The Short Version:
The Long Version:
Each year I get several emails telling me that Christmas is a pagan holiday and I should avoid it.
This year I did some research and it looks like Christmas is not pagan.
There are those who claim Jesus could not have been born in December. It turns out the arguments against a December birth are far from conclusive 1. However, the issue is not when Jesus was actually born. If we want to know if Christmas is pagan, we have to know if those who started it thought Jesus was born on December 25th. Because if they thought it was so, then regardless of their being right or not, they set the date for Christmas based on the belief it was the day Christ was born.
The Jews at the time of Christ did not celebrate birthdays, and some suggested it was pagan to celebrate the birthday of the Messiah. I find this odd given the number of celebration days God gave the Jews to commemorate what He had done for them. Certainly, the giving of the Saviour would be a day to commemorate! However, this belief may be why we do not have a date for the birth of Christ found in early church writings. We do know that the early church was much more concerned with the date of Jesus death than His birth. The most early records put the date of Jesus’ birth as April 2nd or December 25th, with the latter eventually becoming commonly accepted.
Why December 25th? Two good reasons:
- Some early Christians estimated the date of Jesus’ crucifixion as March 25th. They then applied the Jewish concept of “integral age”, which said great prophets died on the same date on which they were conceived. If Jesus was conceived on March 25th, He would have been born nine months later on December 25th.
- Early Christians believed that the world was created on March 25th. Many reasoned that this means Jesus would be conceived in the flesh on that same date. Again, this would put his birth on December 25th.
What of the pagan claims?
- Some say the 25th was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice (in the Julian calendar the solstice did fall on that day). Even if this is true (and there is no evidence it is), that does not make it pagan. To the Jews of old it made perfect sense for the light of God to come into the world on the shortest and thus darkest day.
- One common claim for the supposed pagan roots of Christmas is that it was chosen to line up with the Saturnalia feast in ancient Rome. However, this festive ended by the 23rd of December.
- In 274 AD, Roman Emperor Aurelian proclaimed December 25th the day for the festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Son”. This festival was an attempt to bring together various pagan groups, and was primarily a political move. However, this happened long after early Christians has decided December 25th was the birth date of Jesus. Some have suggested Aurelian chose the date to give pagans an alternative celebration. While we cannot know if this was the case, it is clear Christians “claimed” the 25th before the pagans did. Christians did not celebrate the birthday of Christ until later, but they had established the date.
I am not going to tell you Jesus was born on the 25th of December. We do not know, and it seems God did not care for us to know. However, the evidence convinces me early Christians chose the date for “Christian reasons”. Paganism had no part in the choice of December 25th.
In the tradition of the feast days God gave in the Old Testament, I see good reason to set aside one day to celebrate the greatest gift ever given.