Disputing the Pagan Roots of Christmas
If Jesus had never been born, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis, it would be “always winter, but never Christmas.”
But some Christians, even today, think of the celebration of Christmas as a pagan holiday. When the Pilgrims and the Puritans had the opportunity to assert their influence, they did not celebrate Christmas. I agree with the Pilgrims and the Puritans on many things, but this is not one of them.
One of the main points is that Christmas is often celebrated in ways that exalt pagan revelry. I agree that it should not be, but that is guilt by association. It is also argued that Christmas is the appropriation of a pagan holiday.
Why is December 25th the day that we celebrate as Jesus’ birthday? Sometimes if you look this up, sources will say things to the effect that in the 300s, there was a pope who took the pagan worship, Saturnalia, around the time of the winter solstice, and he baptized it and brought it into Christianity.
My rebuttal would be, actually there is some historical evidence that Jesus was born in the winter time of 5-4 BC. And it’s possible that the actual day was December 25.
Dr. Jack Kinneer, professor of Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary of Pittsburgh, once explained to my radio audience that when Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, was in the temple in Jerusalem, and the angel appeared to him and foretold him of the birth of his son, John the Baptist, who would be the forerunner of the Lord, this was at the time of the Day of Atonement in September. Zechariah then goes home to be with his formerly barren wife, Elizabeth.
When John has been in utero for six months, Mary receives the word from the angel that she will conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Elizabeth, who are cousins, have a joyous reunion at that time, presumably in late March. This is described in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel.
Do the math. When Mary, who was just at the beginning of her pregnancy with Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, the latter was about 6 months pregnant. Nine months later brings us to late December. So December 25 is a plausible date for the birth of Christ.
This would be in the winter of 5-4 B.C.. That is based on the death of Herod the Great, which was in the spring, 4 B.C. Christmas is not as pagan in origins as some want to make it out to be.
Furthermore, Dr. Kinneer points out that there is a list of feast days of martyrs, the anniversaries of their deaths, and included in that list from the early church is that December 25 is the day honored as Jesus’ birthday. That list is from the 300s. By ancient standards, that too is plausible.
Some have said that shepherds to whom the angels declared His birth on the evening of His birth would not have been in the fields at winter time. But other theologians have countered that the shepherds were watching the flocks in Bethlehem that were slated to be sacrificed in nearby Jerusalem.
That being the case, how fitting that at the moment of Jesus’ birth, we would be reminded of the reason He came. He was born to die—to offer Himself up as the ultimate Lamb of God, the ultimate sacrifice who would take away the sins of the world.
Furthermore, the wise men came with three gifts listed—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The last one was a spice used for burial. Jesus was born that He might die, that we might truly live.
In his book, , There Really is a Santa Claus: The History of Saint Nicholas & Christmas Holiday Traditions, Bill Federer notes that in 567, the Council of Tours attempted to reconcile the Western celebration of Christmas on December 25 with the Eastern Church’s celebration of same on January 6—Epiphany, the feast of the visit of the Wise Men.
No agreement was made, but a compromise of 12 holy days between Christmas and Epiphany—otherwise known as the 12 Days of Christmas. So, even the Twelve Days of Christmas has Christian origins.
Regardless of the actual date of Christ’s birth, what really counts is that the fact of it. He was born, so that He could fulfill the plan to save those who believe in Him from their sins. He has become the focal point of all history. And it all began on that first Christmas.
As C. S. Lewis once put it, “The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.”