Very shortly, the world will once again enter the Christmas season. Though primarily considered a Christian holiday, Christmas is increasingly big business and is celebrated by many who are not Christians. It generates billions of dollars in retail sales worldwide. But is this a holiday that Christians, or anyone else, should observe?
The origins of Christmas are many, with quite a number of its traditions actually predating the birth of Jesus Christ. Most of the origins are troubling from a Christian perspective. Let's note a few and, with this in mind, consider a principle Jesus Himself gave.
The date of December 25th probably originated with the ancient "birthday" of the pagan sun god Mithra, based on the idea of the rebirth of the sun during the winter solstice period. Originally a Persian deity related to the Semitic sun god Shamash, Mithra became popularly worshipped throughout the Roman Empire, where he was called in Latin Deus Sol Invictus Mithras (the unconquered sun god Mithras). The Romans combined the worship of this deity with a midwinter celebration of the god Saturn known as the Saturnalia, which began a few days before December 25th. The festival was characterized by gift-giving, feasting and singing, as well as downright debauchery, as the priests of Saturn carried wreaths of evergreen boughs in procession throughout Roman temples.
Mistletoe is bad for you
Kissing under the mistletoe is a holdover from the drunken revelry and debauchery associated with celebrating the death of the old sun and the birth of the new sun at the winter solstice. The Celts in pre-Christian England used the plant in religious custom around the second century B.C. The Druids (the learned class of the Celts) celebrated the start of winter by gathering the mistletoe that grew on sacred oaks and burning it as a sacrifice to their gods. If enemies chanced to meet under a tree that bore mistletoe, they were required to lay down their arms and forget their differences for a day. During the Roman feasts of Saturnalia and Natalis Solis Invicti (the birth of the unconquered sun), observers bound mistletoe sprigs into boughs and festively draped the garlands throughout their homes.
Christmas tree's roots
The custom of the Christmas tree is claimed by some to have begun in Germany, in the first half of the 700s. An early story relates how the British missionary monk St. Boniface was then preaching a sermon on the birth of Christ to a tribe of Germanic Druids. To convince the idolaters that the oak tree was not sacred, the so-called "Apostle of Germany" felled one on the spot. Toppling, it crushed every shrub in its path except for a small fir sapling. Legend has it that Boniface, attempting to win converts, interpreted the fir's survival as a miracle, concluding, "Let this be called the tree of the Christ Child." Subsequent Christmases in Germany were celebrated by planting fir saplings. However, this story seems a convenient way to explain away the use of evergreen trees in traditional Christian worship. We noted the Saturnalia's use of evergreens. And other historians place the origin of venerating such trees thousands of years ago in ancient Babylon, Egypt and elsewhere. Indeed, the Bible even mentions the use of green trees as pagan symbols of ancient worship and forbids their use in the worship of God (Deuteronomy 16:21; Jeremiah 17:2).
Yule log burning
As a symbol of the sun, the Yule log comes from pre-Christian times. Yule means "wheel" for the "wheel of the year"—the annual cycle with its rebirth at the winter solstice. Fires during the solstice were an important pagan practice to encourage the waning sun back to life—hence burning the Yule log. Even today, many still call this the Yuletide season (Charles Panati, Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, 1989—among other sources).
What Jesus has to say
In the Gospel accounts, there is no record of the date of Christ's birth. There are hints at the time of year He was born (not midwinter!), but nowhere in the New Testament does the early Church celebrate a day for the birth of Christ. Instead true followers of Jesus Christ are told—commanded, in fact—to remember Passover, the day of His death (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). It was not until A.D. 337, under Roman Emperor Constantine, that these pagan customs were converted into the "Christian" holiday of Christmas.
Many know the origins of Christmas traditions and yet justify observing the holiday by saying that the original meanings of these customs are not important now that they're part of such a wonderful family time that's fun for the children. Of course, God is in favor of family time and fun—but only in accordance with His laws. Worship celebrations should follow the weekly and annual days that God chose and on which He expects us to worship Him. Tagging a pagan holiday or tradition with a Christian label is spiritually unacceptable to God the Father and Jesus Christ. Anytime the worship of God is diluted with pagan religious customs, it is no longer pure.
Consider Jesus' citing of the words He had inspired in the prophet Isaiah: "These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Matthew 15:8-9; see Isaiah 29:13). We can easily apply this to the holiday of Christmas. Instead of being a true celebration of the coming of our Savior, it is actually based on and is still wrapped in pagan symbolism. It merely masquerades as a Christian celebration. As Jesus' words make clear, Christmas is phony.
To see more about the blending of pagan worship with Christianity, be sure to read "Paganism in Christianity". And for a greater discussion and review of the Christmas holiday and other traditional Christian observances, we recommend that you read our booklet Holidays or Holy Days: Does It Matter Which Days We Observe? There you will also find details about the festivals God does want us to observe.