemen and the Roman Saturnalia… It was close enough to the winter solstice to acquire many of the associations of the Norse ceremony: the Yule-log, the evergreen decorations in houses and churches, even the Christmas feast itself. These elements were combined with the Saturnalia of the Romans to provide the basis for the early Christian festival.
“During the Saturnalia, gifts were made by the wealthy to the poor in honour of the golden age of liberty when Saturn ruled the known world, and slaves were allowed to change places and clothing with their masters. They even elected their own mock king who, for the period of the festival, ruled as a despot. The Saturnalia involved the wildest debauchery, and was a festival worthy of [the god] Pan himself.
“Naturally it came under heavy censure from the early Church and despite the fact that Jesus Christ and the saints gradually replaced the 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 could not be suppressed it should be preserved in honour of the Christian God” (Richard Cavendish, ed., 1995, Vol. 3, p. 418).
Christmas gains acceptance
The strange story of Christmas continued after the ancient celebrations were adopted by the Catholic Church. The church does not deny it.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “Christmas originated at a time when the cult of the sun was particularly strong at Rome. This theory finds support in some of the Church Fathers contrasting the birth of Christ and the winter solstice. Though the substitution of Christmas for the pagan festival cannot be proved with certainty, it remains the most plausible explanation for the dating of Christmas” (1967, Vol. 3, p. 656).
Man, Myth & Magic explains when Christmas gained official recognition and when the name was substituted for the ancient heathen midwinter festival. “Once given a Christian basis the festival became fully established in Europe with many of its pagan elements undisturbed. 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 [the ninth century] before the term Midwinter Feast was abandoned in favour of the word Christmas” (Cavendish, p. 480).
James Hastings, Bible scholar, writer and editor of The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, confirms that the church absorbed and tolerated heathen customs: “Most of the Christmas customs now prevailing in Europe, or recorded from former times, are not genuine Christian customs, but heathen customs which have been absorbed or tolerated by the Church” (1910, Vol. 3, p. 608).
Elements of the observance of Christmas were criticized and even forbidden in later centuries. “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 the 17th century.
“[At that time] Christmas was attacked as 'the old heathens' feasting day to Saturn their God' and carols were forbidden. Finally, 25 December was proclaimed a fast day [a time of abstaining from food and festivity to focus on religious devotion] 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 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” (Cavendish, pp. 480-481).
Why Dec. 25 as the date for Christmas?
Sir James Frazer wrote at length on the roots of modern Christian holidays. And here's what he had to say about why Christmas began as it did:
“What considerations led the ecclesiastical authorities to institute the festival of Christmas? 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 doctors [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 solemnised on that day and the festival of the Epiphany on the sixth of January …
“The heathen origin of Christmas is plainly hinted at, if not tacitly admitted, by Augustine [the fifth-century Catholic theologian] when he exhorts his Christian brethren not to celebrate that solemn day like the heathen on account of the sun, but on account of him who made the sun. In like manner [Pope] Leo the Great rebuked the pestilent belief that Christmas was solemnized because of the birth of the new sun, as it was called, and not because of the nativity of Christ.
“Thus it appears that the Christian 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” (pp. 358-359).
This was despite God's direct warning against adopting pagan worship customs to honor Him (Deuteronomy 12:29-32 Deuteronomy 12:29-32 29 When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations from before you, where you go to possess them, and you succeed them, and dwell in their land;
30 Take heed to yourself that you be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before you; and that you inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.
31 You shall not do so to the LORD your God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.
32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
American King James Version×).
Does Christ approve of Christmas?
Having considered mainstream church teaching and practice on this subject, we also need to ask: What did Christ Himself teach about Christmas?
The fact is, Jesus neither observed Christmas nor taught others to observe it. It did not originate with Him. But He did speak out strongly against the traditions of men: “And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7 Mark 7:7However, in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
American King James Version×).
Indeed, Jesus taught that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35 John 10:35If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;
American King James Version×), and it explicitly warned against adopting pagan worship customs to honor the true God (Deuteronomy 12:29-32 Deuteronomy 12:29-32 29 When the LORD your God shall cut off the nations from before you, where you go to possess them, and you succeed them, and dwell in their land; 30 Take heed to yourself that you be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before you; and that you inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. 31 You shall not do so to the LORD your God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods. 32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: you shall not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
American King James Version×).
Furthermore, God inspired Daniel to prophesy several centuries before Christ that religious men would attempt to change “times and law,” including God's festival seasons (see Daniel 7:25 Daniel 7:25And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time.
American King James Version×; compare Leviticus 23 with Matthew 5:17-19 Matthew 5:17-19 17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. 18 For truly I say to you, Till heaven and earth pass, one stroke or one pronunciation mark shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 19 Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
American King James Version×).
After Jesus Christ returns to earth, during His reign over the nations He will see to it that all of God's annual festivals are observed by all peoples. The book of Zechariah reveals that it will take a few years before at least a few nations learn to accept Christ's teachings. The autumn Feast of Tabernacles is a case in point.
Zechariah 14 addresses the second coming of Christ, concluding with one particularly revealing insight into what will come next: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King [Jesus Christ], the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles” (Zechariah 14:16 Zechariah 14:16And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall even go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the feast of tabernacles.
American King James Version×).
Then the account continues by describing appropriate corrective punishments for those nations that do not comply (verses 17-19).
Christ's true disciples today observe His Holy Days
The big question is, are you ready to begin following the real Christ? In times past God overlooked the ignorance of men, but today He commands all men and women to repent of ungodly activities, including observing manmade religious holidays (Acts 17:30 Acts 17:30And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commands all men every where to repent:
American King James Version×).
If you are coming to understand that Christmas does not represent Christ, then you should take a stand and avoid its observance (Matthew 7:21 Matthew 7:21Not every one that said to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven.
American King James Version×; Luke 6:46 Luke 6:46And why call you me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?
American King James Version×). Why stumble between the truth and error? Why not start following the true Christ and His biblical teachings? (John 8:32 John 8:32And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.
American King James Version×; 17:17).
The Bible clearly reveals our Creator's requirement to observe His annual festivals and Holy Days—the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles and the Eighth Day. They disclose God's wondrous plan and purpose for humankind.
The Bible shows that the true followers of God observed these festivals in both the Old and New Testaments. True Christians still observe them today. God has not changed! GN