Christmas is one of the most popular holidays in the world, yet few are familiar with its history—and fewer still with God’s thoughts on the matter.
Millions around the world view Christmas as the highlight of the year. There is no holiday in the professing Christian world celebrated with more time, money, and energy. Countless retailers plan for the season throughout the entire year, as December spending is “make or break” for them.
Christmas is widely celebrated even in Japan, where most consider themselves Buddhists or Shintoists. Depending on the source, perhaps even less than one percent of Japan’s population professes Christianity, yet lighted trees and Santa Claus are quite popular there. “Christmas Eve is thought of as a romantic day, in which couples spend time together and exchange presents…. Young couples like to go for walks to look at the Christmas lights and have a romantic meal in a restaurant—booking a table on Christmas Eve can be very difficult as it’s so popular!” (“Christmas in Japan,” WhyChristmas.com, 2019).
Many would be surprised to know that Christmas is also growing in China, an officially atheistic nation. While not an official holiday—shops do not close for the observance—Christmas traditions are increasingly evident.
Starting in late November, many department stores are decorated with Christmas trees, twinkling lights, and festive decorations. Malls, banks, and restaurants often have Christmas displays, Christmas trees, and lights. Large shopping malls help usher in Christmas in China with tree lighting ceremonies. Store clerks often wear Santa hats and green and red accessories. It’s not uncommon to see leftover Christmas decorations still decking the halls well into February, or to hear Christmas music at cafes in July (“Is Christmas Celebrated in China?,” ThoughtCo.com, August 16, 2019).
Why does Christmas have such a hold on the world? From where do its traditions and customs arise? Can Jesus compete with Santa, decorated trees, office parties, and consumer spending? Do we need to “put Christ back into Christmas,” as many claim?
More and more people in the Western world are beginning to question whether end-of-year celebrations should even be referred to as Christmas. Court cases have ruled against nativity displays on public property. Christmas trees are being referred to as “holiday trees,” so as not to offend anyone who does not subscribe to the religious aspects of the season. So where is all of this headed?
There is a longing among many to “put Christ back in Christmas”—to de-emphasize its commercialization and return to an old-fashioned Christmas. What they fail to realize is that the idea of an old-fashioned Christmas is a romanticized invention of recent generations. The holiday evolved dramatically in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What we now think of as Christmas is radically different from that of earlier generations.
Author Bruce Forbes says he loves Christmas and was moved to research its history. As he details in his book, Christmas: A Candid History, he encountered a number of surprises. Here, in Forbes’ own words, is a small sample of unexpected facts he discovered:
Much of what we think of as an old-fashioned Christmas is the result of more recent cultural influences such as Norman Rockwell paintings, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” and efforts by department stores to “cash in” on the holiday. And let us not forget eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon’s question, “Is there a real Santa Claus?” and the famous 1897 Sun response, which became the most reprinted newspaper editorial in the English language and a part of Christmas folklore.
As Phillip Snyder wrote in December 25th: The Joys of Christmas Past, “The Christmas Americans celebrate today is largely a late-nineteenth-century creation: a blend of Old World history and traditions melded and altered by an emerging American culture” (p. xiii).
However, times are a-changin’. According to a 2018 Pew Research poll, even professing Christians are less inclined to hang onto traditional Christian expectations regarding the holiday (“5 facts about Christmas in America,” Pew Research Center, December 18, 2017). Nevertheless, we still hear cries of “Put Christ back into Christmas!” There is a problem with this, however, and a short history lesson explains it.
Virtually everything about Christmas, from its date to the customs surrounding it, comes from pre- and post-Christian heathen celebrations, except for the commercialization added in relatively recent times. The only grain of truth to it all is that Jesus is real, was born, and was born to be a king. But Christmas badly muddles even His being born to be a king, along with the entire nativity narrative.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of Christmas in many parts of the world is a tree decked with tinsel, baubles, and lights. But what does it have to do with the birth of Christ? Author Barbara Segall explains the origin of this venerated tree:
[The Christmas tree] has made its way into our homes… bringing its past mythology along, mingling with Victorian Christmas traditions and renewing Christmas associations for succeeding generations in the modern world.… But proud all through the changing seasons are the evergreens that, here as elsewhere, in Northern Europe and North America, in the mid-winter, give us, as they did our pre-Christian ancestors, courage to hope and believe in a warmth beyond the season… (The Christmas Tree, pp. 6–7).
One can find a legion of resources verifying the pagan pre-Christian past surrounding “the reason for the season,” but not everyone is familiar with the discrepancies between tradition and the biblical nativity account. As an example, almost everyone who knows anything about the religious side of the Christmas celebration believes the Magi, the wise men, arrived on the night Jesus was born to give Him “birthday gifts.” This understanding is seriously in error according to the recorded account.
At the time of the Magi’s arrival, Jesus was not a newborn. He is not referred to as a babe, but as a young child—a very young one, no doubt, but there is a clear distinction between a babe and a young child in the Greek language, as there is in English. Also, when the wise men arrived, He was not in a stable, but in a house. “And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
We know that this took place, at the very least, 40 days after His birth, as Jesus was presented at the temple prior to their visit (compare Luke 2:21–24; Leviticus 12:2–6; Matthew 2:11–14). That is the earliest the visit could have occurred, but it likely happened weeks or months later, as we see that Herod “put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men” (Matthew 2:16). There is quite a difference between a newborn and a two-year-old!
The differences between traditions and facts are important. Jesus came in the flesh for several reasons. One reason was certainly to pay the penalty for our sins, but another was to lay the groundwork for His return as King of kings and Lord of lords to save a troubled earth. These wise men, or Magi, came bearing gifts not to celebrate Jesus’ birth, but to appear with proper respect in the presence of a king—something often lost in the details of the “Christmas story.”
While not strictly a Christmas composition, Handel’s Messiah is sung all over the world during the Christmas season. The ever popular “Hallelujah Chorus” contains the words of Revelation 11:15 and 19:16: “He shall reign forever and ever, King of kings and Lord of lords.”
The words may be there, but the understanding is lost. Few realize that He is coming back, not as a Lamb to the slaughter, but as a conquering King to save mankind from utter destruction. Jesus is our Savior in more than one way.
Zechariah 14 begins with an announcement that “the day of the Lord is coming,” and explains that when the Messiah comes, the Mount of Olives, just east of Jerusalem, will split in two, “making a very large valley,” which will bring forth a river that flows both east and west from Jerusalem. This seems to be a literal fountain from which two rivers flow, but it also symbolizes the healing Spirit of God. Before those healing waters flow, however, Jesus will fight against the nations that come up against Jerusalem and against His rule as “King over all the earth” (Zechariah 14:1–9; cf. Revelation 14:15–18).
This is not a message about a helpless infant! The real story of His birth and the reasons He came are obscured by heathen traditions and a corrupt recounting of the biblical record. Yet few seem to be bothered by any of this. Why doesn’t it bother anyone that Jesus’ birth is nowhere celebrated by any biblical personage? Yes, two of the gospel writers tell of the birth of Jesus and events that followed, but nowhere is there an annual celebration of His birth.
If God wanted us to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, why is it that the time of year, much less the precise day, of His birth is not recorded in the Scripture? Even the year of His birth is controversial! The one thing that most biblical scholars agree on is that He was not born on December 25. This is because Luke 2:8 informs us that there were shepherds living in the fields at the time. As volume 5 of Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible explains regarding this verse:
And as these shepherds had not yet brought home their flocks, it is a presumptive argument that October had not yet commenced, and that, consequently, our Lord was not born on the 25th of December, when no flocks were out in the fields; nor could he have been born later than September, as the flocks were still in the fields by night. On this very ground the nativity in December should be given up. The feeding of the flocks by night in the fields is a chronological fact, which casts considerable light upon this disputed point (Adam Clarke, p. 370, emphasis added).
So, if December 25 is not the date of Christ’s birth, why is it the day the Roman Church chose for its celebration? Barbara Segall explains not only the origins of evergreens, but also how early church leaders chose a date right in the middle of three heathen pre-Christian festivals:
In the minds of our pagan predecessors, most plants and animals held magical and mystical powers and, in particular, those evergreen plants that survived the blasts of winter were specially regarded…. In one era, the cause for joy was the birthday or awakening of the sun god, after the darkness preceeding [sic] the winter solstice in mid December. Later, our more settled ancestors found it was a good time to enjoy the feast of Saturn, the god of agriculture, celebrated in the second and third weeks of December…. As December gave way to January, and the old year to the new, ancient Romans enjoyed a festival called the Kalends. It was a time when they gave each other gifts or strenae, usually holly itself, or other gifts accompanied with or decked with sprigs of evergreens…. The early Church in Rome set the date for Christ’s birthday in the middle of these pagan festivals (Segall, pp. 11–15).
This is confirmed by none other than the highly respected Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity.
The Christian church took over many pagan ideas and images. From sun-worship, for example, came the celebration of Christ’s birth on the twenty-fifth of December, the birthday of the Sun. Saturnalia, the Roman winter festival of 17–21 of December, provided the merriment, gift-giving and candles typical of later Christmas holidays. Sun-worship hung on in Roman Christianity and Pope Leo I, in the middle of the fifth century, rebuked worshippers who turned round to bow to the sun before entering St Peter’s basilica. Some pagan customs which were later Christianized, for example the use of candles, incense and garlands, were at first avoided by the church because they symbolized paganism (ed. Tim Dowley, pp. 131–32).
Birthday celebrations were not a custom of the early Church, as explained in the Encyclopædia Britannica Christmas article: “As late as 245 Origen, in his eighth homily on Leviticus, repudiates as sinful the very idea of keeping the birthday of Christ ‘as if he were a king Pharaoh.’ The first certain mention of Dec. 25 is in a Latin chronographer of A.D. 354” (vol. 6, 11th ed.).
That the celebrations surrounding Christmas, including the date, are steeped in heathen practices is not controversial. That the popularly related nativity narrative is filled with inaccuracies ought not be controversial, as a careful reading of the accounts in Matthew and Luke demonstrate this fact. But the question remains: If the practices and beliefs in question are being used to celebrate Christ, does any of this really matter?
Note this insightful comment from atheist Tom Flynn in The Trouble with Christmas (pp. 68–69):
Even devout Christians must admit—as mainstream and liberal Christian clergy do—that much of what we know as the “story of Christmas” is simply the result of a process of literary accretion. Its elements are inspired by, or just appropriated from, the legends of earlier holy “personages.” Even if Christianity is true, the story of Christmas is unworthy of it.
If Nativity lore accumulated over time, in a way unrelated to the life of the historic Jesus, we might expect the first Christians not to have observed the feast of the Nativity. And indeed they did not, as even conservative religion writer George W. Cornell acknowledges:
For more than 300 years after Jesus’ time, Christians didn’t celebrate his birth. The observance began in fourth century Rome, timed to coincide with a mid-winter pagan festival honoring the pagan gods Mithra and Saturn. The December date was simply taken over to commemorate Jesus’ birth, since its exact date isn’t known. Consequently, the fusion of the sacred and the profane characterized the celebration from the start.
Whether any of this matters to us depends on a crucial decision: Should we decide based on human emotion and reasoning, or sincerely look to the Bible for the answer?
Let’s be honest. Many of our emotional reactions to elements of the Christmas tradition emerge from deep-seated childhood memories. The season also appeals to our physical senses: colorful lights, the smell of greenery, favorite celebration foods, nostalgic music, and the thrill of discovering what is waiting for us inside brightly colored wrapping paper. Then we have the time-honored story of Charles Dickens’ Christmas-hating, “Bah, humbug!” Scrooge. Who wants to be lumped in with him?
But doesn’t it make sense that if we are honoring our Savior, Jesus Christ, we would want to know His thoughts regarding this celebration? Wouldn’t it make sense to decide things based on His instructions? One would think so, but is that what we do?
Time and again, Jesus challenged those who called Him their Lord and Master but chose to follow their own traditions. “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46). “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6–8). “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
Is Jesus silent on the subject of Christmas? Not at all! Few professing Christians understand who Jesus was before His human birth, yet the Bible tells us explicitly. Speaking of Christ, Paul wrote, “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:16–18). Could anything be clearer? All things were created through the One who became Jesus Christ.
Paul further clarifies who it was that worked with Israel: “Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea… and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1–4; see also Ephesians 3:9 and Hebrews 1:1–2).
This simple truth clears up what would otherwise be a contradiction. Exodus 24:9–11 tells us, “Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel…. So they saw God, and they ate and drank.” Yet we read, “No one has seen God [the Father] at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (John 1:18).
So, what does the One who created all things—the spiritual Rock who followed Israel, and the One whom 74 men saw with their own eyes at Mount Sinai—reveal about His thoughts on the subject? Consider first: Nowhere do we see an annual celebration of His birth. Further, the popularized nativity story is fraught with errors. Further still, Christmas is a mixture of theological error and pagan customs. Now, read what “the Rock that followed them” says about borrowing pagan customs and traditions and bringing them into His worship:
When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, “How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.” You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it (Deuteronomy 12:29–32).
The One who created all things also inspired the prophet Jeremiah to write the following:
Thus says the Lord: “Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves” (Jeremiah 10:2–5).
Just compare these details to the Christmas custom of cutting down a tree, securing it with nails and a crosspiece (prior to modern ways of securing it in a water-filled container), and decorating it with silver and gold objects. Some assume this refers to a carved idol, but Jeremiah addresses that problem later in the chapter. Ancient cultures commonly worshipped trees:
Part of the story [of the Christmas tree] originates with our ancestors. Evergreens, such as holly, box, ivy, bay, laurel and the conifers, able to hold their shiny leaves or aromatic needles through the long and cold winter months, are and have been a source of fascination to us and to our pre-Christian ancestors.
In many ancient myths and legends, the central power lies in a sacred tree. For example, oak, willow, ash and date palm are among the trees that hold a place in Homeric, Chinese, Scandinavian and Arabian myth and legend” (Segall, pp. 6–7).
Are trees worshiped today? Perhaps not the way they were in past generations, yet how many in our modern world will sing a song to a tree this year? O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree…
So, does Christmas matter? An honest and careful reading of Scripture shows that it does, but not in the way many think. Most would rather determine right and wrong for themselves than listen to the One they claim to serve. Few have the courage to put Christ first in their lives. Do you, my friend, have that kind of courage?