If you discovered that Christmas had nothing to do with Jesus Christ’s birth and actually predates that event by centuries, would you still celebrate the holiday? And if you realized that the Bible reveals Holy Days commanded by God, would you celebrate them instead?
Many people know the Bible doesn’t mention Christ’s followers observing Christmas. So where did the holiday come from, and does the Bible condone it? Does it make any difference as long as it’s intended to honor God and bring families together?
Christmas contradicts the biblical facts
It’s commonly assumed that Christmas is celebrated because it’s the birthday of Jesus Christ. But biblical scholars overwhelmingly admit that Jesus was born nowhere near Dec. 25. There are sound reasons for this conclusion. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Joseph and Mary were traveling to Bethlehem to register during a Roman census when Jesus was born, and also that shepherds still had their flocks out in the open fields at that time (Luke 2:1-8).
But the Holy Land in December is cold, rainy and sometimes snowy. No sound-minded shepherd would have been so foolhardy as to leave his flock in the fields at night at that time of year. And no intelligent ruler would compel people to travel many miles to register for a census when the likelihood of bad weather would have made such an effort self-defeating.
Why should we believe that Jesus was born on Dec. 25 when the Bible itself plainly contradicts this notion?
The birth of Christmas
So if Christmas didn’t originate with Christ’s birth being on Dec. 25, when and how did it originate?
Christmas began long before the birth of Jesus Christ. Alexander Hislop’s book The Two Babylonsexplores many historical sources showing that the holiday precedes Christ by at least 2,000 years, as earlier mentioned (1957, pp. 97-98).
A nativity celebration for pagan gods was observed near the winter solstice in both Syria and Egypt. Later, some 400 years before Christ, the Mithraic religion, centering on the Persian sun god Mithras, provided the foundation for the Christmas celebration. Mithraism became very popular in the Roman Empire, and many elements of its worship survive today in Roman Catholicism.
For example, the noted British anthropologist, historian and scholar Sir James Frazer, knighted for his contributions to our understanding of ancient religions, wrote in his book The Golden Bough:
“There can be no doubt that the Mithraic religion proved a formidable rival to Christianity, combining as it did a solemn ritual with aspirations after moral purity and a hope of immortality. Indeed the issue of the conflict between the two faiths appears for a time to have hung in the balance. An instructive relic of the long struggle is preserved in our festival of Christmas, which the Church seems to have borrowed directly from its heathen rival.
“In the Julian calendar the twenty-fifth of December was reckoned the winter solstice, and it was regarded as the Nativity [birthday] of the Sun, because the day begins to lengthen and the power of the sun to increase from that turning-point of the year. The ritual of the nativity, as it appears to have been celebrated in Syria and Egypt, was remarkable. The celebrants retired into certain inner shrines, from which at midnight they issued with a loud cry, ‘The Virgin has brought forth! The light is waxing [stronger]!’
“The Egyptians even represented the new-born sun by the image of an infant which on his birthday, the winter solstice, they brought forth and exhibited to his worshippers. No doubt the Virgin who thus conceived and bore a son on the twenty-fifth of December was the great Oriental [i.e., Middle Eastern] goddess whom the Semites called the Heavenly Virgin or simply the Heavenly Goddess; in Semitic lands she was a form of Astarte [Easter]” (1993, p. 358, emphasis added throughout).
If people insist on defending Christmas, at least they should know how it originated.
Tertullian on Christmas
The early Catholic theologian and writer Tertullian (A.D. 155-230) was a convert from paganism. He wrote numerous works defending Christianity as he understood it, combatting contrary teachers and giving exhortation to fellow believers. In one he described how the Christian converts of his day were already ignoring the biblical Sabbath day and festivals and flocking to the pagan Roman winter festivals, such as the Saturnalia, which honored the god Saturn:
“By us who are strangers to Sabbaths, and new moons, and festivals, once acceptable to God, the Saturnalia, the feasts of January, the Brumalia and Matronalia, are now frequented; gifts are carried to and fro, new year’s day presents are made with din, and sports and banquets are celebrated with uproar” (Tertullian, On Idolatry, chap. 14, quoted by Hislop, p. 93).
Tertullian rebuked Christians for joining in such pagan celebrations, noting that no self-respecting pagan would join in “Christian” celebrations: “Oh, how much more faithful are the heathen to their religion, who take special care to adopt no solemnity from the Christians” (ibid).
He further stated of the pagans: “For, even if they had known them, they would not have shared the Lord’s Day or Pentecost with us. For they would fear lest they would appear to be Christians. Yet, we are not apprehensive that we might appear to be pagans!” (quoted by David Bercot, editor, A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 1998, p. 342). This is an incredible admission.
A zealous Tertullian could see the difference between heathen and Christian festivals. Can we?
A deeper look at Christmas origins
Man, Myth & Magic is a useful encyclopedia on mythology and religion. This multi-volume work uncovers the origins of major Western religious holidays, exploring the history of each. It offers further details on the origins of Christmas:
“Christmas has its origin in two ancient pagan festivals, the great Yule-feast of the Norsemen and the Roman Saturnalia…It was close enough to the winter solstice to acquire many of the associations of the Norse ceremony: the Yule-log, the evergreen decorations in houses and churches, even the Christmas feast itself. These elements were combined with the Saturnalia of the Romans to provide the basis for the early Christian festival.
“During the Saturnalia, gifts were made by the wealthy to the poor in honour of the golden age of liberty when Saturn ruled the known world, and slaves were allowed to change places and clothing with their masters. They even elected their own mock king who, for the period of the festival, ruled as a despot. The Saturnalia involved the wildest debauchery, and was a festival worthy of [the god] Pan himself.
“Naturally it came under heavy censure from the early Church and despite the fact that Jesus Christ and the saints gradually replaced the pagan deities it was long considered completely out of character with the Christian ideal. However, the festival was far too strongly entrenched in popular favour to be abolished,and the [Catholic] Church finally granted the necessary recognition, believing that if Christmas could not be suppressed it should be preserved in honour of the Christian God” (Richard Cavendish, ed., 1995, Vol. 3, p. 418).
Christmas gains acceptance
The strange story of Christmas continued after the ancient celebrations were adopted by the Catholic Church. The church does not deny it.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “Christmas originated at a time when the cult of the sun was particularly strong at Rome. This theory finds support in some of the Church Fathers contrasting the birth of Christ and the winter solstice. Though the substitution of Christmas for the pagan festival cannot be proved with certainty, it remains the most plausible explanation for the dating of Christmas” (1967, Vol. 3, p. 656).
Man, Myth & Magic explains when Christmas gained official recognition and when the name was substituted for the ancient heathen midwinter festival. “Once given a Christian basis the festival became fully established in Europe with many of its pagan elements undisturbed. It was only in the 4th century that 25 December was officially decreed to be the birthday of Christ, and it was another 500 years [the ninth century] before the term Midwinter Feast was abandoned in favour of the word Christmas” (Cavendish, p. 480).
James Hastings, Bible scholar, writer and editor of The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, confirms that the church absorbed and tolerated heathen customs: “Most of the Christmas customs now prevailing in Europe, or recorded from former times, are not genuine Christian customs, but heathen customs which have been absorbed or tolerated by the Church” (1910, Vol. 3, p. 608).
Elements of the observance of Christmas were criticized and even forbidden in later centuries. “Theundisguised pagan element in Christmas had often provoked criticism from extreme Protestants but the festival was not really affected by their beliefs until the Puritans came to power in the 17th century.
“[At that time] Christmas was attacked as ‘the old heathens’ feasting day to Saturn their God’ and carols were forbidden. Finally, 25 December was proclaimed a fast day [a time of abstaining from food and festivity to focus on religious devotion] in 1644. The new rule was enforced by the army, which spent much of its time pulling down the greenery that festive ‘pagans’ had attached to their doors.
“In Scotland the prohibition was enforced with great rigour. This anti-Christmas attitude spread to Puritan territories in America. The Church established special services for Christmas in Boston during the 1690s, but many civil authorities strongly opposed this move. And it was not until some 150 years later that Christmas first became a legal holiday in the United States, in Alabama in 1836” (Cavendish, pp. 480-481).
Why Dec. 25 as the date for Christmas?
Sir James Frazer wrote at length on the roots of modern Christian holidays. And here’s what he had to say about why Christmas began as it did:
“What considerations led the ecclesiastical authorities to institute the festival of Christmas? It was a custom of the heathen to celebrate on the same twenty-fifth of December the birthday of the Sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity.
“In these solemnities and festivities the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors [theologians] of the Church perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnised on that day and the festival of the Epiphany on the sixth of January . . .
“The heathen origin of Christmas is plainly hinted at, if not tacitly admitted, by Augustine [the fifth-century Catholic theologian] when he exhorts his Christian brethren not to celebrate that solemn day like the heathen on account of the sun, but on account of him who made the sun. In like manner [Pope] Leo the Great rebuked the pestilent belief that Christmas was solemnized because of the birth of the new sun, as it was called, and not because of the nativity of Christ.
“Thus it appears that the Christian Church chose to celebrate the birthday of its Founder on the twenty-fifth of December in order to transfer the devotion of the heathen from the Sun to him who was called the Sun of Righteousness” (pp. 358-359).
This was despite God’s direct warning against adopting pagan worship customs to honor Him (Deuteronomy 12:29-32).
Does Christ approve of Christmas?
Having considered mainstream church teaching and practice on this subject, we also need to ask: What did Christ Himself teach about Christmas?
The fact is, Jesus neither observed Christmas nor taught others to observe it. It did not originate with Him. But He did speak out strongly against the traditions of men: “And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7).
Indeed, Jesus taught that Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35), and it explicitly warned against adopting pagan worship customs to honor the true God (Deuteronomy 12:29-32).
Furthermore, God inspired Daniel to prophesy several centuries before Christ that religious men would attempt to change “times and law,” including God’s festival seasons (see Daniel 7:25; compare Leviticus 23 with Matthew 5:17-19).
After Jesus Christ returns to earth, during His reign over the nations He will see to it that all of God’s annual festivals are observed by all peoples. The book of Zechariah reveals that it will take a few years before at least a few nations learn to accept Christ’s teachings. The autumn Feast of Tabernacles is a case in point.
Zechariah 14 addresses the second coming of Christ, concluding with one particularly revealing insight into what will come next: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King [Jesus Christ], the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles” (Zechariah 14:16).
Then the account continues by describing appropriate corrective punishments for those nations that do not comply (verses 17-19).
Christ’s true disciples today observe His Holy Days
The big question is, are you ready to begin following the real Christ? In times past God overlooked the ignorance of men, but today He commands all men and women to repent of ungodly activities, including observing manmade religious holidays (Acts 17:30).
If you are coming to understand that Christmas does not represent Christ, then you should take a stand and avoid its observance (Matthew 7:21; Luke 6:46). Why stumble between the truth and error? Why not start following the true Christ and His biblical teachings? (John 8:32; 17:17).
The Bible clearly reveals our Creator’s requirement to observe His annual festivals and Holy Days—the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles and the Eighth Day. They disclose God’s wondrous plan and purpose for humankind.
The Bible shows that the true followers of God observed these festivals in both the Old and New Testaments. True Christians still observe them today. God has not changed!