A History of the Celebration of Christmas
Origins and Early Traditions
Christmas wasn’t celebrated by the early church until the fourth century. In the fourth century, the church may have attempted to redeem Roman pagan winter solstice festivals, specifically Saturnalia & Sol Invictus. By the fourth century Sol Invictus had become the more important festival. Many of the traditions of Saturnalia were incorporated into Sol Invictus. In Saturnalia Romans danced in the streets with gifts under their arms and greenery atop their heads. You can see that some of these actions were eventually modified and adopted into Christmas. According to Xavier Virsu (from an email 12/5/08):
“Saturnalia was first celebrated on December 17, and over the years the celebration expanded to a week ending on December 23rd. Christmas was set on the feast of Sol Invictus which was December 25th, and had supplanted Saturnalia. Many traditions of Saturnalia were incorporated into Sol Invictus, and were also carried forward into the Christian holiday. Saturnalia was a dedication to the god Saturn, while Sol Invictus was dedicated to the Unconquered Sun.
“Before Roman Emperor Aurelian, Sol Invictus was celebrated in the Roman military, but Aurelian made Sol Invictus a state-supported holiday and proclaimed December 25th Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun,” in 274 CE. The early church may have tried to ‘baptize’ the holiday of Sol Invictus by imbuing it with a new Christian meaning.”
Based on Biblical evidence Jesus of Nazareth was probably born in the fall near the Jewish feast of Tabernacles or in the spring around the time of Passover. But sometime before 336 Pope Julius I, chose December 25th for the celebration of the birth of Christ — the same date as the “Feast of the Nativity of the Sun of Righteousness” (Sol Invicti). The practice was adopted by the Christian church in Antioch around 374. By 380 it was being observed in Constantinople, and by 430 in Alexandria. (The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 223.)
One of the difficulties of discovering the actual origins of Christmas is that statements are made by Christian leaders admitting that Christmas and Sol Invictus were held on the same day, but stating that they are not related. For example, in the 5th century Pope Leo I (the Great) spoke about the origin of this holiday in several sermons on the Feast of Nativity. In his 22nd sermon he directly addressed those who attributed the Nativity to Sol Invictus:
Having therefore so confident a hope, dearly beloved, abide firm in the Faith in which you are built: lest that same tempter whose tyranny over you Christ has already destroyed, win you back again with any of his wiles, and mar even the joys of the present festival by his deceitful art, misleading simpler souls with the pestilential notion of some to whom this our solemn feast day seems to derive its honor, not so much from the nativity of Christ as, according to them, from the rising of the new sun . Such men’s hearts are wrapped in total darkness, and have no growing perception of the true Light: for they are still drawn away by the foolish errors of heathendom, and because they cannot lift the eyes of their mind above that which their carnal sight beholds, they pay divine honor to the luminaries that minister to the world.
In this sermon, Pope Leo I clearly establishes that the two feasts were held on the same day, but Leo also states that the holidays are not related. Is this a theological statement? Is it a concern to separate the practices of the two holidays? Or is it a specific statement of origins? It’s hard to know.
Germanic tribes of Northern Europe also celebrated mid-winter with feasting, drinking, religious rituals and the lighting of the yule log. During the Middle Ages, Catholic priests sought connections between biblical teachings and pagan traditions — believing that a convergence of customs would lead more individuals to Christianity. The celebration of Jesus’ birth was melded into other age-old practices and became known as the “Christ mass.” Firelight represented the light of Christ. Gift giving was linked to the presents of the wise men. Trees were decorated with apples associated with the biblical Garden of Eden.
The Christmas Tree
The tradition of decorating trees occurs among many different people. The Celts for example decorated trees with apples and nuts during the winter solstice (around December 21), encouraging the sun to return to bring spring. Other European people had tree decorating rituals.
In the 7th century a monk from Crediton, Devonshire, went to Germany to teach the Word of God. He did many good works there, and spent much time in Thuringia, an area which was to become the cradle of the Christmas Decoration Industry. Legend has it that he used the triangular shape of the Fir Tree to describe the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The converted people began to revere the Fir tree as God’s Tree, as they had previously revered the Oak. By the 12th century it was being hung, upside-down, from ceilings at Christmastime in Central Europe, as a symbol of Christianity.
The first record of the Christmas tree (as we know it) dates back to Riga in Latvia, in 1510. In the last quarter of the 16th century, Martin Luther is said to have decorated a small Christmas Tree with candles, to show his children how the stars twinkled through the dark night. Decorated trees became very popular during the German Yuletide. In 1841, Queen Victoria of England married Prince Albert of Germany. Albert brought the Christmas tree custom to England and hence, to the English speaking world. Many citizens were eager to embrace the traditions of the English royalty.
In the United States, the Christmas tree was initially not well accepted by the northern half of America. They frowned upon the pagan roots of the tree custom. However, Southerners readily adapted the tradition into their homes, decorating a tree on Christmas Eve and celebrating for 12 days. Today, the popularity of the Christmas tree continues around much of the world. (Holy, Reindeer, and Colored Lights by Edna Barth.)
In the 4th century, a bishop in Turkey named Nicholas was known for good deeds involving children. Because of his holiness, Bishop Nicholas was sanctified by the Catholic Church and came to be known as Saint Nicholas. St. Nicholas is illustrated in medieval and renaissance paintings as a tall, dignified and severe man. His feast day on December 6 was celebrated throughout Europe until about the 16th century. Afterwards, he continued to be known in Protestant Holland.
The ancient inhabitants of northern Europe believed a powerful pagan god, cloaked in red fur, galloped across the winter sky. These myths combined with the legends of the real life figure of Bishop Nicholas. Dutch children would put shoes by the fireplace for St. Nicholas or “Sinter Klaas” and leave food out for his horse. He’d gallop on his horse between the rooftops and drop candy down the chimneys into the children’s shoes. Meanwhile, his assistant, Black Peter, was the one who popped down the chimneys to leave gifts behind.
Dutch settlers brought the legend of Sinter Klaas to North America — where we came to know him as Santa Claus. Washington Irving’s Knickerbocker History (1809) described Santa Claus as a stern, ascetic personage traditionally clothed in dark robes. It was a character we would scarcely recognize as the Santa Claus we know today, apart from his annual mission of delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve.
The next mention of Santa Claus is found in a Christmas poem published in 1821 called “The Children’s Friend.” This poem for young people, harkened from the same tradition but also added some new elements to the “Santeclaus” myth. The poem begins:
Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night.
O’er chimney tops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you…
The next year (1822), protestant minister Clement Clarke Moore, wrote his poem “The Night Before Christmas.” Moore wrote the poem for his six children. Moore, stodgy creature of academe that he was, refused to have the poem published despite its enthusiastic reception by everyone who read it. Evidently his argument that it was beneath his dignity fell on deaf ears, because the following Christmas “A Visit from St. Nicholas” found its way into the mass media after all when a family member cunningly submitted it to an out-of-town newspaper. The poem was an “overnight sensation,” as we would say today, but Moore was not to acknowledge authorship of it until fifteen years later, when he reluctantly included it in a volume of collected works. He called the poem “a mere trifle.” An artist named Thomas Nast drew the first picture of Santa Claus (shown here) for Harper’s Weekly.
Santa Claus gained much of his popularity after World War II when the economy and the baby boomers blossomed. Children born between 1945 and 1965 greeted this gift-giving Santa with open arms that have refused to let go, even in adulthood.
Is It Wrong to Celebrate Christmas?
If you are a Christian, you have probably heard the arguments about the pagan origins of many of Christmas’ and Easter’s symbols. This is true. (The very name Easter is derived from Ishtar or Astarte, a pagan goddess.) But implicit in the charge of paganism is the thought that it is wrong for believers to celebrate Christmas and Easter (or more appropriately, the Incarnation and Resurrection Day), because a believer could unintentionally be worshipping a false god. But is it possible to worship, venerate or give allegiance by mistake? In order to reverence an idol or a false god, one must be conscious of that idol or god and believe in the validity of giving worship to it.
In New Testament we run into a similar situation when Paul addressed the issue of eating meat which had been sacrificed to idols. Paul said that a believer had liberty to eat meat that was sacrificed to idols. In fact, in this discussion, Paul even refers to the celebration of special days. Romans 14:5-6,10 says: “One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each person be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God…. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.” The bottom line of this passage is that the observation of certain holidays is a personal decision between the believer and His Father. As long as the day is being celebrated to the Lord, no brother has a right to judge or impose guilt on another believer.
Some believers have had impossible burdens placed upon them by others who used the practice of guilt by association. So what if pagans had a holiday on December 25? It does not mean that those who celebrate Christ’s birth on that day are being pagans. If that were so, the accusers would need to be consistent about other calendar names as well. They would need to change the names of the weekdays, because each of the weekdays is named after a pagan god. For example, Saturday is named for the god Saturn and Sunday is so called because of the veneration of the sun.
And what about the names of cities? According to the thinking that proclaims Christmas and Easter wrong, believers should not live in Phoenix, since that city is named after a mythological god. Furthermore, many other sites in this country [the United States], such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Yosemite, etc., bear Native American names which have totemistic significance. Should we shun those places? Carried to its logical boundaries, such thinking soon becomes absurd. That kind of logic would forbid anyone eating any category of food that was ever offered to any kind of idol on an altar, because thereby one might be venerating the idol to which such food or spices had been offered. [From About Christmas and Paganism, Jews for Jesus newsletter, December 2003.]
Simply because a holiday was once celebrated by pagans does not make the believer guilty of worship by association. If I celebrate Jesus’ incarnation at Christmas time, this is a good practice. I am doing it “to the Lord,” not to a pagan god who no on remembers.
What About Pagan Symbols?
Many of the symbols we use to celebrate our holidays have been adopted from different cultures and some have pagan origins. For example, because trees were once worshipped by Germanic people, some Christians refuse to place a tree in their home at Christmas time. This may seem pious and reasonable to a Christian who is trying to be pure in their worship of God, but this must be balanced with the understanding that many symbols Christians hold as sacred have inauspicious beginnings.
Jesus was put to death on a cross. Most people realize this was the method of torture and execution in the Roman culture. This can be easy to forget when a delicate gold cross dangles around someone’s neck or a beautiful wood cross adorns your church. What’s going on here? Most people wouldn’t fashion an electric chair out of precious metal or put a hangman’s noose in their sacred place. Christians (and God) have changed a symbol of death to one of resurrection and life. A “bad” symbol has been changed to a good one.
This pattern is true throughout the Bible. Consider other symbols in Scripture that once had other meanings. Many Old Testament symbols were adapted from religious, political, and economic practices of the Sumerians, Egyptians, or Canaanites. The structure of the Old Testament covenants comes from royal grant and suzerain-vassal treaties. The layout of the camp, the tent of meeting, and the ark of the covenant find their equivalents in Egyptian armies and shrines moving with their pharaoh. God used familiar symbols and structures and invested them with new meaning for the Israelites. “Bad” or neutral symbols were changed to good ones.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Elements that Christians use to celebrate Christmas or other holidays shouldn’t be accepted without question. But perhaps the original meaning of symbols may not be as important as how Christians have transformed the symbols to worship God. Were trees sometimes worshipped by Germanic tribes? Yes. But early Christian missionaries took a “bad” symbol and transformed it into “God’s tree,” a symbol of the Trinity. No one thinks of a Christmas tree as a god or an object of worship. A bad symbol has been transformed into an object that proclaims Christ. Children ought to be taught that Christmas trees remind us of the Trinity. Far from a pine tree being an act of pagan worship, the Christmas tree is a demonstration that Christianity has conquered “tree worship.”
So for most people is Christmas a pagan winter celebration or a religious celebration honoring the birth of Christ? In our culture it is a mixture of both with, as any economist will confirm, quite a bit of materialism thrown in. But no matter what the culture is celebrating, a Christian can celebrate Christmas “to the Lord” (Romans 14:6).
What’s a Christian to do? Celebrate to the Lord! And discern bad elements from neutral or good ones. Most holidays contain evil, neutral, and good elements as part of their cultural celebration. Make decisions that glorify and honor God and cause no harm to your personal walk with Christ. And don’t throw away what Christians have already won. If we stop celebrating Christ’s birth, the world won’t stop celebrating something in the bleak winter. We can keep the focus on Christ (realizing that every year will be a battle with the world and our own souls) or we can let the celebrations degenerate into materialism and pagan revelry.
To the best of our knowledge Christmas was never celebrated in the early days of the church. But Christmas is celebrated in local churches here in Virginia in praise of the fact that God loved us so much that He sent His only Son to earth. The Son was enfleshed so we could see what God was like. This Son was entirely God and entirely man. We have given in to the temptations of this earth, but Jesus was able to overcome all temptations and live a sinless life. He was then crucified as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. One can not understand why we celebrate the birth of Christ without seeing the other end of His life. He was crucified for our sins and resurrected. That’s something to celebrate!
Dennis Rupert, pastor
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Last update: 12/09/2008