Is Christmas Pagan?
Why I Celebrate Christmas
sleigh.gif (15270 bytes)

 

A Christmas Ballad
by Skylar H. Burris

I fear that I will never write
A poem of any worth
About that holy, quiet night
When God cried out in birth.

Yet year by year this pen still strives
To tell the tale to you:
How humbly came He to our world,
And humbly left us too.

'Mid straw and stench He entered in
A fallen, hungry earth.
There must be more to Christmas then
Than stockings by the hearth.

I love that though--I love it all--
The tawdry glitz and clutter,
The storeshop windows at the mall,
The hustle and the flutter,

The sentimental cheerful things
That people think and say,
The Christmas trees, the bells, the rings
The manger scene with hay.

But though I love the Christmas lights,
The carols and the choir,
The pageant angels' wobbly flights,
I know there's something higher.

So may your souls be filled this day
With hope and peace and joy,
For Jesus deigned to come our way,
A helpless baby boy.


[ Ancient PathsSkylar's Website ]

Introductory Article:

In Defense of Christmas

Origins of Christmas Customs:

Holly
December 25
The Christmas Tree
Misteltoe
The Manger Scene
The Three Wise Men
The Candy Cane
The Wreath
Santa Claus

Bibliography:

Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham.  The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Hislop, Alexander. The Two Babylons. 1916.

Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity.  1976. Simon and Schuster.

Lehane, Brendan. The Book of Christmas. 1986. Time-Life Books, Inc.


Bucher, Richard P. "Christmas is Not Pagan"


Comments
Read negative and positive comments from readers. 

Christmas Origins Quiz
See how much you learned.   Close the new window to return here.

Christmas According to the Bible
What hails from the scriptures, and what comes from tradition? Find out in this quiz, which I contributed to Funtrivia.com. 


In Defense of Christmas
by Skylar H. Burris

This article was last revised in August 2003

Traditionally, this is the time of year when most Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Over time, Christmas came to incorporate numerous pagan symbols.   And of course, the tentacles of American consumerism have woven their way around the holiday ever since the introduction of the first commercial Christmas card in 1846.   For these reasons, some Christians believe we should not observe many of the traditional Christmas customs; others think we should not celebrate Christmas at all.

How can I, when made fully aware of the pagan origins of many of our treasured Christmas symbols and rituals, still continue to celebrate the holiday, to delight in all it has to offer, and even to post a Christmas issue on the website of Ancient Paths?  Some Christians have e-mailed me, clearly concerned by my continued persistence in celebrating this holiday.

When Christianity spread forth among the gentile nations, it inevitably encountered pagan religion. Rather than entirely eradicating the symbols and holidays of these religions, Christians incorporated and redefined them.  There is a danger to this sort of incorporation; Christianity can become watered-down or even tainted.  It can begin to exchange mere numbers (of converts) for true discipleship.   But it is not wholly unbiblical to incorporate and redefine pagan symbols for the purpose of spreading the gospel.  Paul himself did not tear down the altar "To the Unknown God" nor claim that it was meaningless; instead, he gave it a new Christian symbolism, and used it to reveal God to the pagans in terms that they could understand.   This new interpretation destroyed the old meaning of the altar, and drew on what truth the pagans already knew to reveal to them the Truth in its totality.    

Christmas long ago supplanted the old pagan festivals, and those religions (except where resurrected in bits and pieces to be stewed in a New Age melting pot) are effectively dead.   Setting the nativity on December 25 was an anti-pagan movement.  It was meant to make men focus on the Incarnation of Jesus Christ rather than on pagan gods and accompanying sexual escapades, and it largely succeeded.   Saturnalia is a thing of the past. Christmas endures.

The radical rejection of the celebration of Christmas is probably well-intended.   Religious men and women, in their fervor, sometimes seek to stamp out anything that they fear may detract from the true meaning of Christ and His birth, death, and resurrection.  But in doing so, they sometimes, so to speak, throw out the baby with the bathwater.  This is the time of year, perhaps more than any other, when men's minds are open to the possibility of God.  This is the time of year when loneliness, for some, becomes an almost unbearable weight.  This is the time of year when every loss seems somehow greater, but when every kind word means so much more.  Christmas symbols can move men and women; Christmas songs can inspire them; and Christmas literature can open their hearts and minds to new possibilities.  The window is open, the door is ajar, and we in our fanaticism risk slamming both shut.

The human creature was given a capacity for creativity by its Creator, and it was given senses to be moved by art and literature, by colors and music and smells.  The human spirit is not often well fed on what is spartan; the complex human mind is not wholly satisfied by subjects that have no nuance.  If we Christians focus our energies on tearing down dead idols, which quite clearly no longer represent the pagan themes for which they once stood, we risk fighting a futile war against straw men, while the real enemy marches on unengaged.  

The links at top provide some simple information outlining the origins of Christmas rituals and symbols.  Christians should not be ignorant of these things.   Yet we also do well to bear in mind that these symbols and rituals, however they may have originated, have for centuries since been associated with the celebration of Christ's birth.  Some have been used as a poetic means of expressing the significance of the Incarnation. Others have served as mere secular decorations, trappings of a season.

Every man must act according to his own conscience with regard to these things, whether that leads him to celebrate Christmas or to abstain from celebrating it, keeping in mind Paul's words: "Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of a holyday, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days: Which are a shadow of the things to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ" (Colossians 2:16-17).  

-- Skylar H. Burris

Back to Top


Holly:

Holly has been used in Christmas tradition for almost sixteen hundred years. It was also used, long before, in pagan traditions.  In ancient Rome, holly was associated with Saturn, the god of the harvest. In Druidic and other related pagan traditions, holly leaves were placed around homes in the winter to proivde shelter for fairiesd. Early Christians, in what later became Great Britain, probably adopted this tradition in order to avoid persecution, but holly was eventually reinterpreted with Christian symbolism.  Danielle Wagner tells us that she heard about the Christian symbolism of holly during a sermon.  The pointy edges represent the crown of thorns that Christ wore during His crucifixion.  The red berries represent Christ's blood which He shed during His torture and death.

In Scandinavia and Germany, holly is called "Christ's thorn."   

Back to Top


The 25th:

The first surviving reference to the Christmas celberation comes in 200 A.D., but the December 25th date was not fixed  until 354 A.D., by Bishop Liberus of Rome.  The date remains the standard in the Western tradition, although Christmas, or "The Feast of Nativity," is celebrated on January 6th by Armenian Orthodox Church and on the 7th by the Ethiopian, Russian, and Ukrainian Orthodox.

The Bible, of course, tells us neither the date nor time of year when Christ was born.  But, as Alexander Hislop points out, it was unlikely to have been winter, for the shepherds were tending their flocks by night.  "The cold of the night," writes Hislop, 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."

So why did the Western Church chose December 25th? The decision may have been aimed at displacing pagan worship.  Throughout history, many pagan celebrations have fallen on (or near) the December 25th date.  Sol Invictus, the "unconquered sun god," was one of the central gods worshipped by the Romans in the 3rd century.  Under the Emperor Aurelian, this god was elevated, and December 25th  was celebrated as his birthday. 

The Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, focused on the god of harvest, and replete with licentious behaviour, was held from December 17th through 24th.  Around this time of  year, the Babylonians had celberated the birth of the son of the Babylonian queen of heaven, and the Egyptians, the birth of the son of Isis.  On the 24th of December, the Arabs celebrated the birth of the moon, which they worshiped.   The Anglo-Saxons, according to Hislop, observed what they called "Yule-day" on the 25th of December, "long before they came in contact with Christianity."   Before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, December 25th was the first day of the Anglo-Saxon year.   "Far and wide  in the realms of paganism," writes Hislop, "was this birth-day observed."

Pagans for centuries had been celebrating, in December, the birthday of some son or sun. Why?  Why was the whole diverse realm of pagandom focused on a son/sun?   Could they have been unkowingly thirsting for Christ himself, who was sent to show light unto the gentiles? 

Christians probably adopted this date to take the focus off the SUN and put the spotlight on THE SON.  This may have enabled them to more easily the pagans and to offer new Christians an alternative to the temptations of the raucous pagan festivals.  This is not an unusal practice.  Today, some modern Protestants often celebrate the harvest or the Reformation on October 31, in order to offer children an alternative to Halloween.   The Jewish Feast of Tabernacles also shared the date of a pagan festival--that of the Canaanite Vintage festival.  Instead of venerating Canaanite gods, therefore, the Jews praised the one true God for liberating them from bondage in Egypt.    

Back to Top


Christmas Tree:

The practice of decorating Christmas trees did not reach England until Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in 1840. By then, of course, any pagan connotations the practice may have once had were entirely lost. The Romans apparently decorated fir trees much earlier.  Trees were in ancient times used as pagan religious symbol.  As Hislop writes:

In Egypt that tree was the palm-tree; in Rome it was the fir; the palm-tree denoting the Pagan Messiah, as Baal-Tamar, the fir referring to him as Baal-Berith. The mother of Adonis, the Sun-God and great mediatorial divinity, was mystically said to have been changed into a tree, and when in that state to have brought forth her divine son. If the mother was a tree, the son must have been recognized as "Man of the branch."

Here again we see a shard of truth, however distorted.  The pagans understood, on some level, that there was a divine son, a "man of the branch."   But what they did not know was that Christ was THE Branch, the root of Jesse, the only Son of the only God.

In her short story "The Christmas Wreath," Michelle Mitchell Weall gives us a Christian interpretation of the Christmas tree symbol:

Peggy leaned down and explained, "The tree points in two ways: To Heaven, where Christ is with His Father, and to Earth to show us the way." 

Here is one visitor's argument against the practice of keeping Christmas trees, along with my response.

Back to Top


Mistletoe:

According to Hilsop, in Druid tradition, "the mistletoe was regarded as a divine branch - a branch that came from heaven, and grew upon a tree that sprang out of the earth. Thus by the engrafting of the celestial branch into the earthly tree, heaven and earth, that sin had severed, were joined together, and thus the mistletoe bough became the token of Divine reconciliation to man, the kiss being the well-known token of pardon and reconciliation." 

This symbolism is easily appropriated and redefined in a Christian context, since the Christian story is one of  a divine Branch, a root of Jesse, who died to reconcile heaven and earth, God and man, and since the early Church greeted one another with "a holy kiss."

Back to Top


The Manger Scene:

Most of our manger scenes and pictures depict the following:  shepherds, three wise men, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, animals lowering near Him, and the bright star.  How much of this is in the Bible account?

Here is the account from Luke chapter 2:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed . . . And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into . . . Bethlehem . . . To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child . . . 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.  And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.  And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.  And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

This is the only account of the manger scene in the four gospels.  Notice what is absent from our traditional scenes: the three wise men, the star, and the animals.   We can probably assume there were animals at the manger.  The star may have been in the sky, but the shepherds are not said to have noticed it.  Here, the light the shepherds see is from "the glory of the Lord" which "shone about them," not from a star.  As for the wise men, they are not part of the scene at all.  Click here to find out where the wise men (and the star they follow) figure into the biblical narrative.

Back to Top


The Three Wise Men

In Christian tradition, we place the three wise men and the star they followed at the manger scene. We have even given the wise men traditional names--Melchior, Kaspar, and Baltazar. However, the Bible does not tell us the names of the wise men; it does not even tell us how many there were.  The presence of the star does serve to announce Christ's birth, but when the wise men finally complete their journey and offer their gifts to Jesus, he is no longer a baby in the manger, but a young child in a house. The biblical account, found only in Matthew, follows:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled [ . . . ] Then, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, God and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me words again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

The number "three" probably arises from the three gifts.  The scene in tradition is simply merged with the manger scene. As for the names . . . well, I don't know where they came from. Traditional names have been given to nameless figures in the Bible on more than one occasion. The nameless rich man in the story of Lazarus the Beggar, for instance, has come to be called Davies.

Our tradition of giving gifts at Christmas may arise from the event described in Matthew. In Mexico, it is the three wise men, and not Santa Claus, who are said to bring gifts to children.  The holiday is also celebrate in January, not on December 25th.

Back to Top


The Candy Cane

It may be a "preacher's story," but legend says that a candy maker invented the candy cane as a witness to Christ.  He chose a hard candy rather than a soft one because Christ is the Rock.  It is shaped to resemble either a "J" for Jesus or a shepherd's staff, depending on how you look at it. (Christ is the Good Shepherd.)  The candy is white to  represent the purity of Christ, and the red stripes represent His blood. As Isaiah prophesied, "By his stripes we are healed."

The flavor of the cane is peppermint which is similar to hyssop. Hyssop is in the mint family and was used in the Old Testament for purification and sacrifice. "Purge me with hyssop," writes the Psalmist, "and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be whiter than snow."

Back to Top


The Wreath

According to website visitor Petite Oiseau, in pagan tradition, the wreath is a symbol of eternal life, or more accurately the cycle of death and rebirth.  Many Christians, however,  this visitor observes, see the wreath as a symbol of the crown of thorns on Jesus's head when He was crucified.

The wreath symbolism can, I believe, be easily re-interpreted this way.   That, however, would make the wreath a more likely Easter symbol than a Christmas one, but it is perhaps fitting for the Christian to mentally link Christ's birth with His death and his resurrection (a circle in itself), for without that resurrection His birth has little meaning.

Birth does not exist alone
It dwells with Death and Loss
As in the humble manger looms
The Shadow of the Cross.
-- Skylar Burris

Back to Top


Santa Claus

The Santa Claus story arose from legends surrounding the Catholic patron saint of storm-tossed sailors, Nicholas.  These legends in turn have their roots in still earlier pagan myths, including the Roman Befana, the Germanic Berchta and Knecht Ruprecht, and the Scandinavian Odin.  Odin was said to have ridden through the sky in winter with a pack of elves, rewarding men with gifts.  St. Nicholas was renowned for saving three ladies who would have been sold into slavery, had he not thrown three bags of gold thorough their window.   In countries such as Holland and Germany, Santa Claus was said to ride through the sky on a horse. Pictures show him wearing a bishop's robes.  He was sometimes accompanied by "Black Peter," an elf who whipped naughty children.

Traditionally, the feast day of Saint Nicholas was observed on December 6th and gifts were given.   Later, however,  German Protestants encouraged people to instead worship the Christkindl (or Christ child) on December 25th. The Christ Child (or an angel resembling him) was said to have visited families on Christmas Eve, leaving gifts and toys.  The term Christkindl evolved into Kriss Kringle, a popular nickname for Santa Claus.

Back to Top


Comments and Views

A Reflection From. B. Stanton:

Thank you for your insight on Christmas as celebrated on Dec. 25.  I have been a Christmas curmudgeon for years, struggling between the pagan origins of our observances and my dear husband's childlike delight in all that the season has to offer.  This year it occurred to me that at the heart of all those pagan rituals was the cry of mankind for a'son', for 'light', for 'rebirth', for hope in the midst of darkness.  Jesus isn't the 'reason' for the season, He is the answer for the season - the true light that will never leave us or forsake us.

Anyway, just when I was thinking that I was going a bit soft I ran into your website.  Bless your heart, I believe the Holy Spirit spoke to me through your writing to lighten up a bit and truly see how God's incredible grace has come to redeem even a pagan holiday!

From Roy:

I wish to thank you for providing such a clear and concise history of Christmas.   I feel it is very important for those without fear to review history to find the makings of all our mythology, including the falsity of Christianity.  With history and an open mind, we truly can find, with the aid of your site, that man's religions are all, pagan and Christian alike, silly creations to control humanity and keep us in perpetual darkness and fear.  Again I thank you from the bottom of my heart, even though that may have not been your intent.

Author's Response: 

There is no need to thank me.  I am quite sure you are determined to believe what you wish to believe, and you certainly did not need any word of mine to confirm your disdain for religion.  I, of course, have a different perspective.  I think it is apparent from the Gospels that Christ sought to liberate humanity and to provide the most profound freedom possible. 

This is why Christianity, for all its human failings, was the driving force behind the abolition of slavery and the liberation of millions.  This is why Christianity was and is today the primary force opposing the killing of the old, the sick, the unborn, and the inconvenient.  This is why Christians work in India to liberate untouchables from an oppressive caste system, in fanatical Muslim nations to free women from degradation, and across the world to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and nurse the sick. 

The perversion of Christianity, admittedly, has brought us horrors in the past, but nothing has surpassed the fruits of those "enlightened" nations that have fiercely rejected Christianity.  The rejection of Christianity has brought us the French Reign of Terror, Communism, and Nazism.  "What a splendid life they led, these human beings who had dispensed with God!" (Cardinal Mindszenty).  In the vacuum left by the modern rejection of Christianity, a "new kind of messiah" inevitably arises, "uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind" (Paul Johnson).  We have seen in the last century the bloody result of the rejection of Christianity; we have seen the rise of these new messiahs, who build kingdoms to cover the world in "totalitarian darkness" (Ronald Reagan).  To be a slave to Christ is mellow music matched with this.

From Paul Cohen:

First, I want to point out there are errors, and then there are deadly errors.  Your position is one of having swallowed whole the latter kind, errors that kill.  This is what you are now feeding to others on your webpage.

Colossians 2:16-17, which you use to say that others should not judge you in the keeping of Christmas, pertains to the feasts of God, not pagan festivals.  Pagan festival are NOT a shadow of things to come, as the keeping of Passover, Pentecost or Tabernacles were.  You err greatly.

"What agreement has the temple of God with idols?"  A rhetorical question, of course the answer is "none".  You are worshipping another Jesus, of pagan origin.

God gave clear instruction to Moses on purity of worship; even the high priests, the sons of Aaron were slain when offering strange fire to the Lord. You place your sentiment and feelings above His word and ways. 

You also say that there is no harm in this keeping of Christmas.  This is another deadly lie.  There is great harm, as surely as Aaron's sons died, so do those who offer such things as Christmas worship in the Name of Christ come under wrath, remain there, and are destroyed.  Unless you repent you likewise do perish. 

We see and watch people everywhere suffer under the Christmas burden and offer of false hope that leaves everyone empty and worse off.  Jesus is not in it, nor was He ever.  It is not without cause that there is no mention of such a keeping of a birthday of Christ or any other saint whatsoever, ever.  It is not birth into this world of woe that is for celebration, but birth into the kingdom of heaven that brings eternal life.  And for that birth to take place one must die, that is the meaning of taking up one's cross as spoken of by the One Who gives such grace, the True and Only Lord Jesus Christ.

Christmas is a terrible pollution and curse on mankind, using that holy and precious Name to do the opposite of preach the cross, but to preach life in the flesh.   Therefore you are not held guiltless because you take His Name in vain.

You say that Paul did not tear down the altar to the unknown god.  Ah, but he did.  Only he did not do it physically, but spiritually.  We don't find Paul lingering or incorporating this altar in the gospel he preached, as you do with your Christmas celebrating, either.  We, the saints of God, do tear down this Christmas altar, while yet those who don't believe go on in their ways, nothing outward appearing differently.

And your final deadly error is to say or think that because this is pointed out to you that it is spoken in condemnation.  If you believe that then you also accuse our Lord and Saviour of doing the same, because He surely spoke the truth to the religious of His day which they hated to hear, much as you hate to hear what we say to you now.   The condemnation is not from Him, but from within, because you are found at enmity with the Truth and insisting on your righteousness in that.  You love this world, and not the kingdom of heaven from which these words are spoken, your darkness rather than the Light which comes in His word.  And because you say you see you dwell in this condemnation of your own making. 

His will is that not any should perish but that all should come to repentance.   How long will you persist in yours? 

Author's Response:

Because I do not want to frequently repeat myself in these responses, I will just extract a few sentences to comment upon.

Colossians 2:16-17, which you use to say that others should not judge you in the keeping of Christmas, pertains to the feasts of God, not pagan festivals.  Pagan festival are NOT a shadow of things to come, as the keeping of Passover, Pentecost or Tabernacles were.  You err greatly.

I agree that Paul in this passage is primarily referring to the Jewish festivals.   My point in alluding to this verse is to point out: (1)  the positive symbolic power of ritual for some Christians (2) the fact that symbols are only shadows cast by the Truth and not to be worshiped as the Truth themselves (i.e. idolatry), and (3) the fact that Paul taught some degree of toleration for diversity in religious practice.  This tolerance teaching is made more clear in Romans chapter 14, which I perhaps should have quoted instead.  Paul says: "One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike.  Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it."  The same is true of those eating meat sacrificed to pagan idols: "He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks, and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks." Of course eating meat sacrificed to idols is no longer an issue for us today; but Scripture is meant to speak not only to one group of people in one narrow circumstance.  We can extract from Paul's lesson the central meaning and apply it to modern conflicts within the body of Christ.  And the meaning of Paul's lesson seems to be this: that one should obey his conscience, refrain from judging the religious practices of other Christians, and do whatsoever he does with the intention of glorifying God.  And no, I do not mean to apply this teaching wholly without reasonable limits.  There are some things that are obvious violations of Christ's commands and which cannot be done to the glory of God.   But eating a candy cane, or decorating a Christmas tree, or singing a song, or thanking God for His incarnation do not fall into this category, unless you redefine the common sense meaning of idolatry.

I do not condemn you for abstaining from the practice of celebrating Christmas, and I do not ask you to celebrate it, for you to do so would be to sin against your own conscience.  "There is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is." I do, however, ask that you in turn refrain from condemning my practice of celebrating Christmas.  "But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ." 

You say that Paul did not tear down the altar to the unknown god.  Ah, but he did.  Only he did not do it physically, but spiritually. 

I would argue that the once pagan idols and symbols now used as part of the Christmas celebration have likewise been spiritually torn down.  After all, how many people do you know who worship Christmas trees, or who practice Druid rites, or who honestly believe fairies are housed in holly?  I personally know no one, but I know of hundreds of thousands of people who believe that these things are mere symbols of the fact that God Himself came down to earth in the Incarnation, to save us from our sins.   Paul's missionary use of the pagan Altar to the Unknown God  can tell us something about how tiny shards of divine revelation can be extracted from a larger whole to reveal to people the truth about God.  Is it not possible that even pagan religions contain bits and pieces of the divine revelation, captured only in part, misunderstood, and often perverted?  Paul presupposes this when he tells his listeners who the "Unknown God" is.  He is aware that they have received a hint of the revelation, but that they are unaware of its fullness, so he reveals it to them.  If a Druid has some concept that there is such a thing as a "divine branch," it is more effective for a Christian to tell him who that "divine branch" really is than to simply burn his mistletoe and tell him he is going to hell for being a pagan. All truth comes from the same source--whatever is true in any philosophy or religion must come from God, as He is the sole source of truth.  In reinterpreting pagan symbols, the Christian takes what is true from these symbols and discards what is untrue.  

God gave clear instruction to Moses on purity of worship; even the high priests, the sons of Aaron were slain when offering strange fire to the Lord. 

Yes, God gave clear instructions for worship in the Old Testament.  And very few Christians (short of perhaps Messianic Jews) follow them today.  Do you worship according to the Old Testament law?  I do not, because when Christ came and died and rose again, the law was fulfilled.  The veil of the temple was rent.  The many rules for "pure" worship were replaced with the Gospel.  In the New Testament, there is no law detailing precisely how to worship.  There is Gospel and there are letters, and neither contains a code with a step by step blueprint for worship the way that Leviticus and Deuteronomy did.  The letters contain observations as to how the early church worshipped and fellowshipped and tells us some of their practices.   But they do not lay out an exhaustive set of laws for worship in the manner of Leviticus.  People who treat epistles like a law book do not understand basic distinctions between literary genres. This strange fire quotation has always been a favorite of those who wish to insist that all are going to hell who do not worship in precisely the same style as they worship (whether it be on this mountain or on that hill or in Jerusalem).  

And your final deadly error is to say or think that because this is pointed out to you that it is spoken in condemnation.  If you believe that then you also accuse our Lord and Saviour of doing the same, because He surely spoke the truth to the religious of His day which they hated to hear, much as you hate to hear what we say to you now. 

I am merely speaking of semantics.  To condemn is to condemn; there's no point in saying the word does not mean what it means. The questions is not are you (and others like you) condemning me (it is quite clear that you are), but rather, (1) do you have the right to condemn me?  and (2) assuming you do have that right, are you correct to condemn me with regard to my celebration of Christmas?  You think you have that right, and you think you are right.  I disagree, knowing full well that "every one of us shall give account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12).     You obviously should not celebrate Christmas, for you doubt its positive value and even its harmlessness, and "whatsoever is not of faith is sin" (Romans 14:23).   But I celebrate Christmas as both an expression of my faith and as an acceptable expression of my culture, believing that "happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth" (Romans 14:22). 

A disagreement from Carey Longely:

I feel that the Bible is clear in not permitting us to use Christmas trees.   I say look at Jeremiah 10:2-5:  "Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.  3 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 ax.  4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. 5 They are upright as palm tree, but speak not: they must need be borne, because they cannot go.   Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good."  We Christians are people of Israel, are we not?

Author's Response: 

With respect, I think you are misinterpreting this passage if you believe it refers to anything like the modern custom of decorating a Christmas tree and placing it in a house. Perhaps the Elizabethan English of the King James Bible, now unfamiliar to many modern readers,  is to blame for this difficulty in understanding.  What is being described in the passage you quoted is the act of cutting down a tree for wood, carving that wood into an idol, and then plating or adorning that idol with silver or gold.  This idol is then feared and worshiped.  Try reading this in the NIV some more contemporary English translation. 

The primary point of this passage is that such idols are not to be feared because they have no power of their own.  They are inanimate objects that must be nailed down to keep from falling over.  They are mute  "like a scarecrow in a melon patch." They are nothing.

This cannot be properly applied to the modern practice of decorating Christmas trees.  No Christian worships a Christmas tree.  The Christmas tree is not treated as an idol by Christians, and it should not be treated as though it held some power of its own, as if it could bring some evil into a house simply by existing.  The only evil would be to worship it.  To fear the tree itself, to regard it as an evil object which must be banished from Christian homes, is an attitude not wholly unlike paganism. Trees have no power.  And they have no meaning beyond what you ascribe to them.  The Christmas tree is today treated as a seasonal ornament, no different than putting flowers in a vase or a cornucopia on the table at Thanksgiving. I believe that to forbid the use of such ornaments is a severe form of legalism which misses the spirit of the law entirely, which is, in fact, apropos of Christ's adage: "strain out at gnat and swallow a camel." It would be just as silly to quote Isaiah and say that God demands that we decorate the sanctuary with Christmas trees: "The glory of Lebanon shall come unto thee; the fir-tree, the pine-tree, and the box together, to beautify the place of my sanctuary.”

As for you final question ("We Christians are people of Israel, are we not?"): that raises a whole different set of issues regarding the place of the law under the New Testament that would require an entirely different article.  Another day, perhaps.

From Justin:

I had an objection to your reasoning behind turning pagan rituals into Christian rituals. Here's what I have to say:

I don't agree. If this were true, then wouldn't it also be true that I could take ANY idol (let's say an idol from Africa, and give it a Christian meaning? I'm not sure where I stand exactly on the Christmas issue as of yet, but giving every pagan ritual in Christmas a Christian meaning is not something I agree with at this point in time. I understand where you are coming from when you say that we shouldn't let our zeal come before our desire to preach the Gospel and for Jesus to save the lost. But to sacrifice God's commands, and allow profane things into our homes, seems to extreme. I believe that sometimes we as Christians need to stand up for our beliefs, and sometimes we need to be bold about certain topics, and maybe this is one of them.

You say that Paul changed the image of the unknown God into something that the pagans could understand, but I say that Paul's actions and the pagan rituals of Christmas are entirely different. Most people know what Christ did, and yet they still don't do anything about it. The pagan rituals are not something we need to incorporate into our witness. We have the Bible(something Paul did not have[the NT anyway]), and that is the only witnessing tool we need. Witnessing to people through some of the Christmas rituals(especially to people who have knowledge of the rituals origins) seems not only pointless, but I would think it might also hinder that person rather than help them. Most people can understand what Christ did for them without a pagan tree to help them out. I am sorry but I don't find your reasons behind celebrating Christmas to be very valid.

Author's Response:

I will agree with you on at least two points:

(1)   “. . . giving every pagan ritual in Christmas a Christian meaning is not something I agree with at this point in time.”

Nor is it something with which I agree.  Some “pagan” (i.e. non-Christian) symbols and rituals cannot easily be reinterpreted, and to attempt to do so would be a stretch resulting in a rather silly (if not demeaning) comparison.   But nor do I think that Christians should forbid themselves to use these symbols or to practice these rituals.  Many symbols of the winter season and the Christmas holiday (snowmen, reindeer, elves, hanging stockings, etc.) are mere cultural trappings, which may have once had a pagan religious meaning but which now do not—they are now cultural (not religious) legends, symbols, and practices. I see no reason to banish these objects and rituals from Christian homes, where they can be harmlessly enjoyed. 

(2)   “Most people can understand what Christ did for them without a pagan tree to help them out.”

I should hope so.  Indeed, I should hope all people can.  I did not mean to imply that a Christmas tree, or a candy cane, or a piece of mistletoe will lead to anyone’s salvation.  What I really meant was that an attack on these objects—a quest to eradicate these objects from Christian homes--will have the effect of making Christianity appear legalistic to the world, and it will present to non-Christians not a gospel of love and creation, but a portrait of destruction.  I also believe that there are people who respond to visual, aural, and other stimulation of the senses in spiritual ways, and that symbols (including many Christmas symbols) can be useful props in enhancing the sense of wonder they feel toward God. Not all Christmas symbols will be useful in this way, and not all people experience this effect.  But some symbols will and some people do.  As for those symbols that are not practical in this way—I do not see that they are harmful in any other. Yes, Christmas is indeed a muddled affair, a holiday that does not focus solely on God. But that is because it is a holiday celebrated by non-Christians as well as Christians.  To some it is merely cultural, to others it is religious; to most Christians, it is both. At this time of year, even non-Christians are acknowledging some aspect of the value of Christ, even if their acknowledgement is muddled and incomplete. Christmas is a season when men’s minds are already focused on God, not religiously perhaps, but merely because His birth is the topic of the day.  It is a time to seize opportunities, not a time to stir up controversies over common cultural practices  that once held a pagan religious meaning for someone else at some other time in some other place.

Now, to address your other concerns:

You imply that using Christmas objects such as trees and holly is “to sacrifice God’s commands.”   Yet Christ never says, “Thou shalt not bring a Christmas tree into your house,” nor is there any passage that can be similarly interpreted without some serious acrobatics.   There are, however,   passages from Paul that say not to judge a brother for what he eats or drinks or for the holidays he keeps.  There are also passages discussing freedom of conscience. These are all discussed in my response to Paul Cohen.  If you esteem the Christmas tree to be unclean, then to you it is. The arguments that here follow are not an attempt to persuade you to take the tree into your own home; I am only attempting to persuade you not to condemn your Christian brothers for taking it into theirs. 

Trees, holly, wreaths, etc. are not profane objects (Isaiah even says to bring the fir tree into the sanctuary).  All of these items were created by God.  They are inanimate object with no power and no meaning beyond the meaning they are ascribed by the people who use them as symbols.  Christians ascribe them with a meaning relating to Christianity, and have done so for centuries.  This is the dominant meaning they have today, not an ancient pagan meaning which has for all practical purposes been lost. The origin is interesting trivia. I think people should know it to be educated, but the origin has no modern, living impact.  For centuries these symbols have held a new meaning which most people--even non Christians--recognize as being associated with Christianity.  Thus, to use these symbols today is to call people's minds to Christ's birth--even the minds of people who are not practicing Christians.  Symbols can stir the senses and the spirit, just like music or literature or art.  God gave us so many gifts; to say the only one we can ever use to touch the hearts and minds of people is the Bible seems to me an act of limitation as well as a rejection of the senses, intelligence, and creativity God gave us. 

There is more to God than just the Bible.  God is not a book that has been closed for sixteen hundred years.  God is a living Savior acting in the world even now.  He has revealed Himself to us in His word, which is contained in the Bible, but that is not the end of His work here on earth, for He has sent His Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us day by day.  God works not only in mysterious ways, but in a myriad of ways.  I am no holly roller; I do not speak in tongues; but I do believe that we Protestants all too often treat the Bible as if it were all God has to offer us—as if the Bible were perfection come on earth, as if the Bible, rather than Holy Ghost, were the third component of the Trinity. And this perhaps borders closer to idolatry than any Christmas tree.

Of course if I set up a Christmas tree and worship it and bow down before it, that act is profane.  But if I set it up as a symbol of Christ's intercession before the throne, or even as a mere secular household decoration with no religious connotations whatsoever, there is no profanity in that.  To call a Christmas tree or wreath or piece of holly profane is to assume that there is a power to inanimate objects over and apart from the use to which they are applied.   It is to attribute to nature a power of its own, which is what animist do.

As for your point regarding African idols:  I never argued that any and all pagan symbols can be used in a Christian context.  Christmas trees are not worshipped today, at least not by anybody I know.  But idols are worshipped.  Another differences here is that African idols have no historical association with Christianity, as Christmas trees and holly and so forth now do. If you took such an idol into your home, it would be very difficult to reinterpret it in a Christian light.  And there would be no compelling reason for you to try to do so, since such an object is not part of your cultural heritage. But Christmas symbols (once pagan), have long had Christian meanings and have long been a part of our cultural heritage in the West.

The fact is, these Christmas objects now loosely symbolize Christ’s birth, and it is a mere battle against air to tear down objects that are no longer idols.  However, we may well wonder--were the Christians wrong in the first place to adopt these objects away from paganism in order to make them symbolize Christ’s birth? And to that, I do not have a firm answer, but I try to give these early Christians the benefit of the doubt.  One muses that the Church may have redefined these symbols and rituals in order to explain God to pagans on their own terms, or in order to allow pagans to retain treasured cultural traditions absent their past religious meanings.  Is that wrong? We must consider why it would be more wrong than Paul’s act of referring to the Altar to the Unknown God or quoting the words of Greek poets (who were considered prophets of a kind).  For Paul took that pagan object—that altar—and he took those words—the words of pagan divines--and he said, no, no, this is what they really mean; this is the substance of the shadow you have cast.

Why do I celebrate Christmas, pagan rituals and all? In short, because it is part of my cultural tradition, because I enjoy it, because it is not idolatrous or harmful, and because, given that these rituals are my cultural heritage, to make a point of not practicing them would be to make a point of being legalistic; it would be to make a point of how I am different (and by implication more holy) than others. If I truly believed these rituals were offensive to God, I would of course cease to practice them, no matter how much I offended others by doing so.  But I see no compelling reason to believe they offend God.  Most are cultural, not religious practices, and those that are religious in tone are directed at the living Christ, not at some ancient pagan god. 

From Victor Hafichuk:

If we are to know Christ no longer after the flesh, but after the Spirit, then why would we celebrate His fleshly birthday? Is it not the present, spiritual Person Himself within that is the issue, that is the essence and reality of Christ? We are to know no man after the flesh if we have the Spirit. God the Father Himself did not alert many to the physical birth. He did not call on any to celebrate the earthly birth of His Son. Why would you? There is only one plausible explanation: You have not experienced the reality of the new birth, the meeting of the Son within. Till then, you will have more respect for the things of the carnal man. You say you enjoy Christmas. Yes, it is enjoyable; that is the common consensus of millions of unbelievers who celebrate Christmas, many of them professing faith, many not. As to your assertion that this time of year is one in which people are open to spiritual matters, that is not evident at all. I have been on both sides, unbelieving and believing, a believer with and without Christmas. I perceive that you wish to cling to the flesh, and are seduced by that spirit of Christmas, which is not of God. This is not a condemnation; please understand and believe that. I simply tell you what I see, for your benefit, if you will receive it.

Author's Response::

"If we are to know Christ no longer after the flesh, but after the Spirit, then why would we celebrate His fleshly birthday?"

Because we are not Gnostics, but Christians.  Because we believe in the Incarnation.   Because God took on human flesh, suffered temptations, and experienced death. Because the fact of God's fleshly, earthly incarnation is integral to the Christian story. 

"God the Father Himself did not alert many to the physical birth."

He alerted every single person who has ever read the Gospel of Luke or Matthew.  At the actual time of the event, he alerted the wise men and the shepherds.  Even prior to the event, he alerted his people that it would occur, where it would occur (Bethlehem) and to whom it would occur (a virgin).

"He did not call on any to celebrate the earthly birth of His Son. Why would you?"

For the same reason I go to church on Sunday.  For the same reason I take communion from a tiny, individual cup.  For the same reason I read devotional books.  For the same reason I write religious poetry.  For the same reason I say grace before a meal.  These are all ways I act out and reinforce my religious beliefs, handed down to me by the tradition of centuries of Christian practice.  None of these practices were explicitly commanded by God, and none have been prohibited by Him.  But whatsoever we do, we are to do unto the glory of God, refraining from judging the souls of our brothers.

"There is only one plausible explanation: You have not experienced the reality of the new birth, the meeting of the Son within. Till then, you will have more respect for the things of the carnal man."

I hope you would not have been among those who called Christ a glutton and a winebibber. 

"You say you enjoy Christmas. Yes, it is enjoyable; that is the common consensus of millions of unbelievers who celebrate Christmas, many of them professing faith, many not."

Your implication seems to be that Christians should not enjoy something if the world also happens to enjoy it. I enjoy hot chocolate.  So do many non-believers.  But the fact that non-believers likewise enjoy hot chocolate has not caused me to renounce it.   I cannot help it if another keeps a holiday celebrating a God in whom he does not believe.  His disbelief in the thing he celebrates will not prevent me from celebrating the thing I believe.

"I perceive that you wish to cling to the flesh, and are seduced by that spirit of Christmas, which is not of God. This is not a condemnation; please understand and believe that. I simply tell you what I see, for your benefit, if you will receive it."

"condemn" verb (1) "to pronounce judgment against" (2) "to find fault with" (3) "to express disapproval of"

You state that I have not been reborn, that I "wish to cling to the flesh" and that I am "seduced" by what you regard to be an evil   "spirit."  Is it possible that such statements do not fit the definition of condemnation?  Your words are obviously a condemnation.  Simply saying they are not is insufficient to alter that fact.  But I am sure that although you condemn me now, you do not wish me to be condemned for eternity, and your condemnation you hope will be my salvation.  Fortunately, however, I have staked my salvation on something more sure.

Back to Top