At this time of year it’s fairly common to see programs like the one titled “Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas,” which aired on the A&E (Arts & Entertainment) cable television channel. The promo for the program read:
“People all over the world celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th. But why is the Savior’s nativity marked by gift-giving, and was He really born on that day? And just where did the Christmas tree come from?
“Take an enchanting journey through the history of the world’s favorite holiday to learn the origins of some of the Western world’s most enduring traditions. Trace the emergence of Christmas from pagan festivals like the Roman Saturnalia, which celebrated the winter solstice.”
This program addressed the fact that Santa Claus is fictitious and that Christmas and its trappings emanate from pagan Roman festivals, as many other sources corroborate.
Is there more to these ancient traditions and practices than meets the eye? And, more important, does it make any difference whether we continue in them?
Celebration of the sun god
It may sound odd that any religious celebration with Christ’s name attached to it could predate Christianity. Yet the holiday we know as Christmas long predates Jesus Christ. Elements of the celebration can be traced to ancient Egypt, Babylon and Rome. This fact certainly calls into question the understanding and wisdom of those who, over the millennia, have insisted on perpetuating its observance throughout the Christian world.
Members of the early Church would have been astonished at the customs and practices we associate with Christmas being incorporated into a celebration of Christ’s birth. Not until centuries after them would His name be attached to this popular Roman holiday.
As Alexander Hislop explains in his book The Two Babylons: “It is admitted by the most learned and candid writers of all parties that the day of our Lord’s birth cannot be determined, and that within the Christian Church no such festival as Christmas was ever heard of till the third century, and that not till the fourth century was far advanced did it gain much observance” (1959, pp. 92-93).
As for how Dec. 25 became associated with Christ’s birth, virtually any book on the history of Christmas will explain that this day was celebrated in the Roman Empire as the birthday of the sun god. For example, the book 4000 Years of Christmas says: “For that day was sacred, not only to the pagan Romans but to a religion from Persia which, in those days, was one of Christianity’s strongest rivals. This Persian religion was Mithraism, whose followers worshiped the sun, and celebrated its return to strength on that day” (Earl and Alice Count, 1997, p. 37).
Not only was Dec. 25 honored as the birthday of the sun, but a festival had long been observed among the pagan nations of celebrating the growing amount of daylight after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The precursor of Christmas was in fact an idolatrous winter festival characterized by excess and debauchery that predated Christianity by many centuries.
Pre-Christian practices incorporated
This ancient festival went by different names in various cultures. In Rome it was called the Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. The observance was adopted by early Roman church leaders and given the name of Christ (“Christ mass,” or Christmas) to permit pagans converting to Christianity to continue in their former practices, helping to swell the number of nominal adherents of Christianity.
The tendency on the part of third-century Catholic leadership was to meet paganism halfway—a practice made clear in a bitter lament by the Carthaginian theologian Tertullian.
In A.D. 230 he wrote of the inconsistency of professing Christians, contrasting their compromising practices with the pagans’ strict adherence to their own beliefs: “By us who are strangers to Sabbaths, and new moons, and festivals once acceptable to God [referring to the biblical festivals spelled out in Leviticus 23, which they failed to embrace], 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 . . . Oh, how much more faithful are the heathen to THEIR religion, who take special care to adopt no solemnity from the Christians” (Hislop, p. 93, emphasis added throughout).
Failing to make much headway in converting the pagans, the religious leaders of the Roman church began compromising by dressing the heathen customs in Christian-looking garb. But, rather than converting them to the church’s beliefs, the church largely converted to non-Christian customs in its own practices.
Although the early Catholic Church at first opposed this celebration, “the festival was far too strongly entrenched in popular favor to be abolished, and the Church finally granted the necessary recognition, believing that if Christmas could not be suppressed, it should be preserved in honor of the Christian God. Once given a Christian basis the festival became fully established in Europe with many of its pagan elements undisturbed” (Man, Myth & Magic: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mythology, Religion, and the Unknown, Richard Cavendish, editor, 1983, Vol. 2, p. 480, “Christmas”).
Celebration wins out over Scripture
Some resisted such spiritually poisonous compromises, but it was not enough: “Upright men strove to stem the tide, but in spite of all their efforts, the apostasy went on, till the Church, with the exception of a small remnant, was submerged under Pagan superstition. That Christmas was originally a Pagan festival is beyond all doubt. The time of the year, and the ceremonies with which it is still celebrated, prove its origin” (Hislop, p. 93).
The aforementioned Tertullian wasn’t alone in objecting to compromise. “As late as 245 Origen, in his eighth homily on Leviticus, repudiates as sinful the very idea of keeping the birthday of Christ as if he were a king Pharaoh” (The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, Vol. 6, p. 293, “Christmas”).
Christmas was not made a Roman holiday until 534 (ibid.). It took 300 years for the new name and symbols of Christmas to replace the old names and meaning of the winter festival, a pagan celebration that reaches back so many centuries.
No biblical support for Santa Claus
How did the mythical Santa Claus figure enter the picture? Here, too, many books are available to shed light on the origins of this popular character.
“Santa Claus” is an American corruption of the Dutch form Sinterklaas or Sint-Nicolaas, a figure brought to America by the early Dutch colonists (The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edition, Vol. 19, p. 649, “Nicholas, St.”). This is often said to refer to St. Nicholas, bishop of the city of Myra in southern Asia Minor, a Catholic saint honored on Dec. 6.
He was bishop of Myra in the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian, was persecuted, tortured for the Catholic faith and kept in prison until the more tolerant reign of Constantine (ibid.). Various stories claim a link from Christmas to St. Nicholas, all of them having to do with gift-giving on the eve of St. Nicholas, subsequently transferred to Christmas Day (ibid.). Yet the link is questionable, and other suggestions have been proposed.
In any case, we might wonder how a bishop from the sunny Mediterranean coast of Turkey came to be associated with a red-suited man who lives at the north pole and rides in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.
Knowing what we’ve already learned about the ancient pre-Christian origins of Christmas, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that Santa Claus, too, is nothing but a figure recycled from ancient pagan beliefs.
The trappings associated with him—his fur-trimmed wardrobe, sleigh and reindeer—reveal his connection to the cold climates of the far North. Some sources trace him to the ancient Northern European gods Woden and Thor (Earl and Alice Count, pp. 56-64). Others trace him even farther back in time to the Roman god Saturn and the Greek god Silenus (William Walsh, The Story of Santa Klaus, pp. 70-71).
Was Jesus born in December?
Most Bible scholars who have written on the subject of Jesus’ birth conclude that, based on evidence in the Bible itself and knowledge of the climate of the Holy Land, there is no possible way Christ could have been born anywhere near Dec. 25.
Again we turn to Alexander Hislop: “There is not a word in the Scriptures about the precise day of [Jesus’] birth, or the time of the year when He was born. What is recorded there implies that at what time soever His birth took place, it could not have been on the 25th of December. At the time that the angel announced His birth to the shepherds of Bethlehem, they were feeding their flocks by night in the open fields . . . The climate of Palestine . . . from December to February, is very piercing, and it was not the custom for the shepherds of Judea to watch their flocks in the open fields later than about the end of October” (Hislop, p. 91, emphasis in original).
He goes on to explain that the autumn rains beginning in September or October in Judea would mean that the events surrounding Christ’s birth recorded in the Scriptures could not have taken place later than mid-October, so Jesus’ birth likely took place earlier in the fall (Hislop, p. 92).
Further evidence supporting Jesus’ birth in the autumn is that the Romans were intelligent enough not to set the time for taxation and travel in the winter. And it would have been quite hazardous for Joseph and his expectant wife Mary to have made the trip from Nazareth to his ancestral home of Bethlehem so late in the year. As recorded by Luke, Mary delivered Jesus in Bethlehem during the time of census and taxation—which, again, no rational official would have scheduled for winter.
What difference does it make?
The Bible gives us no reason—and certainly no instruction—to support the myths and fables of Christmas and Santa Claus. They are contrary to the ways of Christ and His holy truth. “Learn not the way of the heathen,” God tells us (Jeremiah 10:2, King James Version).
Professing Christians should examine the background of the Christmas holiday symbols and stop telling their children that Santa Claus and his elves, reindeer and Christmas gift-giving are connected with Jesus Christ. Emphatically they are not! God hates lying (Proverbs 6:16-19; 12:22).
Christ reveals that Satan the devil is the father of lies (John 8:44). Parents should tell their children the truth about God and this world’s contrary and confusing ways. If we don’t, we only perpetuate the notion that it’s acceptable for parents to lie to their children.
God specifically commands His people not to do what early church leaders did when they incorporated idolatrous practices and relabeled them Christian. Before they entered the Promised Land, God gave the Israelites a stern warning to not worship Him with pagan practices: “Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them [the inhabitants of the land], . . . 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 . . . Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it” (Deuteronomy 12:30-32).
Many centuries later the apostle Paul raised up churches in many gentile cities. To the members of the Church of God in Corinth, a Greek city steeped in idolatry, Paul wrote: “. . . What fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial [or Wickedness personified, here in reference to Satan]? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols?
“For you are the temple of the living God . . . Therefore ‘Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.’ . . . Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 6:14-17; 7:1).
Instead of approving of any notion of church members renaming and celebrating customs associated with false gods as now Christian, Paul’s instructions were clear: They were to have nothing to do with such practices. He similarly told Athenians who were steeped in idolatry, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).
God alone has the right to decide the special days on which we are to worship Him. Jesus Christ plainly tells us that “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). We cannot honor God in truth with false practices adopted from the worship of false gods.
Jesus said: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6-7). Even if Christians mean well when they observe Christmas, that does not make it okay. God is not amused or pleased!
The knowledge of how to truly honor God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ has been made available to you. Will you live by the revealed truth of God or follow the wayward traditions of mankind?