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Is Christmas Pagan?

It happens every year. An avalanche of social media posts by self-righteous, legalistic Christians declaring that Christmas is a pagan holiday and we should not celebrate it. I am tired of it, so here are a few things to consider.

Firstly, we know for sure that Jesus was not born in December. No shepherd in his right mind would be out in the fields at such a time! For anyone interested in the actual time of Jesus’ birth, my friend Dale Garris has a brilliant article at Does that mean that we should not celebrate His birth in December? Why not? Here in Australia we celebrate “The Queen’s Birthday” in June. We know it isn’t her real birthday, but it is a day for public celebration of her life. Why can we not do the same for Jesus?

Yes, there was an ancient pagan festival held in December. Known as Saturnalia, it was a celebration of the god Saturn. Do we celebrate Saturn at Christmas time today? No, we don’t.

At the same time, the Chinese used to hold the Dongzhi festival, during which time they worshipped their ancestors. Do we worship our ancestors at Christmas time today? No, we don’t.

Also in mid-winter, the ancient Slavs had the festival of Korocun, in which they honoured the “black god” (associated with decay and darkness) and their ancestors. Do we honour these entities at Christmas today? No, we don’t.

The birthday of the Egyptian goddess Osiris was celebrated in December. Do we celebrate Osiris’ birthday at Christmas time today? No, we don’t.

In December some Buddhists hold a festival to celebrate Sangamitta, who, along with her brother, was an early Buddhist “evangelist.” Do we honour this woman at Christmas time today? No, we don’t (in fact most of us have never even heard of her.)

The Persians celebrated Shab-e Chelleh at the winter solstice, a time when it was feared that evil forces were most active. The celebration involved staying up most of the night to ward off those evil forces. Do we stay awake to ward off evil forces at Christmas today? No, we don’t.

There are probably others, but those are the ones I could find with a quick search. The proliferation of such festivals prompts the question, just which of them is Christmas supposed to be celebrating?

The answer, of course, is that it does not celebrate any of them. In fact, the Jewish Festival of Lights, Hannuka, also occurs in December. Would it not be just as likely (in fact far more likely) that the celebration of the coming of the One who is the Light of the world would be linked to that festival?

Those who condemn the celebration of Christmas because of its “pagan roots” should also look further afield. Do they name the days of the week in the traditional manner? Every one of those names comes from a pagan root! Sunday was named after the sun. Monday after the moon. Tuesday after the Norse god Tyr. Wednesday after the god Wodan. Thursday after Thor. Friday after the Norse goddess Frigg and Saturday after Saturn. If you use the normal names for these days you are, shock, horror! perpetuating a pagan observance. Do you honour Wodan on Wednesday, or Frigg on Friday? I’m sure you don’t. Neither do I honour any pagan god at Christmas.

On the other hand, what if the celebration of Christmas had been imposed over a pagan festival? In Acts 17:23, Paul encounters an altar inscribed “To an Unknown God.” This was unquestionably a pagan altar, and the rites carried out there would have unquestionably been pagan rites. Yet Paul has no hesitation in taking it over for the true God, saying, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him I will declare to you.”

Could it be that our squeamishness about pagan roots cuts us off from the opportunity to share the Gospel effectively by starting “where people are at”? The book “Eternity in Their Hearts” by Donald Richardson tells of numerous instances where the pagan traditions of various cultures have provided an opening for the Gospel. Christmas (and Easter) today provide that same kind of opening. They are times when people are primed to hear about God, and when most will not object to overt expressions of Christian faith. Shouldn’t we be taking full advantage of that opportunity, rather than seeking to drive a stake through its heart because of its supposed pagan roots?

Finally, some of the anti-Christmas brigade like to quote Jeremiah10:3-4 “For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” They claim this is a prohibition against Christmas trees. How could it be? Jeremiah was writing hundreds of years before Jesus was born! No, these verses are referring to the practice of cutting down trees to carve idols, which were then covered with gold or silver. Nothing to do with Christmas trees whatsoever!

Should we celebrate Christmas? God the Son, who had for all eternity enjoyed the perfect fellowship and love of the Father and the Holy Spirit, and who from the beginning of creation had been worshipped by all created things; who had forever been omnipotent, omniscient, and unlimited in every way, chose to lay aside all that it meant to be God, without for one instant losing His divinity, and be confined within the body of a human baby, totally dependent upon His mother and foster father, so that He could grow up and die on a cross for our salvation.

That, to me, is worth celebrating, whether it is the correct day or not.

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